Lecture 31: European Monarchies during the 15th and 16th Centuries

In 1347, the Middle Ages officially ended. In that year the Great Plague first arrived in Italy, hiding among the ever increasing number of trade caravans and shipping fleets that moved between east and west. The disease spread rapidly cross the Continent and killed anywhere from one third to one half of the European population. The initial cultural effects were severe, as High Medieval optimism came crashing down and was transformed into pessimism and hopelessness. The plague disrupted the economy, the family unit, and religious and political structures. Everything that Europeans had so patiently built since the ninth century was rent asunder.
From a medieval perspective, the plague completed a process of decline that had been impelled by both the Papacy and European kings. On the one hand, the Popes’ repeated calls to go on Crusade had cost Europe massive resources and brought few results. Indeed, papal foreign policy in the late medieval period had generated as many wars as it ended, especially in Italy. On the other hand, Europe’s jealous medieval kings and assorted princes added to the problem by repeatedly finding reasons to fight in Europe. The French and the English crowns, for example, spent over a century fighting over territory northwestern France in the so-called Hundred Years’ War (1338-1443), which only exacerbated the problems that the local population was already confronting. In the east, the Polish Crown and the Teutonic Knights in Prussia remained at war until 1410, when the Poles finally broke this organization’s power at the Battle of Grunewald/Tannenberg. It is worth noting that the Teutonic Knights were originally a crusading organization that had been booted out of the Holy Land. They settled in what is today Poland at the Polish king’s request, in order to subdue the heathen Prussians. Overall, thanks to war and disease, Medieval Europe managed to exhaust itself.
If we consider the plague and the end of the Middle Ages from an early-modern perspective, however, we can discern a process of creative destruction that foreshadowed Europe’s rise to world power status. Around the middle of the fifteenth century, Europe’s strongest monarchies, particularly in France and England, began to craft policy responses to the disorder brought by the problems of the late fourteenth century. The people who forced the changes were known as the “New Monarchs.” There was not that much that was really new about these monarchs, as in many ways they continued the work of their medieval predecessors. They were “new,” however, in that they first spurred the development of the political organizations that founded both the European state system and, to a degree, its nations. By the 17th century, we can already see clearly the outlines of the basic ethnic and political boundaries that still mark the European map.
In general the new monarchs brought law and order to a continent that had descended into chaos. The disorder of the fourteenth century had, for example, allowed fractious barons to usurp royal powers and to prey on the local populace. In both England and the European states, monarchs began to emphasize their role as bringers of justice. In England, for instance, kings emphasized their right to arbitrate all disputes, whether between individual nobles, or between noble and commoner. In general, this was possible, because the new monarchs were able to use Europe’s recovering towns as a counter-balance to the nobility. These towns were more than willing to pay taxes to the king, in exchange for protection from the nobles. Kings received these tax receipts and used them to finance armies, which then enforced order—or created disorder. The shift to royal armies highlights significant social and political trends. In the Middle Ages, when a king needed an army, he called on his nobles. In the early-modern period, he called on the landless and the unemployed. Hence, the social foundation of public order not only excluded the nobility but also became a bulwark against it.
You will recall from the lectures on the Middle Ages in Europe that one right the king always guarded jealously was the right to judge, that is to bring the law to any given dispute. Medieval kings roved around Europe, listening to cases that were brought before them, and sent their own officials into the countryside to bring the law to places where the kings could not reach. This process was, at root, adversarial, in so far as the king’s law impinged on the freedom of the nobility to wreak havoc on their inferiors. But those kings that overcame noble opposition to the law were then able to create strong states with which they defended their monarchical interests.
Europe’s new monarchs followed two paths in enforcing their law. One path dominated in England, where the so-called Common Law tradition reigned. In this system, custom was the foundation of law, and it became the role of courts to interpret local customs. The English king had been weakened during the Middle Ages by the rise of the Barons, as is evidenced by King having to sign the Magna Carta, a guarantee of noble privileges, in 1215. From this point forth, however, successive English monarchs chipped away at noble independence by becoming legal arbiters, and by working with friendly factions in Parliament to guarantee order. The end of this process, in which the English King became a king in parliament rather than over parliament, came with the English Reformation, which I have discussed in a previous lecture. The most fractious barons were subdued by royal law, while the worst excesses of royal dictatorship were averted through parliamentary limits on royal power.
On the Continent, the main organ for establishing royal control over unruly noble elements was the importation of Roman Law. As you will recall from the earlier lectures, Rome was law, and there was little doubt within the Roman system about the law giving body’s absolute right to establish the law. Justinian’s Code (A.D. 527) is the final classical example of the power that Roman Emperors had to decide what the law was. Continental monarchs used Justinian’s Code as a model and hired an army of scholars to import Roman Law into their countries, so as to expand royal power. Two legal principles became fundamental to all Continental legal systems: salus populi suprema lex (the good of the people is the highest law) and quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem (what pleases the prince has the force of law.) Hence, on the Continent, the king became not merely a legal arbitrator but also a law giver. (The idea that the law is given by the sovereign power and is not, therefore, the product of precedent perdures in most Continental systems.)
