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Chapter 10: Renaissance and Discovery
Part I: The Renaissance
The nineteenth century historian Jacob Burckhardt in his book, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,
argued that the revival of classical learning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries set a prototype for the
modern world. Renaissance means rebirth and it was no accident then that the Renaissance first took root
in Northern Italy. The Northern Italian City States were the first to develop societies able to break away
from decentralized feudalism and mature into centralized states. Thus their chief focus was to look back for
cultural values and knowledge of Greek and Roman cultural and artistic achievements. This looking back
was the heart and soul of the Renaissance and it created (or found again) that powerful idea of the Greeks,
which would challenge the traditional values of the church: Humanism or the idea that man is the
measure of all things. Religion was not attacked (at least openly), but its principles and authority were
steadily weakened.
The Renaissance began in the city state of Florence in central Italy. Why it took place there came from a
combination factors including economic and political conditions but mostly because of (1) its Republican
government; and (2) the leadership and patronage of the Medici Family. From Florence, humanist culture
spread through Italy and then into northern Europe. This rebirth is best described in the term Civic
Humanism by which the Florentines meant a coalescence (or coming together) of humanism and the civic
responsibility of the citizen. The Italian Renaissance began around 1374-1375 with the deaths of Petrarch
and Boccaccio and would end in 1527 with the sack of Rome* (reminiscent of the Visigoths and Vandals) which
marked the point when Italian creativity declined and Northern Italy became a battleground between
France and the Holy Roman Empire.
*This sad event took place when Pope Clement VII (book says VIII but it was VII) incurred the anger of the
emperor Charles V by siding with the French. Charles defeated the French but his mercenary troops
mutinied and marched on Rome. The Book is also wrong because it was primarily German (Lutheran)
troops [not Spanish troops] that sacked the city. The pope fled for his life by a secret tunnel (still there) to
Castel Sant'Angelo; churches were pillaged; the innocent were massacred and even pro-imperial cardinals
had to pay a ransom to keep their properties from further looting. The sack of Rome was both an
embarrassment to Charles V and the end of the most creative phase of the Italian Renaissance.
The Italian City States
The Renaissance took place where and when it did for six reasons:
1. Italy was a natural gateway between goods passing from east to west and west to east;
2. The city states of Northern Italy had maintained trade with the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages
and so created strong urban societies;
3. As trade increased as early as the eleventh century, Italian merchants quickly mastered the skills and
diplomacy necessary to maintain their trading endeavors: bookkeeping, the development of banking,
scouting new markets, and securing monopolies wherever possible;
4. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this increasing trade and commerce caused the cities of
Northern Italy grew wealthier, even more urban dominating their surrounding countrysides;
5. By the fifteenth century, these city states were – for the most part - the bankers to much of Europe;
6. During the constant feuding between the Holy Roman Empire and France and the warfare between the
pro-papal factions (or Guelfs) and the pro-imperial factions (or Ghibellines), the Italian city states were
able to keep themselves from being dominated or conquered either by the papacy or the French or the
Holy Roman Empire.
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The five major Northern Italian city states were Milan in the northwest; Venice in the northeast; Florence
in north-central Italy; the Papal States in central Italy; and the Kingdom of Naples south of Rome. Two
smaller states in the north were also influential: Genoa and Siena. All except for Naples and Milan were
republics but they all were characterized by vicious political infighting which made most of them evolve
into despotism. Only Venice developed an aristocratic senate and governing council, the Council of Ten,
which stood the test of time, lasting from 1310 to 1797, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Venice.
Florence was also the best example of the social divisions in all these states that caused so much political
weakness. Florence had five classes
1. The Grandi, or the old rich, who were the nobles and merchants who ruled the city;
2. The Popolo Grosso, or “fat people”, who as the new rich were the emerging merchant class,
capitalists and bankers. They were the chief rivals of the Grandi and wanted more power.
3. The middle-class Burghers came next. They were the guild masters, shop owners, professionals
and smaller business people. They tended to side with the new rich against the old rich.
4. The Popolo Minuto or the “little people” of the lower economic classes
5. There was technically a fifth class – not really a class at all; they were the urban poor who had
no wealth and who were about one third of the population.
At any rate, these social divisions led to increasing and bitter rivalry and conflict. In 1378, as a result of the
feuding between the Grandi (old rich) and the Popolo Grosso (new rich), along with the social upheaval from
the Black Death and the collapse of two great banking houses (all of which made life increasingly unbearable for the
poorer classes), a great uprising of the poor, called the Ciompi Revolt, shattered Florence. The result was a
four years of bloodshed and chaos until one remarkable man brought stability and order, the banker and
statesman, Còsimo di Giovanni de’ Mèdici.
Còsimo lived from 1389 to 1464 and was the founder the Medici political dynasty which became the de
facto ruling family of Florence for most of the Italian Renaissance. Còsimo (also called Còsimo 'the Elder or il
Vecchio) was born into a wealthy trading family and inherited his father’s business skills. But he was more
and became a skilled diplomat; for example, he accompanied Pope John XXIII to the Council of
Constance. But when it came to Florence, his secret (like Augustus) was to “rule by persuasion” from behind
the scenes. The leading citizens were proud of their republic; so Còsimo maintained order by using his
wealth to buy votes and finesse (manipulate) the city government.
Thus, Còsimo skillfully manipulated the constitution, swayed (rigged) elections and dominated the Signoria,
the city’s ruling council whose members were chosen from the powerful guilds representing the clothing
industries (wool, fur and silk) as well as the bankers, judges and doctors. Cosimo was also a patron of the arts,
liberally spending the family fortune to enrich Florence. After his death, the Signoria gave him the title
Pater Patriae, "Father of his Country" (an honor once given to Cicero of ancient Rome) and had it carved on his
tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo.
Cosimo de’ Medici was succeeded by his son Piero di Cosimo de' Mèdici (1416-1469), who continued his
father’s patronage of the arts. He was followed in turn by his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent or Il
Magnifico (1449 to 1492) who ruled Florence in skilled totalitarian fashion using his grandfather’s behind
the scenes skills. He also was great a patron of the arts, helping Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo
secure commissions from wealthy patrons. Lorenzo was a poet and supported Humanist scholars studying
Greek philosophy, especially the Christian Humanists who tried to harmonize Plato with Christianity and
maintained that it was possible to be a humanist and lead a virtuous life. It is important to remember that
Lorenzo’s life coincided with the high point of the early Italian Renaissance and his death marked the end
of the Golden Age of Florence - and sadly, the fragile peace which he had helped to maintain between the
various city states.
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In Florence the despotism of the Medici’s was subtle but in other city states despots hired strongmen or
Podestás whose sole purpose was to maintain order. (We will meet similar individuals in Latin American where they
are called Caudillos). Podestás were the chief magistrates of the city with complete executive, military and
judicial authority. Their job description was simple: to keep business in business so that both the old rich
and the new rich, the middle class and the lowers classes, could enjoy continuing prosperity. To enforce
their authority, they hired mercenaries (soldiers hired for pay) led by professional, military men called
Condottieri (from the Italian word for contractor).
The job of the Podestá was often hazardous. They could be dismissed by various power factions including
those that hired them and they were popular targets for assassination. Nevertheless the rewards could be
astounding. In Milan, it was as Podestá that the Visconti family came to power in 1278 and the Sforza
family in 1450, both ruling without constitutional restraints or serious political competition.
During the Italian Renaissance, the rivalry between the city states and factions within the city states led to
increasing skill in the art of diplomacy – political given and take. Through diplomats, city states played an
endless “cat and mouse game” as they gathered information, bought or stole military technology,
economic skill or new venues of economic enterprise. City states opened embassies in other city states:
embassies designed to watch potential enemies, gain allies, gather intelligence and even prevent destructive
wars by the art of negotiating peace treaties and alliances. This art of diplomacy between the tranquil
oligarchy of Venice, the strong-armed democracy of Florence or the despots of Milan kept the peace (for the
most part), and allowed Renaissance culture to flourish - and kept the North Italian City States prosperous.
