SPEAKER: What led Europeans to begin to explore the world during the 15th century, the 1400s? Why did people from this continent divided among so many small warring states begin to seek out other lands? And how did they manage to accomplish such remarkable feats? When the 15th century began, European nations were slowly recovering from the devastating epidemic of plague known as the Black Death, which first struck them in 1346.
Bubonic plague, spread by rats and fleas as well as by human contact, arrived in China from Europe, traveling with long distance traders along the Silk Road to the Eastern Mediterranean. The disease then recurred with particular severity in the 1360s and 1370s. Although no precise figures are available, and the impact of the Black Death varied from region to region, the best estimate is that fully one third of Europe's people died during those terrible years.
As plague ravaged the population, England and France waged the Hundred Years' War, which interrupted overland trade routes linking Europe and Asia. Merchants in the Eastern Mediterranean therefore had to find new ways of reaching their northern markets. They solved their problem by putting to sea and by using new technologies, both triangular sails that improve the maneuverability of ships and navigational instruments like the astrolabe and the quadrant, which allowed sailors to calculate their latitude when they could not see land.
After the war ended in 1453, European monarchs aggressively consolidated their power. In England, Henry VII founded the Tudor dynasty. In France, the successors of Charles VII unified the kingdom. And on the Iberian Peninsula, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married and combined their kingdoms in 1469. In 1492, they defeated the Muslims, who had lived in Spain and Portugal for centuries. And they expelled all Jews and Muslims from their domain.
One of the most important technological changes in 15th century Europe was the invention of movable type and the printing press. Printing stimulated the Europeans' curiosity about fabled lands across the seas that they could now read about in increasing numbers of books. The most important such work was Marco Polo's travels, first published in 1477, which recounted a Venetian merchant's adventures in 13th century China. Polo's account circulated widely among Europe's educated people and led many Europeans to believe that they could trade directly with China in oceangoing vessels instead of relying on the lengthy land routes across Asia. A transoceanic route if it existed would allow northern Europeans to circumvent the Muslim and Mediterranean merchants who controlled their access to Asian goods.
Technological advances and the growing strength of newly powerful national rulers made possible the European explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries. Each country craved easy access to desirable African and Asian goods, spices to season the bland European diet, silks, dyes, perfumes, jewels, sugar, and gold. Avoiding Muslim and Venetian middlemen and acquiring such valuable products directly would improve a nation's income and its standing relative to other countries.
A second concern for spreading Christianity around the world supplemented economics. The linking of materialist and spiritual goals probably seems contradictory today. But 15th century Europeans saw no necessary conflict between the two. Explorers and colonizers could honestly want to convert others to Christianity. At the same time, they could hope to increase their nation's wealth by establishing direct trade with China, India, and what is now Indonesia. Before I discuss Europeans' exploratory voyages, you might wish to explore some of the listed websites, which will give you a good introduction to early modern European life and culture.
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Christopher Columbus's famous voyage in 1492 set in motion a process historians now call the "Columbian Encounter" - the mingling of the peoples, plants, animals, and micro-organisms of the linked continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe with those of the Americas.
In this CyberTower room, Professor Mary Beth Norton, a noted historian of Early America, explores the "Age of Discovery," focusing on pre-contact Europe and America; Columbus's voyages; and initial European encounters with the American environment and indigenous peoples. Throughout, she draws on seldom-seen contemporary images to illustrate her account of the dramatic events that affect our lives even today.
This video is part 2 of 5 in the The Columbian Encounter series.