3.VI: The European Age


Columbus lands in the Bahamas, October 12, 1492, establishing the first permanent European presence in the Americas. The Atlantic-facing European nations built seafaring empires on every continent in the late 2nd millennium. Their cultures, languages, and religions persist long after the empires are gone.

A.  Renaissance

B.  The Reformation

C.  Overseas Empires

D.  Capitalism and Protectionism

E.  Citations

A.  Renaissance

renaissance_italy_cropThe Renaissance was Western Europe’s “rebirth”, its ascendancy on the world stage for the first time since the Roman Empire.  Europe was led out of the Middle Ages by cities, which after all were never part of the feudal order.  In particular, the Renaissance is due to the spreading influence of northern Italian city-states.  Venice and Genoa were Europe’s largest ports of trade with Asia.  Traders and large merchants earned wealth independently of land holdings and helped revive the cash economy.  Wealthy merchant families such as the Medicis in Florence were the pinnacle of society.  European noblemen and even kings became increasingly reliant on Italian bankers for loans, and sometimes forfeited property to them in case of default. 1

These states were highly competitive.  They were tightly packed together but all trying to grow at the others’ expense.  In this belligerent environment, constant communication was imperative.  The states created the modern form of diplomacy with permanent embassies. 2 Ruling families formed complicated strategic alliances, often through intermarriage.  They competed for social status as well as resources.  The status symbol of the day was patronage of the arts.  Great wealth was available for great talent.

The Renaissance was sparked by a double influx of “content and media” to this highly receptive region.  The content was ancient literature.  Influential Roman writings were rediscovered in Italian libraries. 3 An influx of Greek and Arab scholarship came from Constantinople, especially after the 1453 fall to the Ottomans.  Writers such as Petrarch were profoundly inspired by the humanism in these works, the achievements of Man outside of his glorification of God.  In that spirit, Italian art became increasingly innovative and virtuosic.  This was the climate that sponsored the great works of Michelangelo, Monteverdi, Brunelleschi, and so many others.

In the 15th century, German metalworker Johannes Gutenberg invented a drastically improved printing press, the first to enable mass distribution of books.  Ancient classics were translated into modern languages and read widely.  New books, and later newspapers, created a literate public and a continental communication network, the basis for a renewed humanism.

With this combination of content and delivery, urban Italian culture spread northward and westward as far as England.  The monarchies of France, Spain, England, and other countries adopted diplomacy and a continental elite social network, fashioned after the Italian model.  The humanistic spirit flourished, and patronage of the arts continued to support geniuses such as Shakespeare.  The Renaissance’s ironic legacy was its blazing of the future by glorifying the past.

B.  The Reformation

By 1500, Catholicism was a religion of priests and rituals.  The main service that it provided to its parishioners was redemption from sin to prepare for Heaven.  There was good money in the salvation business.  The Church was becoming increasingly corrupt with the sale of priestly offices and indulgences, shares of God’s grace.

Martin Luther was a monk and professor of theology.  He was particularly opposed to the sale of indulgences, but went so far as to question the Church’s very role as a middleman between God and his worshippers.  Luther construed the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” to mean that Christians were redeemed solely by having faith in Jesus, not by good works or priestly rituals.  Luther was well known for standing his ground before the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, becoming the leader of the first Protestant church.  He translated the bible into German so that laymen could read it for themselves and see that some Catholic teachings had no scriptural basis.

Luther’s Reformation hit Europe like a lightning bolt.  It appealed to ordinary people as a more “democratic” form of worship.  To secular rulers, it justified a shift of power in their favor.  Protestant princes seized Church property 4 and diverted their subjects’ tithes (Church fees) to taxes, so the conflict had very real earthly significance.

The transition was traumatic, plunging Europe into chaos and war for most of the 16th and 17th centuries.  The French Wars of Religion ended with an uneasy truce before Louis XIV ultimately outlawed Protestantism.  After three civil wars, England ended up a Protestant nation.  The Thirty Years War, centered in the Holy Roman Empire but entangling several nations, was Europe’s deadliest war in history up to that time, 5 foreshadowing the hell to come three centuries later.

The idea of “religious war” is difficult to understand from today’s perspective.  It was not a matter of churchgoers zealously killing each other for having the wrong religion.  Many soldiers were mercenaries fighting for wages or spoils. 6 By and large, these wars were kingly contests. 1 7 However, religion was an important pillar of state and nation, so the Reformation made religion a pressing question in matters of alliances and religious autonomy.  Some rulers believed that God would protect them or judge them depending on their defense of the true faith. 8

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia mostly ended the holy wars.  This seminal treaty established the principle that European states existed as equal sovereigns and would not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs without invitation.  National sovereignty is still a governing principle of international law.  The Protestant / Catholic rift spelled the end of Christendom and the beginning of modern Europe. 9 It is a more humanist, secular Europe, ironically opposite of Luther’s predilections.

