Modern Europe (From the Sixteenth Century to the Present Time)









V-E Day came in May, 1945, and V-J Day in August. The terrible conflict which we call the Second World War thus came to an end, as far as the fighting was concerned. However, the problems which had helped to bring on the war were far from solved. To understand how these problems arose and how we can best help in their solution requires an understanding of the events of the past which caused the world to be what it is.

The present work is a story of events from 1500 to the present time, and is thus a modern history in the widely accepted sense of the term. The narrative includes the most recent events so as to give the readers an intelligent grasp of postwar conditions. Chapter One sums up the results of medieval development. It is hoped that this will give those students that had to omit medieval history a background which will enable them to use this book to better advantage.

Author and publishers express sincere appreciation for the many suggestions from interested teachers and readers. As far as possible these have been adopted in the text. The author is grateful for the many words of encouragement from various sources in different parts of the country and for the honor of seeing his text adopted in hundreds of schools.



Before the Lateran Council, February 11, 1929





1. For about two centuries it has been the custom among historians to divide the history of Europe into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. Ancient history commences with the beginning of recorded events and ends with the break-up of the Roman Empire. Medieval history then takes up the growth of feudalism and the gradual development of separate countries. It shows how each developed its own character, institutions, and government, and how in western Europe nearly all were united by a common faith and membership in the same Church, the Catholic Church. Medieval history ends and modern history begins with the sixteenth century, when religious unity was destroyed and whole nations broke away from the authority of the pope. This book tells the story of the last of these three periods. It begins therefore about 1500 and ends with our own times.

2. A little reflection will make it clear to the student that these divisions are somewhat arbitrary. They have been adopted by writers on history as a matter of convenience, to arrange the facts in a more orderly manner and thus to prevent confusion in the student. In reality it is of course impossible to divide the past into clearly defined periods beginning and ending on precise dates. Men do not and cannot change their habits and ways of doing things all at once, no matter what happens. It is true that sometimes a single event, such as a great battle or a new discovery in geography or science, may influence the lives of the people profoundly, but these changes do not follow immediately. For a while the farmer, the manufacturer, and the business man will go on in the old way until they find out that new ways are better suited to the new conditions.

Now history tells not only of great battles and remarkable actions of leaders, but of the customs and institutions of the people, of changes in their occupations, habits of thought, and manners of living. Since these changes come very gradually, we can give only approximate dates for the beginning and end of a historical period. Moreover, students of history not only are interested in what events occurred at a given time but also want to know why they happened, what were the facts that induced governments to wage war, that made it easier or harder for people to earn a living, that prevailed upon merchants and manufacturers to seek profits elsewhere.

Now these reasons often lie far back and force us to recall the events of a previous period in order to understand what happened in the time with which we are concerned. This truth that changes in the habits of men are gradual and are caused by conditions and happenings of a previous age is called the unity and continuity of history. We should keep it before our minds in all our study of history. Knowledge of a variety of facts without linking them up with preceding and succeeding events and knowing the reasons for them is hardly worth having.

3. And yet, although you will not discover in the long flow of events one sudden break with the whole past, you cannot proceed very far in the study of any period without being struck by certain outstanding activities or ideas which you seldom or never noticed in your reading on preceding centuries. It is just these new activities or ideas that distinguish one period from another and allow us to separate modern, medieval, and ancient history. The distinctive features of our period, modern history, will become clearer as we go on with our narrative, but it will be helpful to name at once some of the most important ones.

(1) Lack of religious unity is one of the most conspicuous features of our modern times. The medieval peoples of western Europe all belonged to one Church, the Catholic Church, and looked upon the Holy Father in Rome as their spiritual ruler. In the very beginning of our history we shall see how this religious unity was broken and how henceforth many millions were members of other churches or of no church at all.

(2) During the Middle Ages, the spirit of nationality had developed very little. The medieval folk were often hardly aware of being members of this or that particular nation, but they were very much alive to the fact that Christendom — then practically all Europe — had common interests against the outer world of barbarism and heathenism. Modern men are much prouder of their nations and more jealous of their independence.

(3) The governments of the nations have become more important to their subjects because they have undertaken many tasks which formerly were left to the people themselves, as for instance education, the regulation of labor and industry, and many other matters. In the first part of this period, too, the rulers became more nearly absolute, that is, free from any popular control, until the people rose and transferred the powers of government to representatives of their own choosing.

(4) While in the Middle Ages the scene of events lies almost wholly in western Europe with only occasional shifts of the stage to southeastern Europe or to Asia Minor, our story takes in more and more of the whole world. We shall see the rapid spread of the white race and its activities over every continent. And everywhere that white race has produced governments and institutions and modes of living more or less similar to those of Europe. The world has become “Europeanized.”

(5) With the spread of the white race to other continents and through commerce with these continents the wealth of Europe has increased. But the class of merchants and manufacturers has secured much more of this increase than any other class. With wealth has come ambition. Hitherto the nobility had exercised the greatest influence upon the governments of Europe. In our period the nobles have gradually been replaced by the rich middle class, the business men and the owners of factories and mines. These men have become the real rulers of Europe and the world.