In order to understand the effect of the new monarchs, we must keep in mind that the wars between them were dynastic and not state conflicts. This is still very much an early-modern world. Battles between monarchs were battles between families and not between peoples. The sense that the monarchs incorporated a people’s hopes and wisdom was a product of later monarchical attempts to identify their own persons with their kingdoms. As a result, monarchs used all manner of techniques to project their image onto their people and into a national psyche. These included building great buildings, putting up statues, putting their image on coins, having paintings made, etc. As a result, by the end of the 16th century, some monarchs came began to embody their realm, and their governments prospered, creating the foundations of what would later become the nation state. (In this sense, Louis XIV of France is the ultimate heir to and purest example of the new monarchs.) In those parts of Europe where the monarch lost, states and perhaps nations came much later.
In order to understand how new monarchies worked in the 15th and 16th centuries we will consider briefly the rise of new monarchies in England and France. In England, the new monarchy really arrived with the accession of the Tudors to the English throne. In 1485, Henry Tudor became king after the death of his opponent Edward III of the House of York. These two houses, both of royal blood, had fought for thirty years over the succession in what was called the War of the Roses. (The name came from symbols each house chose. The House of York took as its symbol a red rose and the House of Lancaster a white one.) In 1485, Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII. His reign was a key time for England, because Henry was able to subdue the barons through military and judicial means. The roughly three decades of war had severely weakened the great families and Henry was able to force them to accept his law. In particular, Henry banned the practice of nobles keeping private armies, which had led to so much destruction. Henry’s reign marked, as a result, a period of prosperity and growth that left his son and heir, Henry VIII (1509-1547), with a relatively strong kingdom. It was largely the kingdom’s vigorous health that allowed Henry VII to pursue his many misadventures. We have discussed that tale in a previous lecture.
Now we turn our attention to France. The first truly new monarch in France was Louis XI (1461-1483), of the house of Valois (1328-1589). He reorganized the crown’s finances and brought an end to brigandage. He, however, was an heir to a longer tradition of reform and expansion. The first of the Valois came to the throne in 1328, when the Capetian line finally failed. The Valois are an enormously important family in the history of France, because they won the Hundred Years War with England and later engaged in a nasty rivalry with the Habsburgs. This family had long-standing policies, which Louis XI continued, of acquiring neighboring lands by means both fair and foul and of constantly extending the government’s powers of taxation. Louis XI, for instance, used the money from taxes to build an army, which his heirs later used in foreign lands. France had some advantages in this age. Unlike his contemporaries in England, Louis enjoyed access to church resources, since the French crown had reached an accord with the papacy in 1438 called the Pragmatic Sanction. This agreement was extended by Francis I in 1516 in something called the Concordat of Bologna, which gave the French crown the right to appoint bishops, in exchange for a guarantee to the papacy of a certain level of annual income. As a result, during the fifteenth century, French kings had much greater taxation power and more powerful armies than the other monarchies in Europe. It was Louis XI’s reforms that allowed Charles VIII (1483-1498) to launch in 1494 a major war in Italy against Spanish interests. The resulting Italian Wars, which continued under the next two successors, had many long-term effects on Italy, perhaps the two most important of which were the creation of a political disunity that would not be overcome until 1870 and the work of a certain Florentine diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.
The Spanish situation was different. What later became Spain began with two large kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, Aragon and Castile. Aragon in the north and east had control of the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, and Naples. Castile, in the center and south, was already large and wealthy before its crown gained colonies in the new world. This was a good political match, and it created a powerful political force. In 1469, Ferdinand II (1468-1526) of Aragon and Isabella (1474-1504) of Castile married. This marriage united the two kingdoms in one dynasty, but each kingdom kept a separate administration and had its own privileges. This division created long-term problems for Spain that it was never able to overcome.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s dynastic marriage was important for world history on a number of levels. First, it marked the final phase of Islam’s expulsion from Andalusia. Spanish forces had been pushing back the Moors since the eleventh century, with the most important victories over Islamic forces coming in the fourteenth century. With the unification of the two crowns Spanish strength could now be concentrated on eliminating the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, which fell in 1492. Unfortunately for many of the residents, the Spanish crown continued its bloody work after the war was over, by throwing out the remaining Moors and Jews who had not converted. Moreover, suspicions of converts ran right through the sixteenth century and became the major force behind the Spanish Inquisition. Second, the Kingdom of Castile, seeking to get around Portugal, had funded a series of explorations that ked to the European encounter with and colonization of America. The rise of the Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century then funded a series of wars between the Spanish and other European powers. Finally, Aragonese holdings in Italy became the focus of future conflicts with France. France and Spain had been fighting for centuries over their northern border, and would continue to due so until the seventeenth century. The French attacks in Italy, however, started as a way to hurt the Spanish on a different front, but really marked the first salvo in what became the vicious Habsburg-Valois competition. Europe’s New Monarchs ensured that the Continent would be the victim of constant warfare.
With the massive importation of wealth from the New World, Spain became the most aggressive and the premier power of Europe in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, for the Spanish state, its inability to unify Castile and Aragon along administrative lines proved to be a fatal weakness in the face of more organized and aggressive powers. By 1659, with the Peace of the Pyrenees between Spain and France, Spain was reduced to the second-tier in Europe and dropped thereafter.
