Impact of Discovery on Europe
THE IMPACT OF DISCOVERY ON EUROPE
After this assignment, you should be able to define and discuss the following
names and terms:
- The Dance of Death, The Wheel of Fortune. The Price
Revolution, The Dietary Revolution, stimulants, narcotics.
You should also have considered and be able to discuss the following matters:
- What was the personality and character of the early European discoverers
and conquerors, and what shaped those characteristics?
- How did the gold and silver of the New World affect Europe?
- How did the new food plants from the Americas change Europe?
- What was the long-term effect of the new drugs that began to enter Europe?
In addition, there are some larger issues that you should be thinking about:
- To what extent was Europe's ability eventually to control the world's sea-
lanes and dominate the other peoples of the globe a result of its easy seizure
of the vast resources of the Americas?
- You have seen how economic and social conditions affected the character
and personality of the Europeans. To what extent is it possible to examine the
historical conditions under which a people lived to determine why they acted
the way they did? You might want to consider the Greek city-states in this
TEXTMost people who have studied History in high
school have gone up to the Age of Discovery and Exploration and then
concentrated upon how European settlement affected North America and created a
new society there. They know relatively little of how these discoveries affected
Europe, and this is an important matter to understand. This period marked the
end of medieval Europe and the beginning of the modern era of the development,
and it also marked the beginning of that drive by which the Europeans seized
control of the world's sea-lanes and eventually began creating a global market
and spreading their culture throughout the world.
Let's consider the major characteristics of European society at the close of
the fifteenth century and see how the discovery of the New World changed things.
We might also ask what sort of people these Europeans were, and what inspired
that curious combination of adventurous spirit, pious sentiment, and brutal
behavior that characterized the explorers and conquerors. Let's take this
Since the onset of the Black Death in 1346, the people of western Europe had
experienced wave upon wave of deadly diseases, varied from time to time by
fearsome famines and bloody wars. They could not hide from death as we tend to
do, with our sanitized and "Doesn't he look natural? Just like he was sleeping"
funerals. They stumbled over the bodies of the dead in the streets and roads,
and most has lost members of their family through some sudden mishap or another.
The Dance of Death, in which the dead drag the living into their
grotesque dance, was a favorite theme in art and statuary. It pointed out two
morals: no one -- rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate -- is safe
from being suddenly caught up by death, and everyone -- rich and poor, young and
old, educated and illiterate -- become equals in the grave. The Europeans of the
time were constantly aware that life is a precarious possession. Consequently,
they set little value upon human life, their own as well as that of others.
Then, too, their society was a poor one, without enough food or shelter for
everyone to survive, much less be comfortable. So they competed, and were
willing to take desperate risks in the hopes of "getting ahead." They knew,
however, that, in a competitive society such as theirs, success was a temporary
thing. No sooner did one succeed that someone of something would snatch that
success away. Another of their favorite themes was The Wheel of
Fortune, in which someone sunk in the mud would grab something like the
turning water-wheel of a mill which would lift him up to the health of wealth
and power, but would continue to turn and throw him back into the mud. They knew
that all of life was a risky business, so they were eager gamblers, always
willing to risk anything, even their lives, in hope of some gain.
They were, by and large, poor and disease-ridden, and many were quite
accustomed to going hungry, or being cold and sick, but still having to work
because there was little wealth available to help the unfortunate in their
world. The men who became the discoverers and conquerors whose pictures grace
our History textbooks were generally poor men. Columbus was reared to be a
weaver, Francisco Pizarro was a swine-herd, and so on. They may appear to us to
have been savage hypocrites, but they were only people born into poverty who
were risking everything to become successful. If they deceived and killed in
order to succeed, they were not a bit surprised when they were themselves
deceived and killed. Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains, Pizarro was
stabbed while at prayer, Cortez was shipped back to Spain and spent his last
days alone and ignored.
Now, what effect did the discovery of the New World have upon Europe?
One thing was that the economy was thrown into turmoil. The basis of wealth
in medieval Europe had been land, and the owners of land lived quite well by
renting their lands out and requiring their renters to provide them with service
and a share of their crops. Suddenly gold and silver, which had been in short
supply, began flooding from the New World back into Europe with the result that
prices began to soar. [Note that the more money there is in circulation the
less it is worth in relation to the commodities for sale, and so the price of
commodities rises.] This causes what historians call The Price
Revolution, in which those people on fixed incomes, like landlords, were
impoverished and those who had fixed payments, like renters, found that the real
value of their debts was swiftly dropping. It happened that the countries
acquiring this gold and silver -- Spain and Portugal -- did not have much
manufacturing and needed trading goods and supplies for their new colonies.