     The condition of Europe as we find it at the opening of our narrative is the product of the Middle Ages. We cannot here repeat the history of these ages, but we must give a brief outline of the results of medieval development in order to understand the people of the sixteenth century, their actions and their


    4. Political Boundaries. — If you compare the map of Europe in 1500 (before this page) with any modern map, you will see at a glance a considerable difference in the political boundaries. You will notice, too, that these differences increase as we proceed from west to east. In the British Isles you find the English kingdom and united to it, at least nominally, Ireland. Scotland, however, then formed an independent state. France presents about the same outlines as now, only her northern and eastern boundaries have since been somewhat advanced.

The boundaries of Spain and Portugal look exactly like the present ones. The former in 1500 had just come into existence by the union of a number of little states, notably Aragón, Castilla, Navarra, and Granada. Both Portugal and Spain were just then acquiring vast oversea dominions in America, Asia, and Africa.

But here the resemblance to the modern map ends. The familiar boot-shaped Italian peninsula did not contain the modern kingdom of Italy but was filled with a number of small independent states united only by a common language. The largest of these states, the kingdom of Naples and Sicily, occupied the southern end of the peninsula, but was ruled by the king of Spain. Farther north you find the Papal States stretching across the peninsula from the mouth of the Tiber to the delta of the Po River. The pope was their civil or “temporal” ruler. The north was divided up into little city-states, that is, independent cities controlling the adjacent territory. Nearly all of them were wealthy and the homes of the most brilliant literature and art, admired and imitated by all Europe. Some of the most important ones, like Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Milan, were, besides, prosperous commercial centers, and before the discovery of the new route to India their merchants had enjoyed the monopoly of the trade with the Near and Far East.

In the heart of Europe, the territory now included in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Holland, the map shows a large state, the Empire, or as it was officially styled, the Holy Roman Empire. Long before our period it had covered a much larger area, extending far into Italy and France, but by 1500 it was practically confined to the German-speaking countries. It was a sort of European United States, presided over by an emperor who was elected for life.

About three hundred separate states owed allegiance to the emperor, some of them hardly of the size of an American county, while others like Austria, Bavaria, or Bohemia can be compared with our eastern states. The bond of union between the various parts of the Empire was extremely weak, as all were jealous of one another and of the emperor. The rulers of seven of these states were called electors because it was their privilege to elect the emperor. He was always chosen from among the princes of the various states. By 1500 it had become the custom to elect the emperor from the family of the Hapsburgs, the hereditary sovereigns of Austria. A national assembly, or “diet,” was made up of representatives of the states and legislated for the whole Empire.

Many of the German states were under the civil rule of a bishop. Indeed, nearly every German bishop united in his person a twofold authority: as head of an ecclesiastical district or diocese he was charged with looking after the spiritual welfare of the people, and as a prince of the Empire he carried on the work of an ordinary state government. Usually the areas of these two kinds of government did not coincide.

To the east of the Empire the map shows two large states, Poland and Russia, but neither played an important part in the sixteenth century and we may, for the present, ignore them. The northern or Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway were known to the people of the Middle Ages as three separate states. However, about a century before the opening of our history the sovereign of Denmark had added the crowns of Sweden and Norway to his own. The former he lost about this time, but the latter remained in his possession till the beginning of the nineteenth century.

If we now turn to the southeast, we notice a marked difference between the boundaries of 1500 and those of the present. The geography of that part of Europe today is apt to puzzle a student, but it was simple enough four hundred years ago. Just across the boundary of the Empire was the ancient kingdom of Hungary, considerably larger than now. The whole Balkan peninsula as far north as the Transylvanian Alps, the Danube and the Save rivers was under the yoke of the Turks, who looked upon the sultan of Constantinople as their civil and religious ruler. The same sultan held sway over a great empire in Asia, extending from the Sea of Marmora and the Ægean to upper Mesopotamia and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The sixteenth century witnessed an even greater extension of Turkish power, eastward to the Persian Gulf and westward along the coast of Africa to Morocco. The Turkish Empire then covered practically the entire Near East.

5. Conditions in Government. — These are the changes a comparison of the maps will show. How they came about the student will learn in the course of this history. But there are other and more important things which a map cannot explain. When you read in newspapers or magazines of political events abroad, you often come across debates and legislation of parliaments and notice very soon that even kings and their ministers depend on these elected representatives of the people. They make laws, vote taxes and expenditures, overthrow prime ministers and other executive heads of the government, and in general are much more spoken of than the monarchs.

All this was different in 1500. Then the monarchs were really powerful persons, to whom, for better or for worse, the fortunes of the state were entrusted. During this period the rule of the king was growing more nearly absolute, that is, it was being extended to all the functions of government, to the making and execution of laws and often even to their application in the courts. Even in England, where the power of the parliament had always been a force to be reckoned with by the kings, this body was extremely docile and subservient to the royal will. Elsewhere the representatives of the nation were only an advisory body whose advice might sometimes be safely rejected or might not be asked at all. Some European states had no parliaments, and the monarch was uncontrolled lord of all, in name as well as in fact.

In general the people of the sixteenth century were satisfied with their system of government. In fact, they looked up to their kings with awe and reverence almost mounting to worship, as if these rulers were some kind of superhuman beings, whose conduct was not to be criticized. Love of country and love of its ruler were with them the same thing.

We modern Americans express our patriotic feeling by honoring the flag and by extolling the achievements of our nation. At that time the people gave their loyalty to the king and the royal family. To criticize or to belittle the king was unpatriotic and often rather dangerous. This excessive reverence for the monarch and his will explains to us why in those days the ruler sometimes could enact very high-handed measures, contrary to convictions and sentiments of the people, without finding much resistance.

