Wonderful World

If you look for Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World—an absolutely wonderful song—you’ll find a whole page of Louis Armstrong’s homonymous tune, so you need to dig a little deeper.

Cooke goes through a series of school subjects and topics—I’ve always found the lyrics poignant and amusing, and when I play it I change the line ‘don’t know what a slide rule is for’ to ‘don’t know what a spreadsheet is for’, to reflect modern scholastic ignorance.

Toward the end, the young Sam Cooke informs us that he ‘don’t know much about the Middle Ages’, which is fair enough—no one does.

The Middle Ages are widely seen as a period of historical darkness, sitting somewhere between the end of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, and no one is quite sure of the start and end dates.

We’re talking about a period that spans a thousand years—no mean feat. Between the Vth and XVth centuries, Europe lived through systematic violence and abuse—France came up with the three estates—clergy, nobles, and commoners—and that convenient concept (if you weren’t a peasant) was widely adopted.

The first two estates, clerics and nobility, were largely exempt from taxes—these were borne by the peasants—a movie that could never end well, as Marie Antoinette found out.

My first book was about the Age of Discovery, associated to the renaissance, and my account of the marvels of Portuguese naval exploration was followed by a book on the travails of Columbus, a man who is overrated in his achievements but not in the consequences of his discoveries—for centuries, the English, French, and Spanish preferred to fight their battles in the Americas and left Asia and Africa to the Portuguese, and to a lesser extent to the Dutch.

Now, I’m sinking back into the dark ages, the Hundred Years War, and the great lords of France—violent and intractable men who thought it shameful to die in your bed, and that adultery was the only true form of romantic love.

The nobility and its troubadours coined the term ‘courtly love’, and in De Amore (About Love) the XIIth century courtier Andreas Capellanus (the surname means chaplain!) wrote that ‘marriage is no real excuse for not loving’—part of this concept stems from the fact that nobles entered into arranged marriages to consolidate property, wealth, and power—love didn’t come into it.

My mentor is Barbara W. Tuchman, a lady who, like me, took up history and made it fun, and was criticized by professional historians who resented the inroads of an amateur and the easy and humorous style of her prose.

Tuchman died in 1989, on the cusp of digital discovery, and I am sure if she were still writing today she could report on amazing things—I could never have been a writer without the internet: it’s given me facts, made me friends, and opened doors.

In the medieval period, education was predicated on seven ‘liberal arts’, and I quote:

Grammar, the foundation of science; logic, which differentiates the truth from the false; rhetoric, the source of law; arithmetic, because ‘without numbers there is nothing’; geometry, the science of measurement; astronomy, the most noble of the sciences because it is connected with divinity and theology; and lastly music.

I find the choice as bizarre as the definitions—certainly science depends as much on mathematics as on the study of natural phenomena such as the flow of a river.

The question “How much water comes out of the Mississippi River?” has a standard answer: “As much as goes in.”

This may seem glib, but a complete answer requires an understanding of precipitation and evaporation, drainage basins and gravity flow, and percolation through the soil. After those topics are mastered, in other words with a working knowledge of geography, geology, and meteorology, a reasonable approximation can be produced without ever actually measuring the flow of the Mississippi.

The relationship between astronomy and religion is typical of the misconceptions of the era—God above was taken literally, and astronomers formulated deeply flawed models where the sun went round the earth and the atmosphere was a pathway to a set of seven heavens.

Medicine was not classed as a liberal art (duh) but considered analogous to music because its purpose was to promote the ‘harmony of the human body.’

History was straightforward and finite—the world began with Adam and Eve and would end with the second coming, which would be followed by judgement day. Perhaps that’s the genesis of the T-Shirt slogan ‘Look Busy, Jesus Is Coming’.

In the United States, creationists live by these rules, despite clear evidence to the contrary—they deny natural selection, and speculate on the end of the world based on opinions uncontaminated by facts.

Tuchman’s interpretation is that in a world of finite history leading to an examination on judgement day, there was no requirement for humans to improve themselves morally or socially in this world—that would come in the next. This is nicely captured in the song ‘The Weight’, where the narrator and Luke sit waiting for the judgement day.


My interest in the Medieval Period, which in many ways is paroxysmally boring, came from the present pandemic—I’ve avoided mentioning it so far, but it seems obvious that more’s-a-comin’—and in particular my interest in the Black Death.

It’s impossible to analyze the Middle Ages in Europe without considering the plague. The disease was first observed in October 1947, when a Genoese merchant ship full of dead and dying men anchored at Messina, Sicily. The ship had come from Caffa in Crimea, a trading post owned by Genoa—the town is now called Feodosia, after the old Greek name Theodosia—it was once part of the Greek empire.

Caffa was one of the world’s most important slave markets, and the bubonic plague arrived from the east, brought by the Mongolian Golden Horde.

Just as with COVID-19, the pestilence spread with great speed—slower due to the lack of globalization, faster due to the lack of hygiene and hospitals.

The Welsh talked about the ‘shilling under the armpit’, a reference to the egg-sized buboes (thus bubonic), or swellings, that appeared in the groin or armpit.

The buboes oozed blood and pus, and the skin quickly developed black splotches due to internal bleeding. The black blood that appeared in the lungs, sputum, urine, feces, and buboes gave the disease its name.

Europe lived in perplexity about many phenomena that are well understood today—which makes it all the more remarkable that cretins like the orange man and his tropical cousin refuse to act on that understanding.

To the medieval populace of Europe, the plague was the end of the world.

It was inevitable, in the religious fervor of the age, that the Jews would get blamed. As a consequence, well before the time of the Spanish Inquisition, widespread pogroms ensued.

Jews carried the plague from Toledo in little packets or a ‘narrow stitched leather bag’. These messengers brought with them rabbinical instructions for poisoning wells and springs. Many Jews were burned alive.

The word that best describes the Middle Ages in cruelty. Ignorance comes a close second.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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