History of Europe 1500-1815 - Carlton Hayes - ebook

History of Europe 1500-1815 ebook

Carlton Hayes



A glance at the map of Europe in 1500 will show numerous unfamiliar divisions and names, especially in the central and eastern portions. Only in the extreme west, along the Atlantic seaboard, will the eye detect geographical boundaries which resemble those of the present day. There, England, France, Spain, and Portugal have already taken form. In each one of these countries is a real nation, with a single monarch, and with a distinctive literary language...

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Carlton Hayes


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Copyright © 2016 by Carlton Hayes

Published by Jovian Press

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ISBN: 9781537812243























Before we can safely proceed with the story of European development during the past four hundred years, it is necessary to know what were the chief countries that existed at the beginning of our period and what were the distinctive political institutions of each.

A glance at the map of Europe in 1500 will show numerous unfamiliar divisions and names, especially in the central and eastern portions. Only in the extreme west, along the Atlantic seaboard, will the eye detect geographical boundaries which resemble those of the present day. There, England, France, Spain, and Portugal have already taken form. In each one of these countries is a real nation, with a single monarch, and with a distinctive literary language. These four states are thenational states of the sixteenth century. They attract our immediate attention.


In the year 1500 the English monarchy embraced little more than what on the map is now called “England.” It is true that to the west the principality of Wales had been incorporated two hundred years earlier, but the clannish mountaineers and hardy lowlanders of the northern part of the island of Great Britain still preserved the independence of the kingdom of Scotland, while Irish princes and chieftains rendered English occupation of their island extremely precarious beyond the so- called Pale of Dublin which an English king had conquered in the twelfth century. Across the English Channel, on the Continent, the English monarchy retained after 1453, the date of the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, only the town of Calais out of the many rich French provinces which ever since the time of William the Conqueror (1066- 1087) had been a bone of contention between French and English rulers.

While the English monarchy was assuming its geographical form, peculiar national institutions were taking root in the country, and the English language, as a combination of earlier Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French, was being evolved. The Hundred Years’ War with France, or rather its outcome, served to exalt the sense of English nationality and English patriotism, and to enable the king to devote his whole attention to the consolidation of his power in the British islands. For several years after the conclusion of peace on the Continent, England was harassed by bloody and confused struggles, known as the Wars of the Roses, between rival claimants to the throne, but at length, in 1485, Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty, secured the crown and ushered in a new era of English history.

Henry VII (1485-1509) sought to create what has been termed a “strong monarchy.” Traditionally the power of the king had been restricted by a Parliament, composed of a House of Lords and a House of Commons, and as the former was then far more influential than the latter, supreme political control had rested practically with the king and the members of the upper house—great land-holding nobles and the princes of the church. The Wars of the Roses had two effects which redounded to the advantage of the king: (1) the struggle, being really a contest of two factions of nobles, destroyed many noble families and enabled the crown to seize their estates, thereby lessening the influence of an ancient class; (2) the struggle, being long and disorderly, created in the middle class or “common people” a longing for peace and the conviction that order and security could be maintained only by repression of the nobility and the strengthening of monarchy. Henry took advantage of these circumstances to fix upon his country an absolutism, or one-man power in government, which was to endure throughout the sixteenth century, during the reigns of the four other members of the Tudor family, and, in fact, until a popular revolution in the seventeenth century.

Henry VII repressed disorder with a heavy hand and secured the establishment of an extraordinary court, afterwards called the “Court of Star Chamber,” to hear cases, especially those affecting the nobles, which the ordinary courts had not been able to settle. Then, too, he was very economical: the public revenue was increased by means of more careful attention to the cultivation of the crown lands and the collection of feudal dues, fines, benevolences ["Benevolences” were sums of money extorted from the people in the guise of gifts. A celebrated minister of Henry VII collected a very large number of “benevolences” for his master. If a man lived economically, it was reasoned he was saving money and could afford a “present” for the king. If, on the contrary, he lived sumptuously, he was evidently wealthy and could likewise afford a “gift."], import and export duties, and past parliamentary grants, while, by means of frugality and a foreign policy of peace, the expenditure was appreciably decreased. Henry VII was thereby freed in large measure from dependence on Parliament for grants of money, and the power of Parliament naturally declined. In fact, Parliament met only five times during his whole reign and only once during the last twelve years, and in all its actions was quite subservient to the royal desires.

Henry VII refrained in general from foreign war, but sought by other means to promote the international welfare of his country. He negotiated several treaties by which English traders might buy and sell goods in other countries. One of the most famous of these commercial treaties was the Intercursus Magnus concluded in 1496 with the duke of Burgundy, admitting English goods into the Netherlands. He likewise encouraged English companies of merchants to engage in foreign trade and commissioned the explorations of John Cabot in the New World. Henry increased the prestige of his house by politic marital alliances. He arranged a marriage between the heir to his throne, Arthur, and Catherine, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish sovereigns. Arthur died a few months after his wedding, but it was arranged that Catherine should remain in England as the bride of the king’s second son, who subsequently became Henry VIII. The king’s daughter Margaret was married to King James IV of Scotland, thereby paving the way much later for the union of the crowns of England and Scotland.

England in the year 1500 was a real national monarchy, and the power of the king appeared to be distinctly in the ascendant. Parliament was fast becoming a purely formal and perfunctory body.


