1616: The World in Motion is everything I could ever want in a history book. Let me come clean. I am not really the type of reader who picks up history books. In fact, I usually steer clear of that dreary aisle in bookstores and head instead into the expansive fiction section, or I grab a bench in the airy poetry corner, and then look at some art books until my feet hurt from standing. If I happen to come upon the history section, I am befuddled. The word war seems to loom from everywhere, presidential faces peer out, and country names are set in ominous typefaces. I retreat slowly.
1616: The World in Motion is no ordinary history book. It is illustrated, lyrical, and focuses on a single year, jumping through stories across the globe. It is beautiful to look at, containing engravings from around the world, watercolors from the Mughal court, maps from odd perspectives, soft, fleshy paintings, ink scrolls, and sketches. It is also pleasant to read, touching on the silk trade, witch-hunts, court intrigues, pirates, alchemy, wanderlust on sea and land, slaves, and refugees. Few books are conceived of in this way.
Thomas Christensen writes in the preface of this book that one day he simply woke up with the strange resolve to research and write about the year 1616 -- it became an obsession. "Some years," Christensen writes, "1066, 1492, 1776, 1945 -- are emblazoned in everyone's consciousness." While 1616 is not one of these, Christensen argues this a good thing. "Cathartic events can so dominate an era that they make it difficult to see the deeper forces that drive long-term change."
1616 reveals a world on the verge: science and spirituality are about to rip apart forever; globalization begins to erode the notion of the world as a magical, mysterious place; women rising to some stature suffer dire grievances; world religions clash but business is a uniting force; and people everywhere are confronted with the strange sights of foreign emissaries, opportunists, and outlaws decked in curious dress parading into their previously isolated pockets of civilization.
The book is not chronologically told, but organized around ideas. The opening chapter focuses on the silk trade and the first multinational corporation ever, the Dutch East India Company. While buoyed with interesting tidbits ("Silkworms were said to have been carried to Central Asia by a woman who hid moth eggs in her headband; eastern Christian monks supposedly brought eggs to Turkey hidden in their long walking staffs,") international trade just fails to capture the imagination.
The next three parts -- which dwell on emerging roles for women, the visual arts, and the state of science and spirituality in the world of 1616 (with the intriguing title "Witch Hunters and Truth Seekers; Science, Signs, and Secret Knowledge") -- are absolutely riveting.
Part two opens with the following impeccable passage: "In June 1616 a desk clerk in a London hotel checked in a party of travelers that was remarkable even to his jaded eyes. The lodgers were a mixed group of about ten or twelve men, women, and children. The most startling was a shaman named Uttamatomakkin. His face was boldly painted in bright colors. His hair was shaved on one side of his head and braided to a length of several feet on the other. He wore a breechcloth and carried a long, notched stick, on which he had tried for a time to record an estimate of England's population before giving up the attempt hopeless."
The shaman is Pocahontas' father. Christensen expertly navigates female trajectories of the era. In some cases women are oppressed by male-centric traditions, and in other cases, they are able to subvert these traditions. Pocahontas found herself in England being shown off as a savage converted and saved by religion. English poet Mary Wroth was punished by society when she published a folio. Cross-dresser Catalina de Erauso successfully fought in the New World as a soldier, killing many natives in Peru and Chile, and acquiring a reputation as quick-tempered and absolutely sanguinary. When her true identity was discovered, Catalina de Erauso didn't suffer much of a consequence. In the end, she even got special permission from the Pope to wear men's clothes. People referred to her as "Lieutenant Antonio de Erauso."
The third part of the book surveys the visual arts in 1616, and Christensen shows a field increasingly influenced by foreign worldviews. The paintings from the Moghul court are probably the most exemplary of this change. The Moghul emperor had his own personal atelier "to document the events and personages of his reign, as well as the curious creatures that made their way to his court." They are filled with strange symbolism (Mughal emperor Jahangir seated atop a large sand clock upon which angels are writing; Jahangir standing on a globe resting on a goat which in turn stands upon a fish) and they also feature foreign emissaries and ambassadors in what translates into a visual culture clash.
Chapter four, "Witch Hunters and Truth Seekers", is the most compelling in the book, centering on the rift that developed in the sciences. Largely focused around Johannes Kepler (who among other things was preoccupied with discovering God's plan through the geometry of the universe) and Tycho Brahe (who lost part of his nose in a duel and so wore a prosthetic metal one), 1616 finds science divided. On the one hand it is seriously entwined with divination, religion, and the inquisition, and on the other hand (as exemplified by Galileo) it makes a resolute break with the ethereal.
In 1616: A World in Motion Christensen uses decisively modern narrative techniques. In the beginning of the book we learn about "the Overbury murder," a case that involves King James' court, an extramarital affair, a marriage annulment, and a sonnet. Two chapters later, as we read about China, Christensen pulls the curtain back to a connection to the Overbury murder. Yet another chapter later, when you least expect him to, Christensen will do it again. Christensen's intention may be clearly humorous, but the feeling conveyed is profound. Upon each new successive, side-long connection to the Overbury trial, an invitation to ponder what a small world it was, even in 1616, slowly cements itself.
The simplicity of reading only about one year is a profound one, providing a feeling of omniscience and a kind of deep pleasure upon witnessing the same year open again and again in different cultures and empires. As I reached the end of the book and sighed in satisfaction my partner smiled at me, asking, "What happened? Did it finally become 1617?" "Yeah," I tell him. "It kind of did."
1616: The World in Motion is available at amazon.com.