And the men and women of the sixteenth century were intensely patriotic and proud of their nationality. The Middle Ages had thought more of what was common to all Europe the same religion, the same language of the educated, Latin, and the same ambition of extending the area of Christendom and forcing back the infidel Turk — but now the people became more conscious of what separated them from other nations. The Englishman, the Frenchman, and the Spaniard began to take pride in their own native tongues, to glory in the deeds of their countrymen, and above all to resent any foreign interference in their own affairs. This resentment was entertained oftener than before, even against the head of the Catholic Church, the pope. It found expression in frequent complaints against payments made to the Holy See, against the papal power of appointing to ecclesiastical offices and similar matters. That the character and religious zeal of the popes of this period were not up to the high standard of previous centuries only made matters worse. We shall see some of the disastrous consequences.


     6. Social History. — Not only governments and princes but also the various classes of people have their history. Their occupations and manner of living, their joys and hardships, their ideas and ambitions undergo changes which are even more remarkable and important than those of boundaries and governments. For in history we are above all interested in the fortunes of men in the past, and if among other things we study wars and the rise and fall of states and the changes in boundaries, we do this only because such happenings often profoundly affect the lives of the people. In other words, we study not only political but also social history. The former is concerned with governments and states, the latter with society, that is, with the different classes of people that make up a nation.

Before we have advanced very far in our story of modern times, we become aware that the society no less than the government of the sixteenth century was in many respects different from that of the present. The most striking changes did not occur until the beginning of the nineteenth century and will be described in their proper place. However, in the fifteenth and at the beginning of the sixteenth century certain events happened which had a considerable influence on all classes. To understand the effects of these events we must try to form a picture of the lives of the people in city and country before these changes came.

  7. The Rural Population. — The farmer is at all times the most useful member of society. He supplies food not only for himself but for the rest of society, and the raw material for clothing as well. Without him our cities could not exist. In the sixteenth century the number of people living in the country and engaged in farming was comparatively larger than today. In fact, the wealth of most people was then reckoned not in bank deposits or stocks and bonds but by the number of acres of farm land they owned.

There were, however, very few landowners. The land was mostly in the hands of the nobility or the church, that is, owned by monasteries or bishops, and the peasants who tilled it seldom enjoyed the full fruit of their toil but owed various duties and payments to the landlord.

Formerly nearly all peasants had been serfs, that is, they and their descendants were attached to the soil and could not leave it or sell or lease their holdings to anyone else. On certain days they had to work on land which the lord had reserved to himself and of which he received all the produce. They made, moreover, certain payments in cash, for instance when the heir took over the land and obligations of his parent, and in produce at certain times of the year. Ovens, wine-presses, and mills were usually the property of the landlords and the serf had to pay for the use of them.

By 1500 this condition of serfdom had largely disappeared in western Europe, but in the Empire it still prevailed over wide areas, and in eastern Europe, in Hungary, Poland, and Russia, practically every tiller of the soil was a serf.

The disappearance of serfdom was a gradual process. At no particular moment was a whole class of serfs freed from all its obligations, as was the case in the emancipation of our American Negro slaves. In the course of time the peasants got rid of one after another of their servile duties toward their lords. until in most countries they finally became full owners of the acres on which their forefathers had labored as serfs.

In 1500 even in western Europe, in England and France, this gradual emancipation was far from complete, while elsewhere it had not yet begun. By that time the English or French farmer was as a rule free to leave his land. Instead of working for a certain number of days on the land which the lord had reserved for himself, he now made a fixed payment which enabled the lord to hire laborers. Sometimes the noble proprietor did not care to superintend the cultivation of his land, but parceled it out among several peasants in return for a fixed proportion of the crops.

There were, however, enough “servile” obligations left to annoy the peasant. He still might be called upon for an occasional day’s labor on roads and bridges. He still paid dues for the use of the lord’s oven or wine-press. He still was forbidden to kill game which injured his crops, and still had to be a mute onlooker when the lord’s merry hunting party galloped through his fields.

8. State of Agriculture. — Farming methods for several centuries had made little progress. Practically everywhere the farmer still followed the time-honored “three-field system.” The arable land was divided into three big grain fields. Slight ridges of unplowed ground further divided each field into long narrow strips, and each peasant had a right to one or more of these strips in each of the three fields. In each field one peasant usually grew the same crop as his neighbor, wheat or rye in one, barley in the other, and nothing in the third. The following year another third would be left fallow, while the barley field of the previous year would become the wheat field, and the former fallow section would grow barley.




This method prevented the complete exhaustion of the soil at a time when scientific fertilizing and crop rotation were unknown. Farm implements were of the crudest kind; the wooden plow, the sickle, the scythe, and the flail did the work of the modern agricultural machines. Potatoes were not yet known. As very few farmers grew clover or other grasses for winter fodder, it was difficult to keep cattle over the winter and to obtain fresh meat during that season. When compared with modern life in the country, the poverty and the burdens of the peasants seem pitiful, but we must not forget that the modern factory in our big cities has forced millions into a life just as poor and far less healthy.

9. Decline of Nobility. — Of the two kinds of landowners which we mentioned, the prelates of the Church and the nobles, the latter class, the dukes and counts and barons, had lost much of their former importance and were to lose more as time went on. Two or three centuries before the opening of our history, the noble or feudal lord was universally looked upon as the born protector of the land. Armed nobles or knights made up the armies of the times, which were fed and supported by the toil of the peasant. They were then also the hereditary rulers of the provinces or other subdivisions of the country and the most influential element in the councils of the nation.