By the year 1500 the French monarchy was largely consolidated territorially and politically. It had been a slow and painful process, for long ago in 987, when Hugh Capet came to the throne, the France of his day was hardly more than the neighborhood of Paris, and it had taken five full centuries to unite the petty feudal divisions of the country into the great centralized state which we call France. The Hundred Years’ War had finally freed the western duchies and counties from English control. Just before the opening of the sixteenth century the wily and tactful Louis XI (1461-1483) had rounded out French territories: on the east he had occupied the powerful duchy of Burgundy; on the west and on the southeast he had possessed himself of most of the great inheritance of the Angevin branch of his own family, including Anjou, and Provence east of the Rhone; and on the south the French frontier had been carried to the Pyrenees. Finally, Louis’s son, Charles VIII (1483-1498), by marrying the heiress of Brittany, had absorbed that western duchy into France.

Meanwhile, centralized political institutions had been taking slow but tenacious root in the country. Of course, many local institutions and customs survived in the various states which had been gradually added to France, but the king was now recognized from Flanders to Spain and from the Rhone to the Ocean as the source of law, justice, and order. There was a uniform royal coinage and a standing army under the king’s command. The monarchs had struggled valiantly against the disruptive tendencies of feudalism; they had been aided by the commoners or middle class; and the proof of their success was their comparative freedom from political checks. The Estates-General, to which French commoners had been admitted in 1302, resembled in certain externals the English Parliament,—for example, in comprising representatives of the clergy, nobles, and commons,—but it had never had final say in levying taxes or in authorizing expenditures or in trying royal officers. And unlike England, there was in France no live tradition of popular participation in government and no written guarantee of personal liberty.

Consolidated at home in territory and in government, Frenchmen began about the year 1500 to be attracted to questions of external policy. By attempting to enforce an inherited claim to the crown of Naples, Charles VIII in 1494 started that career of foreign war and aggrandizement which was to mark the history of France throughout following centuries. His efforts in Italy were far from successful, but his heir, Louis XII (1498-1515), continued to lay claim to Naples and to the duchy of Milan as well. In 1504 Louis was obliged to resign Naples to King Ferdinand of Aragon, in whose family it remained for two centuries, but about Milan continued a conflict, with varying fortunes, ultimately merging into the general struggle between Francis I (1515- 1547) and the Emperor Charles V.

France in the year 1500 was a real national monarchy, with the beginnings of a national literature and with a national patriotism centering in the king. It was becoming self-conscious. Like England, France was on the road to one-man power, but unlike England, the way had been marked by no liberal or constitutional mile-posts.


South of the Pyrenees were the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, which, in a long process of unification, not only had to contend against the same disuniting tendencies as appeared in France and England, but also had to solve the problem of the existence side by side of two great rival religions—Christianity and Islam. Muslim invaders from Africa had secured political control of nearly the whole peninsula as early as the eighth century, but in course of time there appeared in the northern and western mountains several diminutive Christian states, of which the following may be mentioned: Barcelona, in the northeast, along the Mediterranean; Aragon, occupying the south-central portion of the Pyrenees and extending southward toward the Ebro River; Navarre, at the west of the Pyrenees, reaching northward into what is now France and southward into what is now Spain; Castile, west of Navarre, circling about the town of Burgos; Leon, in the northwestern corner of the peninsula; and Portugal, south of Leon, lying along the Atlantic coast. Little by little these Christian states extended their southern frontiers at the expense of the Muslim power and showed some disposition to combine. In the twelfth century Barcelona was united with the kingdom of Aragon, and a hundred years later Castile and Leon were finally joined. Thus, by the close of the thirteenth century, there were three important states in the peninsula —Aragon on the east, Castile in the center, and Portugal on the west— and two less important states—Christian Navarre in the extreme north, and Muslim Granada in the extreme south.

While Portugal acquired its full territorial extension in the peninsula by the year 1263, the unity of modern Spain was delayed until after the marriage of Ferdinand (1479-1516) and Isabella (1474-1504), sovereigns respectively of Aragon and Castile. Granada, the last foothold of the Muslims, fell in 1492, and in 1512 Ferdinand acquired that part of the ancient kingdom of Navarre which lay upon the southern slope of the Pyrenees. The peninsula was henceforth divided between the two modern states of Spain and Portugal.

Portugal, the older and smaller of the two states, had become a conspicuous member of the family of nations by the year 1500, thanks to a line of able kings and to the remarkable series of foreign discoveries that cluster about the name of Prince Henry the Navigator. Portugal possessed a distinctive language of Latin origin and already cherished a literature of no mean proportions. In harmony with the spirit of the age the monarchy was tending toward absolutism, and the parliament, called the Cortes, which had played an important part in earlier times, ceased to meet regularly after 1521. The Portuguese royal family were closely related to the Castilian line, and there were people in both kingdoms who hoped that one day the whole peninsula would be united under one sovereign.

From several standpoints the Spanish monarchy was less unified in 1500 than England, France, or Portugal. The union of Castile and Aragon was, for over two centuries, hardly more than personal. Each retained its own customs, parliaments (Cortes), and separate administration. Each possessed a distinctive language, although Castilian gradually became the literary “Spanish,” while Catalan, the speech of Aragon, was reduced to the position of an inferior. Despite the continuance of excessive pride in local traditions and institutions, the cause of Spanish nationality received great impetus during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. It was under them that territorial unity had been obtained. It was they who turned the attention of Spaniards to foreign and colonial enterprises. The year that marked the fall of Granada and the final extinction of Muslim power in Spain was likewise signalized by the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, which prefigured the establishment of a greater Spain beyond the seas. On the continent of Europe, Spain speedily acquired a commanding position in international affairs, as the result largely of Ferdinand’s ability. The royal house of Aragon had long held claims to the Neapolitan and Sicilian kingdoms and for two hundred years had freely mixed in the politics of Italy. Now, in 1504, Ferdinand definitely secured recognition from France of his rights in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. Spain was becoming the rival of Venice for the leadership of the Mediterranean.