Humanism, as we have seen, was an idea inherited from the ancient Greeks which stressed that man (men
and women) was the measure of all things. Humanism was also championed by a new breed of
Churchmen, called Christian Humanists, who felt that Plato and Aristotle were compatible with
Christianity; and that it was possible to be steeped in the Greek and Roman classics and still be a good
Christian. Thus – in many forms – Humanism was the examination of the legacy of Greece and Rome and
of the ancient Church Fathers who were also considered to be part of the classical legacy.
It was Manuel Chrysolorus (1355-1415), a Byzantine scholar, who taught in Florence from 1397 to 1403,
who opened the world of the Greek language and Greek Literature to the early humanists. These orators
and poets wrote in classical Latin and vernacular Italian but under Chrysolorus, they began to learn ancient
Greek which had not been written or spoken in Italy for over seven hundred years. And it was one of his
students, Leonardo Bruni (d.1415), who first used the expression Studia Humanitatis. Bruni (sometimes
called the first modern historian) wrote A History of the Florentine People and was the first to describe the
sweep of history with three broad periods: ancient, medieval and modern.
The Studia Humanitatis was a liberal arts program embracing grammar, rhetoric (the art of speaking and
writing effectively), poetry, history, political science and moral philosophy.
The humanists celebrated the classical legacy and sought to prepare people for a life of virtuous action;
they were teachers or tutors to princes and prelates, and their talents were greatly sought as secretaries,
speechwriters and diplomats. The humanists revived the classics in the West but the Byzantine connection
must not be forgotten. For the Byzantines had never lost touch with the classics.
The scholastics of the thirteenth century (like Thomas Aquinas) studied what they could of both the Greek and
Latin Classics but through incomplete and poorly copied Latin copies.] Chrysolorus’ importance therefore
cannot be underestimated. He not only introduced the study of Greek but he also translated the works of
Homer and Plato's Republic into Latin. Nevertheless, his greatest contribution was his lasting influence on
the early Renaissance humanists.
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Thus, the humanists looked less to recent tradition (i.e. Medieval and Scholastic) and more to the classical
concept of humanitas: that spark of life, that competitive spirit of the Greeks. It was Francesco Petrarch
(1304-1374), who came to be called the Father of Humanism, because he traveled around Italy and France
searching for Latin and Greek manuscripts. He quit the legal profession to pursue scholarship and spent
much of his life in and around Avignon. He was also a politician deeply involved in politics in Rome and
often working for the Visconti family in Milan. In his Letters to the Ancient Dead, which was a collection
of imagined personal letters to famous Romans such as Cicero, Livy, Vergil and Horace, he celebrated
ancient Rome and its literature. He wrote a tribute to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated
Hannibal and conquered Carthage, as well as biographies of other famous Romans.
Petrarch also was determined to reconcile his Renaissance humanism (and admiration of the classical world)
with his Christian faith in another work called Secretum, an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary
conversation between himself and Saint Augustine of Hippo. His most fascinating book was Il Canzoniere
(Song Book), a collection of love sonnets to a certain Laura, a married woman, whom he loved from afar. It
is said that he gave up his vocation as a priest when he first saw Laura. These poems reveal his deep love
for a beautiful and unreachable woman whose early death touched him profoundly. With Dante, he laid the
foundations of Italian vernacular poetry.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), another early humanist, was a student and friend of Petrarch, who also
collected Greek and Latin manuscripts and compiled an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. His
most famous work was The Decameron, a collection allegorical tales (stories that teach lessons), often bawdy
(crude) sketches of love, wit and witticism, and practical jokes. The setting for the Decameron is a country
estate far away from the ravages of the Black Death and it is both a harsh social commentary about
personal and economic mores (character) but also a sympathetic look at human behavior. In that sense, it is
in contrast to the traditional medieval values which stressed Church rules and salvation. A more intriguing
work was De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women), a collection of biographies of historical and
mythological women from Eve to Cleopatra to Joanna, the contemporary Queen of Naples.
Humanists scoured ancient manuscripts and used them to improve their minds and as an aid to help society.
Their goal was wisdom: eloquently spoken and thoroughly learned.
A quote I once learned, to know is good; to understand is better (scire est bonum; comprehendere est melius),
catches that spirit – and thus emphasizes that learning was not meant to be abstract but a useful part of life.
Petrarch said that “It is better to will the good than to know the truth” and by that he meant that education
ennobled people; that is, made them better.
In 1416, a complete manuscript of Quintilian’s, Institutio Oratoria (Education of an Orator), was found and it
quickly became a guidebook for the emerging humanist curriculum. Quintilian not only taught that an
orator uses rhetoric to win over people’s opinions but also – just as importantly - advocates that a good
orator must, first and foremost, be a good man. So to be a good man – remember Plato -, a good orator had
to study philosophy and possess a “loftiness of the soul” that never let greed or the desire to win become
more important than the truth.
Thus, the humanist revolution had a profound effect on education. Pietro Vergerio (1349 – 1420), was a
humanist, statesman, and canon lawyer. He taught logic at Padua and Florence, and was a tutor to the
princes of Carrara at their court at Padua until 1505, when Padua was conquered by Venice. After that his
career diminished but he soon became a papal secretary and participant in the Council of Constance (which
had burned John Huss and ended the Great Schism). He was the author of the most influential Renaissance
treatise on education, On the Morals that befit a Free Man, which laid out the principles of liberal
education: …that education…develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men….
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Vittorino da Feltre (1378 – 1446), was another Italian humanist and teacher who (perhaps most of all)
epitomized the goal of an educator. He studied at Padua and, after being tutor to the children of the Marquis
of Mantua, he opened his own boarding school. His methods were revolutionary. He lived with his students
and befriended them. His students studied the great Roman authors and he cared for their health especially
by introducing physical education. His school was comfortable, well lighted and he made the curriculum
more interesting by taking field trips. So successful were his contributions that many of his contemporary
humanists sent their own children to da Feltre’s boarding school.
Humanist principles were not confined to orators or the classroom. Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529)
was an courtier (A courtier is a person who is an attendant in the court of a king or prince.), diplomat, soldier
and author who wrote, The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro del Cortegiano), which described the ideal princely
court, the duties of a courtier and many details about the philosophical, cultured and lively conversations
that should take place among courtiers. It was written as a practical manual for the Court of Urbino, a
small duchy in central Italy, and it also gave guidance on how to use ancient languages and history along
with athletic, military and musical skills, while not ignoring good manners and good character.
Although mentioned previously for her contributions to chivalry and women, Christine de Pizan (1364–
1430), needs to be counted among the early humanists as she promoted the new education and culture. We
noted how she challenged misogyny (hatred for women) and wrote forty one treatises - which defended the
contributions of women – which established her as Europe’s first professional woman writer. Her most
famous work (based on Boccaccio’s On Famous Women) was The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which was
a chronicle (a historical account of events arranged in order of time usually without analysis) of the great women of
history. The work was more than a series of biographies; rather Pizan questioned why women should not
be taught as men are; why men think women should not be educated; and finally she pointed out that
women are more natural learners than men.
The Revival of Platonism
The most important of all the “recoveries” of the Renaissance was that of Greek studies, especially the
works of Plato. There were three reasons for this new fascination of Greek studies. First, we have seen that
in 1397, Manuel Chrysoloras came from Constantinople and began to teach Greek literature and
translated Plato’s Republic. Second in 1439, a Church Council held in Florence tried to heal the Great
Schism of 1054. The council failed but a door was opened for Greek scholars to pour into Italy. Finally in
1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, even more Greek scholars fled to Italy – with precious
manuscripts - and mostly, they went to Florence.