But the invention of gunpowder in the fourteenth century had brought about the introduction of infantry armed with muskets for which the picturesque but haughty mail-clad knight was no match. By 1500 the professional soldiers were infantrymen, mercenaries who sold their services to the highest bidder. German, Swiss, Spanish, and other adventurers were ready to fight under any flag, merely for the love of money and plunder.

Thus it came about that the nobleman was now rather useles as a fighter. Any government could maintain as big an army as it could afford to pay for. Over wide areas in western Europe the kings had done away with the hereditary local government of dukes and counts and had begun to put the administration of such government into the hands of officials appointed by themselves. The noblemen retired to their estates, supervised their management, and whiled away their time by hunting or political intrigues, if they were not progressive enough to engage in business or colonial exploits.

10. Life in Towns. — By 1500 towns and cities had become fairly numerous. Most of them, if we except the Italian cities, had originated only late in the Middle Ages. During and after the crusades (1100-1300) they had grown considerably in wealth and population, but they cannot be compared with our modern centers of trade and manufacture. A city with a population of over 5000 was reckoned among the larger ones. Only a few, like London or Paris or Antwerp or Rome, corresponded at all to our idea of a big city.

The ground of most of them had originally formed part of some nobleman’s estate or of a monastery, but in the beginning of the sixteenth century nearly all of them had obtained charters. These were written documents which freed them from all obligations to their former lords.

The leadership of the movement for obtaining municipal liberties had often been taken over by associations of traders and manufacturers, the guilds. Guilds, not only of merchants, but of skilled artisans, were very common in the later Middle Ages. The merchant guilds came first and were followed later by a great variety of associations of tailors, blacksmiths, tanners, goldsmiths, candlemakers, butchers, and other workers. Craft guild is the name generally applied to these unions of workingmen. Not only the hired workers but the proprietor or master of the shop also belonged to the same guild. In their day, all of these guilds deserved well of the community. They maintained a high standard of workmanship and honest dealings with the public, and took intense interest in the welfare and beauty of their home towns.

But at the opening of modern history their balmy days were over. The merchant guilds had become aristocratic bodies and oppressors of their fellow townsmen. Violent struggles, sometimes accompanied by bloodshed, ensued in which the haughty merchants were defeated and their guilds either dissolved or deprived of almost all their influence. The craft guilds, too, though stronger than the former, suffered from various internal maladies such as bitter feuds between masters and journeymen, and narrow opposition against improvements in manufacture which hampered enterprising masters. Nevertheless, many of them lingered on until the nineteenth century when the modern big factory ended their usefulness. Do not confuse the guild with the modern labor union. Both the membership and the motives of the latter are different.

11. Town life in the sixteenth century did not have the feverish activity of a modern city nor was it so attractive to people in the country. For purposes of defense the towns were usually surrounded by walls and towers and only a few well-guarded entrances admitted the traveler, who might have to pay toll before he was allowed to pass in. “There were, however, pleasant fields and gardens right up to the defenses of the city, for the townspeople still grew a large part of their vegetables themselves. Inside, the houses were much more crowded together than in our modern cities; the streets were narrow and dark and sometimes unpaved. The importance for the public health of abundant pure water and of proper sewerage was not yet fully understood; hence plagues and pestilence were then more frequent than now and often carried off large numbers of the inhabitants. Yet a medieval town with its bastions and spires and high-gabled houses was a very pretty sight. The cathedral, especially, with its lofty steeple, its delicate lacelike tracery in stone, and its marvelous stained-glass windows, was the pride and the joy of the townspeople. The town hall, too, and the headquarters, or halls, of the various guilds were often gems of the very finest architecture.

12. Revival of Trade. — The towns were then as always the centers of manufacture and commerce. The early medieval town for the most part did business only with its immediate neighborhood. When the great Roman Empire broke up, trade over long distances dwindled down to insignificant proportions, but rose again with the consolidation of the new nations of Europe.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed a remarkable revival of commerce with the East. The products of Eastern fruit trees, spices from the Moluccas, medical herbs, precious stones, cane sugar, fine glassware, silks, tapestries, and rugs were some of the commodities imported from eastern countries. Some of them came from far-away India and China. Not that European merchants often ventured so far away from home. These things were mostly purchased from Arabian or other Oriental traders in the eastern harbors of the Mediterranean or the Black Sea and brought to southern Europe, chiefly to the ports of Italy, whence they eventually found their way to the west and north. The city-states of Venice and Genoa led all the other harbor towns of Europe in this profitable trade.


Vasco da Gama

13. Geographical Discoveries. — But shortly before the beginning of our period the prosperous aristocratic merchants of Italy were to experience a rude awakening. There were other seafaring folk in Europe who long had envied the Italian monopoly of the eastern trade. With indomitable perseverance and truly heroic courage they set to work to find a route of their own to India and the rich Far East. The student knows how brilliantly they succeeded. For nearly a century bold Portuguese sailors had groped along the western coast of Africa. They were seeking a way around the southern end of that dark continent to enter the Indian Ocean and thus eliminate in one stroke the Italian and Arabian middlemen.

In 1498 success rewarded their efforts. In that year Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in India after a perilous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, up the east coast of Africa, and across the Indian Ocean. In a few years the harbors of farther India, Sumatra, Java, Celebes, China, and Japan were known to the Portuguese captains and visited regularly by them.

