فصل 30

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فصل 30

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If I wished, I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won’t. It was a dreadful era. Events soon became so confused that people no longer knew why or against whom they were fighting. The Habsburg emperors of Germany ­ ruling now from Prague, now from Vienna ­ had no real power outside Austria and part of Hungary. They were pious men who wished to re-establish the sovereignty of the Catholic Church throughout their empire. Nevertheless, they did for a while allow Protestants to hold religious services. Until one day a revolt broke out in Bohemia.

In 1618, discontented Protestants threw three of the emperor’s Catholic councillors out of a window at Prague castle. They landed in a pile of manure, and so came to little harm. Nevertheless, this event ­ known as the Defenestration of Prague ­ gave the signal for a dreadful war to begin which lasted for thirty years. Thirty years. Just imagine! If someone heard about the Defenestration at the age of ten, they would have had to wait until they were forty to experience peace. If they experienced it! For in no time the war had turned into a dreadful massacre as hordes of ill-paid soldiers from countries far and wide rampaged through the land, looting and killing. The expectation of plunder was what drew the vilest and most brutal men of all nations into the ranks of these armies. Religious faith was long forgotten. Protestants fought in Catholic armies, Catholics in Protestant ones. Friend and foe suffered alike from their rapacity. Wherever they pitched their tents they demanded food and, above all, drink from the local peasants. And if a peasant refused to give them what they wanted, they took it by force, or they killed him. In their improbable patchwork of rags and their great plumed hats, swords dangling from their belts and pistols at the ready, they rode around burning, killing and tormenting the defenceless peasantry out of sheer wickedness and depravity. Nothing could stop them. The only person they would obey was their commander. And if he won their affection, they followed him with blind devotion.

One such commander on the emperor’s side was Wallenstein, a poor country nobleman of immense ambition and ability. He led his armies up into north Germany to capture the Protestant towns. Thanks to his skill and strategy, the war was nearly decided in favour of the emperor and the Catholic Church. However, a new country entered the conflict. This was Sweden, under its powerful, pious and Protestant ruler, Gustavus Adolphus. His aim was to rescue the Protestant faith and found a mighty Protestant empire under Sweden’s leadership. The Swedes had retaken north Germany and were marching on Austria when, in 1632 (the fourteenth year of this dreadful war), Gustavus Adolphus fell in battle. Nevertheless, many of his battalions reached the outskirts of Vienna and wrought havoc there.

France also joined the war. Now you might think that the French, being Catholics, would have sided with the emperor against the Protestants of north Germany and Sweden. But the war had long stopped being about religion. Each country was out to get what it could from the general confusion. And because the two Habsburg rulers, the emperor of Germany and the king of Spain, were the dominant powers in Europe, the French, under the guidance of their exceptionally intelligent minister, Cardinal Richelieu, hoped to exploit the situation to make France Europe’s greatest power. So that’s why France’s soldiers fought against those of the emperor.

Meanwhile, Wallenstein, as the emperor’s general, was at the height of his power. His army worshipped him, and his fierce soldiers fought for him and for the fulfilment of his aims, rather than for the emperor or the Catholic faith, being indifferent to both. The effect of this was that Wallenstein increasingly saw himself as the rightful sovereign. Without him and his troops the emperor was powerless. So he took it upon himself to hold talks with the enemy about a possible peace agreement, and ignored all the emperor’s commands. The emperor decided to arrest him. But in 1634, before he could do so, Wallenstein was murdered by an English captain who had once been his friend.

However, the war continued for fourteen more years, becoming increasingly wild and confused. Whole villages were burned, towns plundered, women and children murdered, robbed and abducted. There seemed to be no end to it. The soldiers seized the peasants’ livestock and trampled their crops. Famine, disease and roaming packs of wolves made wastelands of great stretches of Germany. And after all these years of appalling suffering, the envoys of the various rulers finally met in 1648 and, after interminable and complicated discussions, agreed on a peace which left things more or less as they had been in the first place, before the Thirty Years War had begun. What had been Protestant would remain Protestant. The lands the emperor controlled ­ Austria, Hungary and Bohemia ­ would remain Catholic. With the death of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden had lost most of the influence it had gained and only held onto a few strips of conquered land in north Germany and on the Baltic coast. Cardinal Richelieu’s envoys were alone in succeeding to secure a number of German fortresses and towns near the Rhine for France. Which made the wily French minister the only true victor in a war which hadn’t even concerned him.

Germany was devastated. Barely half the population had survived, and those who had were destitute. Many left and made their way to America, while others tried to enlist in foreign armies, since they didn’t know about anything but fighting.

On top of all this misery and despair a terrible madness began to infect a growing number of people: the fear of evil spells, of sorcery and witchcraft. People had also been superstitious in the Middle Ages and had believed in all sorts of ghouls and ghosts, as you remember. But it was never as bad as this.