C.  Overseas Empires

One of the most consequential facts of the last millennium is that America was colonized by Europeans, not Asians.  Ironically, this is because Europeans were attracted seaward by Asian riches.  The Mongolian Empire had momentarily opened overland trade routes to Asia, but those roads were once again blocked by the Ottoman Empire.  There were only a few sea routes open from Europe to the east, and they were monopolized by Italian states.  Other European nations started to think ambitiously about reaching Asia the long way around.  Spain and Portugal, two Atlantic-facing countries, began seriously exploring the Atlantic in the 15th century.

Portugal was the first to reach Asia.  Enticed by legends of Mali’s gold, Portugal was also attracted to Africa.  Prince Henry the Navigator invented greatly improved sailboats that could make the return trip against headwinds. 10 With these caravels, Portugal quickly established trading posts all along the shoreline from western Africa to China.  Spain attempted the trans-Atlantic route.  Columbus was destined for India when he landed in the Caribbean “Indies”.  15th-century papal decrees granted Portugal sovereignty over most of Africa, 11 12 and Spain over most of the Americas. 13

Spanish conquistadors were drawn to South America for its silver and its dense populations of natives.  Spain implemented a feudal system exchanging native labor for defense and Christianization. 14 After observing human sacrifice by the Aztecs and Incas, conquistadors felt justified subduing these cultures and Christianizing them.  They toppled the Aztecs with the aid of neighboring enemy tribes.  The Incas were weakened by civil war and also fell easily.  Soon, all of South – Central America was Spanish except Brazil, ceded by treaty to Portugal.

English colonization of America followed Spanish colonization by one critical century – a century of Reformation and religious wars.  The English were Protestant and disregarded the pope’s reservation of America to Spain.  Many English, French, and Dutch settlers were drawn to America for religious freedom.  By 1700, the English established 12 colonies representing 14 of today’s United States.  The Atlantic voyage from England to New England only took one month and was traversed constantly.  With neither mineral wealth nor a native labor pool available, North American settlers invested more in private enterprise and land development than the Spanish. 15

The matter of native land rights was complicated and messy.  American colonists made a series of purchases and treaties with native tribes, but also engaged in war, slavery, and exclusion.  In reality, they were an encroaching empire that gradually overpowered native nations.  This is still an emotional issue today, but it is no different from any other empirical domination of the preceding few millennia, including the Aztec and Inca subjugation of the tribes before them.

D.  Capitalism and Protectionism

Post-Renaissance Europe is associated with capitalist economics.  Capital is wealth that is controlled by private (non-governmental) parties and is invested in hopes of making a profit, for example in a business enterprise. 16  Capitalism implies a degree of control and flexibility over money that did not exist under feudalism.  As Europe became less feudal, it became more capitalistic.  Ordinary people began to earn wages and own personal property.  The feudal model of the self-contained manor was broken.  Different regions produced surpluses of different products that could be traded in markets, leading to greater overall productivity nationwide.  This happened most predominantly in England.

A major 17th-century breakthrough was the stock market.  Stocks are small shares of investment and ownership in large corporations.  At that time, the biggest money-making ventures were for trade.  There was great profit to be made by picking up shiploads of goods in Asia and selling them at a markup in Europe (or vice versa).  The Dutch and English East India Companies were formed for that very purpose around 1600.  Until the 19th century, these and similar charter companies were behemoths, precursors to today’s multi-national corporations.  They were, however, only semi-private.  State governments took great interest in using them as agents of economic competition.

This was the era of merchant capitalism, which was highly nationalistic.  Nobody was looking out for the best interest of the world as a whole, so the idea of free trade did not cross borders.  The prevailing view of global economics was a zero-sum game; it was falsely assumed that one nation’s gain was another’s loss.  Monarchs felt they had no choice but to compete fiercely for access to resources, goods, trade routes, and markets.  Economic protectionism and trade wars led regularly to military wars 17 until the breaking point in WWII.

Colonization was a major program in the competition for resources.  The English crown was primarily interested in colonizing Ireland in the 17th century, so it left American colonization to smaller private ventures. 18 Consequently, those colonies always had a particularly independent character.

Capitalism has a mixed legacy.  Its purpose, to grow wealth, is noble on the face of it.  Capitalism helped distribute wealth more evenly than ever before, and it went hand-in-hand with industrialization.  But in its original form capitalism was ruthless and had no concern for the harm it caused to outsiders.  The darkest chapter of colonial history was the Atlantic slave trade.  As early as the 1400s, Portuguese traders made slave raids in Africa. 19 The slave trade expanded for centuries (peaking in the 18th) as several European nations transported African slaves to their American colonies for free labor.

