1517: A Year in Review

On October 31, 1517, one man with a hammer changed the course of history. Thirty-three-year-old German monk Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints about the practices of the Catholic church to a church door in Wittenberg–the sixteenth century equivalent of pinning them to a community bulletin board. (Or perhaps, as some scholars argue, the church door story is comic-book history* and Luther simply sent out copies to church officials.) Whether nailed or mailed, Luther was hoping to start a conversation within the church. Instead he started the Protestant Reformation.

Historically-aware media outlets highlighted Luther and that church door throughout October. But the distribution of his 95 theses wasn’t the only event to change the world in 1517. Here are a few other high and low points of 1517:

  • The Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluks of Egypt, thereby adding Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula to their empire and transforming the Ottoman state from a kingdom at the edge of the Islamic world to a mighty empire, with control over the Muslim holy places at Mecca and Medina
  • The Portuguese, also in the process of building an empire, established a trading post in what was then Ceylon and sailed all the way to Canton: making the world just a little bit smaller.

On a smaller scale:

  • Italian physician/poet Girolamao Fracastoro suggested that fossils are the petrified remains of once-living organisms–still a controversial subject in some circles.
  • A new luxury good, coffee, made its way to Europe.
  • Moroccan explorer Leo Africanus (ca 1494-1554) traveled to Timbuktu and back. His travel account, Description of Africa, was the West’s primary source on the Islamic world for some 400 years.
  • On May 1, remembered as Evil May Day, artisans and apprentices rioted in London because they believed foreigners were taking their jobs. The story is complicated but the short version is that times were hard and the foreign-born minority who lived in London were a visible scapegoat. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

*The storybook version of history that we learn as kids and carry in out heads and hearts as adults.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.