Recollections of European History
- Who had power?
- What were the main kinds of political structures?
- How did governments work?
Recalling Images of Columbus
Write a portrait of Columbus from your study of history, from pictures and movies you have seen. Describe him and his compatriots as you recall them. Write what you think were his intentions in sailing west from Europe.
Identifying the Source
After doing either or both of the above tasks, identify and discuss the source of your memories and viewpoints. Where did you get these ideas? How accurate do you think your images are?
Europe Before the Conquest
The general devastation was so great that a famous demonic preacher, Savonarola, could say, in 1496:
There will not be enough men left to bury the dead; nor means to dig enough graves. So many will lie dead in the houses that men will go through the streets crying, “Send forth your dead.” And the dead will be heaped in carts and on horses; they will be piled up and burnt. Men will pass through the streets crying aloud, “Are there any dead? Are there any dead?”
Quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 34
The many different units of society
contending for domination also constantly fought with each other: earldoms, republics, duchies, noble families, and all kinds of factions engaged in “kidnapping, torture, mutilation, fratricide, patricide, assassination, and fomented rebellion” (Sale, 33).
In addition to these battles among themselves, those who had any power at all didn’t hesitate to use it against their disobedient subjects or fellow citizens who had the misfortune of being out of favor. Wars on a large scale were common-place as newly organized nation-states vied for power.
Depiction of the Black Death
For centuries the Black Death had ravaged the countryside of Europe. By 1450 the population was just beginning to grow back to its pre-plague levels. Other epidemic diseases also scourged humanity as a direct result of unsanitary and crowded living conditions, general uncleanliness and ignorance, and the constant waging of wars.
Hundreds of thousands also died every year of hunger during recurrent famines when the main crops of wheat and barley failed. The landscape was riddled with pestilence, war, and death. No wonder people whose daily experience was chaotic and dangerous had a preoccupation with death.
Constant Warfare, Holy and Otherwise
Crusade at the Council of Clermont
Latin Christendom had waged war against Islam for eight hundred years, and portions of Europe, including parts of Spain was still under Islamic control. The Moors, or Moslems, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 from North Africa and conquered it in only seven years. The next seven centuries saw almost constant fighting in what came to be known as the “reconquest.” The goal of Christians was to expel from their territory not only the Moors but also others who challenged the prevailing version of Catholicism.
The Crusades, the series of campaigns fought from 1096 to 1291 to recover the Holy Land from the Moslems, were unsuccessful in their main goal but nevertheless had a powerful impact in that they opened the way to a larger world. The many nobles, knights, servants, and churchmen who participated returned from their quest with fantastic tales of great cities and lavish stores of consumer goods.
Always and everywhere in the literature of the age, we find a confessed pessimism. As soon as the soul of these men has passed from childlike mirth and unreasoning enjoyment to reflection, deep dejection about an earthly misery takes their place and they see only the woe of life.
Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 138 quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 31