So it was no surprise that the center for the revival of Platonism was in Florence at the Florentine
Academy, a discussion group, which was founded after more of Plato’s works had been introduced during
the Council of Florence. It was sponsored by Cosimo de' Mèdici and led by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). It
is important to understand that the Florentine Academy was never a formal group but its members
considered themselves a modern form of Plato's Academy. They were devoted to the study of Plato and
the Neoplatonists such as Plotinus. Since humanism praised humanity, so the members of the academy
were attracted to Plato because of his favorable view of human nature.
Ficino was in touch with every major thinker of his day and translated from Greek to Latin the complete
works of Plato. More interestingly, he re-introduced the term Platonic Love. For Plato, love (or Eros)
carries men to the contemplation of the divine (always searching for the perfect), that is, that it is the beauty
or loveliness of another person (Platonic Love) which inspires the human mind and the soul to the spiritual
and abandon the physical.
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Another leader of the Florentine Academy, Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), proposed, at the age of
twenty-three, to defend nine hundred propositions on religion, philosophy, natural history and magic
against all comers, for which he wrote, as an introduction, his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man,
which has been called the Manifesto of the Renaissance. These theses (propositions) were intended to
serve as topics of discussion on what was really important in life. He stressed the amazing nature of human
achievement; that humans were the only creatures in the world that had the capacity to be whatever they
chose to be: the fly with angels or wallow with the pigs. Mirandola stressed the importance of the quest for
human knowledge and raised this quest to a mystical vocation.
The humanists were also anxious to discover philological (language) accuracy and historical truth. They
scorned the convoluted writing style of the scholastic theologians and realized that during the previous
millennium the Latin language and the meaning of many Latin texts had been changed (usually miscopied) or
altered (by ignorance or superstition) and so they were determined to use dispassionate and ruthless
scholarship to reveal the truths which medieval tradition and lack of scholarship had blurred.
Lorenzo Valla (1407 –1457), a priest, humanist and educator, wrote De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae
(Elegances of the Latin Language), a critical examination of Medieval-Church Latin as opposed to Classical
Latin, which caused humanist scholars to purge their contemporary Latin of Medieval words and style.
Using his new knowledge of Classical Latin style, he shocked the Christian world by proving that a
document, The Donation of Constantine, (which gave the pope jurisdiction in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, and
Africa as well as Italy and the entire Western Empire, while Constantine would retain imperial authority in the
Eastern Empire) could not possibly have been written in the Fourth Century. Valla was a loyal Catholic and
did not intend to damage the papacy, but in the next century Protestant reformers would use his work with
devastating effect. However, the bottom line is that Valla had established the science of Textual Criticism
which dedicates itself to finding the original text and meaning of any given historical document.
Another conviction of the humanists was that of Civic Humanism (often called Classical Republicanism),
which drew inspiration from classical writers such as Aristotle and Cicero and was built around concepts
such as civil society, civic virtue and mixed government (i.e., containing elements of democracy, aristocracy,
and monarchy). Civic Humanism also came from the idea that education should ennoble and thus promote
both individual virtue and public service. The ideal remained but many humanists who served in
government simply wanted to exercise power or became a snobbish elite, who wrote pure, classical Latin
and were recognized for their academic accomplishments. In reaction, many humanist historians, such as
Niccolò Machiavelli (whom we shall soon meet) wrote in Italian and used their scholarly education for
practical politics.
It is important to remember that Classical values encouraged the humanists to reconsider or re-evaluate
medieval ethical teachings. Medieval moral philosophers had taught that the most honorable calling for any
human being was that of monks and nuns who withdrew from the world and dedicated their lives to God in
prayer and contemplation. However, the humanists, who drew inspiration from classical authors like
Cicero, argued that it was possible to lead a morally virtuous life while participating actively in the
affairs of the world. They argued that it was perfectly honorable for Christians to enter into marriage,
business relationships and public affairs and still be good Christians.
Renaissance Art
To the average person of the twenty-first century, the beginnings of modern are synonymous with the
Renaissance. Secular values became more and more important as the Renaissance unfolded. Politics,
personal lives and the new education all transformed the Medieval Christian mindset to a more worldly
spirit. In the arts, the humanists began to examine Greek and Roman art and architecture and began to
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The process, new to the west, had first been revived in Byzantium and new ways in the arts accompanied
the scholars who fled from conquered Constantinople. The greatest visual change was that now art was no
longer formulaic and abstract but natural and emotional; religious subjects were still the predominate
choice, but the figures and scenes were becoming more and more secular.
Studying classical art, Renaissance artists began to master the ancient techniques in order to achieve greater
realism. Two were of primary importance. The first was Chiaroscuro or the use of shading to achieve a
sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. The second was Linear
Perspective or the use of size and diminishing lines to give the view a feeling of size and depth on a flat
surface. The father of Renaissance painting was Giotto (1266 – 1336). He was an admirer of St. Francis of
Assisi and painted a series of frescoes of St. Francis. Though still religious, Giotto broke the flat, formulaic
and abstract barrier with natural depictions of the saint and his life [The Marriage at Cana]. The painter
Masaccio (1401 – 1428) [The Tribute Money] and the sculptor Donatello (1386 – 1466) [his statue of David]
continued the process portraying realistic people in a realistic world. But the three greatest masters of the
Italian Renaissance were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the archetype of the Renaissance man. He was a sculptor, architect,
musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and
writer; but most historians consider him one of greatest painters (if not the greatest) of all time. He spent
much time employed by Francis I of France as a military engineer and his genius foresaw such modern
marvels as the submarine and airplanes. Among his greatest paintings are the Virgin of the Rocks, The
Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. Raphael (1483 – 1520) was a kindly man and painter of great sensitivity
who was enormously productive and ran a large painting workshop despite his early death at the age of
thirty seven. Three famous works are: The Transfiguration, the Wedding of the Virgin and the School of
Athens. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) was melancholy and moody in contrast to the curious da
Vinci and kindly Raphael. Nevertheless he was a dynamo of creativity and production; he was more
interested in creativity than in creature comforts. He saw himself as a sculptor but worked as a painter and
architect as well. His most famous sculptures are David, the Tomb of Pope Julius II and the Pieta; among
his most famous paintings are the frescos on the ceiling and back wall of the Sistine Chapel; and his
crowning achievement was his design of the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Slavery in the Renaissance
Slavery was a given in the Renaissance world as it had been in the Classical and Medieval worlds. The
Vikings, the Mongols and the Muslims all raided coastal towns for slaves to sell in the great slave markets
of Byzantium and Damascus. By 1000, Viking raids had largely ceased as the Viking began to settle down
in the east and west. As far back as the eighth century, the Muslim states had carried on an extensive slave
trade down the east coast of Africa to meet their own needs. Most of Islamic slavery was domestic but
many Islamic slaves were worked unmercifully as manual laborers or for filling the harems of the caliphs.
By 1100, with the Reconquista (reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula) the Spanish sold captured slaves to
wealthy Italians and other buyers. Most slaves of the Renaissance era fell into two classes: domestic
servants who often became members of the family and less humanely treated slaves who worked in gangs
on the sugar plantations of Cyprus and Crete.
These latter became a model for the Atlantic Slave Trade In either case, slaves were property who could be
bought or sold, treated well or mistreated at their masters’ pleasure. The Black Death made slaves more
valuable and slavery more profitable. And it is important to remember that, although large numbers of
slaves came from Sub Saharan Africa, color or race was no badge of slavery. Anyone could be a slave if he
or she were unfortunate enough to be captured in a slave raid or in war. By the end of the fourteenth
century, slaves were common in almost every well-to-do household of Renaissance Italy.
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Italy’s Political Decline (1494-1527)
As we have notes, the Italian city-states were fiercely independent but they also knew how to cooperate in
the face of external threats, especially the Ottoman Turks. But an unraveling of their cooperation began
with The Treaty of Lodi (1454 – 1455) which brought Milan, Naples and Florence into an alliance. These
three balanced Venice and her ally, the Papal States. But in the early 1490s, the rise of Ludovico il Moro
(1452-1508), a member of the Sforza family, caused hostilities to break out again. In 1494, the Treaty of Lodi
expired and Florence joined Alexander VI, the infamous Borgia pope, in a campaign against Milan.
