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Famous Men of Modern Times by  John H. Haaren

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[7] THE thousand years between the downfall of the Roman Empire and the Discovery of America are called the Middle Ages—which means the ages between ancient and modern times.

This was a very stormy period. In the early part, the barbarians overran Europe and destroyed almost every sign of civilization. They were brought under some control through the efforts of the Church, and, as time advanced, there was progress in the arts of civilized life.

Schools were established in monasteries, and here and there in large cities, but there was no general popular education as we consider it now. This is not so strange, for there were no printed books.

[8] The printing press had not been invented; all books at that time were manuscripts, that is they were written by hand, for that is what the word manuscript means. They were written on parchment, which was sheepskin specially prepared so that it would take ink.

Of course books written by hand were expensive, for it took a great deal of time to write them. Most of the people in Europe, therefore, lived and died without ever having a book in their hands. In only a few of the largest cities and monasteries was it possible to find a library containing as many as five hundred volumes.

When at length the printing press was invented, the desire for knowledge became widely spread. People felt that they must have books to read, and to study. They saw the necessity for schools in which their children might be taught.

Of all the countries of Europe none was more thoroughly awakened than Italy; and among the places that were thus aroused to a desire for knowledge of all kinds, one of the first was the city of Florence. Florence early became the home of many learned men, and no city did more for the enlightenment of Europe than she.

Here lived the famous family of the Medici [9] (med' e chee). For several generations the Medici had been engaged in what was then almost the only commerce of the world. This was trade with India. Caravans of camels brought silks and shawls, spices and precious stones from the far East to the shores of the Mediterranean. Ships transported them to Florence. Trains of pack horses and mules carried them from Florence across the passes of the Alps to the cities of northern and western Europe.

This traffic had made the Medici very wealthy; and not only wealthy but powerful. For three hundred years the family ruled the city and people of Florence. But it was not their wealth alone that gave them their power. Their political influence based on industrial conditions was great also.

The city was, like ancient Athens, a state. It made its own laws, and had the right to coin its own money; it made war or peace with foreign countries.

The government of the state was republican. But Florence was one of the strangest little republics that ever existed. It had this peculiar law, that no man should hold the office of chief magistrate, unless he belonged to one of the guilds, or "arts" as they were called.

These were about the same as our modern [10] trades unions. But the Florentines had even more such unions than we have. Not only were there unions of carpenters and masons and others who worked with their hands, the people who worked with their heads were also united. There were "arts" or unions of the bankers, the merchants, the doctors, and the lawyers.

From the members of the "arts" the Florentines chose their officers. The government of the city was vested in the "Great Council of Nine." These Nine consisted of seven who were head workers, and two who were hand workers. This arrangement brought those who worked with their heads and those who worked with their hands very close together. It caused the lawyers and merchants and bankers to have a friendly feeling for the carpenters and masons and others who made their living by "the sweat of their brows;" and no man could long be ruler in Florence who did not love the working people.



The Medici family were famed for doing good with their money among the people of Florence. And therefore one after another of them found it easy either to be made the "standard-bearer" as the president of the republic was called; or to have men put into office who would carry out his wishes. In 1449, just about the time when Europe was [12] preparing to enter upon a period of renewed activity, one of the Medici line was born who was named Lorenzo. He died in 1492, the very year in which Columbus discovered America.

His grandfather, Cosimo de Medici had given many fine buildings to Florence, among which was its famous cathedral.

Lorenzo's father had also spent immense sums of money for the benefit of Florence. He had been really the ruler of the city for many years, although he very seldom held the office of standard-bearer, or had any official title.

When he died the people of Florence desired that another Medici should manage the republic, and therefore they invited Lorenzo to do for them as his father had done. He accepted their invitation, and became their ruler.

He proved to be much like the famous Athenian, Pisistratus—a tyrant who was not tyrannical. He ruled for the welfare of the people. He did not think that the first duty of a good ruler was to make his people soldiers.

He saw that the best thing to be done for the Florentines was to enlighten them—to furnish them with books and schools.

But where were books to be procured? There were monasteries in various parts of Europe in [13] which were large numbers of books; and among these were manuscripts of many works of the old Greeks and Romans. But the principal hiding-place of manuscripts, especially those of Greek writers, was Constantinople. And it happened in a very strange way that the books of Constantinople were at that very time being brought to Western Europe.

The inhabitants of Constantinople were Greeks. They read the writings of Homer and Plato, and the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, in the original Greek.

The Turks who had long been menacing the city cared nothing for Homer and Plato; and they hated the books of the New Testament. They thought that men needed no book but the Koran of Mohammed. Many of them believed that no one ought to read any other book.

At length, in 1453, Constantinople was actually taken by the Turks, and a great number of its people escaped and went forth to seek new and peaceful homes in Western Europe. Many went to Italy; and of these, several found their way to Florence.

Some of these men brought manuscripts with them; and they told their new Italian friends that others might be obtained in Constantinople.

[14] After this the Medici, and men like them, carried on for years a diligent search for books. They sent men to the monasteries of Italy, Germany, and England, and to Constantinople to purchase whatever ancient manuscripts they could find. One of those who went to the old Eastern capital brought back two hundred and thirty-eight, among which were the writings of Plato and Xenophon, who lived in Athens four hundred years before Christ.

Lorenzo caused many of the old manuscripts to be copied; and, what was better, he had them printed. For just before Lorenzo's birth, Gutenberg had perfected his printing press; and, three years after Lorenzo was born, the first book printed in Florence had made its appearance. It was an edition of Vergil, the great Latin poet; and very likely Lorenzo used a copy of it when he studied Latin.

He lived to see books wonderfully multiplied. By the time he was thirty years old, Vergil and Horace, Homer and Xenophon could be printed so cheaply that they were bought for school boys.

Like other merchant princes of the time, Lorenzo established a famous school in Florence. It was a Greek high school. So many learned men graduated from it and became celebrated teachers, that [15] the people said it was like the wooden horse at the siege of Troy, out of which came so many Greek warriors fully armed for the fight.

Although Lorenzo was called "The Magnificent" by the people of Florence, and was apparently so generous toward them, yet Florence was not really enriched by him. He only made it grander and more famous by his administration, but he completed that subversion of the Florentine republic for which his father and his grandfather had well prepared the way.

Florence, although so splendid, was full of corruption, her rulers violating oaths, betraying trusts, and living only for pleasure. From the days of Lorenzo de Medici her power has steadily declined.

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