Central and Eastern Europe lagged behind the west in the development of centralized monarchical states. This does not mean that the states in this part of the world were without resources, but that their form of organization limited their long-term prospects. Poland, for example, was an old kingdom, dating back to the eleventh century. Beginning in 1385, it became a major power in the east under the Jagiello dynasty. This dynasty subsequently unified the Kingdom of Poland with the Duchy of Lithuania in 1569 to create an enormous territory that would last until 1792. Though the resulting territory was large, it also had constitutional weakness that allowed the nobility in both parts to constrain the monarch. Since the state could never get its nobles under control, it fell prey to other rising powers, such as Russia and Sweden in the seventeenth century, and Prussia and Austria in the eighteenth. There were no “new” monarchs in Eastern Europe until the seventeenth century.
Central Europe was a different matter. It was wealthy and well developed, though it never produced a New Monarch. It did, however, have an Emperor, and his power had to be taken seriously by everyone throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although the Holy Roman Empire was supposedly founded on Christmas Day A.D. 800, its real origins lie in the tenth century, with the Ottonian Dynasty. From the tenth century on, the Empire both expanded and changed, with the result that by the fourteenth century the emperor’s power had diminished considerably with respect to the nobility, many of whom managed to carve out special places for themselves within the Empire. This Empire was really a confederation of states that were run by a variety of princes. There were three kinds of states: princely states, ecclesiastical states, and imperial free cities. (There was a fourth kind of organization called imperial free knights, but they became less important as the centuries progressed.) All of these states within the empire had a deep interest in ensuring that the Emperor did not gain too much power. In essence, everyone wanted the Emperor to be powerful enough to repel external enemies, but not so strong that he could identify and destroy internal enemies.
The Empire developed, thus, a key means of control over the Emperor: the Imperial Election. With each Emperor’s death the empire’s princes and the new emperor agreed on the terms of the new emperor’s tenure. This was called a Capitulation, a document in which the emperor confirmed the princes’ privileges and exemptions. By 1356, the process of “election” was formalized with seven princes receiving electoral votes, which they only cast after extensive negotiations and (usually) massive bribes. In 1452, these princes chose a Habsburg prince, Frederick III, who was also Duke of Austria, to be Holy Roman Emperor. With only one brief exception, every Holy Roman Emperor between 1452 and 1806 would be a Habsburg. The Habsburg princes were in constant conflict with other powers such as France, and tried repeatedly, therefore, to increase their power within the Empire. They were, however, foiled by the power of other princes. (One notable example of the princes’ power is Frederick the Wise’s protection of the young heretic Luther.) This is the main reason that Germany was unable to centralize in the way that England, France, and to a degree, Spain did.
The Habsburgs did, however, follow another strategy for gaining power that, for a time, worked quite well: marriage speculation. Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) began the marriage game by marrying the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy, which brought him and his heirs control over the Low Countries and the Franche-Comté, both of which had common borders with France. (This arrangement caused political problems right through the end of the seventeenth century.) Maximilian also set up a marriage for his son Philip with Juana of Aragon. Juana was an improbable heir to the Spanish throne, but the early deaths of older siblings meant that her son, Charles (1519-1558), became heir to three major territories, Spain, Austria, and Burgundy, as well as the Kingdom of Sicily and the Imperial Crown. Charles also benefited from the Turkish threat, as the Turks killed both the Kings of Hungary and Bohemia, which allowed him to be elected to those thrones, too. Charles V, thus, presided over an enormous empire that reached from Hungary to the New World, and in one fell swoop France found itself surrounded by Habsburg territories. This arrangement merely exacerbated and transformed the French-Spanish rivalry in Italy into a world conflict.
The Habsburg-Valois rivalry drove European politics for the next century. France would win this conflict largely because it was able to centralize its administration and gain allies who also feared the rise of a super state in Europe. The Habsburgs were never able to centralize their far-flung regions into a strong state. The French also robbed them of Lorraine in 1552 and Alsace by the end of the seventeenth century. In addition, the Dutch fought for and gained their independence by the end of the seventeenth century. (The Dutch and the English would steal the most valuable parts of the Spanish Empire in the seventeenth century.) Indeed, Charles V’s Empire did not survive him. He officially retired in 1558, leaving the eastern half of the empire and the Imperial Crown to his brother, who became Ferdinand II, with Spain and the New World going to his son Phillip II. The two branches of the Habsburg family would mostly cooperate against France, which exacerbated the continent’s military conflicts. But neither side became strong enough to win. Spain would wreck its economy with expensive wars against France and England. Austria would try to centralize, but lost out in the nineteenth century to Prussia for control over most of the German speaking parts of the Empire. Imperial Germany was the ultimate heir to the competition among Europe’s new monarchs.

Lecture 31: The Reformation and the End of Christian Unity

The Reformation was the final crisis in the Medieval Church. Skepticism had been growing for centuries in the face of the church’s repeated calls to fight the infidel. The medieval Crusades had been a disaster, costing only men and money for little gain. And the constant fights against internal enemies, such as the Albigensians, had worn thin, too. One result of the growing dissatisfaction with the medieval church was the rise of powerful heresies. In England, John Wycliffe became the founding figure of what was derisively called Lollardy, at term that comes from Dutch and means ‘mumbler.’ Wycliffe denied transubstantiation and claimed that the Papacy had no scriptural authority. In 1378, he was forced to resign from his position as a professor at the university in Oxford. Wycliffe was not molested further, though his followers suffered increasing persecution. In 1401, for example, King Henry IV had a Lollard named William Sawtrey burned as a heretic. Wycliffe’s influence extended to Bohemia, where the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus read Wycliffe’s works and concluded from them that the church needed extensive reforms. In 1415, Hus was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance, which had guaranteed him safe passage to the conference but not back to his homeland. (As we will see, Martin Luther would not fall prey to the same trick.) The reform movement he founded, Hussitism, became in essence the Czech national church.