Things had begun to get worse during the time of the power- and splendour-loving popes, the time we know as the Renaissance, when the new St Peter’s church was being built and indulgences were sold. Those popes weren’t pious, but that only made them all the more superstitious. They were afraid of the Devil and every conceivable form of magic. And each of the popes of the period around 1500, whose names we associate with the most wonderful works of art, was also responsible for chilling decrees calling for witches and sorcerers to be hunted down without mercy, especially in Germany.

You may ask how it is possible to hunt down something that isn’t there and never was. And that is precisely why it was so terrible. If a woman wasn’t liked in her village ­ perhaps because she was a little odd, or made people feel uncomfortable ­ anyone could suddenly say ‘That woman’s a witch! She’s the cause of those hailstorms we’ve been having!’ or ‘She gave the mayor his bad back!’ (and in fact, both in Italian and in German, people still use the expression ‘witch-hurt’ when talking about backache). Then the woman would be arrested and interrogated. They would ask her if she was in league with the Devil. Naturally, she would be horrified and deny it. But then they would torture and torment her for so long and in such a dreadful way that, half dead with pain, she would admit to anything in her despair. And that was it. Now that she had confessed to being a witch she would be burned alive. Often while she was being tortured they would ask if there were other witches in the village making magic with her. And in her weakness she might blurt out any name that came into her head, in the hope that the torture would stop. Then others in their turn would be arrested and tortured until they confessed and were burned. Fear of the Devil and witchcraft were rife during the dreadful period after the Thirty Years War. In Catholic and Protestant districts alike, thousands and thousands of people were burned. The few Jesuit priests who protested against this madness were powerless to stop it. People in those days lived in a state of constant fear of the unknown, of magical powers and the works of the Devil. Only this fear can begin to explain the atrocities inflicted on so many thousands of innocent people.

What is most remarkable, however, is that at a time when people were at their most superstitious there were still some who had not forgotten the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and the other great Florentines, people who went on using their eyes in order to see and make sense of the world. And it was they who discovered the real magic, magic that lets us look into the past and into the future and enables us to work out what a star billions of miles away is made of, and to predict precisely when an eclipse of the sun is due and from what part of the earth it will be visible.

This magic was arithmetic. Of course these people didn’t invent it, for merchants had always been able to add and subtract. But they became increasingly aware of the number of things in nature that are governed by mathematical laws. How a clock with a pendulum 981 millimetres long needs exactly one second per swing, and why this is so. They called these the laws of nature. Leonardo da Vinci had already said that ‘Nature doesn’t break her own laws.’ And so it was known with certainty that if you take any natural event and measure and record it precisely, you will discover that, given the same circumstances, the result will always be the same, no matter how often it is repeated ­ indeed, it cannot be different. This was an extraordinary discovery, and a far greater magic than anything the poor witches were accused of. For now the whole of nature ­ the stars and drops of water, falling stones and vibrating violin strings ­ was no longer just one incomprehensible tangle that made people fearful and uneasy. If you knew the correct mathematical formula you had a magic spell for everything. You could say to a violin string: ‘To make an A, you must be this long and this tight and move backwards and forwards 435 times in a second.’ And the note the string made would prove it.

The first man to understand the extraordinary magical power of applying mathematical calculation to things in nature was an Italian called Galileo Galilei. He had devoted many years to observing, analysing and describing such things when, one day, someone denounced him for writing exactly what Leonardo had observed but not explained. What he had written was this: the sun does not move ­ on the contrary, it is the earth which moves round the sun, together with the planets. This discovery had already been made by a Polish scholar named Copernicus, after many years of calculation. It had been published in 1543, not long after Leonardo’s death and shortly before his own, but the theory had been denounced as un-Christian and heretical by Catholic and Protestant priests alike. They pointed to a passage in the Old Testament in which Joshua, the great warrior, asks God not to let dusk fall until his enemy is destroyed. In answer to his prayer, we read: ‘The sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies.’ If the Bible says the sun stood still, people argued, then the sun must normally be in motion. And to suggest that the sun did not move was therefore heretical, and contradicted what was written in the Bible. So in 1632, when he was nearly seventy years old, Galileo, who had devoted his whole life to scholarship, was brought before the religious tribunal known as the Inquisition, and made to choose between being burned as a heretic or renouncing his theory about the movement of the earth around the sun. He signed a declaration saying that he was but a poor sinner, for he had taught that the earth moved round the sun. In this way he avoided being burned, the fate of so many of his predecessors. Nevertheless, when he had signed the declaration, he is said to have muttered under his breath: ‘And yet it moves.’

None of these fixed ideas was in the end able to prevent Galileo’s ideas and methods and all the discoveries he made from influencing and inspiring people in ever-increasing numbers. And if today, thanks to mathematical formulas, we can make nature do whatever we want, so that we have telephones, aeroplanes and computers, and all the rest of our modern technology, we should be grateful to all those who, like Galileo, investigated nature’s mathematical laws at a time when it was almost as dangerous a thing to do as it was to be a Christian in Nero’s day.

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