Discovery and Reformation

Discovery: The Beginnings


   It's hard to know why Europeans suddenly expanded over the globe with such rapidity and such ferocity. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the world was a fairly small and contained place for Europeans. While they knew about far-flung areas such as China and southern Africa, their world view was still narrowly focussed on Europe and the Mediterranean. Within two hundred years, Europeans would be all over the world with settlements on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. By 1600, most of the coastline of the Americas would be under the domination of Europeans as well as all the major cities in eastern Africa. How did this happen? How did Europeans suddenly end up all over the world? How did this change the European world view?

   The simplest and most obvious answer is the growth of mercantilism in the high middle ages. Mercantilism is a simple economic activity. All it involves is the purchase of certain goods in a region where those goods are common, moving those goods to another region where they aren't common, and then selling them at a tremendous profit. As simple as this sounds, the European economy was only minimally mercantile through the early middle ages. One reason was the relative scarcity of money. The other was the absence of credit, for mercantilism thrives when people can borrow money to finance their purchases; borrowing money was a bit of a pickle for medieval Europeans because lending money at interest was considered a mortal sin. No interest, no loans; no loans, no borrowing.

   The Europeans learned mercantilism for the most part from the Muslims; this is still evident today in the number of economic terms in European languages that are, in fact, derived from Arabic: "traffic," "tariff," etc. Once Europeans learned mercantilism, they set about it with great enthusiasm. The European economy quickly changed from a predominately barter economy to a predominately money economy, and goods from all over the world began to circulate throughout Europe.

   These goods, however, were coming to Europe via middlemen, in particular, Islamic traders. The most lucrative market was the spice trade. Most of the exotic spices used in Europe came from the Middle East (such as cardamom), India (such as cinnamon), or China (cloves). They were brought within striking range of Europe by Islamic traders, who themselves had spread around the world in order to facilitate trade. The eastern coast of Africa, for instance, was one long line of Muslim cities that primarily served as conduits for trading goods from the interior of Africa. Muslims had also set up settlements in India and China; they did not, however, make it to the Americas.

   Ever mindful of their wallets, the European merchants and mercantile countries wanted to eliminate the middlemen and trade directly with the regions supplying these goods. In particular, Portugal and Spain, the states that carried out the bulk of trade in spices, wanted to find a route to the spice-producing countries so that they could trade directly with those countries. Portugal headed south and east along the western coast of Africa hoping to find the southern terminus of Africa so that ships could sail around Africa to India and China. Spain would take the opposite route, foolishly sailing west to find a shorter and more direct route to China and India. This western route was neither short and certainly wasn't direct since two major continents lay in the way.

   The Portugese began the centuries-long settlement of European powers in Africa, India, and Asia and laid down the basic pattern of European relations with non-European countries: the use of militant aggression and superior technology in order to enforce economic monopolies. The Spanish explorers discovered continents hitherto unknown to general European experience. On these continents they discovered entirely new cultures; some of these cultures lived in magnificent and technologically-sophisticated cities with monumental architecture that rivalled the greatest architecture of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa.


Early Christianity Glossary
Typology

Enlightenment Glossary
Progress
   For Europeans, the discovery of the Americas did not merely challenge their ideas of world geography, it also fundamentally changed their view of history. From the time of early Christianity all through Middle Ages, Europeans thought of history as an ordered and rational affair. History was by and large understood as salvation history; the larger meaning of history was the salvation of humanity in a Christian sense. The meaning of all historical events could be determined by correlating those historical events to events or sayings in the New Testament which served as a kind of decoder ring; this way of understanding human experience and history is called typology. The discovery of the New World, however, made the Europeans realize that there was an entirely different human history being played out on the new continent. Not only was this history different from European history, it was unknown and unknowable, for the Europeans could not decipher the writings they encountered. The salvation model of history, then, could no longer apply to human experience since an entire human history had taken place outside the context of salvation history. This crisis in historical understanding would lead Europeans to think of history in different ways and eventually led to the Englightenment view of history, that is, history as progress.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-7-98