By the end of the fifteenth century the Catholic Church had lost almost the moral authority it had gained in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and a consensus emerged that the entire institution was in need of reform. In particular, people concentrated in the Papacy, which had become both venal and corrupt. From 1307 to 1377, the Papacy had moved to Avignon in France, where the Pope became a tool of French foreign policy. In 1378, in an attempt to bring the Papacy back to Rome, the reigning Pope was deposed and another one elected. Unfortunately, the Pope in France refused to step down, and the new one also became a problem, so a third Pope was elected. Each reigning Pope then excommunicated the other two. It was only with the Council on Constance 1414-1417 that a new Pope was elected. The Council of Constance began was came to be known as the Conciliar movement within the church, which was an attempt to reign in the Papacy. It didn’t work, as the fifteenth century Popes were no better than their predecessors, being worldly and, at times, downright greedy. The Borgia Popes had children and continually played politics in an attempt to gain preferment for them. One of the great Renaissance Popes, Julius II, even led his troops into battle.
It was difficult to find any morality in this situation, and many people began to think more broadly about the church’s problems. In general, it was agreed that the church had two major problems. The first was absenteeism, namely that too many high church officials, such as bishops, did not actually live in the areas that they were supposed to oversee. The second problem, pluralism, was closely related to the first. Pluralism was the practice of bishops being invested with more than one bishopric. The root of the problem was financial: a bishopric was an income source. Hence, the more bishoprics one occupied, the higher one’s standard f living. Officially the church was against pluralism, but in practice Rome did little about it, since the offending bishops often sent some of their income to Rome. Although the Council of Constance resolved the problem of three popes, it never resolved these other problems, and the festered in the minds of some believers.
One of the most prominent calls for reform came from a new group of educated people called Humanists. Humanism was a Renaissance invention and comprised two distinct streams of thought. The first was what is called Renaissance Humanism, which everyone today associates with 15th century Italy. You are probably familiar with the Renaissance world of art that included such greats as Donatello, Masaccio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Humanism was, however, originally a literary movement, rooted in the expropriation of classical Latin texts. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries a group of educated scribes who were mostly in state employ reached back to Latin manuscripts to recover pure Latin style and began to use the new aesthetic sense in their writings. The resulting community of writers and philosophers tended toward secular topics and themes and began to celebrate human activity in all its forms. This is classic Renaissance Humanism.
There was, however, a second school of Humanism that was centered in the north and was more closely aligned with Christian thought. The rise of this school is fundamental for understanding the origins and the course of the Reformation. This movement also began in the linguistic realm, in that it sought better ways to understand classical Latin texts. Its religious spirit, however, also impelled its adherents to investigate the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, while also beginning the study of other lost Middle Eastern tongues. The greatest member of the school of Christian Humanists is the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was both deeply learned and deeply Christian. He was devoted to the Catholic Church, though he was also skeptical of much of the tradition that had been handed down over the centuries.
Erasmus yearned for a simpler faith and did not shy from criticizing those aspects of Catholicism that seemed overblown or that may have separated people from their faith. An example of his desire to simply the faith is his 1516 text Instruction of a Christian Prince, in which he pled for greater emphasis on spiritual nearness to God, over the complexities of ritual. Consistent with his belief that all people should know their faith better, Erasmus also published a new translation of the Bible with a full critical apparatus that he used to take issue with older translations that had either mistranslated or, perhaps, mystified the faith. This Bible was an instant hit, and many people who had no theological training made reading and contemplating it a new part of their spiritual lives. Erasmus, thus, not only represents a desire for greater simplicity and spiritual authenticity in the Christian faith, but also contributed to the development of these trends through his publications. In this sense Erasmus provides a fundamental backdrop to the themes that would burst open in the Reformation, even if he always refused to leave the church.
The main protagonist in the Reformation was, as you may know, the German monk Martin Luther. Because he played such a pivotal role in sparking and extending the Reformation, we will consider his life more closely. We know little of Luther before 1517, when he (allegedly) nailed his 95 Theses to the front doors of the cathedral at Wittenberg. Luther’s father was a relatively prosperous merchant who wanted his son to study the law. Luther chose not to follow this path. The sources tell us that he became a monk in 1505 after surviving a terrible lighting storm. After getting his first degree at the University of Erfurt he spent the years 1509 to 1517 in intensive study of ancient texts and in preaching.
Luther’s studies resulted in genuinely new theological insights. He reduced the number of sacraments, claiming that not all of the Catholic Church’s seven had textual justification. He changed the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which held that the substance of both the wine and the wafer are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus, into a doctrine called consubstantiation, which held that Jesus’ flesh and blood were really present, though not in form. Finally, he created a new theory of religious practice that is today called solifidianism, which comes from the Latin sola fide, and means “by faith alone.” This was Luther’s most radical doctrine, as it held that people are saved by their own faith in God, and not by prayer, saintly intervention, good works, or the church. It is important, at this point, to note that Luther was not a Humanist. If anything he was a medieval holdover. His tortured conception of God, his fear of divine anger, all had more in common with medieval theology than it did the gentler Humanist approaches of the fifteenth century. Nonetheless, the broader historical context guaranteed that Luther’s basically medieval message would get a full hearing.
