European History pt. 3 — Discovery

Having summarized some of the happenings leading up to about 1560 in terms of religion (reformation, counter reformation, Calvinism, council of Trent, reform popes, inquisition, Jesuits, etc.), the book is now going to retrace some of the same chronological ground from other perspectives including political, economic, and social.

In this  section, the book I’m reading (see the inaugural post in this series here) gives us two nice guiding quotes.

“It is convenient to thin of the period of about a century following 1560 as the age of the Wars of Religion, which may be said to have ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.”

“Always until about 1500 the Atlantic Ocean had been a barrier, an end. About 1500 it became a bridge, a starting place.”

So we start at about 1500 with the various discoveries made by the European powers.

Two things I noticed right away.

1. What a demonstration of the inertia behind ideas. Think how long it took, in our own culture, to come to complicate the narrative of triumphant European discovery over a mostly dark (literally and figuratively) world. Over many years of scholarship, protest, and cultural transformation, we have realized that Columbus’ journey, for one thing, was not just something for celebration, as it brought disease and conflict to whole groups of people.

2. The age of discovery was a profound moment in human history in which whole cultures began to realize that there were other cultures out there that did COMPLETELY different things. This cannot be overplayed as a theme. It’s incredibly powerful to realize that the everyday ways of living that one has are just one way among many of organizing one’s emotions, commitments, and etc. This was the time when these realizations were first dawning.

But back to the discoveries. First we hear about the Portugese who created a trade empire through blood and gold on the west coast of India as well as the East coast of Afria.

The West Indies were discovered by Spain in a race with Portugal to get to the East, and conquerors took over the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru.

And then we get to another insistent theme of European contact with the world: the slave trade. The slave trade began because the exploitation of the civilizations of America left the Indian population utterly devastated. Also, the Catholic church succeeded in winning some protections for the Indians because of their desire to convert them. African slaves however were seen as more robust than Indians and more than 100,000 had been brought to the New World by 1560. The slave trade would not end for another 3 CENTURIES (one of the most enduring European institution of this entire age) and many many more slaves would be brought to the New World than there were free settlers.

The book then goes into the Spanish conquest and expansion in what is today Latin and South America. For instance, the book makes the point that when Harvard was established in 1636, there were already 5 European-modelled universities in Spanish holdings. In 1545, the Potosi silver mines were discovered which proved to be an unbelievable source of wealth for the Spanish. This money financed the Spanish government in the wars of religion and made it fabulously wealth until about 1600 when other countries finally ventured out into the ocean to take the lucrative trade from the Spanish.

This section closes with a consideration of the commercial revolution, which is the book’s name for the massive economic changes of this time period. Prices rose across the board, going up 4x in England. This helped make people richer as farm goods attracted much higher prices. The commercial revolution went hand in hand with a steady population growth throughout Europe, though the growth was not urban. The growth mainly increased the concentration of the rural areas.





2 Responses to “European History pt. 3 — Discovery”

  1. August 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    You actually make it seem really easy together with your presentation however I to find this matter to be really something that I feel I’d by no means understand. It kind of feels too complex and very large for me. I am having a look ahead for your subsequent submit, I’ll try to get the grasp of it!

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