England, France, and the Netherlands developed the manufacturing facilities to
provide these goods, and the center of industrial and financial power shifted to
those countries, where it has remained to the present day.
An even more basic change was brought about by the new plants brought from
the New World. The medieval European had subsisted mainly on grain, wheat for
the most part. An acre of land -- a family was lucky if it had thirty acres to
farm, of which only about twenty could be planted in any one season -- produced
at best ten bushels of wheat. Four of these bushels went for taxes and rents of
various sorts and three had to be kept as seed for the next year's crop. That
meant a family got three bushels a year net from their best land. It took eleven
bushels to feed a person for a year, so a family with three children needed all
twenty acres merely to survive, leaving little or nothing over for a bad season
of for bad luck. Most Europeans went to bed hungry. Maize, on the other hand,
yielded twenty to thirty bushels an acre. What the Europeans didn't eat, they
fed to chickens and pigs and were eventually able to have meat and eggs on a
relatively regular basis. Potatoes, however -- both regular and sweet potatoes,
made the real difference. A single acre of land could produce 25,000 pounds of
potatoes, enough for the family with enough left over to feed a couple of pigs.
Added to this were the tomatoes, squashes, pumpkins, beans, and other vegetables
that arrived to vary the European diet, and you can begin to understand why some
historians call this The Dietary Revolution.
Much else flooded into Europe. The new colonies not only sought gold and
silver, but exploited the other resources of the New World. Cargo ships arrived
crammed with wooden shingles, ship timbers, hemp rope, tar and turpentine, furs,
dyes such as indigo and red Brazil wood, dried fish, flaxseed oil, tow, hides,
and a host of other raw materials to feed Europe's growing industrial economy
and to provide the Europeans with manufactured goods to trade with the Indians
(of India) and Chinese for their goods. The discoverers and explorers, and the
old land-owning nobility, were quickly replaced by manufacturers and merchants
as Europe's new elite. Meanwhile, Europe had found a place to dump their
unwanted population. Dissidents, criminals, paupers, ne'er-do-wells, religious
fanatics, and others were shipped off, one way or another, to populate the new
colonies. The fact that half of them died during the first year was of little
One of the smaller class of imports from the New World had an effect on
Europe far out of proportion to its tonnage. One of the curious features of
medieval European society was the great swings of emotion of which its members
were capable. A crowd witnessing a public hanging could be reduced to bitter
tears and the rending of the clothes by the condemned man's pathetic confession
of the error of his ways, only to fall into hilarious laughter when the rope
proved to be too thin and snapped off his head rather than strangling him. The
fact of the matter was that Europe had never possessed something that was an
integral part of other civilizations -- a stimulant drug. They had
wine and beer, but these were depressants, not stimulants. All of a sudden, they
were receiving shipments of the North American Indians' tobacco with its
nicotine and the Aztecs' cocoa with its caffeine, while at the same time they
were able to buy coffee from the Arabs and tea from the Chinese. The Incas added
the narcotic cocaine while Asia contributed opium. In very short
order, Europe had become a drug-consuming society, addicted to its coffee, tea,
and cocoa, its laudanum and various codeine-laced cough remedies, and anxious to
ensure its regular and cheap supply of these substances. The European character
became steadier and the number of "madmen" and "madwomen", who had once been
common features of the European scene, began to decrease. [As a note, Western
society has continued to be heavily reliant on drugs. When the drink was first
introduced, the word "Coca" in Coca-Cola meant exactly what it said. It was a
sweet drink with cocaine added, and made its consumers quite happy.]
One could go on at great length expanding on this theme, explaining how the
availability of vast expanses of "empty" land affected a society the elite of
which had been distinguished by the fact that they were land-owners, or how new
substances, such as the quinine in the bark of the South American chincona tree,
slowly began to bring under control some of the diseases endemic in Europe, or
how the availability of unlimited supplies of immense trees revolutionized naval
architecture, but we have probably covered enough to illustrate how completely
and basically Europe was transformed.
There are very few web sites dealing with this particular topic, but A
Tour of Plimoth Plantation will give you some idea of what early English
settlements in the New World were like.
I searched the web for other sites, but only found one that suited our topic.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a
lecture essay that I had forgotten I had put on-line [it has been moved to the Historical Text Archive]
thing as I have said in the essay above, but perhaps says it differently enough
that you will find it useful. Given the present lack of other materials, there
will be no recommended assignments for today.
This text was produced by >Lynn H. Nelson, Department of
History, University of Kansas.
26 February 1998