Inspired by religious fervor and anger at the misuse of religion, Luther could not keep his religious insights to himself and began blasting every aspect of what he saw as a corrupt church. Unlike Hus, however, Luther was not burned at the state for heresy and was, thus, able to live long enough to found a new church. In order to understand Luther’s success, we need to understand two things. First, he lived in the Holy Roman Empire, whose convoluted structure and multiple political tensions gave Luther places to hide. In particular, Luther avoided the heretic’s end, because he came under the personal protection of a prince of the Empire, Frederick Wise, Duke and Elector of Saxony. Second, Luther had access to new forms of print communication. The perfection of moveable-type printing in the fifteenth century in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg meant that Luther could print multiple copies of his ideas and send them around Germany. Hence, his ideas got a hearing before the church or the government could stop him. In an environment of intense dissatisfaction, Luther’s work highlighted long-standing grievances and encouraged many people to break with the church.
Now let us consider the direct cause for Luther’s explosion. In 1515, Albrecht von Hohenzollern was named Archbishop of Mainz, a wealthy and politically important bishopric within the Empire. Albrecht had, however, only reached the age of 25, and canon law stipulated that a man had to be at least 30, before he could be invested with a bishopric. In order to get a dispensation, Albrecht had to agree to pay the church a large fine. So Albrecht needed money, but his need was made even greater by his also acquiring two other bishoprics in Halberstadt and Magdeburg. The initial cash outlay left him deeply in debt to the tune of 34,000 ducats. In order to pay off this debt Albrecht cut a deal with the Pope to sell indulgences in Germany, in which the proceeds would be split between the Papacy and Albrecht’s creditors. (The Pope needed money to help finish St. Peter’s Basilica.) When Martin Luther, who at that point was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, heard about the sale of indulgences from some of his parishioners he became enraged, and the result was his famous 95 Theses, in which he criticized harshly the notion that forgiveness of sins could come through the payment of a fee.
Luther began as a nuisance but rapidly became a huge political problem. After he made his positions public he agreed to a series of disputations, in which representatives of the Pope and he debated the validity of Luther’s theology. By the end of these debates, it had become clear that Luther had left the church and was not coming back. There was only option left, another burning. That Luther was not burned was due to the intervention of Frederick the Wise. Frederick’s intervention began in politics. He was against the sale of Papal indulgences in his territory, because he was selling his own indulgences to finance the completion of his own new cathedral. Martin Luther was also one of the Duke’s star professors. This was significant in those days, because professors brought students to the university who paid fees and brought money to the local economy. Luther was, therefore, a resource to be protected.
The implications of Luther’s positions led to direct Imperial intervention, as in April 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called a conference in the old German city of Worms, in order to confront and, if need be, to put down this heretic. By that point, however, it was too late, as Luther’s pamphlets had been coursing through Germany for four years already. The Emperor’s slowness in reacting stemmed from his foreign policy difficulties, as he had been confronting uprisings in both Spain and the Netherlands. The uprisings in Spain would be quelled, but those in the Netherlands led to de facto Dutch independence by the end of the century. (De jure independence came with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.) Charles V then commanded Luther to appear before him at Worms, with the sole intention of declaring him a heretic and having him burned. Frederick the Wise, however, demanded and got an Imperial guarantee of free passage for Luther to Worms and back to Saxony. The debate at Worms has become famous as the moment when a simple German monk stared down the power of both the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, but much more was going on than simple defiance.
After the conference dissolve Luther returned to Saxony under the Imperial guarantee. Upon his arrival, Luther was “kidnapped” by a group of masked men mounted on horses that swept down on Luther’s caravan and spirited him away. The entire event was staged, and Luther was whisked off to the Duke’s castle in Eisenach, where he lived under the alias Junker Jörg. No one in the castle was fooled. Nonetheless, the kidnapping was a necessary fiction. If no one knew Luther’s real whereabouts, then no real pressure could be put on Frederick the Wise to turn him over to the Imperial authorities for punishment. Luther used his enforced solitude to begin translating the Bible into German, because he believed that all Christians should have access to the Holy Text in their own language. The translation of the New Testament into German from the original Greek took only ten months. The Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, took longer. It was first published in German in 1534. Throughout the 1520s Luther also wrote many pamphlets against the Catholic Church and in favor of his proposed reforms. Wittenberg soon reformed in response, and other principalities followed. Much of the religious fervor that Luther inspired in people such as Frederick the Wise was, no doubt, real. It was, however, more than convenient that those princes who chose to reform got their hands on all the churches properties in their territories. In many ways, the Luther made the church territorial again in a way that it had not been since the early Middle Ages.