Ludovico felt threatened and made a fatal mistake by asking the French to come to his aid. The French
were only too eager to get involved because they wanted to reconquer Naples which they had controlled
from 1266 to 1442 when they were driven out by Duke Alfonso of Sicily. Ludovico failed to foresee that
the French wanted to conquer his duchy and dominate all of Italy.
The French king, Charles VIII (r. 1483 – 1498) answered the call. Within six months he had crossed the Alps
and in the summer of 1494, as he was approaching Florence, Piero de’ Mèdici (1472-1503; the son of
Lorenzo the Magnificent) simply gave up and tried to appease Charles by handing over the Florentine
possession of Pisa. This caused the citizens of Florence to rise up and exile Piero (known to history as Piero
the Unfortunate) and brought to power a radical Dominican monk, Savonarola. Charles entered Florence
and accepted a large ransom to spare the city being sacked.
After Charles left, Savonarola convinced the Florentines that the French conquest of their city was a long
overdue punishment by God because of their immorality. He gained power and ruled Florence as a
puritanical and tyrannical autocrat. He confiscated everything associated with moral laxity: mirrors,
cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be replaced by statues of the
saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical
instruments, fine dresses and women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them
all in the town square. But his Puritanism did not last and people grew weary of living in a puritanical
dictatorship. In 1498, he was arrested, accused of heresy, convicted and burnt at the stake.
After taking Florence, Charles went on to invade the Papal States and Naples. This brought about an
alliance, led by Ferdinand of Aragon (the husband of Isabella of Castile who commissioned Christopher
Columbus) the HRE emperor Maximilian along with Venice and the Papal States as an allied league known
as the League of Venice. At Fornovo in July 1495, the League soundly defeated the French army and
Charles lost nearly all the spoils of his campaign and was forced to withdraw back to France. Even il Moro
joined the League of Venice because he recognized his mistake. Charles tried to rebuild his army but his
debts were too great. He died accidently (while playing tennis) in 1498 and, since his children had
predeceased him, he was succeeded by a cousin, Louis XII (r. 1498-1515).
Louis XII returned to Italy and found a new ally in Pope Alexander VI who was probably the most corrupt
pope in the history of the papacy. Without shame he promoted the careers of his illegitimate children,
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and he made the papacy a tool for his family’s political ambitions in
Romagna in Northern Italy. Many principalities in Romagna had freed themselves from papal domination
with the aid of Venice.
Alexander VI wanted a French alliance to recapture those lost principalities. So to secure French favor, he
annulled Louis XII’s marriage to Charles VIII’s sister so Louis could marry Charles VIII’s widow, Ann of
Brittany, a political move to keep Brittany French. Alexander also made Louis’ favorite bishop a cardinal
and agreed to abandon the League of Venice, which would make the league too weak to resist France. In
exchange, Cesare married Charlotte of Albert, sister of the king of Navarre, which increased Borgia
military strength. Cesare also received land from Louis XII with the promise of French military aid.
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All this was a shocking mockery of morality by both Alexander and Louis but it did allow the French king
to conquer Milan in 1499 and imprison Ludovico il Moro (who died in a French prison). In 1500, Louis and
Ferdinand of Aragon divided Naples between them and Alexander and Cesare established acquired much
territory in Romagna. Cesare was awarded the title “Duke of Romagna.” In 1503, Alexander VI died and,
after the short one month papacy of Pius III, he was succeeded by the warrior pope, Guilano della Rovere,
who took the name of Julius II. Julius was more than pope; he was a secular general and diplomat as well
as a great patron of the arts. It was he who commissioned Raphael to paint The School of Athens in the
Vatican Palace and Michelangelo the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Julius II also took the papacy to the peak of its secular and military authority; he suppressed the Borgia
family and gained the title of the Warrior Pope. So secular and political was his reign that the Christian
humanist scholar, Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote an anonymous satire, Julius excluded from Heaven, a
comical description of Julius, after his future death, trying to convince St. Peter that he ought to be
admitted to heaven. Peter questioned him about his deeds on Earth. The frustrated Julius threatened St.
Peter with his army and excommunication. Julius then went into a long explanation of his deeds and tried
to justify his sins. Peter was so disgusted that he shut heaven’s gates on Julius who threatened to raise an
army, capture heaven and create his own paradise.
In 1509, Julius drove the Venetians out of Romagna and secured the northern portion of the Papal States. In
1512, Julius formed a Holy League with Venice, Ferdinand of Aragon, the Holy Roman Emperor
Maximilian I and Henry VIII of England, and drove the French back across the Alps and out of Italy. The
next year, the Swiss won a greater victory at The Battle of Novara in Piedmont.
Louis XII of France died on New Year’s Day, 1515 and was succeeded by his nephew (and son-in-law),
Francis I who ruled France until 1547. Francis once again invaded Italy and in 1515 at the Battle of
Marignano, the victorious Francis massacred the defeated Swiss in revenge for their defeat at Novara.
Julius’ successor, Pope Leo X, was then forced to sign the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, which gave the
French king control over the French clergy in exchange for Francis’ recognition of the pope’s superiority
over church councils and the pope’s right to collect the Annates in France. It is important to understand
that the Concordat of Bologna not only helped keep the French monarchy loyal to the papacy during the
Protestant Reformation but also set the framework for the four Hapsburg-Valois Wars in Italy, all of
which France lost.
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine historian, philosopher, humanist, diplomat, civil servant
and writer, who is perhaps the most well-known of the founders of modern political science. The papal
wars and the subsequent French and German invasions of Italy convinced him that Italian political unity
could only be achieved by brutal and pragmatic means. Thus he developed the maxim for which he is
known: The End Justifies the Means. As a humanist scholar, Machiavelli was impressed by Virtus
(strength or manly courage) which he believed the ancient Romans possessed, and that only by displaying
such courageous strength could greatness be achieved.
Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince, is filled with advice on raw politics, not so much for the more
traditional hereditary rulers, but more for the new rulers or princes (like the Mèdici whom he served) on how
to rise to and retain power. He pointed out that the hereditary prince had to carefully maintain the sociopolitical institutions with which the people are accustomed; whereas a new prince had a more difficult task,
since he had to first stabilize his new-found power to build a secure political foundation. That required that
the new prince be concerned not only with his reputation and social mores but also the necessity to act
immorally when the occasion demanded. Thus, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the
methodical exercise of brute force, deceit, tyranny and so on.
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Some scholars see The Prince as a satire but most feel that he was sincere. After all, he dedicated it to
Lorenzo de’ Mèdici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Church condemned The Prince as
unethical and contrary to Christian morality, as did most humanist scholars, especially Erasmus. Moreover,
The Prince is also stands in strong contrast to Platonic and Aristotelian thought in that Machiavelli insisted
that an imaginary ideal society is not the model for a prince to orient himself by. And it is interesting the a
Mèdici pope, Clement VII, watched helplessly in 1527 when Charles V overran Rome, the year that
Machiavelli died.
The Growth of Monarchy in Northern Europe
1450 is a watershed year in European History because it marks the point when strong unified
monarchies began to coalesce in northern Europe. This coalescence doomed Feudalism because the tide
had turned as the new monarchs gained increasing control in France, Spain and England. The Feudal
model of government was one in which powers of government were divided between the king and semiautonomous vassals. The nobility and the townspeople acted with varying degrees of unity (and success) to
limit the power of the kings; hence the development of the English Parliament, the Spanish Cortes and
the French Estates General. After the Hundred Years’ War and the Great Schism of the West, the nobility
and papacy were in decline and less able to thwart the ambitions of the new monarchs who filled their
places by the increasingly influential townspeople of the rising Middle Class.
