In 1616, on the same April day, humankind loses two of its best storytellers when William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes pass away. Their worlds, the ones they’d timelessly chronicled, are in transition too.
The works of Shakespeare, no longer a hot property, are sent to sent to a script doctor so they could be spiced up for modern audiences. Queen Elizabeth is gone, replaced by a king who is more interested in admiring the shapely ankles of courtly gentlemen than continuing her spectacular reign.
The fantastic global power of Spain, home to Cervantes, stands at its peak with nowhere to go but down. Slavery, which had once captured the creator of Don Quixote in its grip, is transforming into a massive soul-robbing venture. And across Asia, empires are rumbling.
There’s quite a story lurking in 1616. Of course, there’s also one in every other year, especially the big ones like 1492, 1776, 1861, and the future year when once-lowly book critics are honored with grand statues. (Can’t come soon enough!)
But out of the blue, something about this particular year captured the mind of historian and book translator Thomas Christensen in 2009. He decided to figure out where humanity stood at that moment in time.
Now, to rephrase the Bard, all the world’s a book. A coffee-table-sized and beautifully illustrated book, evocative and frustrating at the same time.
If you pick up 1616: The World in Motion, be prepared to dip into it again and again, if only to admire the gorgeous reproductions of art from around the world. Every major culture seems to be represented in paintings and drawings, turning this into a hybrid of history book and art book.
As for the text, Christensen convincingly argues that his year chosen at random is a pretty nifty one. In it, he says, you can make out “intimations of modernism” in all sorts of areas, from globalism and diasporism to rationalism, bureaucratization and individualism.
Diasporism? Bureaucratization? Yes, “1616” has an academic feel that makes for tough reading in spots. It doesn’t help that Christensen throws in plenty of obscure references. Anatolia, Togukawa Japan, and the Timurid empire, anyone?
Despite the hurdles for readers, Christensen does help us understand the ties that bound the world together. A Dutch map created in 1616 tells the story: It looks amazingly accurate considering that it’s some four centuries old. Many regions of the planet remained unexplored, but people generally knew where the continents began and ended.
And, of course, they knew how to get from place to place and make money in the process. You’ve probably heard of the Silk Road, but how about the China Road, which wasn’t even in Asia? It dragged on for 200 rugged miles in Mexico, of all places, which served as a way station for thousands of travelers and much of the world’s silk and silver.
The center of the hubbub? The town of Acapulco, where Elvis would later reign on the big screen (never mind that his movie scenes were filmed in Hollywood).
Also in the Americas, the first African slave arrived in the Bahamas in 1616. Before then, slaves were considered people, Christensen writes, “rather than subhuman commodities.” That was about to change, as the slaveowners “subjected their captives to horrific and degrading conditions that surpassed anything previously seen.”
Christensen, a true renaissance author, has more than trade winds on his mind. He also focuses on the changing role of women, the evolving artistic imagination, and the conflict between science (astronomy in particular) and superstition (such as witchcraft).
This was a time, perhaps not too terribly different from our own, when women got much of the blame for bad things that happened. Why are witches often depicted as old women? Because, Christensen writes, they symbolized infertility and were burdens on their families.
Ultimately, “1616” is a whirlwind tour, taking readers from Istanbul to Manila to Algiers and introducing them to sailors, royals, and sultans. Even if it’s overwhelming at times, many readers will take a page from those who lived in 1616 and simply enjoy the bumpy ride.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.