Luther’s theological revolution was intended to be politically conservative. Luther always held that people had to obey the rightful political authorities, and all reformations should happen only under a prince. The problem was, however, that Luther’s message could be interpreted radically. The first signs of trouble appeared already in 1522-23, when two adventurous knights, Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten, led an army against the Archbishop and Elector of Trier. Both men were famous Humanists, dedicated to literature and the cultivation of the German language. Nonetheless, the attack was a failure and both men became fugitives, dying lonely and pathetic ends. Far greater trouble came, however, with an uprising in southwestern Germany in 1524-26, when bands of peasants rose up against the nobility. Some of the peasants were under the erroneous belief that Luther had called for an attack on princely privilege, too. As the uprising spread, Luther responded with a pamphlet, delicately entitled, “On the Robbing and Murdering bands of Peasants,” in which he not only railed against people who rose up against legal authority but also called for the peasants to be put to the sword. In the end, many of them were, as the revolt was put down brutally.
Luther’s critiques also led to serious theological challenges, the most important of which was Anabaptism, which spread widely in northwestern Germany and the Netherlands. Anabaptism was originally a term of opprobrium, as it means re-baptism. According to church doctrine all people can only be baptized once, and this usually happens in Christian families during infancy. Anabaptists, however, held the first baptism to be illegitimate, precisely because the baby was incapable of assenting to join the church. They held, therefore, that a true baptism was necessary, in which an adult person freely accepted the Lord. Critics derisively called them re-baptists, though from their point of view their baptism was the only legitimate one.
This theological position was, however, dangerous, since it constituted an attack not only on the church but also on the state as well. The most famous political effect of Anabaptism was the 1533-35 uprising in the German city of Münster, where Anabaptist radicals not only threw out the bishop but also overturned all traditional social and political rules. The Anabaptists declared private property illegal and practiced polygamy. Everyone turned on these people, as both Catholics and Protestants sent troops to put down the new regime. The city was put to the sword, and the resulting bloodbath was appalling. One result of the counter-attack was that Anabaptism became expressly non-political and pacifist. Led by Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist, many of the remaining Anabaptists sought only to withdraw from society and pay their taxes. They became known as Mennonites, and when the opportunity for emigration arose they went en masse to America, where their descendants still live. (Perhaps, the most famous of these descendants is splinter group that is called the Amish.)
In spite of these extreme reactions, between 1522 and 1530 Lutheranism survived and spread across both northern Germany and Scandinavia. It was able to do so in the first instance, because Charles V was bogged down in Spain and Italy. While the Emperor looked elsewhere, various German princes converted to Luther’s new doctrines. Most important to the spread of Lutheranism was, however, the increased fervor of religious preaching. Between 1520 and 1560 176 preachers traversed Germany, bringing with them Luther’s new message. Fully one third of these preachers had studied at Wittenberg. These preachers convinced ordinary people of the justice of the Lutheran cause and brought, thus, thousands of believers into the new church. These preachers are also important, because some of them went so far as to develop a theory of resistance that they applied to the Emperor. This was wholly new, and one practical effect of the change was the creation in 1530 of a defensive organization called the Schmalkaldic League. This league of princes stood opposed to the Holy Roman Emperor and, eventually, went to war with him in 1546. We cannot go into the details here, but this war only came to an end in 1555 with a treaty called the Peace of Augsburg, which divided Germany with the famous phrase cuius principio, eius religio, which literally means whose prince, his religion. This treaty divided Germany into Lutheran and Catholic territories, according to the prince’s wishes. This treaty’s major weakness was, however, that it excluded Calvinism. Hence, when a few German princes converted to Calvinism, later in the century, the entire sys6tem became unstable. The result was a devastating war that began in 1618 and lasted until 1648. We will mention that war another time.
Although we are accustomed to talk of one Reformation, there were in fact more than that, as Martin Luther’s critiques set others in motion. Not all of the resulting Protestantisms have survived, however. One example is Protestantism in Strasbourg, a moderate variety that sought common ground between Luther and some of his critics. This moderate version was led by the German Martin Bucer, though it was, ultimately, destroyed by Charles V. Another is Zwinglianism, which centered on Zurich and was led by the preacher Huldrich Zwingli. Zwingli and Luther disagreed vehemently on the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli did not accept Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation, seeing the Lord’s Supper as nothing more than an historical reenactment, whose significance was purely symbolic. Bucer expended much effort bringing Luther ans Zwingli together, though in vain. This brand of Protestantism did not survive Zwingli’s death in battle in 1531.
In spite of Luther’s fame, the most successful example of Protestantism is actually Calvinism. This was the brainchild of John Calvin, a French Humanist-trained lawyer with a gift for ancient languages. Calvin reacted strongly to Luther’s call for independence from the Pope and became Protestant somewhere between 1529 and 1534. By 1533 he was forced to flee France and lived in exile in Strasbourg, where he came under the influence of Martin Bucer. Bucer’s moderation did not take, however, and Calvin went on to develop his own theology in opposition to Luther’s. Calvin accepted the Lutheran conception of solifidianism and the corresponding emphasis on the value of direct contact with the Bible. In one key respect, however, Calvin was much more radical than Luther: he emphasized God’s will and power over his reason and mercy. Where Luther found refuge and comfort in God’s absolute mercy, Calvin insisted that man come to terms with his complete insignificance. One outcome of this insistence was Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination. Calvin held that God’s omniscience meant that he know from the moment of Creation every single person’s destiny. As a result, all human beings were either saved or damned from the moment they were born. This was an austere theological position, too austere in fact for most Lutherans, who united in their rejection of Predestination. In many ways, it was Calvin that created Lutheranism, since he gave Lutherans a common enemy to unite against.
