3.VII: The European Age

Columbus lands in the Bahamas, October 12, 1492. 1

A.  Renaissance

B.  The Reformation

C.  Overseas Empires

D.  Capitalism and Protectionism

E.  Citations

A.  Renaissance


The Renaissance was Western Europe’s “rebirth”, its first ascendancy since the Roman Empire. Cities, which never were part of the feudal order, led Europe out of the Middle Ages.  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 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 relied increasingly on Italian bankers for loans, sometimes forfeiting property to them in case of default. 2

These states were highly competitive.  They were tightly packed together and 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. 3 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.  Italian scholars rediscovered lost Roman writings in libraries. 1 4 An influx of Greek and Arab material came from Constantinople, especially after the 1453 fall to the Ottomans.  Artists were profoundly inspired by the humanism in these works, the achievements of Man outside of his glorification of God.  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.  France, Spain, England, and other nation-states adopted diplomacy and a continental elite social network.  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 corrupt with its sale of priestly offices and indulgences, shares of God’s grace. 

Martin Luther was a monk and professor of theology.  Vehemently opposed to the sale of indulgences, he 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 interpret it for themselves.       

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 5 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, 6 foreshadowing the hell to come three centuries later. 

The common phrase “religious war” is a little misleading.  By and large, these wars were kingly contests. 2 7 However, religion was a central pillar of state and nation, so the Reformation made religion a pressing question in matters of alliances and 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, 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 by Asians.  That’s in large part because Europeans were attracted seaward by Asian riches.  The Ottoman Empire controlled overland trade routes to Asia.  The few sea routes open from Europe to the east were monopolized by Italian states.  Other European nations started to think ambitiously about reaching Asia the long way around.  Spain and Portugal 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 caravels, greatly improved sailboats that could make the return trip against headwinds. 10 With these vessels, 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, 1112 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, French, and Dutch colonizers followed the Latins by one critical century – a century of Reformation and religious wars.  Many settlers were drawn to America for peace and religious freedom.  As Protestants, the English disregarded the pope’s reservation of America to Spain.  By 1700, they established 12 colonies representing 14 of today’s United States.  The English crown was primarily interested in colonizing Ireland in the 17th century, so it left American colonization to smaller private ventures. 15 Consequently, those colonies always had a particularly independent character.  With neither mineral wealth nor a native labor pool available to them, North American settlers invested more in private enterprise and land development than the Spanish. 16

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

D.  Capitalism and Protectionism

Post-Renaissance Europeans developed capitalist economies.  Capital is wealth invested by private parties in hopes of making a profit.  As ordinary people began to earn wages and own property, the feudal model of the self-contained manor broke down.  Various regions produced surpluses of different products that could be traded in markets, leading to greater overall productivity nationwide.  This happened most rapidly in England.  A major 17th-century breakthrough was the stock market.  Stocks are small shares of investment and ownership in large corporations. 

This was the era of highly nationalistic merchant capitalism.  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 semi-private.  State governments took great interest in using them as agents of economic competition. 

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 conflicts until the breaking point in WWII.

Capitalism has a mixed legacy.  Its purpose, to grow wealth, is noble on the face of it.  Capitalism helped distribute wealth to more people 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.  Colonization was a major program in the competition for resources.  The darkest chapter of colonial history was the Atlantic slave trade.  As early as the 1400s, Portuguese traders made slave raids in Africa. 17 The slave trade expanded for centuries 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 racism and exploitation.  Competition brought out the best and worst of Europe, inseparably woven into the culture that was soon to spread worldwide. 18


Back to Section 3.VI: Outside Eurasia

Top of this page, Section 3.VII: The European Age

Continue to Section 3.VIII: Reasoned Thought

E.  Citations

  1. Painting by John Vanderlyn, “The Landing of Columbus” (1846), https://www.aoc.gov/art/historic-rotunda-paintings/landing-columbus
  2. Tom Lansford, “Banking”, Renaissance and Reformation vol. 1, p. 86, Marshall Cavendish publishers (New York, 2007), https://books.google.com/books?id=i6ZJlLHLPY8C&pg=PA86 (accessed and saved 10/05/19).
  3. Garrett Mattingly, “Part Two:  The Italian Beginnings of Modern Diplomacy”, Renaissance Diplomacy, pp. 45 ff., Dover (written 1955, republished New York, 1988),  https://books.google.com/books?id=2-0cVoc_fmoC&pg=PA45 (accessed 10/05/19). 
  4. Martin Eisner, “In the Labyrinth of the Library: Petrarch’s Cicero, Dante’s Virgil, and the Historiography of the Renaissance”, Renaissance Quarterly, 67(3):755-790 (Fall 2014), https://doi.org/10.1086/678774 (accessed and saved 10/05/19).
  5. Tryntje Helfferich, The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History, Hackett Publishing (Kindle eBook edition, 2009), location 211.
  6. Matthew White, “Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century” (2012), http://necrometrics.com/pre1700a.htm (accessed and saved 12/01/16, archived 10/16/19).  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.
  7. Helfferich, op. cit. at location 240, supported by Documents 20 and 28 within the same book. 
  8. Helfferich, ibid. at locations 364 – 371, with citations to the original source documents translated by Helfferich in the same book.
  9. Mark Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517 – 1648, Penguin (2014).
  10. Kendall F. Haven, “Caravel (Sailing Ship)”, 100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time pp. 45 – 47, Libraries Unlimited (Westport, CT, 2006), https://books.google.com/books?id=0gBwjLTUzEMC&pg=PA45 (accessed and saved 10/06/19).
  11. Pope Nicholas V, “Dum diversas”, Bullarium patronatus Portugalliae regum in ecclesiis Africae …, vol. 1 pp. 22 – 23 (6/18/1452), https://books.google.com/books?id=6NDmAAAAMAAJ&ots=DKTfGli38J&pg=PA22 (accessed and saved 10/06/19).  Anonymous English translation, Unam sanctam Catholicam (2/05/2011) http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.de/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html (accessed and saved 10/06/19, archived 10/16/19).  
  12. Pope Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex (1/08/1455), trans. William Bollan (1762), reprinted in Frances Gardiner Davenport, 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 (5/04/1493), translated by Blair and Robertson in Philippine Islands (1903 – 1909), I. 103 – 105, reprinted in Frances Gardiner Davenport, ibid 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. John H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 – 1830, Yale University Press (Kindle eBook version, 2006), location 621.
  16. John H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 – 1830, Yale University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2006), location 619.
  17. John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd ed., pp. 29 – 31, Cambridge University Press (New York, 1998), https://books.google.com/books?id=wdIhAwAAQBAJ (accessed and saved 10/06/19).
  18. See e.g. Philip T. Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World? Princeton University Press (2015).  Hoffman defends the thesis that Europe’s empowerment in the Renaissance was spurred by the continent’s unique form of military rivalries. 
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