It was these merchants, professionals and entrepreneurs of the Middle Class, who more and more staffed
the royal bureaucracies and assisted the monarchs as courtiers, lawyers, bookkeepers, military officers and
diplomats. Thus it is crucial to understand that it was this alliance that broke Feudalism and led to the rise
of the modern nation building. The powers of taxation, making war and law enforcement were transferred
from feudalized vassals to the monarch and his government. Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain rarely called
the Cortes into session; the Estates General was summoned even less frequently; only in England was
Parliament more assertive. Nevertheless, the great Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I,
all knew how to finesse (manipulate) Parliament for the revenues they needed. Echoing Defensor Pacis
(Defender of the Peace) of Marsilius of Padua, who stressed the independent origin and autonomy of secular
governments, Jean Bodin (1530-1596) wrote a 1576 treatise, The Six Lives of the Republic, in which he
defended the sovereign right of the monarch in his famous quotation that The Sovereign Prince is
accountable only to God.
The monarchs used their appointed civil servants whose vision was national and whose loyalty was to the
monarch to spread the monarch’s authority throughout the land. In Castile, they were called Corregidores;
in England they were called Justices of the Peace; and in France Bailiffs. The goal was to create an
administrative bureaucracy, which was uniformly trained in the classical model. Monarchs also began to
create standing armies and replace the Feudalized knights on horseback. With the advent of gunpowder
weapons, cavalry did not disappear, but infantry and artillery became the backbone of the royal armies.
Often, kings hired mercenaries (soldiers for hire), most often from Switzerland and Germany. These
professional soldiers fought for pay and were more loyal than vassals, unless the money ran out. Warfare
(not to mention bureaucracies) became more expensive with the new technologies, so kings needed new
sources of revenue.
The most effective means of increasing revenue was taxation. The French kings taxed sales, hearths, salt
(the Gabelle) and the peasants themselves (the Taille); the English taxed hearths, individuals and plow teams;
the Spanish used a 10% sales tax called the Alcabala. One major difficulty was the nobility’s complete
refusal to be taxed. By custom they were immune from taxes but they refused to even consider the smallest
of taxes on themselves. They claimed such taxes would be an insult and humiliation. To raise money rulers
also sold public offices, issued government bonds and borrowed from either the rich nobility or the great
banking houses such as those of Northern Italy.
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France: In the last chapter, we saw how Charles VII (r. 1422-1461) had been made a great king by those
who served him, especially by Joan of Arc but it was Jacques Cœur, who built the king a strong economy,
diplomatic corps, and loyal bureaucracy. He could do this for two reasons: First, the collapse of the
English empire in France as a result of the Hundred Years’ War; and Second, the defeat of Charles the
Bold (r. 1467-1477) of Burgundy at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. Burgundy, basically French, was
independent and a creature of both the Holy Roman Empire and France. (Remember the Burgundian part of the
French army just stood by as their fellow Frenchmen were slaughtered by the English at Agincourt in 1415.) Charles the
Bold and his predecessors had wanted to be the French monarchs, but that dream died at Nancy, after
which Louis XI of France and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I divided Burgundy between them.
Unfortunately, Louis’ successors tried to grow France by invasions of Italy and power struggles with the
Hapsburgs so that by the mid sixteenth century France was again a disorganized and defeated nation.
Spain: the culmination of state building in Spain was achieved by the marriage in 1469 of Ferdinand of
Aragon and Isabella of Castile, which united the two wealthiest and most important Iberian kingdoms.
Under their dual monarchy, they collected taxes from sales to support a powerful standing army and build
an efficient bureaucracy. They won the allegiance of the Hermandad, a powerful league of cities and
towns that helped them break down the last vestiges of Feudalism. Their grandson, Charles, would not
only become Holy Roman Emperor but the first king of a truly united Spain. They were called the Catholic
kings because they not only completed the Reconquista in 1492 (absorbing the Moorish kingdom of Granada), but
also (under Cardinal de Cisneros) expelled the surviving Moors in 1502. As the sixteenth century dawned,
Ferdinand controlled Naples and Sicily. They (mostly Isabella) also sought Asian commercial markets and
financed Christopher Columbus to find a western route to China. This resulted in a huge Spanish empire in
the Americas that would soon pour tons of gold and silver into the Spanish economy.
England: England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War (1453) left England with only port of Calais but
her defeat would soon be followed by a more difficult thirty year period that has come to be called the
War of the Roses. The roots of the conflict began with the removal of Richard II in 1399 and the rivalry
of two families, the House of York whose symbol was a white rose and the House of Lancaster whose
symbol was a red rose. Backed by wealthy towns in southern England, the House of York, headed by
Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, challenged the monarchy of the Henry VI (r. 1422-1461) who was
from the house of Lancaster. In 1461, the son of the Duke of York, seized the throne and became Edward
IV (r. 1461-1483). Although his rule was heavy handed and lasted more than twenty years (except for a short
period between 1470-1471 during which Henry was briefly restored), Edward did much to build to
effectiveness of the monarchy.
Edward died in 1483 and his brother, Richard III, usurped the throne from Edward’s son, Edward V.
Richard’s reign was troubled and the later Tudor monarchs accused him of murdering Edward’s sons in the
Tower of London. Then Henry Tudor, who through his mother Margaret Beaufort from the House of
Lancaster, was the senior member of the House of Lancaster, returned from exile in Brittany and defeated
Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August of 1485. Henry then ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509)
and founded the Tudor Dynasty that would rule England until 1603. Henry VII was the last English king to
win his throne – and Richard the last king to die - on the battlefield; and more importantly, in order to bring
dynastic peace, Henry married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV.
Henry brought peace to England and controlled English nobility by a unique institution known as Star
Chamber, a court which had the approval of Parliament and whose function was prevent the nobility from
using intimidation and violence to win court cases. Star Chamber was staffed with the king’s judges who
were not afraid of the nobility and so brought in a more stable and equitable (fair) court system.
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Henry appointed Justices of the Peace on a large, nationwide scale to enforce the king’s authority and
common law, much as his ancestor Henry II did. They were appointed for every shire (county) and served
for a year at a time. Their chief task was to see that the laws of the country were obeyed in their area.
Henry also used Star Chamber Court to confiscate the land and monies from the nobility nobles and he
used that money to run his government and avoid potential conflicts with Parliament over taxation. Henry
was the quintessential Machiavellian diplomat who finessed Parliament to get what he wanted and to lay a
solid political foundation upon which his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I would build.
The Holy Roman Empire: Germany and Italy stood in stark contrast to England, France and Spain
when it came to the process of state building. The history of the empire was one of territorial rulers and
cities resisting every effort at imperial unification. Even Charlemagne (more than 600 years previously)
had ruled mostly by persuasion and by 1450, Germany was hopelessly divided into about three hundred
autonomous (self-ruling) political entities. Nevertheless territorial princes and imperial cities did work
together to create the mechanisms of law and order.
In 1356, the emperor Charles IV had reached an agreement with the major princes and cities called the
Golden Bull, which established a seven member electoral college consisting of the archbishops of Mainz,
Trier, and Cologne; the duke of Saxony; the margrave of Brandenburg; the Count Palatine; and the king of
Bohemia. This college functioned as an administrative body which both elected the emperor and worked
with him to provide administrative unity in the empire.
Thus, the emperor became more and more a figurehead and every newly elected emperor had to renegotiate
how power would be shared between the electors and himself. Thus the rights of princes were always
balanced with the rights and power of the emperor.
In the fifteenth century, an Imperial Diet (or formal deliberative assembly) called the Reichstag was created
in an attempt to control quarreling between the imperial princes. The Reichstag consisted of the seven
electors, most of the non-elector princes, and representatives from the sixty-five imperial free cities. The
cities were the weakest members of the assembly. Nevertheless in 1495, its members convinced
Maximilian I to enforce a ban on private warfare and to create both a Supreme Court of Justice (to
enforce internal peace) and a Council of Regency (to coordinate imperial and internal policies). These reforms
were a step forward in state-building but, compared to France, England and Spain, were a pitifully weak
step toward true unity.
