Age of Exploration and Colonialism:
In the mid-1400s, Europeans began one of great adventures in history - the exploration of the world. It was no less of an adventure than space exploration today. Europeans not only explored, though. They developed trade, established permanent colonies, conquered other peoples, converted millions to their religion, and left their influence in virtually every part of the world. But, why did they do this?
For one thing, they wanted to do all this and they could. They were both motivated and had the ability. Vikings had tried 500 years earlier but could not succeed because they lacked the technology to defeat the peoples they met. But the 15th century, Europeans had the technology along with the desire. Exploring was a natural step in European civilization. They could explore because of their very nature. Their history of barbarian conquests made them warlike, independent, and used to taking care of themselves
They also explored because they wanted what the outside world had such as spices, gold, and silk. As Hernando Cortes will say "We came to serve God and grow rich." Which of those was the priority is for you to judge. They also wanted to search for the answers to many myths and questions of monsters in the unknown especially the Amazons. The Amazons were mythical large warrior women who needed men for procreation only. They were so warlike that they allegedly cut off a breast so they could use the bow more effectively in battle. Now, why they wanted to find them is a good question, but proving manliness was definitely part of the exploration mentality. It turns out they may have been looking in the wrong places. Recently, artifacts have been discovered in Eastern Europe that suggest there was a warrior race of women right in their backyard. But, they thought they found them in South America and named a river after them.
Perhaps Europeans explored just to get out of Europe. The 14th century (1300s) was one disaster after another. There were floods, a "little ice age," and famine. There were scandals in the Catholic Church including nuns who provided sexual favors to the men of the church. If that wasn't bad enough, it was the time of the Inquisition. The Inquisition were courts held to eliminate unorthodox beliefs sporadically from the 1100s-1500s including being brought to the New World in a Mexican Inquisition. It was supposed to eliminate unorthodox religions through force including torture, killing (usually burning at the stake), and confiscation of property. Jews and Muslims were expelled or converted. Many Jews will eventually flee to the New World where today many Mexican families are discovering their Jewish ancestry.
Another problem in Europe was the longest known war, the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1443). This war featured Joan of Arc who eventually was burned at the stake after being accused of witchcraft and heresy in 1431. She was also condemned for wearing pants (men's clothing). The Hundred Years War also introduced the common soldier, the longbow and first effective use of gunfire (the cannon). The war ended in a virtual tie although England did win control of formerly French controlled Calais.
If all this was not enough, Europeans also got the Bubonic Plague. While it had been through Europe throughout history, the 14th century version killed 1/3 of Europe's population. It began in China but spread rapidly. Until recently, the rat flea has been blamed for the catastrophe. More recent evidence suggest the culprit was the gerbil. See this article: about the new findings. Maybe some just wanted to get out of Europe and find a better place, maybe the Garden of Eden. But, as the plague subsided, a dynamic age in Europe began. It was a celebration of survival.
The Renaissance was a 14th-16th century rebirth of European civilization. Many new developments appeared in Europe during this period. Many of these developments made exploration possible.
One important trend was the development of stable monarchies. They could organize and fun large projects. Along with that the spread of capitalism and decline of feudalism inspired exploration. What is capitalism? Why would it make people want to explore? Capitalism is an economic system based on private property, free enterprise, and profits. People wanted to make profits. With capitalism, the middle-class grew with more merchants and traders. Demand increased, too, as the population grew after the Bubonic plague.
Also important to exploration was the increased interest in scholarship. Sixty universities were founded in Europe during the Renaissance. More important, though, was that scholars began to look beyond religion. They questioned long-held theories. This led to a revolution in science with Copernicus in astronomy and Galileo in physics. This was also the era of Nostradamus, an apothecary and seer.
Perhaps, the Renaissance was best known for its art. Artists like Michelangelo, Bottecelli and Leonardo da Vinci produced timeless pieces.
Music also became more musical from the chant-like music prior to the Renaissance. There are examples of the music under Youtube at the top of this page. Drama also become more popular with the works of Shakespeare (b. 1564). Dance also developed. See samples under Youtube at the top of the page and give it a try.
The Renaissance was also a time of technological development in Europe. They made better ships and navigational tools. The invention of the printing press provided a way to spread information. More efficient agriculture also developed so fewer farmers were needed and could be used as laborers in the growth of industrialization especially the wool industry of England. Also significant was the development of guns and armour that will prove to be important in the age of exploration.
By the mid-1440s the Europeans were ready to go. But, of course, most Europeans were not explorers so let's exam their lives as we did with American Indians and Africans. They had one thing in common at least. Europeans also had diverse cultures and many languages. Europeans did have some common characteristics, too.
Most were Christians and most were Catholic Christians until after 1517. At the same time, the Inquisition had been unable to stop heresy. Europeans were hard to intimidate. They were used to abuse.
Most of the abuse came from arbitrary and authoritarian governments run by a few powerful families. The idea of democracy was just beginning to take hold in some places like England. The Magna Carta (1215) limited the monarchs' powers, defined rights, standardized the judiciary, and established the idea of sanctity of life, liberty, and property. Originally, it was meant for the barons and kings only but later will be interpreted to mean all free men.