Greater still were the achievements of the Spaniards. Six years before da Gama’s voyage, on October 12, 1492, the Italian sailor Christopher Columbus, in behalf of the Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, discovered and took possession of a bit of American territory. He too had set out to find India, but hoped to realize his ambition by going westward on the theory that the earth was round, and landing somewhere on the eastern coast of China, or Cathay as it was then called. His quest failed, but, though he never fully understood it, he achieved something far greater. He presented his sovereigns with a new continent, America.


Christopher Columbus

Other daring navigators and explorers completed what he had begun. The Pizarro brothers and others conquered Peru and the rest of South America. Cortés overthrew the empire of Montezuma in Mexico. De Narváez, de Soto, and de Coronado explored the vast North American continent, and in a relatively short time the sway of the Spanish kings extended over all South America with the exception of Brazil, which almost by accident became Portuguese. It included the coast lands and islands of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and our own Pacific coast as far north as Oregon.

These marvelous deeds of the Spaniards and Portuguese spurred on others. English and French explorers divided between themselves what was left of North America. The former appropriated the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida as far west as the Alleghenies. The latter established eventually a colonial empire stretching along the St. Lawrence and embracing the regions north and south of the Great Lakes as well as the broad Mississippi valley.

This brief outline of the heroic age of exploration must suffice. The student has become acquainted with many details of it in the introductory chapters of American history. Here we are concerned chiefly with the effects of these discoveries on Europe. Many a time in this book we shall have to deal with the ambitions and rivalries aroused by the oversea colonies. For the present it is enough to summarize the economic results of the great discoveries and to point out some of their effects on European society.

14. The Commercial Revolution. — The term Commercial Revolution we apply to the far-reaching effects of these great discoveries on the commercial and industrial life of Europe. These changes did not stop with commerce, but they began first in that field of activity.

(1) The old trade routes which connected the eastern with the northern and western shores of the Mediterranean lost their importance in favor of the new routes around Africa to India, across the Atlantic to North and South America, and somewhat later, across the Pacific. Naturally the Italian cities suffered thereby and entered on a period of decline.

(2) Non-European countries became possessions or colonies of European nations, notably of Spain, Portugal, England, and France. Emigrants from these states settled in the colonies, and introduced there the languages, institutions, and customs of their mother countries, along with much of their systems of government. This was especially the case in America, where the birth of a new Spain, Portugal, England, and France gratified the pride and patriotism of the people at home. America became “Europeanized,” a white man’s country. Although conquests were made in Asia and Africa, very little colonization was attempted there, either because the native population was too numerous to admit many European settlers or because the unhealthful climate discouraged settlement. Nevertheless, in the course of time certain parts of these two continents, notably South Africa and Japan, either became colonized or adopted European institutions.

(3) The hope of material gain lured the soldier and the trader into unknown countries, yet religion too profited by the new discoveries. Heroic missionaries followed in the footsteps of the trader and brought the message of the Gospel to the natives of North and South America, India, China, and Japan. The great apostle, St. Francis Xavier, amid incessant dangers and hardships evangelized parts of India, the Moluccas, and Japan, and his successors penetrated into the forbidden interior of China. Intrepid Spanish and Portuguese priests went into the primeval forests of South America and converted entire Indian tribes, while French Franciscans and Jesuits befriended the red man along the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi valley to win him to the teachings of Christ. The story of the zeal and sacrifices of these men is one of the most glorious pages in the history of the Church.

(4) The change from the old to the new trade routes brought about a change in the kind of merchandise that was traded between different countries. European shipyards soon learned how to build bigger and stronger ships. Transportation by all water routes was cheaper than over the old Oriental caravan trails, and thus much bulkier articles than spices, precious stones, and fine fabrics could profitably be carried over long distances.

Europeans not only were supplied with new kinds of food and drink, such as coffee and tea, cocoa and molasses, potatoes and Indian corn, but likewise imported large quantities of fish, fur, and timber. The colonists for a long time depended on the mother country for manufactured goods, such as the better qualities of cloth and iron wares.

(5) The European nation owning colonies was quick to see that these oversea possessions could be made to yield a considerable revenue to the mother country if they helped her to establish a “favorable balance of trade.” This meant that through their trade more money would come into the mother country than would go out of it. The colonies were to be markets where cheap raw materials could be bought for the manufacturer at home and where costly manufactures could be sold.

In the beginning conditions in the colonies naturally favored such a balance, but the home government hoped to make it permanent by appropriate legislation. Sometimes high import duties were placed on manufactures brought to the colonies from other European countries. Then various laws prohibited the making of articles in the colonies which could be bought from the mother country, or the exporting of raw material to others than the mother country or in other ships than those of the nationality to which the colony belonged. The theory on which such legislation was based is called mercantilism, and this theory was responsible for much of the discontent that later on arose in the Spanish and English colonies.

(6) In §3 we stated that not all classes of the people at home shared equally in the benefits derived from the foreign possessions. The lion’s share naturally went to the merchants and manufacturers. With their wealth came the ambition to play an important part in the government of the nation, in order to protect their interests.

Our story will show how this ambition was realized, how the old landed aristocracy was set aside, how later on the absolute kings had to yield much of their power to the rising class of business men and industrialists. These men are often referred to as the “middle class” because they rose between the two classes known to the Middle Ages, the peasantry and the nobility. And since they resided mostly in the towns and cities and made them bigger and wealthier, they are also named the bourgeoisie (French for townspeople).

