Gavin Menzies says that Leonardo Da Vinci copied all his coolest ideas from the Chinese, who brought all their knowledge with them when they sent a fleet to Italy in the early 1400s. This is the same guy who says that the Chinese discovered America in 1421 – and it was even the same fleet. It’s all in his new book, “1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed To Italy and Ignited The Renaissance.” The stuff about them scooping Columbus was in his other book, “1421: The Year China Discovered the New World.”
Unfortunately, while Menzies is good at generating headlines, his approach to history has been very widely criticized by mainstream historians. Everybody loves a good story, and it’s been fashionable in recent years to rewrite many of the long-accepted stories of discovery and so-called ‘manifest destiny,’ but Menzies goes a little far into the speculative, basing his whole thesis on one, probably mistranslated, sentence. It seems that there is a letter, written in Latin, with a line that Menzies translates as “In the days of Pope Eugenius there came a Chinese ambassador to him.” Unfortunately, no other historian has ever translated it that way, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto of Tufts University was straightforward when he told Reuters, “It’s Drivel. No reputable scholar would think that there is any reason to suppose that the person referred to [in the letter] was Chinese.” Menzies compares drawings made by Da Vinci with drawings in earlier Chinese works, but it’s easy to see similarities where none exist – and then again, by the late 1400s, Chinese influence really was making its way to Europe along the silk road, but a fleet seems a bit farfetched.
Menzies seems to have a touch of Von Daniken-itis. You may remember Erich “Chariots of the Gods” Von Daniken, who wrote loads of books about how the indiginious peoples of the southern hemisphere – you know, the brown folks – could not possibly have built things like the pyramids and the Nazca lines without help, and in this case, the help must have come from Aliens. Gavin Menzies seems to feel the same way about Europeans (how sweet the irony), and his “Aliens” are the Chinese.
Speculative history is a fascinating subject all by itself, and nobody does it better than Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of books like “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” which argues that the descendants of Jesus Christ are alive today. Based on a bad French pun, Baigent and Leigh’s book argues that the Holy Grail is not the San Grail, a cup that Jesus drank from at the last supper and then was used to catch his blood while he relaxed on the cross – no, it was Sang Real, the royal blood – the actual blood of Jesus, as passed down to his descendants. This is not a new idea – the Merovingian Kings in France were making this claim in the 5th century CE. And of course, they were the descendants.
From this came the backstories of such wonderful works as the unreadable (and unwatchable in movie form) “The Da Vinci Code” and the sometimes-funny-in-parts Kevin Smith film “Dogma” featuring the always amusing Jay and Silent Bob. Baigent and Leigh actually sued Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ for stealing their ideas – the character Sir Leigh Teabing is in fact Brown’s nod to them – but they lost. You can’t blame them for trying, I mean look at that pile of dough. But as usual, I digress.
I read one of Baigent and Leigh’s books, “The Temple and the Lodge,” about the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Most of the book is a straightforward history, showing how the Knights Templar elaborately forged (in the fake sense) their links with the builders of the Temple of Solomon, and how most of the Masonic lodges of the world make equally false claims to be descended from the Templars. But even here, Baigent and Leigh spin off into the wildly speculative, claiming – with just about no evidence – that the Scots won the famous battle of Bannockburn in 1314 with the aid of a few hundred of the Knights Templar, who in this story escaped the destruction of their order by the French King Philip ‘the Fair’ in 1307. Von Daniken-itis again, it would seem. Those wacky Scots with their man-skirts could never have beaten the English without some outside magic – and the Knights Templar fit the bill perfectly.
History is like a detective story, but even Columbo and Monk sometimes don’t make their cases as airtight as they should – and Gavin Menzies (and Baigent and Leigh) need to do more of the hard work of proving their cases, and less of the easy task of spinning wild tales. And stop giving Dan Brown ideas for books, okay?