While interfering very little with the forms of representative government in their respective kingdoms, Ferdinand and Isabella worked ever, in fact, toward uniformity and absolutism. They sought to ingratiate themselves with the middle class, to strip the nobility of its political influence, and to enlist the church in their service. The Cortes were more or less regularly convened, but their functions were almost imperceptibly transferred to royal commissions and officers of state. Privileges granted to towns in earlier times were now gradually revoked. The king, by becoming the head of the ancient military orders which had borne prominent part in the struggle against the Muslims, easily gained control of considerable treasure and of an effective fighting force. The sovereigns prevailed upon the pope to transfer control of the Inquisition, the medieval ecclesiastical tribunal for the trial of heretics, to the crown, so that the harsh penalties which were to be inflicted for many years upon dissenters from orthodox Christianity were due not only to religious bigotry but likewise to the desire for political uniformity.

In population and in domestic resources Spain was not so important as France, but the exploits of Ferdinand and Isabella, the great wealth which temporarily flowed to her from the colonies, the prestige which long attended her diplomacy and her armies, were to exalt the Spanish monarchy throughout the sixteenth century to a position quite out of keeping with her true importance.


The national monarchies of western Europe—England, France, Spain, and Portugal—were political novelties in the year 1500: the idea of uniting the people of similar language and customs under a strongly centralized state had been slowly developing but had not reached fruition much before that date. On the other hand, in central Europe survived in weakness an entirely different kind of state, called an empire. The theory of an empire was a very ancient one—it meant a state which should embrace all peoples of whatsoever race or language, bound together in obedience to a common prince. Such, for example, had been the ideal of the old Roman Empire, under whose Caesars practically the whole civilized world had once been joined, so that the inhabitant of Egypt or Armenia united with the citizen of Britain or Spain in allegiance to the emperor. That empire retained its hold on portions of eastern Europe until its final conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but a thousand years earlier it had lost control of the West because of external violence and internal weakness. So great, however, was the strength of the idea of an “empire,” even in the West, that Charlemagne about the year 800 temporarily united what are now France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium into what he persisted in styling the “Roman Empire.” Nearly two centuries later, Otto the Great, a famous prince in Germany, gave other form to the idea, in the “Holy Roman Empire” of which he became emperor. This form endured from 962 to 1806.

In theory, the Holy Roman Empire claimed supremacy over all Christian rulers and peoples of central and western Europe, and after the extinction of the eastern empire in 1453 it could insist that it was the sole secular heir to the ancient Roman tradition. But the greatness of the theoretical claim of the Holy Roman Empire was matched only by the insignificance of its practical acceptance. The feudal nobles of western Europe had never recognized it, and the national monarchs, though they might occasionally sport with its honors and titles, never admitted any real dependence upon it of England, France, Portugal, or Spain. In central Europe, it had to struggle against the anarchical tendencies of feudalism, against the rise of powerful and jealous city- states, and against a rival organization, the Catholic Church, which in its temporal affairs was at least as clearly an heir to the Roman tradition as was the Holy Roman Empire. From the eleventh to the thirteenth century the conflict raged, with results important for all concerned,—results which were thoroughly obvious in the year 1500.

In the first place, the Holy Roman Empire was practically restricted to German-speaking peoples. The papacy and the Italian cities had been freed from imperial control, and both the Netherlands—that is, Holland and Belgium—and the Swiss cantons were only nominally connected. Over the Slavic people to the east—Russians, Poles, etc.—or the Scandinavians to the north, the empire had secured comparatively small influence. By the year 1500 the words Empire and Germany had become virtually interchangeable terms.

Secondly, there was throughout central Europe no conspicuous desire for strong centralized national states, such as prevailed in western Europe.

Separatism was the rule. In Italy and in the Netherlands the city- states were the political units. Within the Holy Roman Empire was a vast hodge-podge of city-states, and feudal survivals—arch-duchies, such as Austria; margravates, such as Brandenburg; duchies, like Saxony, Bavaria, and Württemberg; counties like the Palatinate, and a host of free cities, baronies, and domains, some of them smaller than an American township. In all there were over three hundred states which collectively were called “the Germanies” and which were united only by the slender imperial thread. The idea of empire had not only been narrowed to one nation; it also, in its failure to overcome feudalism, had prevented the growth of a real national monarchy.

What was the nature of this slight tie that nominally held the Germanies together? There was the form of a central government with an emperor to execute laws and a Diet to make them. The emperor was not necessarily hereditary but was chosen by seven “electors,” who were the chief princes of the realm. These seven were the archbishops of Mainz (Mayence), of Cologne, and of Trier (Trèves), the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the count palatine of the Rhine. Not infrequently the electors used their position to extort concessions from the emperor elect which helped to destroy German unity and to promote the selfish interests of the princes. The imperial Diet was composed of the seven electors, the lesser princes (including the higher ecclesiastical dignitaries, such as bishops and abbots), and representatives of the free cities, grouped in three separate houses. The emperor was not supposed to perform any imperial act without the authorization of the Diet, and petty jealousies between its members or houses often prevented action in the Diet. The individual states, moreover, reserved to themselves the management of most affairs which in western Europe had been surrendered to the central national government. The Diet, and therefore the emperor, was without a treasury or an army, unless the individual states saw fit to act favorably upon its advice and furnish the requested quotas. The Diet resembled far more a congress of diplomats than a legislative body.

It will be readily perceived that under these circumstances the emperor as such could have little influence. Yet the fear of impending Slavic or Turkish attacks upon the eastern frontier, or other fears, frequently operated to secure the election of some prince who had sufficiently strong power of his own to stay the attack or remove the fear. In this way, Rudolph, count of Habsburg, had been chosen emperor in 1273, and in his family, with few interruptions, continued the imperial title, not only to 1500 but to the final extinction of the empire in 1806. Several of these Habsburg emperors were influential, but it must always be remembered that they owed their power not to the empire but to their own hereditary states.

