The Fifteenth Century is the Most Interesting Century

With a few brief encounters to the contrary, before 1492 CE the world was divided into two sections, two hemispheres. One part consisted of the Americas — North, South, and Meso-, representing maybe a hundred million people in 1491. The people there had bell peppers, syphilis, tobacco, and turkey, but no measles, onions, or beef. The other part consisted of Afro-Eurasia, an enormously diverse series of societies linked in agriculture, trade, diplomacy, and disease all the way from Iceland to Japan and New Guinea. These people had wheat, rice, millet, garlic, peas, and aubergines, but before 1492 none of them had ever seen a tomato. They also had a lot of diseases the other lot didn’t have, most of them acquired through sustained and intimate contact with domesticated animals unknown in the Americas.

The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum): totally unknown to fifteenth-century Italians.

Dividing the world up this way isn’t entirely accurate: Australia wasn’t part of either segment, nor was highland New Guinea or Polynesia, and the border between the two worlds in Alaska and Siberia was freely crossed by speakers of Eskimo-Aleut languages; and Polynesians picked up the sweet potato from South America centuries before Columbus, and Scandinavians settled in North America for a little bit in the eleventh century. But broadly speaking, in 1491 there were two major spheres of interconnected human activity: the Americas and Afro-Eurasia.

A Frisian-Holstein cow (Bos taurus taurus): undoubtedly a marvel to the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Amazonia or the Yukon.

In October 1492 this changed — Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean from Spain, inaugurating a new era in the history of the world, one in which the two segments were united. The fact that Columbus went to the Americas isn’t interesting in and of itself, of course; it’s more that Columbus’ voyages continued and other Europeans went along with him.

Everything changed after that, in a process historians call the ‘Columbian Exchange’ (after a 1972 book by Alfred Crosby). Within only a few decades of Columbus’ first voyage, everyone everywhere was eating new foods (potatoes in Europe, peanuts in tropical Asia, cassava in Africa, sweet potato in China, chicken in the Americas); dressing in fabrics made of new fibres (‘Egyptian’ cotton came to Egypt, sheep’s wool to America); and perishing from new diseases (smallpox/Yersinia pestis/measles/flu; syphilis). New ingredients were relished and incorporated everywhere almost immediately, meaning that any pre-Columbian cuisine not preserved in cookbooks is now lost to the ages. Millions died and different millions were saved from death by new crops and imported technologies. Some languages spread and others vanished at frightening speed, many of the latter likely unrecorded in any form.

Much of this pre-Columbian world is therefore lost. It is alien in a way the post-1492 world isn’t. It’s not that Columbus’ voyages or the Columbian Exchange were apocalyptic, although in some sense they were. It’s more that the human propensity to swiftly incorporate novelty meant that the Exchange of goods/ideas/people between and throughout the hemispheres happened too rapidly to have been captured in writing, resulting in a great loss of heritage at the same time as the diversity of human life was beginning to become more visible to more people around the world.

Many parts of the world were described in writing for the first time in the decades after 1492; the first ever account of coastal Brazil in any language was written by Pero Vaz de Caminha in 1499/1500, for example. The appearance of literate Europeans nearly everywhere in the Columbian era gives an entirely different cast to sixteenth-century history: the globe is more familiar — and more European — after Columbus. It also means that human history from non-literate regions is dimly visible in the Europeans’ accounts and possibly reconstructible from them: there wouldn’t be much Mexica history without the ethnographic work of Bernardino de Sahagun or much Inka history without Cieza de Leon and Juan de Betanzos. We wouldn’t know much of the complex societies of what is now the southeastern United States without sixteenth-century accounts in European languages — besides what the people left behind them materially, of course. We probably wouldn’t have much to go on for eastern Indonesia, either, or much of the world outside Europe and East Asia.