Calvin’s great moment came in 1536, when a Genevan preacher named Guillaume Farel sought out Calvin after hearing that he was staying in Geneva. At that moment Protestantism was under siege, because the populace felt that it was being imposed from the outside, particularly the neighboring Swiss city of Bern. Calvin accepted and invitation from Farel to stay in Geneva and immediately set about creating the world’s perfect Protestant city. Calvin tried to create a balance between religion and state in Geneva. He did so by writing a constitution that clearly delineated each side’s responsibilities and privileges. The most important aspect of this cooperation is that Calvin and his disciples were not doctrinaire on politics, seeing Geneva as an exemplar, rather than a model. As a result, it became very easy to transfer Calvinism, and the religion spread rapidly in the Netherlands and France, where up to 10% of the population became Calvinist. In Germany, Calvinism was spread by the princes, particularly in the Palatinate. Calvinism was much less successful in Eastern Europe, though it did have some influence in Transylvania.
By Calvin’s death, his form of Protestantism had become the most important in Europe. Lutheranism’s association with princely power meant that it remained limited to northern German territories and Scandinavia. Some scholars have seen the seeds of modernity in Calvinism, because it created a certain type of individual that opposed governments and worked hard as a way of displaying his grace. The busy and contrarian Calvinists then became a source of instability around Europe, as state reactions against their religion sparked a terrible civil war in France and became a key factor in Dutch moves toward independence. In Germany, Calvinism sparked another war, the Thirty Years’ War, when a Calvinist Prince decided to accept the Crown of Bohemia, which had been offered to him by Czech Hussites. That, however, is an issue for another lecture.
Calvinism was the most politically significant form of Protestantism, but from a world historical perspective, the English Protestantism is probably more important, since its association with the British Empire allowed it to be spread around the globe. The English Reformation was, at best, a half-Reformation. The first thing one must understand about it is that this Reformation was political and not theological. Even today, the Anglican Church’s rites and theological assumptions are basically Catholic, with the exception that English Protestants do not accept the authority of the Pope. The problems that led to England’s break with the Papacy were rooted in dynastic politics, though anti-clericalism had deep roots in England, as we have seen. In 1527, England’s King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, because he and she had only produced daughters. Pope Clement VII, however, would not allow it. In another time and place, a deal might have been cut, but the contemporary political situation forbade it. First, the Pope was busy fighting Germany’s Protestants and to do so he need Charles V’s support. Second, Catherine of Aragon was Charles V’s aunt.
Henry desperately wanted a male heir, so he needed to get rid of Catherine, and the only avenue available was an annulment. Given the nature of the British monarchy, the pursuit of the annulment rapidly became a political issue, and contemporaries called it “the King’s great matter.” It is important to recall, however, that this story was not simply about a royal divorce. Henry had never been the Pope’s enemy, having in fact written an anti-Luther tract Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521), for which he received from the Pope the title Defensor Fidelis, a title that the British Monarchs still hold. Henry had come to throne amidst great expectations. His early reign was, however, a disaster, as his foreign policy alienated both his people and the Spanish government. The result was great harm to the English economy and a surly populace. Parliament, for example, refused to vote him enough tax revenue.

Lecture 28: The Age of European Exploration, 1500 - 1800

What historians have dubbed the European Age of Exploration is the single most important world historical process that we will discuss this semester. Europe’s exit from its tiny peninsula in search of better access to Asian spices turned the entire ancient world on its head. Both the European arrival in the Indian Ocean and the encounter with two new continents whose existence had been unknown to the ancient world changed the Old World’s basic economic, political, and cultural arrangements. In this lecture we will consider what these changes meant historically.
Let us begin with the end of the Old World. You will recall from previous lectures that medieval Europe’s attempt to regain the Holy Land was rebuffed by the Islamic world by the end of the thirteenth century. From there, Europeans turned inward, competing with each other in both economic and political terms. The result was a general rise in economic prosperity across the Continent, as well as an increase in political competition. By the end of the fifteenth century, Europe’s first “states” began to emerge, and each state strove to develop an efficient apparatus for taxing its people and for turning the proceeds into war machines. The resultant rise in Europe’s ability to project power would have been important mostly to the Ottomans, since they were engaged in a centuries-long battle for predominance with the western powers, except for one key change: the improvement in European shipping. That Europeans learned to make war was important in a regional sense. That they also learned to send their people around the globe in sturdy ships became important for the world.
Europeans had a long maritime tradition, as their ships plied the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and the Baltic for centuries. The contact with Islam, beginning in the seventeenth century, however, brought a quickening to Europe, as its people learned new things from their Muslim rivals, such as the use of the compass. (The compass had been invented in China during the T’ang or Song dynasties, before making its way westward.) In addition, Europeans made constant advances in ship design and building that allowed the Continent to surpass the Islamic world.
