The year 1492 did not start brilliantly for the Ming dynasty. News reached the capital that flooding and colder temperatures had caused the autumn harvest to fail in several provinces. Emperor Hongzhi was going to have to write off unpaid taxes from 1491. Worse still, in the larger scheme of things, were the court astronomers’ reports of disturbances in the night sky: an azure comet plummeting southward trailing three small stars in its wake; the moon edging into the wrong constellation; the Wood Star approaching the Altar Star followed by a thundering earthquake in the far northwest. These were bad omens. The emperor could have begged Heaven to relent, but instead he sought advice. One official proposed funding caps and a redistribution of the stocks of tribute grain in the region hit by flooding. Another advised a moratorium on costly festivals, including the dragon-boat races. A third urged that punishments be eased. The import of these acts of administrative benevolence was practical, but their intention was mystical, for want of a better word: to atone for the sins of the world and so convince Heaven to stop the disasters.
Mysticism plays an intriguing role in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s stunning panorama of the world in 1492. Rather than narrate that year by falling back on clichés about the Italians inventing the Renaissance or Columbus discovering America, he presents 1492 in terms of what really excited and disturbed people, which