This makes the fifteenth century CE the most interesting time in human history. It’s the eye before the storm, the last station of the pre-Columbian cross. It’s a time before the Columbian Exchange that we can investigate using the full range of humanistic and scientific methods. We’ve got a much better written record for the fifteenth century globally than for earlier pre-Columbian times, based largely on European ethnohistories combined with insights from historical linguistics and archaeology. Entire human worlds can be reconstructed from the triangulation of this evidence — leaving tantalizing gaps but ultimately giving us access to much that is otherwise lost. It’s this glimpse into the lost world of pre-Columbian times that makes the fifteenth century such an interesting period to research, no matter which continent you’re working on.

It’s also an interesting century in its own right. Enormous changes occurred in the fifteenth century anyway, even before Columbus attained Castilian backing for his first voyage. These changes included the Islamization of Indonesia and the development of movable type in Germany, as well as the linking-together of the Indian Ocean by Chinese ships under the Muslim admiral Zheng He in the first few decades of the century. The fifteenth century is when the Mexica and Inka were flourishing (by militarily and culturally dominating their rivals and neighbours) in the Americas, when maize agriculture had made its way as far as Ontario and Maine, when the Caribbean was knitted together by probably-Arawak-speaking peoples with contacts in South, Meso-, and North America. It’s when the Indian Ocean briefly became almost (not quite) a Muslim lake — before any Western European powers intervened (and before those powers were powers). It’s when the spice/luxury trade from eastern Indonesia was at its pre-Columbian peak and when Arabic looked set to become a lingua franca uniting coastal East Africa and much of Asia. Indeed, when Columbus set out on his first voyage he brought with him a converso who knew Arabic in the belief that Arabic would be useful once the ships reached Asia: in this he probably wouldn’t have been wrong (had he been right about the size of the Earth).

Gunpowder, too, spread throughout the Afro-Eurasian world in the fifteenth century, even into corners of this cultural super-continent we wouldn’t expect to possess it — like Java, where guns are recorded in fifteenth-century texts (as in Bujangga Manik). The first fortifications built specifically for cannon were constructed in the fifteenth century, representing an inchoate military revolution that changed just about everything about how wars were fought and soldiers were armoured, principally in Europe but really throughout the world.

Catchcold Tower in the Southampton town walls, built in the early fifteenth century. The inverted keyhole gunports in the tower represent some of the world’s oldest-known purpose-built gunpowder fortifications. Credit: (Incidentally, this area has been extensively re-modelled and there is no longer any grass or railing by the wall.)

Actually it seems rather futile to list the changes and developments in all spheres of human life that took place in the densely settled parts of the Earth in the fifteenth century. A lot changed. It’s all very interesting. It doesn’t matter where you look.

In Indonesia today the peanut and chili are ubiquitous and tobacco kills more people than any other cause. Manioc is the (very) poor man’s staple and maize has replaced millet nearly everywhere (but especially in eastern Indonesia).

Peanuts, chili, tobacco, and manioc were all domesticated in Amazonia. Maize was domesticated in Mesoamerica, alongside squashes and tomatoes. None of these foods were known in the Majapahit kingdom (1292–1520s) or the Sultanate of Melaka (~1400–1511).

And medieval Indonesia produced nothing resembling a cookbook. Even if we take these American items away from Indonesian menus and substitute ingredients known to have been in use in pre-Columbian times we still won’t have an accurate — or verifiable — account of Indonesian cuisine before the Exchange. Medieval Indonesian food, like much pre-Columbian human culture, is lost.

Ruminating on this incredible fact and others like it gave me my vocation: the reconstruction, even resurrection, of lost pre-Columbian heritage, both in Indonesia and the world. Not food specifically — I doubt it is possible to come up with much beyond speculation about medieval Javanese recipes — but as much of the way people lived before Columbus as possible, principally in parts of the world traditionally seen as unaffected by the global revolution in lifeways represented by that bizarre and immoral man’s voyages. Such an attempt must begin in the fifteenth century, the most interesting century of them all, right at the end of the pre-Columbian era.

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