(7) The peasants had good reasons for viewing these changes with doubts and misgivings. True, the growing cities demanded a greater supply of food and thus offered a better market for the farmer’s produce. Money became more plentiful and some of it found its way into the peasant’s home. It enabled him to buy for himself and his family some of the new things that the cities produced or imported. After a while, too, he learned to grow foodstuffs hitherto unknown, and all over Europe the potato became part of the farmer’s diet.

Yet to offset these advantages there were many serious drawbacks. Formerly the landlord received his income in the form of farm produce. After the Commercial Revolution money payments became the rule. A lord then found it no longer necessary to supervise his estate. He often moved to the city or the court and sent agents to collect the rent or to sell the products of his estate. Such agents, because they did not own the soil, took little interest in the farms or the tenants but tried to please their employers by wringing all the money possible from the peasants. This evil was often made worse by the custom of paying the agents a commission on the rents they collected. The lords did not see the sufferings of their tenants but basked in the sunshine of the royal court and society. Thus, the very idea of the medieval agricultural system was abandoned. The lords no longer — not even nominally — fulfilled any duties toward their peasants (such as giving them protection and administering justice) but came more and more to be regarded as “useless drones” of society. “Absentee landlordism,” as this arrangement has been called, is the worst kind of agricultural system.

These are in brief outline the effects of the Commercial Revolution which followed the great discoveries. They do not appear, all at once, and some of them will be explained more fully as our story proceeds.


     15. The Renaissance and Humanism. — Our survey of Europe in 1500 would be incomplete if we did not add a few. words on the new spirit that then stirred the world of scholars and writers and helped to distinguish this era from medieval times. True, the movement which we are about to discuss began much earlier and is generally studied in the last chapters of medieval history. But it reached its culmination at the beginning of our period, and part of our account of the sixteenth century would not be intelligible if we passed it over in silence.

About the middle of the fourteenth century there arose in Italy, where the memory of the old political and literary glory of ancient Rome had never died out, a new fervor in the appreciation of the classic works of the Roman authors. During the Middle Ages the Latin language had undergone some changes, and on the whole it disregarded many of the rules which had been carefully observed by the writers of the classic period of Roman literature. The medieval scholars, moreover, to express the thoughts of theology and Christian philosophy, had created a system of new terms which are not to be found in the ancient classics. They laid stress almost exclusively upon the correctness of thought and not so much upon the dress in which it was to appear, upon fluency and elegance of style.

Now, however, the old Roman masters were studied again with enthusiasm, and more attention was paid to the beauty of the form. Hand in hand with this went a greater interest in the beauties of nature than the medieval writers had shown. “Renaissance,” or revival, is the name generally applied to this renewed admiration and desire of imitating the culture of the ancient world.

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) was the chief promoter of this movement. His host of followers grew larger from year to year. Classic Latin became the everyday language of these enthusiasts. They employed it in published works and in private letters. Eagerly they searched for manuscripts of forgotten ancient writers. Greek literature, too, soon became the object of their study and admiration.

     Humanism — a term applied to the literature typical of the Renaissance — spread rapidly through the various countries of Europe and took hold of all classes of people who could afford to give time to such pursuits. The laity vied with the clergy in literary production. The possession of libraries was no longer confined to monasteries and the homes of the higher clergy. No palace was thought to be completely furnished unless it could boast of a good collection of books. The art of printing, which was invented about the middle of the fifteenth century, made it easier for even the moderately wealthy to indulge in this passion for books.

16. Attitude toward Religion. — In its best representatives humanism was far from being opposed to the Church. Petrarca himself said: “Let us admire their [the ancient writers’] intellectual gifts, but in such wise as to reverence the Creator of these gifts. Let us have compassion on the errors of these men while we congratulate ourselves and acknowledge that out of mercy, without any merit of our own, we have been favored above our forefathers by Him who has hidden His secrets from the wise and graciously manifested them to the little ones…. The real wisdom of God is Christ.”

Francesco Petrarca


The Church rather favored humanism. If a few popes did not support it, because other interests of religion demanded attention more urgently, most of them were its most liberal promotors. In Rome brilliant minds were sure of finding every kind of encouragement, and without the active support and generous assistance of church dignitaries, humanism could never have obtained so general a hold upon the nations of western Christendom.

Not all the humanists, however, harbored the sentiments of a Petrarca. Not a few would gladly throw overboard everything that was not in full accord with the views of the ancient pagan writers whom they admired so much. They imitated not only the elegance of diction of the ancients but also the immorality of their lives. Moreover, in their criticism of medieval writers they frequently did not confine themselves to their dry and unattractive style, but heaped ridicule on their teaching. Often they failed to distinguish between the private opinion of a medieval writer and the doctrine of the Church.


Monastery of Monte Cassino – The original monastery was built in the time of St. Benedict and from here the Benedictine Order spread over Europe. The present buildings date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are good examples of Italian Renaissance architecture.


17. Art. — The Italian Renaissance gave us not only humanism in literature but also a new revival in art. Italy contains more ancient edifices and monuments erected by the Romans than any other part of Europe. The reawakened admiration for the ancients led to an imitation of their art. In architecture it reintroduced many of the features found in the structures of the Greeks and Romans. Innumerable churches and secular buildings were erected which by their broad round arches, their lack of tall spires, their columns, and their wide spacious interiors are easily distinguished from medieval (Gothic) structures.