Another common characteristic of Europeans was that most were farmers or herders. During the Renaissance, there were increasing numbers of sailors, merchants, traders, and industrial workers, though. Most land was used communally and men were the farmers unlike among American Indians and Africans. Women only helped in the busy season occasionally. European men did not hunt since there was little left to hunt. It had become a sport of the rich with their organized fox hunts.
Most European women lived very restricted lives although signs of change began during the Renaissance. There was a strict division of labor. Women did housework, childcare, milked cows, and took care of the poultry. Women were excluded from being religious and political leadership roles except in the case of a few queens and nuns. Girls were brought up in a protective environment because virginity was an asset in the marital market.
European women had little free will in marriage (nor did men for that matter). Most marriages were arranged by family councils. Most girls were betrothed by the age of three especially among the wealthy then married at puberty (approximately 12 years old). Men married around the age of 14. A woman was disgraced if she had not married by the age of 15 and often sent to a convent as a result. Men also often married women/girls much younger so that they could "train" their wives. The hope was to learn to love one another but love marriages were rare. Marriage was an issue of property and status not romance. Families matched their daughters to the best financial offer. This is one reason why marrying cousins was accepted since it kept all the property in the same family.
Once married, women lost what few rights they had. Married women had no property rights so anything she had went to her husband. In addition, women could not divorce easily or at all. The husband was the supreme authority at home but had no legal obligations to support his wife or children. He could dessert the family with no penalty and leave them to fend for themselves. Women had little identity beyond whose wife she was although they usually kept their own names. Acceptance of female inferiority was almost universal including church doctrine. In marriages like this, it's not surprising that adultery was rampant among men. European men, especially the wealthy and royalty, considered it their right to have a mistress and a wife who was supposed to look the other way. At the same time, it was usually considered acceptable to kill an adulterous wife.
At the same time, the profession of being a mistress was one of the few occupations open to European women and it had high status. Many were raised to be mistresses. As a mistress a woman could expect love, gifts, and respect that wives did not receive.
The lives of wealthy European women, of course, was more interesting but it always is. Historians also know more about their lives since they could write. During the Renaissance they become more public, educated, and a few even became scholars. Still, the main goal of wealthy women was to be a good wife. This made beauty important.
European women had all sorts of ideas on how to enhance their beauty and attractiveness to men. They dyed their hair (almost always blonde) and added false locks sold by poor women. They polished their nails, put rouge on their cheeks and breasts since they wore low-cut dresses. They wore perfume, flowers, and jewelry. Unfortunately, the clothing of the era was heavy and uncomfortable including girdles. They also began wearing high heels. Now this was not just for beauty. Since their dresses were so long, high heels came in handy to lift their skirts out of the filth in the streets at the time. (Note: The clothing shown on the face cards in a regular deck of cards are Renaissance fashions.)
Despite all this, like American Indians and Africans, family was the dominant social structure. All the family was responsible for the debts of others. With the growth of materialism, family size began to decline with few women having more than five children. But, family life could be violent. Family feuds went on for generations with murders on both sides. Often the reasons for the grievances had been forgotten, but Europeans will bring the "Romeo and Juliet" scenario to the New World.
Violence seemed to be a part of all European life. One historian described the Renaissance as the most lawless period in European history. Crimes of violence were constant despite harsh penalties including torture, enslavement, and death in all sort of horrible ways. Almost everyone carried daggers for protection. The wealthy had tasters to avoid poisoning but that was the popular way to get rid of an unwanted husband. Women have been poisoners throughout history. Petty theft and robbery were common even in churches. Rape was also common but the victims were blamed and often committed suicide to avoid the disgrace.
In many way, the Renaissance was like the 1960s in the U.S. There was creativity, energy, and testing of limits. There were many "free spirits." But, they shared a high crime rate, violence, and vague morality. Like in the 1960s, there was corruption in the government. Also like the 60s, a sexual revolution took place including promiscuity, oout of wedlock birth with little social disability, and prostitutes everywhere. In 1490, there was an estimate of 7,000 prostitutes in Rome alone. Like the 1960s, alternative lifestyles emerged. The gay/lesbian lifestyles were relatively public and common. Also, like the 1960s, a growing social conscience developed with the appearance of charities, "soup kitchens," hospitals, and homes for reformed prostitutes.
There was even a development of table manners. With the introduction of forks in 1463, they replaced fingers. Men wore hats at the table to keep their hair out of the food. Guests brought their own knives to pass food from one to another. It was determined that using the tablecloth as a hankerchief was rude. The new rule was to blow the nose on the knife hand so as not to transfer when conveying food. Meals were heavy including 15-20 dishes among the wealthy. Europeans ate mostly meat and bread while shunning most vegetables like peas and broccoli. Beer and ale were also important and Europeans averaged drinking a gallon a day. Few drank water due to contamination. It was considered a religious penance. Of course, pasteurized milk had not made its appearance either.
Whether eating, working, or just fooling around, the European motto of the day was "Live Life Intensely." This intensity meant trouble for the rest of the world. Intensity sent Europeans out into the world to exploit it and eventually try to dominate it. And, that takes us to our next topic, Columbus and Other Explorers.