Originally lords of a small district in Switzerland, the Habsburgs had gradually increased their holdings until at length in 1273 Rudolph, the maker of his family’s real fortunes, had been chosen Holy Roman Emperor, and three years later had conquered the valuable archduchy of Austria with its capital of Vienna. The family subsequently became related by marriage to reigning families in Hungary and in Italy as well as in Bohemia and other states of the empire. In 1477 the Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) married Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold and heiress of the wealthy provinces of the Netherlands; and in 1496 his son Philip was united to Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and heiress of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. The fortunes of the Habsburgs were decidedly auspicious.

Of course, signs were not wanting of some national life in the Germanies. Most of the people spoke a common language; a form of national unity existed in the Diet; and many patriots raised their voice in behalf of a stronger and more centralized government. In 1495 a Diet met at the city of Worms to discuss with Emperor Maximilian projects of reform. After protracted debates, it was agreed that private warfare, a survival of feudal days, should be abolished; a perpetual peace should be declared; and an imperial court should be established to settle all disputes between states within the empire. These efforts at reform, like many before and after, were largely unfruitful, and, despite occasional protests, practical disunion prevailed in the Germanies of the sixteenth century, albeit under the high-sounding title of “Holy Roman Empire.”


Before the dawn of the Christian era the Greeks and Romans had entertained a general idea of political organization which would seem strange to most of us at the present time. They believed that every city with its outlying country should constitute an independent state, with its own particular law-making and governing bodies, army, coinage, and foreign relations. To them, the idea of an empire was intolerable and the concept of a national state, such as we commonly have to-day, unthinkable.

Now it so happened, as we shall see in the following chapter, that the commerce of the middle ages stimulated the growth of important trading towns in Italy, in Germany, and in the Netherlands. These towns, in one way or another, managed to secure a large measure of self-government, so that by the year 1500 they had become somewhat similar to the city- states of antiquity. In Germany, though they still maintained their local self-government, they were loosely attached to the Holy Roman Empire and were overshadowed in political influence by other states. In the case of Italy and of the Netherlands, however, it is impossible to understand the politics of those countries in the sixteenth century without paying some attention to city-states, which played leading rôles in both.

In the Italy of the year 1500 there was not even the semblance of national political unity. Despite the ardent longings of many Italian patriots [Of such patriots was Machiavelli (see below, p. 194). Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:“Our country, left almost without life, still waits to know who it is that is to heal her bruises, to put an end to the devastation and plunder of Lombardy and to the exactions and imposts of Naples and Tuscany, and to stanch those wounds of hers which long neglect has changed into running sores. We see how she prays God to send some one to rescue her from these barbarous cruelties and oppressions. We see too how ready and eager she is to follow any standard, were there only some one to raise it."], and the rise of a common language, which, under such masters as Dante and Petrarch, had become a great medium for literary expression, the people of the peninsula had not built up a national monarchy like those of western Europe nor had they even preserved the form of allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire. This was due to several significant events of earlier times. In the first place, the attempt of the medieval German emperors to gain control of Italy not only had signally failed but had left behind two contending factions throughout the whole country,—one, the Ghibellines, supporting the doctrine of maintaining the traditional connection with the Germanies; the other, the Guelphs, rejecting that doctrine. In the second place, the pope, who exercised extensive political as well as religious power, felt that his ecclesiastical influence would be seriously impaired by the creation of political unity in the country; a strong lay monarch with a solid Italy behind him would in time reduce the sovereign pontiff to a subservient position and diminish the prestige which the head of the church enjoyed in foreign lands; therefore the popes participated actively in the game of Italian politics, always endeavoring to prevent any one state from becoming too powerful. Thirdly, the comparatively early commercial prominence of the Italian towns had stimulated trade rivalries which tended to make each proud of its independence and wealth; and as the cities grew and prospered to an unwonted degree, it became increasingly difficult to join them together. Finally, the riches of the Italians, and the local jealousies and strife, to say nothing of the papal policy, marked the country as natural prey for foreign interference and conquest; and in this way the peninsula became a battleground for Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Germans.

Before reviewing the chief city-states of northern Italy, it will be well to say a word about two other political divisions of the country. The southern third of the peninsula comprised the ancient kingdom of Naples, which had grown up about the city of that name, and which together with the large island of Sicily, was called the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

This state, having been first formed by Scandinavian adventurers in the eleventh century, had successively passed under papal suzerainty, under the domination of the German emperors, and at length in 1266 under French control. A revolt in Sicily in the year 1282, commonly called the Sicilian Vespers, had severed the relation between the island and the mainland, the former passing to the royal family of Aragon, and the latter troublously remaining in French hands until 1442. The reunion of the Two Sicilies at that date under the crown of Aragon served to keep alive the quarrel between the French and the Spanish; and it was not until 1504 that the king of France definitely renounced his Neapolitan claims in favor of Ferdinand of Aragon. Socially and politically Naples was the most backward state in Italy.

About the city of Rome had grown up in the course of centuries the Papal States, or as they were officially styled, the Patrimony of St. Peter. It had early fallen to the lot of the bishop, as the most important person in the city, to exercise political power over Rome, when barbarian invasions no longer permitted the exercise of authority by Roman emperors; and control over neighboring districts, as well as over the city, had been expressly recognized and conferred upon the bishop by Charlemagne in the eighth century. This bishop of Rome was, of course, the pope; and the pope slowly extended his territories through central Italy from the Tiber to the Adriatic, long using them merely as a bulwark to his religious and ecclesiastical prerogatives. By the year 1500, however, the popes were becoming prone to regard themselves as Italian princes who might normally employ their states as so many pawns in the game of peninsular politics. The policy of the notorious Alexander VI (1492-1503) centered in his desire to establish his son, Cesare Borgia, as an Italian ruler; and Julius II (1503-1513) was famed more for statecraft and military prowess than for religious fervor.

