Europe Before the Conquest

Teaching Strategies

Pre-reading Strategies        

Recollections of European History

What images and memories come to mind from your previous study of Europe and Spain around the end of the Middle Ages? From recollections of art, literature, history, write down your impressions of everyday life, work, and social conditions at the time?
   
  • 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

 

Life in Fifteenth Century Europe
Not many children lived even to maturity. About half, and not just the poor, died in their first year. If you lived longer, poor diet, disease, and violence threatened to cut life short.
Food supplies were scanty. The usual meal was bread dipped in a thin vegetable soup. To eat fresh meat more than a dozen times a year was very uncommon. Milk, butter, and cheese were too expensive. The family pig was not eaten at home but sold for much-needed cash. The landowners savagely punished poaching for game or fish. If you didn’t starve to death, malnutrition was almost sure to keep you so weak you fell prey to disease.
If disease didn’t get you, violence might. The frequent wars of this period organized violence on a large scale. On their way to and from battle, armies ravaged the countryside. Bandits attacked travelers and held whole villages for ransom. Violence was a poison running through the bloodstream at all levels of society. People were killed casually in quarrels, for cheating in gambling, over malicious gossip, in drinking bouts, and in urban riots.
Milton Meltzer, Columbia and the World around Him, 31

End of the World

15th Century Nativity 
Fifteenth Century Painting of the Nativity
 
To understand the invasion of the lands known to us as the Americas, it is necessary to know something about Europe at the end of the fifteenth century. In many ways it was a place under siege.
 
Most Europeans were far from rich, and their lives were marked by violence, disease, and famine. The belief that the world would end soon was taken quite seriously. In fact, preoccupation with morbid subjects was so great that it was given a name, “the culture of death.”
 
Christopher Columbus concluded, from his extensive study of the Bible and theologians of the time, that Armageddon had a date: it would occur in 1650. There were good reasons for such melancholy.


Death 

      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

http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/savonarola.html

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13490a.htm

 

                                  Violence

Execution of Savonarola

Execution of Savonarola
 
Common folk routinely suffered acts of violence from each other in the form of robberies and murders. Revenge was sweet, especially if it came in the form of a public spectacle. Crowds got perverse enjoyment from watching criminals being tortured and then executed on scaffolds in public squares.

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.

  

   Black Death
Depiction of the Black Death

Disease and Famine

 

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.

http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/

http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/plague/

 

Constant Warfare, Holy and Otherwise

Crusade at Council of Claremont
 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.

http://www.medievalcrusades.com/

 

…And Despair

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