The Northern Renaissance
After 1527 and the sack of Rome, Italy began to decline as the center of the Renaissance - mostly because
French and Spanish kings had occupied much of Italy and new, expanding Atlantic trade routes were
beginning steer much trade (and many $$$) away from the Italian City States. After 1450, Northern Europe
caught the spirit of humanism with its emphasis on Greek and Roman literature, culture and art. But the
Northern Renaissance was more conservative.
Northern painters, for example, were less daring in depicting the human form and generally more serious
about religion, often depicting scenes from hell and purgatory. Yet slowly (and sometimes painfully)
humanist ideas merged with religious values. The Brothers of the Common Life, for example, was an
influential lay religious movement that began in the Netherlands that permitted men and women to live a
shared religious life without making the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Thus
Northern Humanists developed a culture quite distinctive from Italian Renaissance.
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Printing Press: Literacy also contributed to growth of the Northern Renaissance. In 1468, Johannes
Gutenberg, a German metalworker and inventor, combined metal-movable type and oil based inks to
create the modern printing press and produced rapid printing of written materials. The result was that books
became common place and affordable. It also meant that literacy rates began to climb and new ideas began
to spread: humanistic, secular and personal. It is important to understand that without people who could
think critically, the spread of Renaissance thought would have been at best stunted. Some of the most
popular publications stemming from the invention of the printing press, after Bibles printed in the
vernacular and religious works, were almanacs discussing subject from childrearing, farming, weather
forecasting and the making of liquors. Finally increased literacy boosted self esteem and encouraged
education; ushered in an era of pamphleteering, and weakened both the Church’s and states’ control of
people’s thoughts and values.
Erasmus: The most illustrious of the Northern humanists was a theologian and priest, Desiderius
Erasmus (1466-1536). He was a classical scholar who wrote in a pure Latin style and enjoyed the sobriquet
(nickname), Prince of the Humanists. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared critical
new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. He was a life-long, loyal Catholic who wanted major
reforms in the Church. He was also a teacher who often earned his living by tutoring the children of the
wealthy. He authored short Latin dialogues, the Colloquies, which were intended to teach his students how
to speak and live well. In them he also wrote anticlerical dialogues and satires on religious dogmatism.
Erasmus also collected and published ancient and contemporary proverbs, which were called the Adages.
Some of Erasmus’ most famous Adages are still common today, such as Leave no stone unturned and
Where there is smoke, there is fire.
In 1509, Erasmus wrote his most famous work, The Praise of Folly, which was a satirical examination of
pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in both the Curia (the central
administrative body of the Roman Catholic Church) and among the clergy before ending with a clear and powerful
exposition of Christian Ideals. It is filled with classical allusions delivered in a style typical of the learned
humanists. Folly parades as a goddess, offspring of Pluto, the god of underworld and a nymph, Freshness.
She was nursed by two other nymphs Inebriation and Ignorance, her faithful companions included Philautia
(self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (oblivion), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (madness),
Tryphe (wantonness – uncontrolled behavior) and two gods, Komos (intemperance) and Egeretos Hypnos
(dead sleep). Folly praises herself endlessly, arguing that life would be dull and distasteful without her. In
was published 1511 and dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas Moore.
Erasmus was a true idealist and his goal was to inspire the union of the classical ideals of humanism and
civic virtue with the Christian ideals of love and piety. He summarized his own belief in the phrase
Philosophia Christi, a simple, ethical piety in imitation of Christ. What offended him most was that both
the Catholics and the Protestants were rooted in their own dogmas and, in their competition for the hearts
and souls of Christians, had forgotten simple and sincere Christian piety. Nevertheless, both Catholics and
Protestants criticized and praised Erasmus’ works and philosophy. At one point, all Erasmus’ works were
on the Roman Church’s Index of Forbidden Books and Erasmus and Luther had (after initial sympathy with
each other) a falling out over the freedom of human will. But as we shall study in the next chapter, the
popular and ironic (supposedly hatched with bitterness by Catholic Counter Reformation) maxim that Erasmus
laid the egg that Luther hatched was correct.
In Germany, the father of German Humanism was Rudolf Agricola (1443-1485) who spent ten years in Italy
before he returned to Germany to introduce the new learning. Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) was a knight
and a humanist who gave German humanism both a nationalist sentiment and hostility to non-German
culture, especially Italian culture. He admired Luther and Erasmus; and published an edition of Valla’s
exposé (bringing to light) of the Donation of Constantine. Von Hutten would later be killed in a knight’s
rebellion against German princes.
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What brought von Hutten to notoriety was his support of Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) who was Europe’s
foremost authority on Hebrew and Jewish studies and who wrote the first reliable Hebrew grammar.
However a converted Jew named Pfefferkorn led a movement to suppress Jewish writings and attacked
Reuchlin claiming his work as being unchristian. Von Hutten was at the forefront of German humanists
who can to Reuchlin’s defense. When Martin Luther was attacked in 1515 for his famous Ninety-five
Theses and its attack on the sale of indulgences, most of the same German humanists also rushed to his
In England, William Grocyn (d. 1519) and Thomas Linacre (d.1524) first introduced humanism in their
lectures at Oxford University; Erasmus later lectured at Cambridge and John Colet (1467-1519), dean of St.
Paul’s Cathedral, was a great patron of humanist studies, especially for the promotion of religious reform.
But the most famous of the English humanists was Thomas More (1478-1535) whose best known work was
Utopia, which depicted an imaginary society that had overcome all social and political injustice by holding
all property and goods in common and requiring every person to earn their own living. More became a
trusted counselor of Henry VIII but fell from favor and was executed because he would not support the
Act of Supremacy which made Henry head of the Church in England and Henry’s putting away of his
queen, Catherine of Aragon, and marrying Anne Boleyn. Like Erasmus, More died a Catholic but still
helped lay the framework for the English Reformation.
The French humanist leaders, who encouraged both educational and religious reform, were the Greek
scholar, Guillaume Budé (1468-1540), and the biblical scholar Jacques Lefévre d’Etaples (1454-1536).
Lefévre especially exemplified the new scholarship and greatly influenced Luther. Another
French humanist was Guillaume Briconnet (1470-1533), Bishop of Meaux who cultivated a generation of
reform-minded young humanists including John Calvin, but opposed any break from the Catholic Church
and especially condemned Martin Luther. His followers became known as the Meaux Circle which
emphasized the study of the Bible and a return to the theology of the early Church.
Spanish humanism was thoroughly sublimated to the Catholic Kings and the Roman Catholic Church. The
key figure was Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros (1437-1517), who as confessor to Queen Isabella and after
1508 the Grand Inquisitor, a position which he used to enforce the strictest Roman Catholic orthodoxy
upon Spain and its people. He founded the University of Alcalá near Madrid in 1509 and used the new
learning to reform and to reinforce the Roman Catholic practice of religion. His greatest literary
achievement was the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, a six volume work that placed Latin, Greek and
Hebrew texts in parallel columns.
Part II: Voyages of Discovery and Empires in the New World
Columbus’s discovery of what he thought was part of Asia profoundly impacted the European world. But
he was not the first to search for Asia and the lucrative trading opportunities that followed. It is the
Portuguese who began the great voyages of exploration but not for adventure because they wanted to reap
the profits of trade and to expand the boundaries of Roman Catholic Christianity.
During the fifteenth century, Prince Henry of Portugal (sometimes called Henry the Navigator), started his
country on this twin goal of evangelism and profit. In 1415, his forces seized the Moroccan city of Ceuta,
which guarded the Strait of Gibraltar, and regarded its capture as a victory over Islam. Next, he pushed
Portuguese mariners out into the Atlantic where they discovered and colonized Madeira and the Azores.