North and west of the Papal States were the various city-states which were so thoroughly distinctive of Italian politics at the opening of the sixteenth century. Although these towns had probably reached a higher plane both of material prosperity and of intellectual culture than was to be found at that time in any other part of Europe, nevertheless they were deeply jealous of each other and carried on an interminable series of petty wars, the brunt of which was borne by professional hired soldiers and freebooters styled condottieri. Among the Italian city-states, the most famous in the year 1500 were Milan, Venice, Genoa, and Florence.

Of these cities, Milan was still in theory a ducal fief of the Holy Roman Empire, but had long been in fact the prize of despotic rulers who were descended from two famous families—the Visconti and the Sforza—and who combined the patronage of art with the fine political subtleties of Italian tyrants. The Visconti ruled Milan from the thirteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth, when a Sforza, a leader of condottieri established the supremacy of his own family. In 1499, however, King Louis XII of France, claiming the duchy as heir to the Visconti, seized Milan and held it until he was expelled in 1512 by the Holy League, composed of the pope, Venice, Spain, and England, and a Sforza was temporarily reinstated.

As Milan was the type of Italian city ruled by a despot or tyrant, so Venice was a type of the commercial, oligarchical city-states. Venice was by far the most powerful state in the peninsula. Located on the islands and lagoons at the head of the Adriatic, she had profited greatly by the crusades to build up a maritime empire and an enviable trade on the eastern Mediterranean and had extended her sway over rich lands in the northeastern part of Italy. In the year 1500, Venice boasted 3000 ships, 300,000 sailors, a numerous and veteran army, famous factories of plate glass, silk stuffs, and gold and silver objects, and a singularly strong government. Nominally Venice was a republic, but actually an oligarchy. Political power was entrusted jointly to several agencies: (1) a grand council controlled by the commercial magnates; (2) a centralized committee of ten; (3) an elected doge, or duke; and (4), after 1454, three state inquisitors, henceforth the city’s real masters. The inquisitors could pronounce sentence of death, dispose of the public funds, and enact statutes; they maintained a regular spy system; and trial, judgment, and execution were secret. The mouth of the lion of St. Mark received anonymous denunciations, and the waves which passed under the Bridge of Sighs carried away the corpses. To this regime Venice owed an internal peace which contrasted with the endless civil wars of the other Italian cities. Till the final destruction of the state in 1798 Venice knew no political revolution. In foreign affairs, also, Venice possessed considerable influence; she was the first European state to send regular envoys, or ambassadors, to other courts. It seemed in 1500 as if she were particularly wealthy and great, but already had been sowed the seed of her subsequent decline and humiliation. The advance of the Ottoman Turks threatened her position in eastern Europe, although she still held the Morea in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, and many Ionian and Ægean islands. The discovery of America and of a new route to India was destined to shake the very basis of her commercial supremacy. And her unscrupulous policy toward her Italian rivals lost her friends to the west. So great was the enmity against Venice that the formidable League of Cambrai, entered into by the emperor, the pope, France, and Spain in 1508, wrung many concessions from her.

Second only to Venice in commercial importance, Genoa, in marked contrast with her rival, passed through all manner of political vicissitudes until in 1499 she fell prey to the invasion of King Louis XII of France. Thereafter Genoa remained some years subject to the French, but in 1528 the resolution of an able citizen, Andrea Doria, freed the state from foreign invaders and restored to Genoa her republican institutions.

The famed city-state of Florence may be taken as the best type of the democratic community, controlled by a political leader. The city, as famous for its free institutions as for its art, in the first half of the fifteenth century had come under the tutelage of a family of traders and bankers, the wealthy Medici, who preserved the republican forms, and for a while, under Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492), surnamed the Magnificent, made Florence the center of Italian culture and civilization.

Soon after the death of Lorenzo, a democratic reaction took place under an enthusiastic and puritanical monk, Savonarola, who welcomed the advent of the French king, Charles VIII, in 1494, and aided materially in the expulsion of the Medici. Savonarola soon fell a victim to the plots of his Florentine enemies and to the vengeance of the pope, whom Charles VIII had offended, and was put to death in 1498, The democracy managed to survive until 1512 when the Medici returned. The city-state of Florence subsequently became the grand-duchy of Tuscany.

Before we take leave of the Italian states of the year 1500, mention should be made of the insignificant duchy of Savoy, tucked away in the fastnesses of the northwestern Alps, whose duke, after varying fortunes, was to become, in the nineteenth century, king of a united Italy.

The city-state was the dominant form of political organization not only in Italy but also in the Netherlands. The Netherlands, or the Low Countries, were seventeen provinces occupying the flat lowlands along the North Sea,—the Holland, Belgium, and northern France of our own day. Most of the inhabitants, Flemings and Dutch, spoke a language akin to German, but in the south the Walloons used a French dialect. At first the provinces had been mere feudal states at the mercy of various warring noblemen, but gradually in the course of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, important towns had arisen so wealthy and populous that they were able to wrest charters from the lords. Thus arose a number of municipalities—practically self- governing republics—semi-independent vassals of feudal nobles; and in many cases the early oligarchic systems of municipal government speedily gave way to more democratic institutions. Remarkable in industry and prosperity were Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels, Liege, Utrecht, Delft, Rotterdam, and many another.