2nd-millennium European nations chose to define their relationships by competition rather than cooperation.  Their arch-rivalries led to high arts and sciences, industry, and modern medicine as well as slavery, racism, and increasing violence.  Competition brought out the best and worst of Europe, inseparably woven into the culture that was soon to spread worldwide. 20

Continue to Section 3.VII: Reasoned Thought

E.  Citations

  1. Lansford, Tom, “Banking”, Renaissance and Reformation vol. 1, Marshall Cavendish publisher (2007), ISBN 978-0-7614-7650-4, p. 86, https://books.google.com/books?id=i6ZJlLHLPY8C&pg=PA86
  2. Mattingly, Garrett, Renaissance Diplomacy (1955), Dover (reprinted 1988), ISBN 0-486-25570-0, Part Two.  https://books.google.com/books?id=2-0cVoc_fmoC&pg=PA45
  3. The most famous finding was Petrarch’s discovery of letters by Cicero in 1345.  Petrarch has become a convenient historical figurehead for the Renaissance because he coined the phrase “Dark Ages” and explicitly drew a distinction between his era and the preceding few centuries.  Eisner, Martin, “In the Labyrinth of the Library: Petrarch’s Cicero, Dante’s Virgil, and the Historiography of the Renaissance”, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Fall 2014), pp. 755 – 790, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/678774 (accessed 11/05/16).
  4. Helfferich, Tryntje, The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, Hackett Publishing (2009), ISBN 978-0-87220-940-4, ebook location 211.
  5. White, Matthew, “Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century” (2012), http://necrometrics.com/pre1700a.htm , surveying and averaging multiple estimates of death tolls for over 40 conflicts (accessed and saved 12/01/16).  These metrics are clearly rough estimates, but the tallies show that Europe never experienced anything close to the scale of the 30 Years War since the Roman Empire.
  6. See e.g. “Thirty Years’ War”, Encyclopedia Britannica (12/08/2006), https://www.britannica.com/event/Thirty-Years-War (accessed and saved 12/01/16):  “During the Thirty Years’ War, many of the contending armies were mercenaries, many of whom could not collect their pay … The armies of both sides plundered as they marched.”
  7. “Princes of the empire were willing to ally with almost anyone who might help them achieve their goals.”  Helfferich, Tryntje, The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, Hackett Publishing Company (2009), ISBN 978-0-87220-940-4, ebook location 240, supported by Documents 20 and 28 within the same book.
  8. Letters from the 30 Years War era speak of “discord from God” and “the critical judgment that we must be prepared to withstand from God” in the event of settling for an inappropriate peace.  Helfferich, Tryntje, The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, Hackett Publishing Company (2009), ISBN 978-0-87220-939-8, ebook locations 364 – 371, with citations to the original source documents translated by Helfferich in the same book. 
  9. Greengrass, Mark, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517 – 1648, Penguin (2014), ISBN 978-0-698-17625-6.
  10. Haven, Kendall, “Caravel (Sailing Ship)”, 100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time, Libraries Unlimited (2006), pp. 45 – 46, https://books.google.com/books?id=0gBwjLTUzEMC&pg=PA45 (accessed 11/19/16).
  11. Pope Nicholas V, Dum Diversas (1452), https://books.google.com/books?id=6NDmAAAAMAAJ&ots=DKTfGli38J&pg=PA22 (accessed 11/20/16), trans. Unknown (2011), http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.de/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html (accessed 11/20/16).
  12. Pope Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex (1455), trans. Bollan, William (1762), reprinted in Davenport, Frances Gardiner, European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Carnegie Institution (1917), pp. 9 – 26, https://books.google.com/books?id=uLILAAAAIAAJ&vid=OCLC00855948&jtp=9   (accessed 11/20/16)
  13. Pope Alexander VI, Inter Caetera (1493), translated by Blair and Robertson in Philippine Islands (1903 – 1909), I. 103 – 105, reprinted in Davenport, Frances Gardiner, European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Carnegie Institution (1917), pp. 71 – 78, https://books.google.com/books?id=uLILAAAAIAAJ&vid=OCLC00855948&jtp=71  (accessed 11/20/16)
  14. It was called the encomienda system, and it is easy to find in encyclopedias and general-interest websites.
  15. Elliott, John H., Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 – 1830, Yale University Press (2006), ISBN 0-300-11431-1, ebook location 619.
  16. “Capitalism:  An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”  Google dictionary, 11/30/16.  “Capitalism is essentially the investment of money in the expectation of making a profit.”  Fulcher, James, Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2004), ISBN 978-0-19-280218-7, ebook location 220.
  17. Jairus Banaji (2007), “Islam, the Mediterranean and the rise of capitalism”, Journal Historical Materialism 15#1 pp 47–74, Brill Publishers.
  18. Elliott, John H., Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 – 1830, Yale University Press (2006), ISBN 0-300-11431-1, ebook location 621.
  19. Thornton, John (1998). Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=wdIhAwAAQBAJ, pp. 29 – 31.
  20. See e.g. Hoffman, Philip T., Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (2015) Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-13970-8.  Hoffman defends the thesis that Europe’s advancement in the Renaissance was spurred by the continent’s unique form of military rivalries.
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