Painting made marvelous progress. The artists of this period are among the best the world has ever known. The laws of perspective were now fully understood, and an improved method of handling oil colors made it possible to paint on canvas. Up to the middle of the fifteenth century paintings were mainly frescoes, that is, the painting was done on freshly plastered walls and ceilings and then allowed to dry.

Italian painting culminated in the eighty years from 1470 to 1550. Between these dates lies the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and scores of others. Germany had Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, and, a little later, the Netherlands had Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck, Spain Velázquez and Murillo. France and England could not at this period boast of any great names, but many foreign artists found liberal patronage at the courts of Paris and London.

The beginnings of modern natural science are likewise to be found in this marvelous sixteenth century, but, as the main work of the great founders of the modern sciences was done somewhat later, we shall treat it in its proper place (§ 187).


     18. Evils in the Church. — In the Introduction we pointed out that one of the differences between medieval and modern times was that the religious unity of the former was lacking in the latter. While in the Middle Ages all western Europe belonged to the Catholic Church and recognized in the bishop of Rome its spiritual ruler, we have in modern times a multitude of religious bodies independent of the pope and of one another. This disastrous breaking up of religious unity occurred in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. It is one of the reasons why we date modern history from the beginning of this century.

Like all sudden and violent upheavals in history, this religious revolution was made possible by the presence of great evils of long standing. It cannot be denied that toward the end of the fifteenth century the Catholic Church stood in need of a general reform. The number of those of its members who grossly violated their moral duties was alarmingly great. Divine worship was indeed celebrated with becoming splendor and regularity. But there was a tendency to overdo certain religious practices, such as pilgrimages, and to attach to them an efficacy which savored of superstition. In the private lives of vast numbers there was need for a thoroughgoing improvement. On the other hand, considering the general manifestation of faith by outward acts of piety and devotion and the liberality practiced towards charitable institutions, it is not very likely that many refused on their deathbed to be sincerely reconciled with God.

Still more ominous was a deplorable relaxation of morals in the higher and lower clergy, and a sad lack of religious discipline in many monasteries. Thus the very circles from which a reform should have come were largely unfit and unwilling to undertake it or to coöperate with it.

Two abuses in particular helped to increase and perpetuate the unsound state of the clergy.

(1) The plurality of benefices. The number of ecclesiastical positions was very great and many of them were lavishly endowed, that is, supported by large grants of money. Now it had become rather common to confer several such “benefices” upon one person. One man, for instance, was made bishop of two dioceses, or bishop of one diocese and at the same time “canon” of the cathedral of another; or canon of the cathedral and parish priest of one or more opulent parishes. It was supposed that he would in person perform the duties of one of these offices and employ a competent priest to take his place in the others.[Footnote follows: Thus Albrecht of Brandenburg, brother of the Elector of Brandenburg, was Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz and administrator of the bishopric of Halberstadt, and held at the same time canonicates in several other places.]

This abuse might be tolerated, in some cases, because there were many ecclesiastical endowments to which hardly any actual duties were attached. Such benefices were frequently given to university professors whose regular salary was often very meager, or to poor clerics who wished to pursue higher studies in the universities.

(2) The bestowal of responsible ecclesiastical positions upon mere boys, commonly the scions of noble families. In such cases a priest was entrusted with the duties of the office, while the father of the young incumbent attended to the administration of the property. Often youngsters of sixteen years and less were the possessors of several benefices, which put rich revenues at the disposal of their parents.

These evils were rife in all countries and cities, Rome included; and their pernicious character was so little realized that the best families were not free from them. As a boy of twelve years, St. Charles Borromeo, the child of very pious parents, was the abbot of a rich Benedictine monastery. When, later on, he was made Archbishop of Milan, he found that his predecessors had not been residing in the city for eighty years, and that their principal occupation had been to draw the revenues. His own first act was to abdicate twelve abbeys which had been granted to him merely on account of his family connections.

19. The Papacy. — Most disastrous of all, however, was the sad condition of the papacy just at a time when zealous and spiritually-minded popes should have devoted all their energy and power to a thorough reform in head and members. The reverence for the papacy had declined already in the fourteenth century, when during the deplorable schism of Avignon (Betten, Ancient and Medieval History, § 667) two, and for a time even three, candidates claimed to be the legitimately elected successors of St. Peter. The schism was, indeed, healed in the Council of Constance (1417), but during the bitter personal strife much was said and written that injured the good name and prestige of the Holy See.

The popes of the next century (fifteenth), moreover, could hardly be said to equal in character and zeal their great predecessors of the Middle Ages. The best of them had their attention engaged in warding off the Turkish danger from Europe, or in frustrating the French attempts to conquer all Italy. Too many of the cardinals, too, were simply great lords with ecclesiastical titles and revenues but with little ecclesiastical spirit.

Another evil, rampant also in other places but nowhere so pernicious as in the capital of Christendom, was nepotism, that is, the promotion to high office of near relatives of the pope and other leading prelates of the Church. While this cannot be objected to as long as the persons thus promoted possess the necessary qualifications, it was in fact the chief cause of the worldliness which was conspicuous among the highest dignitaries of the Church. It reached its climax under the notorious Alexander VI (1492-1503).