Beginning in 1384 and continuing throughout the fifteenth century, the dukes of Burgundy, who as vassals of the French king had long held the duchy of that name in eastern France, succeeded by marriage, purchase, treachery, or force in bringing one by one the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands under their rule. This extension of dominion on the part of the dukes of Burgundy implied the establishment of a strong monarchical authority, which was supported by the nobility and clergy and opposed by the cities. In 1465 a common parliament, called the States General, was constituted at Brussels, containing deputies from each of the seventeen provinces; and eight years later a grand council was organized with supreme judicial and financial functions. Charles the Bold, who died in 1477, was prevented from constructing a great central kingdom between France and the Germanies only by the shrewdness of his implacable foe, King Louis XI of France. As we have seen, in another connection, Louis seized the duchy of Burgundy on the death of Charles the Bold, thereby extending the eastern frontier of France, but the duke’s inheritance in the Netherlands passed to his daughter Mary. In 1477 Mary’s marriage with Maximilian of Austria began the long domination of the Netherlands by the house of Habsburg.

Throughout these political changes, the towns of the Netherlands maintained many of their former privileges, and their prosperity steadily increased. The country became the richest in Europe, and the splendor of the ducal court surpassed that of any contemporary sovereign. A permanent memorial of it remains in the celebrated Order of the Golden Fleece, which was instituted by the duke of Burgundy in the fifteenth century and was so named from the English wool, the raw material used in the Flemish looms and the very foundation of the country’s fortunes.


We have now reviewed the states that were to be the main factors in the historical events of the sixteenth century—the national monarchies of England, France, Portugal, and Spain; the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanies; and the city-states of Italy and the Netherlands. It may be well, however, to point out that in northern and eastern Europe other states had already come into existence, which subsequently were to affect in no small degree the history of modern times, such as the Scandinavian kingdoms, the tsardom of Muscovy, the feudal kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, and the empire of the Ottoman Turks.

In the early homes of those Northmen who had long before ravaged the coasts of England and France and southern Italy and had colonized Iceland and Greenland, were situated in 1500 three kingdoms, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, corresponding generally to the present-day states of those names. The three countries had many racial and social characteristics in common , and they had been politically joined under the king of Denmark by the Union of Calmar in 1397. This union never evoked any popularity among the Swedes, and after a series of revolts and disorders extending over fifty years, Gustavus Vasa (1523-1560) established the independence of Sweden. Norway remained under Danish kings until 1814.

East of the Scandinavian peninsula and of the German-speaking population of central Europe, spread out like a great fan, are a variety of peoples who possess many common characteristics, including a group of closely related languages, which are called Slavic. These Slavs in the year 1500 included (1) the Russians, (2) the Poles and Lithuanians, (3) the Czechs, or natives of Bohemia, within the confines of the Holy Roman Empire, and (4) various nations in southeastern Europe, such as the Serbs and Bulgars.

The Russians in 1500 did not possess such a huge autocratic state as they do to-day. They were distributed among several principalities, the chief and center of which was the grand-duchy of Muscovy, with Moscow as its capital. Muscovy’s reigning family was of Scandinavian extraction but what civilization and Christianity the principalities possessed had been brought by Greek missionaries from Constantinople. For two centuries, from the middle of the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth, the Russians paid tribute to Mongol [The Mongols were a people of central Asia, whose famous leader, Jenghiz Khan (1162-1227), established an empire which stretched from the China Sea to the banks of the Dnieper. It was these Mongols who drove the Ottoman Turks from their original Asiatic home and thus precipitated the Turkish invasion of Europe. After the death of Jenghiz Khan the Mongol Empire was broken into a variety of “khanates,” all of which in course of time dwindled away. In the sixteenth century the Mongols north of the Black Sea succumbed to the Turks as well as to the Russians.] khans who had set up an Asiatic despotism north of the Black Sea. The beginnings of Russian greatness are traceable to Ivan III, the Great (1462-1505), [Ivan IV (1533-1584), called “The Terrible,” a successor of Ivan III, assumed the title of “Tsar” in 1547.] who freed his people from Mongol domination, united the numerous principalities, conquered the important cities of Novgorod and Pskov, and extended his sway as far as the Arctic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. Russia, however, could hardly then be called a modern state, for the political and social life still smacked of Asia rather than of Europe, and the Russian Christianity, having been derived from Constantinople, differed from the Christianity of western Europe. Russia was not to appear as a conspicuous European state until the eighteenth century.

Southwest of the tsardom of Muscovy and east of the Holy Roman Empire was the kingdom of Poland, to which Lithuanians as well as Poles owed allegiance. Despite wide territories and a succession of able rulers, Poland was a weak monarchy. Lack of natural boundaries made national defense difficult. Civil war between the two peoples who composed the state and foreign war with the neighboring Germans worked havoc and distress. An obstructive parliament of great lords rendered effective administration impossible. The nobles possessed the property and controlled politics; in their hands the king gradually became a puppet. Poland seemed committed to feudal society and feudal government at the very time when the countries of western Europe were ridding themselves of such checks upon the free growth of centralized national states.

Somewhat similar to Poland in its feudal propensities was the kingdom of Hungary, which an invasion of Asiatic tribesmen [Hungarians, or Magyars—different names for the same people.] in the tenth century had driven like a wedge between the Slavs of the Balkan peninsula and those of the north Poles and Russians. At first, the efforts of such kings as St. Stephen (997-1038) promised the development of a great state, but the weakness of the sovereigns in the thirteenth century, the infiltration of western feudalism, and the endless civil discords brought to the front a powerful and predatory class of barons who ultimately overshadowed the throne. The brilliant reign of Matthias Hunyadi (1458-1490) was but an exception to the general rule. Not only were the kings obliged to struggle against the nobles for their very existence—the crown was elective in Hungary—but no rulers had to contend with more or greater enemies on their frontiers. To the north there was perpetual conflict with the Habsburgs of German Austria and with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire; to the east there were spasmodic quarrels with the Vlachs, the natives of modern Rumania; to the south there was continual fighting, at first with the Greeks and the Slavs—Serbs and Bulgars, and later, most terrible of all, with the Ottoman Turks.