Then he pushed his forces to sail down the African coast where they discovered many other islands such as
the Cape Verde, Fernando Po and Sao Tome, which they colonized and began to use to cultivate
sugarcane. Northern Italian bankers – anxious to find sugar supplies outside the Muslim world and make
profitable investments - eagerly supplied money to support an industry which would supply Europeans
with this sweet tasting substance.
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The Portuguese did not hesitate (their Christian principles not withstanding) to trade guns, textiles and
manufactured goods for gold and slaves. They built forts along the African coast and transported slaves to
their Atlantic plantations as well as for domestic work as servants in Europe. The use of slaves for this
heavy labor (which was often unspeakably brutal) on these sugar plantations grew more popular because sugar
was profitable and so soon these plantations created a huge businesses and profits. However, Prince
Henry’s ultimate goal was still to bypass the Islamic nations and establish direct commercial links to Asia.
The great explorers we shall note are:
Bartholomew Dias left Lisbon in August 1487 with a fleet consisting of three ships. He sailed
down the coast of Africa to the Congo River and in 1488 became the first European to sail around
Cape of Good Hope and enter the Indian Ocean as far as the Great Fish River. Dias would later sail
with Vasco da Gama and Pero Alvarez Cabral in subordinate positions. Ironically he died in a
shipwreck off the Cape of Good Hope later in 1500.
Vasco da Gama (in 1497) rounded the Cape of Good Hope, but sailed across the Indian Ocean all
the way to Calicut. He returned to Lisbon the next year with a hugely profitable cargo of pepper and
spices. Da Gama succinctly stated the Portuguese twin goal of profit and domination when, having
arrived at Calicut, the local authorities asked him what he wanted. His reply was, "Christians and
Christopher Columbus was arguably the most famous explorer in world history. He was a
Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus who hit upon the idea of sailing west to connect with
China and India. He tried to get the backing of the Portuguese, but they were satisfied with the work
of Bartholomew Dias and refused to back him. Therefore, he went to Spain, Isabella persuaded
Ferdinand and the rest is history.
In 1492, his fleet of three (Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria) ships departed Palos in Southern Spain. He
picked up supplies at the Canary Islands and almost three months later found an island in the
Bahamas, which he called San Salvador. He then sailed northwest and discovered Cuba before
sailing home via Lisbon. He made three trips to the new world and told the king and queen he had
found Asia. Columbus died in 1506 and never knew that he had not found a direct route to Asia, but
rather a new world.
The Importance of Columbus’ work was almost immediately recognized in Europe and hundreds of
Spanish, English, Dutch and French mariners soon followed. At first, they still looked for a direct
route to Asia, but slowly it became clear that a new world had been discovered. Thus, Columbus’
voyages began the establishment of links between Europe and the Americas. Exploration and
colonization would follow very quickly.
The Conquest of Mexico and Peru
The Spanish soon moved from the Caribbean to the mainland, where they hoped to find more resources to
exploit. During the 16th century, Spanish Conquistadores (conquerors) moved into Mexico, Panama and
Peru. Theirs was a freelance operation and laid the foundation for the Spanish empire in the Americas.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes landed 450 men in Veracruz and traveled overland to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec
capital on the island in Lake Texcoco. They seized the Aztec Emperor, Montecuzoma II, but were soon
driven from the island by the Aztecs. Cortes then built a small fleet and besieged the city until he starved it
into surrender in 1521. However, the question begs to be asked: how could 450 Spanish soldiers conquer
twenty-one million Aztecs?
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There were four good reasons:
1. Cortes had superior technology (swords, muskets, canons and horses).
2. He had superior intelligence
3. Because of resentment on the part of subject peoples, Cortes was able to make alliance with them,
which provided his Spanish soldiers with thousands more soldiers.
4. During the siege, smallpox broke out and killed thousands of Aztecs: so many Aztecs died that not
only was their military strength compromised, but also Aztec society ceased to function.
A similar story is told in Peru. Francisco Pizarro invaded Peru with a small band of Spanish soldiers in
1530. He too had superior technology and was – like Cortes - helped by resentful subject peoples and
smallpox. Moreover, he had the unexpected good fortune to arrive in Peru at a moment when there was
severe Incan infighting over leadership. Pizarro, a master of treachery, came to Cuzco and, under the
pretext of a conference invited all the Incan leaders together, seized them and killed most of them. He
spared the Emperor, Atahualpa, and held him for ransom. When the gold was paid, he baptized him a
Christian, garroted him and had his head removed. Pizarro was soon master of Incan Peru. In fact, the
greatest threat to his new conquest was other Spanish freelance forces.
By 1540, the Conquistadores had absorbed other Native American states like the Maya in the Yucatan and
made themselves masters of a large portion of the Americas from Mexico to Peru. But the day of the
Conquistadores was short lived. Gradually the Spanish Crown expanded its own power in the Americas so
that by 1570 all Spanish-held America had come under the control of the Spanish crown. It is important to
understand that in building their empire, the Spanish operated in the same way as they had in the
Reconquista. Just as they had militantly imposed their religion and culture upon the conquered Muslims, so
in like manner the Spanish imposed their religion and culture on the conquered native peoples.
As the Spanish colonies grew in the 16th century, the king appointed administrators called Viceroys
(meaning, in place of the king) who were responsible to the king and made policy in the king’s name.
Viceroys were kept in check by a unique institution called Audiencias, which were review courts. These
courts heard legal cases which were really petitions to the king in Spain who could affirm the viceroy’s
decisions or change them.
Spanish Colonial Structure
The Spanish who migrated to the Americas retained their European social structure. Their dress, manners,
daily living – even the layout and building design of their cities - were meant to look and feel like what
they had left behind in Europe. Spanish administrators born in Spain were called Peninsulares and were at
the top of the social scale. They were followed by aristocrats of Spanish extraction but born in the New
World, called Creoles, who were a social step lower. Much lower still in status were the Mestizos (of
mixed European and Indian parents). At first, Mestizos lived on the fringes of society until their numbers
became so great that they integrated into all but the uppermost levels of society. Fourth, came the Zambos
(or as called in other countries Mulattos), persons of African and White parents. Lastly came the
Amerindians (indigenous-conquered peoples) and imported African slaves.
Just as the social order was rigidly observed, so Iberian government was rigidly “top down” with the
colonies strictly controlled by the crown and its viceroys. Thus, Spanish colonists or Encomenderos
developed almost no tradition of self-government which was in sharp contrast to the English colonies in
North America and which set a pattern for political instability for centuries to follow. The Viceroy system
eventually expanded into four areas: New Spain (Mexico and Central America), New Granada (Panama,
Colombia and Venezuela), New Castile (Peru, Ecuador and Northern Chile) and Rio de la Plata (Bolivia,
Paraguay, Uruguay and much of modern Argentina).
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The Portuguese
The Portuguese came late to the Americas partly due to their lucrative Trading Post Empire in the Indian
Ocean and partly due to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, by which Spain and Portugal agreed to divide
the New World along an imaginary line 370 leagues (a league was a measurement that varied among
countries, but 3 miles is a good approximation) west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. According to this
agreement, Spain could claim any land west of that line and Portugal any land east. Thus Portugal gained
territory along the northeastern part of South America, which came to be called Brazil, for a type of tree
(Brazilian wood), which grew along the coast.
The Portuguese sailor Pero Alvares Cabral sighted Brazil and stopped there briefly in 1500. Portugal did
not display much interest until French and Dutch mariners began to visit Brazil and so the Portuguese king
decided to consolidate his claims and colonize Brazil. The Portuguese king assigned the land to his nobles
with a governor to oversee affairs. Soon sugar plantations were founded and their profits stimulated royal
Farming and Slavery in the Iberian Empires
The Spanish were thorough hunters of gold and silver. When they overthrew the Aztec and Incan states,
they simply melted down all gold (including art works) into ingots to be sent to Spain. When that was
exhausted, mining for precious minerals began in earnest. Gold was highly prized but silver was much
more plentiful. Silver production was concentrated at two major sites: in Mexico, especially around the
region of Zacatecas and the fabulously wealthy mines at Potosi in Peru, high in the Andes Mountains.
