Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
After this assignment, you should be able to define and discuss the following names and terms:
You should also have considered and be able to discuss the following matters:
In addition, there are some larger issues that you should be thinking about:
Let's consider the major characteristics of European society at the close of the fifteenth century and see how the discovery of the New World changed things. We might also ask what sort of people these Europeans were, and what inspired that curious combination of adventurous spirit, pious sentiment, and brutal behavior that characterized the explorers and conquerors. Let's take this question first.
Since the onset of the Black Death in 1346, the people of western Europe had experienced wave upon wave of deadly diseases, varied from time to time by fearsome famines and bloody wars. They could not hide from death as we tend to do, with our sanitized and "Doesn't he look natural? Just like he was sleeping" funerals. They stumbled over the bodies of the dead in the streets and roads, and most has lost members of their family through some sudden mishap or another. The Dance of Death, in which the dead drag the living into their grotesque dance, was a favorite theme in art and statuary. It pointed out two morals: no one -- rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate -- is safe from being suddenly caught up by death, and everyone -- rich and poor, young and old, educated and illiterate -- become equals in the grave. The Europeans of the time were constantly aware that life is a precarious possession. Consequently, they set little value upon human life, their own as well as that of others.
Then, too, their society was a poor one, without enough food or shelter for everyone to survive, much less be comfortable. So they competed, and were willing to take desperate risks in the hopes of "getting ahead." They knew, however, that, in a competitive society such as theirs, success was a temporary thing. No sooner did one succeed that someone of something would snatch that success away. Another of their favorite themes was The Wheel of Fortune, in which someone sunk in the mud would grab something like the turning water-wheel of a mill which would lift him up to the health of wealth and power, but would continue to turn and throw him back into the mud. They knew that all of life was a risky business, so they were eager gamblers, always willing to risk anything, even their lives, in hope of some gain.
They were, by and large, poor and disease-ridden, and many were quite accustomed to going hungry, or being cold and sick, but still having to work because there was little wealth available to help the unfortunate in their world. The men who became the discoverers and conquerors whose pictures grace our History textbooks were generally poor men. Columbus was reared to be a weaver, Francisco Pizarro was a swine-herd, and so on. They may appear to us to have been savage hypocrites, but they were only people born into poverty who were risking everything to become successful. If they deceived and killed in order to succeed, they were not a bit surprised when they were themselves deceived and killed. Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains, Pizarro was stabbed while at prayer, Cortez was shipped back to Spain and spent his last days alone and ignored.
Now, what effect did the discovery of the New World have upon Europe?
One thing was that the economy was thrown into turmoil. The basis of wealth in medieval Europe had been land, and the owners of land lived quite well by renting their lands out and requiring their renters to provide them with service and a share of their crops. Suddenly gold and silver, which had been in short supply, began flooding from the New World back into Europe with the result that prices began to soar. [Note that the more money there is in circulation the less it is worth in relation to the commodities for sale, and so the price of commodities rises.] This causes what historians call The Price Revolution, in which those people on fixed incomes, like landlords, were impoverished and those who had fixed payments, like renters, found that the real value of their debts was swiftly dropping. It happened that the countries acquiring this gold and silver -- Spain and Portugal -- did not have much manufacturing and needed trading goods and supplies for their new colonies. England, France, and the Netherlands developed the manufacturing facilities to provide these goods, and the center of industrial and financial power shifted to those countries, where it has remained to the present day.
An even more basic change was brought about by the new plants brought from the New World. The medieval European had subsisted mainly on grain, wheat for the most part. An acre of land -- a family was lucky if it had thirty acres to farm, of which only about twenty could be planted in any one season -- produced at best ten bushels of wheat. Four of these bushels went for taxes and rents of various sorts and three had to be kept as seed for the next year's crop. That meant a family got three bushels a year net from their best land. It took eleven bushels to feed a person for a year, so a family with three children needed all twenty acres merely to survive, leaving little or nothing over for a bad season of for bad luck. Most Europeans went to bed hungry. Maize, on the other hand, yielded twenty to thirty bushels an acre. What the Europeans didn't eat, they fed to chickens and pigs and were eventually able to have meat and eggs on a relatively regular basis. Potatoes, however -- both regular and sweet potatoes, made the real difference. A single acre of land could produce 25,000 pounds of potatoes, enough for the family with enough left over to feed a couple of pigs. Added to this were the tomatoes, squashes, pumpkins, beans, and other vegetables that arrived to vary the European diet, and you can begin to understand why some historians call this The Dietary Revolution.
Much else flooded into Europe. The new colonies not only sought gold and silver, but exploited the other resources of the New World. Cargo ships arrived crammed with wooden shingles, ship timbers, hemp rope, tar and turpentine, furs, dyes such as indigo and red Brazil wood, dried fish, flaxseed oil, tow, hides, and a host of other raw materials to feed Europe's growing industrial economy and to provide the Europeans with manufactured goods to trade with the Indians (of India) and Chinese for their goods. The discoverers and explorers, and the old land-owning nobility, were quickly replaced by manufacturers and merchants as Europe's new elite. Meanwhile, Europe had found a place to dump their unwanted population. Dissidents, criminals, paupers, ne'er-do-wells, religious fanatics, and others were shipped off, one way or another, to populate the new colonies. The fact that half of them died during the first year was of little consequence.
One of the smaller class of imports from the New World had an effect on Europe far out of proportion to its tonnage. One of the curious features of medieval European society was the great swings of emotion of which its members were capable. A crowd witnessing a public hanging could be reduced to bitter tears and the rending of the clothes by the condemned man's pathetic confession of the error of his ways, only to fall into hilarious laughter when the rope proved to be too thin and snapped off his head rather than strangling him. The fact of the matter was that Europe had never possessed something that was an integral part of other civilizations -- a stimulant drug. They had wine and beer, but these were depressants, not stimulants. All of a sudden, they were receiving shipments of the North American Indians' tobacco with its nicotine and the Aztecs' cocoa with its caffeine, while at the same time they were able to buy coffee from the Arabs and tea from the Chinese. The Incas added the narcotic cocaine while Asia contributed opium. In very short order, Europe had become a drug-consuming society, addicted to its coffee, tea, and cocoa, its laudanum and various codeine-laced cough remedies, and anxious to ensure its regular and cheap supply of these substances. The European character became steadier and the number of "madmen" and "madwomen", who had once been common features of the European scene, began to decrease. [As a note, Western society has continued to be heavily reliant on drugs. When the drink was first introduced, the word "Coca" in Coca-Cola meant exactly what it said. It was a sweet drink with cocaine added, and made its consumers quite happy.]
One could go on at great length expanding on this theme, explaining how the availability of vast expanses of "empty" land affected a society the elite of which had been distinguished by the fact that they were land-owners, or how new substances, such as the quinine in the bark of the South American chincona tree, slowly began to bring under control some of the diseases endemic in Europe, or how the availability of unlimited supplies of immense trees revolutionized naval architecture, but we have probably covered enough to illustrate how completely and basically Europe was transformed.
There are very few web sites dealing with this particular topic, but A Tour of Plimoth Plantation will give you some idea of what early English settlements in the New World were like.
I searched the web for other sites, but only found one that suited our topic. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a lecture essay that I had forgotten I had put on-line [it has been moved to the Historical Text Archive] thing as I have said in the essay above, but perhaps says it differently enough that you will find it useful. Given the present lack of other materials, there will be no recommended assignments for today.