To the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, and with the Greeks as its dominant population, and to the medieval kingdoms of the Bulgars and Serbs, had succeeded by the year 1500 the empire of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Turks were a tribe of Asiatic Muslims who took their name from a certain Othman (died 1326), under whom they had established themselves in Asia Minor, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Thence they rapidly extended their dominion over Syria, and over Greece and the Balkan peninsula, except the little mountain state of Montenegro, and in 1453 they captured Constantinople. The lands conquered by the arms of the Turks were divided into large estates for the military leaders, or else assigned to the maintenance of mosques and schools, or converted into common and pasturage lands; the conquered Christians were reduced to the payment of tribute and a life of serfdom. For two centuries the Turks were to remain a source of grave apprehension to Europe.



FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO A European could search in vain the map of “the world” for America, or Australia, or the Pacific Ocean. Experienced mariners, and even learned geographers, were quite unaware that beyond the Western Sea lay two great continents peopled by red men; of Africa they knew only the northern coast; and in respect of Asia a thousand absurd tales passed current. The unexplored waste of waters that constituted the Atlantic Ocean was, to many ignorant Europeans of the fifteenth century, a terrible region frequented by fierce and fantastic monsters. To the average European the countries surveyed in the preceding chapter, together with their Muslim neighbors across the Mediterranean, still comprised the entire known world.

Shortly before the close of the fifteenth century, daring captains began to direct long voyages on the high seas and to discover the existence of new lands; and from that time to the present, Europeans have been busily exploring and conquering—veritably “Europeanizing"— the whole globe. Although religion as well as commerce played an important role in promoting the process, the movement was attended from the very outset by so startling a transformation in the routes, methods, and commodities of trade that usually it has been styled the Commercial Revolution. By the close of the sixteenth century it had proceeded far enough to indicate that its results would rank among the most fateful events of all history.

It was in the commonplace affairs of everyday life that the Commercial Revolution was destined to produce its most far-reaching results. To appreciate, therefore, its true nature and significance, we must first turn aside to ascertain how our European ancestors actually lived about the year 1500, and what work they did to earn their living. Then, after recounting the story of foreign exploration and colonization, we shall be in a position to reappraise the domestic situation in town and on the farm.


Agriculture has always been the ultimate basis of society, but in the sixteenth century it was of greater relative importance than it is now. People then reckoned their wealth, not by the quantity of stocks and bonds they held, but by the extent of land they owned. Farming was still the occupation of the vast majority of the population of every European state, for the towns were as yet small in size and few in number. The “masses” lived in the country, not, as to-day, in the city.

A twentieth-century observer would be struck by other peculiarities of sixteenth-century agriculture. He would find a curious organization of rural society, strange theories of land-ownership, and most unfamiliar methods of tillage. He would discover, moreover, that practically each farm was self-sufficing, producing only what its own occupants could consume, and that consequently there was comparatively little external trade in farm produce. From these facts he would readily understand that the rural communities in the year 1500, numerous yet isolated, were invulnerable strongholds of conservatism and ignorance.

In certain respects a remarkable uniformity prevailed in rural districts throughout all Europe. Whether one visited Germany, Hungary, France, or England, one was sure to find the agricultural population sharply divided into two social classes—nobility and peasantry. There might be varying gradations of these classes in different regions, but certain general distinctions everywhere prevailed.

The nobility [As a part of the nobility must be included at the opening of the sixteenth century many of the higher clergy of the Catholic Church—archbishops, bishops, and abbots—who owned large landed estates quite like their lay brethren.] comprised men who gained a living from the soil without manual labor. They held the land on feudal tenure, that is to say, they had a right to be supported by the peasants living on their estates, and, in return, they owed to some higher or wealthier nobleman or to the king certain duties, such as fighting for him, [This obligation rested only upon lay noblemen, not upon ecclesiastics.] attending his court at specified times, and paying him various irregular taxes (the feudal dues). The estate of each nobleman might embrace a single farm, or “manor” as it was called, inclosing a petty hamlet, or village; or it might include dozens of such manors; or, if the landlord were a particularly mighty magnate or powerful prelate, it might stretch over whole counties.

Each nobleman had his manor-house or, if he were rich enough, his castle, lording it over the humble thatch-roofed cottages of the villagers. In his stables were spirited horses and a carriage adorned with his family crest; he had servants and lackeys, a footman to open his carriage door, a game-warden to keep poachers from shooting his deer, and men-at-arms to quell disturbances, to aid him against quarrelsome neighbors, or to follow him to the wars. While he lived, he might occupy the best pew in the village church; when he died, he would be laid to rest within the church where only noblemen were buried.

In earlier times, when feudal society was young, the nobility had performed a very real service as the defenders of the peasants against foreign enemies and likewise against marauders and bandits of whom the land had been full. Then fighting had been the profession of the nobility, And to enable them to possess the expensive accoutrements of fighting—horses, armor, swords, and lances—the kings and the peasants had assured them liberal incomes.

