This column was originally printed on February 15, 1999, in the UNI Library’s newsletter Rod & Staff. (See, the real name of the library is the Rod Library, after former director Donald Rod, and we were the staff who worked there; hence, The Rod & Staff. Anyway, here’s a somewhat condensed version of what I wrote then.)
Perceptions of history are peculiar. Unless one has a particular interest in a certain person or era, historical times become compressed, and past events seem to have occurred more or less simultaneously.
Of course, that’s not true. I’m sure most of you have heard of Plutarch and Petrarch, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Beckett and Thomas More, Claudio Monteverdi and Igor Stravinski, Nicholas Copernicus and Claudius Ptolemy—but do you know when they lived? If you’re like many folks, you probably know their names and maybe what they did, but beyond that they’re all just names thrown into a historical blender.
Did Augustine and Aquinas discuss theology? No.
Did Monteverdi and Stravinski compare notes? No.
Did Copernicus and Ptolemy gaze upward at the stars together? No.
Did Thomas Becket and Thomas More commiserate over their bad luck with King Henry? Yes, but not with each other.
Want some historical perspective? For convenience I’ve used the A.D./B.C. dating system, though C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) are more often used in scholarly writing nowadays.
Ptolemy (?-145 A.D.) was a youth during Plutarch’s (46-119 A.D.) middle age, and both were still alive during a relatively healthy Roman Empire. Plutarch died at the very beginning of Emperor Hadrian’s reign, which ran from 117-138, and Ptolemy shortly after it ended.
St. Augustine (354-430) was around at the same time as the historical King Arthur (who was more likely a warlord than a king). Arthur’s dates are uncertain, but he would have been an adult sometime after Rome abandoned England in 430, so perhaps Augustine was writing his City of God as Arthur was being born.
Thomas Becket (1118-1170) lived in the so-called “Renaissance before the Renaissance,” a period during which the fork, among other things, was invented. Becket was actually called Thomas of London, “Becket” being an unflattering nickname that meant “big nose.” His religious battle with England’s King Henry II (1133-1189) foreshadowed by almost 400 years the Thomas More-Henry VIII dispute—and with the same result. (See below.) Some knights heard Henry II mutter, “Why no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” They did just that, lopping off the top of Becket’s head as he prayed in Canterbury Cathedral.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a contemporary of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (1216-1294), who was the grandson of Genghis. (Genghis Khan, BTW, was a title, not a name. It meant “great leader.” Genghis’ given name was Temujin.) Aquinas’ life also overlapped with that of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), of Divine Comedy fame. Dante, in turn, lived in the same city, Venice, and at the same time as Marco Polo (1254-1324), who of course was hosted by Kublai Khan on his famous travels.
Philosopher and poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) not only shared part of a century with Dante, Polo, and Kublai Kahn, but also with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), whose Canterbury Tales detailed stories told by pilgrims en route to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), whose Decameron, in turn, was the inspiration for Canterbury Tales. Petrarch, Chaucer and Boccaccio all survived the terrible plague pandemic known as the Black Death (1347-1349).
While Nicholas Copernicus (actual name, Niklaus Koperninck, 1478-1543) was making his astronomical observations on the European continent, Thomas More (1478-1535) was following his conscience in England by denying Henry VIII (1491-1547) the divorce he demanded. Like Thomas Becket 365 years before, More’s religious dispute with the King cost him his head.
Both Copernicus and More were alive during one of the most pivotal moments in all of Christian history: in 1517 Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, unintentionally but irrevocably creating Protestantism and severing ties with the Catholics.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was composing music less than a decade before Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) led a civil war that relieved England’s Charles I (1600-1649) of both his kingship and his head. Monteverdi’s time also produced a few writers known for a modicum of success: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Christopher Marlow (1564-1593)—plus roughly a million other Elizabethan poets and playwrights—as well as philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who came up with the idea, “I think, therefore I am.”
On the other hand, Igor Stravinski (1882-1971), another fine composer, lived in an era of different politics altogether: JFK (1917-1963), LBJ (1908-1973), and Richard Nixon (1913-1994), of world wars and cold wars and undeclared wars.
There was more to that column, but I edited it out for space reasons. I did another couple of columns in the newsletter in which I compiled a list of famous people, one life overlapping another, from the time of Jesus to the present day. Maybe I’ll get the gumption to reprint those here one of these days.