Being the nephew of Pope Calixtus III (1455-1458), he had risen, in spite of the scandals of his life, to the cardinalate, and had obtained important positions in the government of the Church. When pope his private conduct improved somewhat, but his court was not much different from that of profligate secular princes. He conceived the plan of changing the Papal States into a secular kingdom in favor of his relatives. The divine character of the papacy, however, appeared even in a man like Alexander VI. He took some steps to encourage monastic life, to spread devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and to safeguard the purity of ecclesiastical doctrine. He did not forget the propagation of the Faith in foreign lands. The fine arts found in him a liberal patron. But no project of general and thorough reform could count upon the support of such a pope.

With gross exaggerations the deplorable conditions at the papal court were heralded throughout the world. They gave color to all kinds of charges not only against the morals of the highest Church officials but also against the methods of papal administration. Louder than ever grew the clamor against the various ecclesiastical taxes which on certain occasions the bishops and other prelates were obliged to send to Rome as contributions to the expenses of the government of the Church. The prelates showed unwillingness to pay them, and the secular rulers protested against the constant flow of money to Rome as too severe a drain upon their territories.

20. Possibility of a True Reform. — Reform again became the watchword of serious and honest as well as of shallow minds. But none raised the cry more noisily than those who were the least willing to suffer any restraint upon their passions, and those who expected to gain something from the restrictions to be imposed upon others. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that even the worst made their demands in a revolutionary sense.

Nor were persons wanting who used all their influence, great or modest according to their station, to work zealously for a genuine reform. We must point at least to a few of them.

21. True Reformers. — The kingdom of Spain (§ 4) found a reformer of the first rank in Cardinal Jiménez, a member of the Franciscan Order. Austere in his private life, a lover of humanistic as well as scholastic studies, and an able administrator, he was eminently qualified for his task. Pope and monarchs gave him their hearty support. He succeeded in inspiring the priests of Spain with love of both virtue and learning. He undertook a general visitation of the monasteries, and in carrying out reforms he went so far as even to banish dissolute monks from the kingdom.

Cardinal Jiménez had the revenues of a king and the personal wants of a hermit. Much of his fortune went to establish the University of Alcalá, which by the attention given to theology, Biblical studies, classic and Oriental languages, and the secular branches, soon rivaled the best institutions in Europe. It was endowed with numerous scholarships to make the pursuit of academic studies possible for the poor. To render easier the scientific study of Holy Scriptures, the cardinal engaged a number of scholars to bring out a polyglot Bible, which gave in parallel columns the Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Chaldaic texts, with dictionaries and grammars of Hebrew and Chaldaic. It was the first printed polyglot. The books these learned men needed were bought without regard to cost. Once the cardinal paid 4000 ducats for six Hebrew manuscripts.

About the same time that Jiménez began to reform Spain, Germany was the scene of the activity of another great reformer, Cardinal Nicolaus Krebs, commonly called Nicholas of Cusa. Like Jiménez “he was first and foremost a reformer of his own person. His life was a very mirror of all priestly virtue.” “His mind embraced all provinces of human knowledge, but all his knowledge was from God and its sole object was the glory of God and the edification and amendment of men.” In 1450 Pope Nicholas V sent him as legate to Germany, where reformation was badly needed. He assembled the German bishops in the metropolitan cities for the celebration of provincial councils and took vigorous measures to insure the observance of ecclesiastical laws. About a hundred and fifty Benedictine monasteries, not to mention those of other orders, were visited and, if necessary, reformed. Everywhere he insisted above all on the active union with Rome, which had suffered greatly. If not all the good seed he sowed brought forth good fruit, the failure was partly due to the shortness of his activity, as the pope soon employed him on other missions.

On a smaller scale labored the eloquent Johann Geiler, for many years preacher at the cathedral of Strasbourg, a virtuous, charitable, and highly educated priest, whose many-sided and powerful influence for true reform extended over a great part of southern Germany.

A corporate movement of reform was begun by the Society of the Brethren of Common Life. In order to serve God more effectively, several ecclesiastics under the leadership of Gerhard Groot, canon of Deventer, Holland, resolved to lead a community life and to follow most of the practices of religious life without, however, binding themselves by vows. Their peculiar activities were preaching, teaching, and the writing and disseminating of good literature. They also made it their special object to befriend poor students. A part of them, however, soon formed a real religious order, the Congregation of Windesheim, which worked in the same spirit and served as a support and backing of the Brethren of the Common Life. Both communities exerted a far-reaching influence, chiefly through the students of their many higher schools, and their reformatory efforts among the secular and regular clergy were fruitful of astonishing results. They were the teachers of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and of Nicholas Copernicus. Thomas à Kempis, author of the famous booklet, The Imitation of Christ, was a member of the Congregation of Windesheim.


Strasbourg – The cathedral spire is a dominant landmark.


22. Church Itself Not Defunct.–The foregoing remarks about true reformers are not meant to do full justice to this consoling subject. They serve, however, in some degree to counteract a wrong impression which the exposition of the evils in the Church is apt to produce. The Church was not to be despaired of. Her old vitality was by no means gone. These very times brought forth more than eighty saints in Italy alone. They also saw the appearance of many excellent books on Christian morals and on the reception of the sacraments. The disciples of Gerhard Groot and the writers set to work by Cardinal Jiménez were only a few of the many authors who issued useful works. There was shown, moreover, a lavish liberality in the establishment of new hospitals and schools and towards charitable institutions in general. It was not the fault of the immortal Church that the blameworthy life of many of her members and ministers became the pretext for a revolution which tore away large countries from ecclesiastical unity.