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51: Europe on the Eve of Discovery

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The discovery of the New World changed European society greatly and effectively brought about what is generally called "the modern era." Let's consider some major aspects of Europe society in about 1475 and then ask how the new discoveries affected those characteristics.

The People

In a physical sense, medieval men and women were mostly young: forty-five percent of the population was under fifteen. Even the rich might be considered poor by our standards, and we would think the average man or woman to be desperately poor. Most Europeans went to sleep hungry most of the time, and most of them were sick. There were the weaknesses and ills caused by simple malnutrition. Many, especially adult women who had entered menstruation, given birth to babies and so lost considerable amounts of blood on a regular basis, were anemic. An unbalanced diet low in iodine led to goiter, thyroid malfunctions, and contributed to a high percentage of miscarriages and birth defects. Lack of vitamin-rich vegetables during much of the year led to bad teeth and crooked legs (rickets), as well as a host of skin diseases such as beri-beri and scurvy. A diet low in protein resulted in weak bones and muscles. We might feel that the pangs of hunger would have been the most distressing aspect of this situation, but we would be wrong. The Europeans made a virtue out of necessity, filled their religious year with fasts, and revered the holy hermits who reduced themselves to skin and bones in a mortification of the flesh that was intended to be an imitation of the passion of Jesus.

Few people lived to be what we call "senior citizens." There were endemic ills such as malaria and tuberculosis, and periodic waves of epidemic bubonic, typhoid, cholera, and other contagious diseases to kill off the weaker members of medieval society. Age brought weaknesses that caused a great deal of pain for the few who had lived to a ripe of age of fifty or sixty years. Such aches and pains did not last all that long, however, there were a number of diseases, particularly pneumonia, "the old folks' friend," that carried away the elderly.

The heaviest mortality, though, fell upon infants and the very young. General mortality was so high that, in order to maintain population levels, it was common and accepted that boys and girls should set about the business of making babies as soon as they had passed through puberty. This meant that girls often enough became mothers at an age of around thirteen and could become great-grandmothers at the age of forty. Under such conditions, and with widowhood and remarriage commonplace, the ties of family were simply not as close as they are today.

The men and women of fifteenth-century Europe seem to have been able to endure great privations, but these things took their toll. One of their favorite images of life was the "Wheel of Fortune," which swept people up to the heights but inevitably dashed them down. Europeans were thus ready to snatch fortune when it came their way. They were quite ready to gamble their lives since they were accustomed to the death of friends, neighbors and family. If they held their own life so cheaply, they did the same with others. Emotionally, Europeans were contemptuous of the death of themselves or others, ready to gamble on anything, intolerant of the beliefs of others, and prone to violent swings of emotion.

The Economy

Their economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural, and land was still the basis of wealth, but their agricultural technology was no longer able to feed the population as well as produce sufficient raw materials for manufacture. The general result was that population reached a high level, but more or less stabilized. This meant that European markets, which had been expanding for hundreds of years began to stagnate. The ability of the Europeans to restimulate economic growth was impeded, at least in part, but the fact that their money exchange was based on actual gold and silver and the amount of these metals available to fuel the European economy was decreasing as Europeans traded their gold and silver for Eastern goods, particularly spices and sugar.

This lack of liquid capital and a stagnation of the internal consumer market led to a general recession, although many districts that were able to compete in the more demanding markets of the time were able to flourish. The old corporate approach to business exemplified by the gilds was now being replaced by the individualism of merchants with enough capital to control local production. Charity was becoming less prominent a feature of European life and wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few.


Society was stratified with a few wealthy and many poor. Despite the death tolls occasioned by wars, famines, and disease, Europe suffered from "over-population," in the form of a large permanently under-employed class.

There were almost constant wars, in which the kings were attempting to gain and solidify their power against a land-hungry and greedy nobility. Already split by proto-nationalism, the Europeans were beginning to split along religious lines.

Intellectual Life

Life was still dominated by scholasticism, based upon realism, and ultimately upon the logical manipulation of categories. Scholasticism was still a powerful logical tool but, in many ways, it had already dealt with the most important questions which it was best suited to handle. European travelers and explorers were bringing back tales of things and creatures that strained the Europeans' credulity and challenged the scholars' ability to fit them into the neat categories required by scholastic thought. Europeans were charmed by tales of the distant and fantastic, and these tales could be proven or disproved only through direct observation. Logic was being relegated to a secondary position, at least for a time. Moral guidelines were also in disarray. The Church was not powerful enough, nor the immediate past relevant enough, to provide Europeans with an understanding of the new forces that were at work: capitalism, nationalism, mercantilism, science.


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