Apart from mining the principal occupations in Spanish America were farming, stock raising and craft
production. By the 17th century the prominent site of agricultural and craft production was the Hacienda,
which was self-sufficient but also designed to produce cash crops to sell in nearby towns and cities.
Haciendas and mines were both justified under a system called Encomienda which was a formal legal
grant to the Encomenderos to use a specific number of Indians (Native Americans) for a specified period of
time. Encomienda was little more than slavery and slowly it was replaced by the Repartimento System.
The Repartimento system was still harsh and still compelled Native Americans to supply workers, but
made a more sincere (more or less) attempt to provide protection to the Native Americans by limiting
working hours and requiring fair wages. The eventual labor shortage gradually allowed free Indian
laborers to use the landowners’ land but they were still required to purchase their goods from the
landowner. This kind of exploitation was called Debt Peonage.
Predictably, both systems resulted in low productivity and worker unrest. The workers were
resentful and fought back as best they could: sometimes rebellion, sometimes halfhearted work and
sometimes flight into mountains or jungles.
In 1680, a shaman named Popé led a huge uprising in Northern Mexico called the Pueblo Revolt. An even
larger rebellion took place a century later in 1780 in Peru where over sixty thousand Inca tried to throw off
Spanish tyranny and restore the last bloodline Incan ruler Tupac Amaru. Both rebellions were viciously
put down and thousands were executed (i. e., massacred) including the beheading of Tupac Amaru.
The Portuguese did not have the mineral or agricultural opportunities the Spanish enjoyed with one big
exception. Brazil was favorable to the production of sugar cane on plantations called Engenhos, which
means engine and combined agriculture and industry. Instead of using indigenous peoples as laborers
(whom they considered unsuited for agriculture and who had been decimated by European diseases), the
Portuguese imported African slaves.
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The conditions on these Engenhos were too terrible to describe. Slaves were treated worse than cattle with
no families or prospects for happiness. Life expectancy was short, but slaves were cheap and plentiful. The
bottom line was that profit was the only goal of the owners. It was said that every ton of sugar, cost one
human life. But a permanent, unintended result was that African slaves and their descendents became the
majority population in Brazil to this day.
Some Encomenderos, however, learned the lesson that a happy work force is a more productive work force
and by the mid 17th century both systems were on the decline and were beginning to be replaced by a
market system – still unfair - but in which laborers could more freely compete for wages. Indigenous
peoples also began to turn to the law courts for redress (appeal) and sometimes it worked.
Sometimes the indigenous peoples found advocates (usually but not always) in the lower clergy of the Roman
Catholic Church; these good men would seek legal redress against the harshness of Spanish and Portuguese
colonists. In 1615, Guaman Poma, for example, a native Peruvian authored a letter to King Philip III of
Spain that has survived and serves as a record of the Indians' grievances against the Spanish colonists and
the greedy clergy. His letter was lost for a long time and never read by the king but it eloquently
complained about oppressive taxation, women driven to prostitution, and corrupt clergy.
The most effective voice for native Americans was a Spanish social historian, social reformer and
Dominican priest, Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566). He became Bishop of Chiapas, and the first
officially appointed "Protector of the Indians." His two most famous works were A Short Account of the
Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, both of which brought attention to the atrocities
committed by Spanish settlers against the indigenous peoples. Las Casas’ labors brought about new Royal
Regulations in 1550 which somewhat ameliorated the Indians’ position. Another result of his criticism was
the Black Legend, a style of historical writing or propaganda that demonized the Conquistadores and in
particular the Spanish Empire in a politically motivated attempt to incite animosity against Spain.
A similar opinion was shared by Michel de Montaigne (1533 –1592) who was one of the most influential
writers of the French Renaissance, Known as the father of Modern Skepticism, Montaigne – after he had
seen a Brazilian Native American in Rouen - wrote an essay refuting the racist and prejudicial notion that
Native Americans were no more than savages and cannibals and concludes that it is really Europeans who
are the barbarians – not the innocent Native Americans – because they make people of less technically
adept cultures their captives and their slaves.
The Colombian Exchange
European explorers and those who followed them established links between all lands and peoples of the
world. These interactions in turn resulted in an unprecedented volume of exchange across the boundary
lines of societies and cultural regions. Sometimes that exchange involved biological species: plants, foot
crops, animals, human populations, and disease pathogens all spread to regions they had not previously
visited. In short, the worldwide exchange is called the Colombian Exchange.
1. Epidemic Diseases: Beginning in the 16th century, infectious and contagious diseases brought sharp
demographic losses to indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Pacific islands. The worst
scourge was smallpox, but measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, and influenza also took heavy
tolls. Europeans had been ravaged in earlier centuries, but had built up tolerances. Not so in the
Americas and Oceania where these diseases carried off anywhere between 50 to 95% of some
populations. The Aztecs were reduced by 95 %. Between 1500 and 1800, one hundred million
people died of imported diseases. (The devastation of the native population of the Americas was the
largest global decline by percentage in World History, even more than the Black Death in Eurasia.)
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2. Food Crops and Animals: Wheat, sugar, bananas, grapes, dandelion, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and
chickens went to the Americas. Maize, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, manioc, papayas,
guavas, avocados, pineapples, cacao, quinine and tobacco went to Europe and Asia. The result was
that the world diet was greatly improved (both in taste and nutrition) and, despite huge population
losses, world population grew from 425 million in 1500 to 545 million in 1600 to 610 million in
1700 and to 900 million in 1800. The Andean white potato alone dramatically increased the
population of Northern Europe where sandy soils and cool climate were perfect for this crop; the
potato also caused similar population increases in China.
3. Migration. Between 1500 and 1800, enslaved Africans were the largest migrants, but sizable
migration from Europe to North America, South America South Africa, Oceania and Australia also
took place in large numbers.
The Origins of Global Trade and a World Economy
The search for sea routes to Asia led Europeans to the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean Basin.
Europe’s worldwide dominance of the oceans and trade from 1450 to 1650 had three major consequences
in European History:
1. A new international pool for basic exchanges of foods, diseases and manufactured goods had been
created. In spite of the diseases exchanged, New World food crops often improved life in the
Eurasian and African worlds and actually increased the world’s populations. American maize,
sweet potatoes and peanuts similarly put so much marginal land in China into agricultural
production that China’s population would grow by over 50% in the 17th century. Ironically, Europe
herself was slower than other areas to take advantage of both the potato and corn, not integrating
them into her economy until the late 1600s. But the effect would be dramatic, as the potato in
Russia, Eastern Europe and Ireland became a food staple, which had up to 25% more nutritional
value than many grains traditionally grown in these areas.
2. Transoceanic trade had created a new world economy and genuinely global trading system, which,
for the first time, included the Americas. In Chapter 16, we shall see how Europe began to build
Mercantilist Empires. A superb example was this new global system was the Manila Galleons,
which were sleek, fast, heavily armed ships that sailed the waters between Manila and Mexico
hauling Asian luxury goods to Mexico and silver from Mexico to China. During the next two
centuries, the volume of global trade would grow at a lightning pace. The groundwork for an
interdependent world had been laid.
3. We shall see how Europe becomes more and more involved in the world’s affairs. We shall see that
India remained fragmented under Mughal rule with ever increasing French and British economic
encroachments and that China did not keep up with European technological advances. Although
China played a minor role in global trading, Chinese manufacturing strength led to a strong export
market and increased wealth. Europeans sent a great deal of American silver to China to pay for the
porcelain and silks they wanted. However, Chinese isolation was increased in that the Chinese felt
that they had no use for foreign goods and Europeans wanted to find a way into Chinese markets. In
the nineteenth century, China (like Russia) would pay dearly for its failure to keep up with the
Europeans. Thus it is important to understand that by 1600, Europe was poised to expand her
influence and power further and further at the expense of the rest of the globe.
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