Now, however, at the opening of the sixteenth century, the palmy days of feudalism were past and gone. Later generations of noblemen, although they continued by right of inheritance to enjoy the financial income and the social prestige which their forbears had earned, no longer served king, country, or common people in the traditional manner. At least in the national monarchies it was the king who now had undertaken the defense of the land and the preservation of peace; and the nobleman, deprived of his old occupation, had little else to do than to hunt, or quarrel with other noblemen, or engage in political intrigues. More and more the nobility, especially in France, were attracted to a life of amusement and luxury in the royal court. The nobility already had outlived its usefulness, yet it retained its old- time privileges.

In striking contrast to the nobility—the small minority of land-owning aristocrats—were the peasantry—the mass of the people. They were the human beings who had to toil for their bread in the sweat of their brows and who were deemed of ignoble birth, as social inferiors, and as stupid and rude. Actual farm work was “servile labor,” and between the man whose hands were stained by servile labor and the person of “gentle birth” a wide gulf was fixed.

During the early middle ages most of the peasants throughout Europe were “serfs.” For various reasons, which we shall explain presently, serfdom had tended gradually to and the die out in western Europe, but at the opening of the sixteenth century most of the agricultural laborers in eastern and central Europe, and even a considerable number in France, were still serfs, living and working on nobles’ manors in accordance with ancient customs which can be described collectively as the “manorial system.”

The serf occupied a position in rural society which it is difficult for us to understand. He was not a slave, such as was usual in the Southern States of the American Union before the Civil War; he was neither a hired man nor a rent-paying tenant-farmer, such as is common enough in all agricultural communities nowadays. The serf was not a slave, because he was free to work for himself at least part of the time; he could not be sold to another master; and he could not be deprived of the right to cultivate land for his own benefit. He was not a hired man, for he received no wages. And he was not a tenant-farmer, inasmuch as he was “attached to the soil,” that is, he was bound to stay and work on his land, unless he succeeded in running away or in purchasing complete freedom, in which case he would cease to be a serf and would become a freeman.

To the lord of the manor the serf was under many and varied obligations, the most essential of which may be grouped conveniently as follows: (1) The serf had to work without pay two or three days in each week on the strips of land and the fields whose produce belonged exclusively to the nobleman. In the harvest season extra days, known as “boon-days,” were stipulated on which the serf must leave his own work in order to harvest for the lord. He also might be called upon in emergencies to draw a cord of wood from the forest to the great manor- house, or to work upon the highway (corvée). (2) The serf had to pay occasional dues, customarily “in kind.” Thus at certain feast-days he was expected to bring a dozen fat fowls or a bushel of grain to the pantry of the manor-house. (3) Ovens, wine-presses, gristmills, and bridges were usually owned solely by the nobleman, and each time the peasant used them he was obliged to give one of his loaves of bread, a share of his wine, a bushel of his grain, or a toll-fee, as a kind of rent, or “banality” as it was euphoniously styled. (4) If the serf died without heirs, his holdings were transferred outright to the lord, and if he left heirs, the nobleman had the rights of “heriot,” that is, to appropriate the best animal owned by the deceased peasant, and of “relief,” that is, to oblige the designated heir to make a definite additional payment that was equivalent to a kind of inheritance tax.

As has been intimated, the manorial system was already on a steady decline, especially in western Europe, at the opening of the sixteenth century. A goodly number of peasants who had once been serfs were now free-tenants, lessees, or hired laborers. Of course rent of farm-land in our present sense—each owner of the land letting out his property to a tenant and, in return, exacting as large a monetary payment as possible—was then unknown. But there was a growing class of peasants who were spoken of as free-tenants to distinguish them from serf- tenants. These free-tenants, while paying regular dues, as did the others, were not compelled to work two or three days every week in the lord’s fields, except occasionally in busy seasons such as harvest; they were free to leave the estate and to marry off their daughters or to sell their oxen without the consent of the lord; and they came to regard their customary payments to the lord not so much as his due for their protection as actual rent for their land.

While more prosperous peasants were becoming free-tenants, many of their poorer neighbors found it so difficult to gain a living as serfs that they were willing to surrender all claim to their own little strips of land on the manor and to devote their whole time to working for fixed wages on the fields which were cultivated for the nobleman himself, the so-called lord’s demesne. Thus a body of hired laborers grew up claiming no land beyond that on which their miserable huts stood and possibly their small garden-plots.

Besides hired laborers and free-tenants, a third group of peasants appeared in places where the noble proprietor did not care to superintend the cultivation of his own land. In this case he parceled it out among particular peasants, furnishing each with livestock and a plow and expecting in return a fixed proportion of the crops, which in France usually amounted to one-half. Peasants who made such a bargain were called in France métayers, and in England “stock-and-land lessees.” The arrangement was not different essentially from the familiar present-day practice of working a farm “on shares.”

In France and in England the serfs had mostly become hired laborers, tenants, or métayers by the sixteenth century. The obligations of serfdom had proved too galling for the serf and too unprofitable for the lord. It was much easier and cheaper for the latter to hire men to work just when he needed them, than to bother with serfs, who could not be discharged readily for slackness, and who naturally worked for themselves far more zealously than for him. For this reason many landlords were glad to allow their serfs to make payments in money or in grain in lieu of the performance of customary labor. In England, moreover, many lords, finding it profitable to inclose [There were no fences on the old manors. Inclosing a plot of ground meant fencing or hedging it in.] their land in order to utilize it as pasturage for sheep, voluntarily freed their serfs. The result was that serfdom virtually had disappeared in England before the sixteenth century. In France as early as the fourteenth century the bulk of the serfs had purchased their liberty, although in a few districts serfdom remained in its pristine vigor until the French Revolution.

In other countries agricultural conditions were more backward and serfdom longer survived. Prussian and Austrian landowners retained their serfs until the nineteenth century; the emancipation of Russian serfs on a large scale was not inaugurated until 1861. There are still survivals of serfdom in parts of eastern Europe.