The rise of European North-South trade meant that ships had to sail the Atlantic Ocean, which is a very rough body of water, especially in comparison to the Mediterranean. The Atlantic is extremely cold, windy, and its waves punishing. As a matter of necessity, Europeans soon learned to make tough ships that could withstand the roughest of seas. The advances included strengthening the hulls and learning new methods for make strong sails, as well as developing new methods of rigging sails to ships. For example, Europeans learned to use both square and triangular (lateen) sails together, which meant not only that they translated wind more effectively into motion but also that ships could now sail into the wind. Moreover, they also learned to add masts, which made ships faster, and they added tail rudders, which made them more maneuverable. (The Chinese originally invented the tail-mounted rudder, too.) In addition, Europeans also made advances in navigation, as they developed something called the cross-staff, which allowed them to make rough measurements of the angle of the stars to the horizon. As a result, Europeans could get a rough idea of their latitude. This advance combined with all the others I have noted to made European sailors the best in the world, and soon they struck out into the oceans. Already in 1291, a ship sailed from the Italian port city of Genoa in the hope of finding a passage around Africa. The voyage failed, but other adventurers soon followed.
The Age of European Exploration began in Portugal. Why Portugal? Early-modern Portugal had a unique combination of advantages and disadvantages that encouraged its people to sail the seas. Portuguese soil is not exactly rich, and the corresponding limits encouraged the Portuguese to exploit the sea. By the late 13th century the Portuguese were traveling far and wide in the Atlantic in search of food and trade. The Portuguese translated their open-ocean experience into a new ship design called the Caravel. This ship was sturdy, maneuverable, and well armed, which made it possible for intrepid adventurers to sail further from home in search of trade and booty.
The Portuguese soon pushed their advantage in the maritime sphere. Already by the 14th century they encountered the Azores and the island of Madeira. In the 15th century they re-discovered the Canary Islands, which had once been known to the Romans. The Spanish would later conquer and colonize this new territory. During the 15th century, Portuguese ships crept along the African coast. Many of the most important voyages were sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (1394-1460), who was the architect of the grand strategy to outflank the Middle Eastern powers by sailing around them. Henry never sailed anywhere, but he was greedy for gold and by 1415, under his sponsorship, the Portuguese had already stolen the port of Ceuta in Morocco, which they used as a staging point for other voyages. Later, the Portuguese established a trading post in Ghana on the West African coast, where they traded horses, leather, textiles, and metal items for gold and slaves. By 1488, Bartolomeo Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, before turning back. This discovery then opened yet another ocean to Portuguese exploration.
Portugal’s big moment came on 8 July 1497, when Vasco da Gama left Portugal with four armed ships. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he headed to India, where he traded for spices, especially pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. It is said that when he arrived on the Malabar Coast the locals asked him, through local Jewish merchants who served as interpreters, what he wanted in their land. His answer: Christians and spices. The Iberian desire to outflank Islam now affected life in the Indian Ocean. Da Gama returned there four years later, though this time with a war fleet. It was inevitable that war would break out between local Arab merchants and the Portuguese interlopers. In the ensuing hostilities the Portuguese distinguished themselves through their barbarity. Since they were officially fighting the “infidel,” no atrocity was too awful to comprehend, and Portuguese forces sacked and burned cities, executed prisoners en masse, and in some cases mutilated other prisoners by cutting off their ears and noses before sending them back to their people. The end result of the war was the establishment of new Portuguese trading posts at Goa and Aden in the Red Sea in 1501. By 1509, Portuguese traders were active in Malacca. Thereafter, they moved into China and New Guinea.
Portugal’s economic success changed Europe’s economy. The effect on the spice trade was almost immediate, as by 1504 prices in Lisbon were 1/5 of those in Venice. Over the next decade twelve spice fleets left Lisbon every year for India, and by 1550, the Portuguese had built over 50 trading posts around the globe that they used to transfer goods between Europe and the rest of the world. Portuguese success was so great that it could not be ignored, as between 1500 and 1550 half of Europe’s pepper supply passed through Portuguese hands. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, their market dominance did not last long, as both the English and the Dutch soon learned to build better ships and guns. Already during the late sixteenth century these powers began to steal from the Portuguese what the latter had only just stolen from others. The subsequent wars would have great ramifications for European history, not the least of which was the production of the documents fundamental to modern international law. It is not well known, but the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius began his career as a theorist by defending the Dutch right to keep whatever its sailors could steal from the Portuguese.
Spain, another Iberian power also became a major explorer, though it followed a different path to the oceans than did the Portuguese. We will begin by looking back. In 711, Muslim armies crossed from Morocco into Spain and within a century occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the native Spanish powers clinging to a few northern outposts. Over the next seven centuries, the Spanish powers engaged in a vicious fight to regain what they saw as lost territories, and in 1492 the last Muslim kingdom in Granada fell to Spanish forces. The victory in Granada freed Spain to begin a program of exploration of its own. However, since the Portuguese had already been busy in Africa and India, the Spanish believed that it was better to outflank them by finding a way to China.
The emerging Spanish rivalry with Portugal is the essential context for understanding the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Columbus was a Genoese adventurer who had read a good deal of the ancient literature on geography and astronomy. He was, therefore, familiar with the ancient arguments that the earth was, in fact, round. Based on his studies, he calculated that the world was 17,000 nautical miles around and that the entire Eurasian landmass comprised about 270 degrees of longitude. Hence, Japan should have been around 2,500 nautical miles to the west of the Canary Islands. In fact, Japan is 10,000 nautical miles away from the Canaries and two new continents lay in between.
Columbus first sought support for his planned voyage from the Portuguese. However, since they already dominated the new routes around Africa, they had no incentive to offer support. Columbus then went to Isabella of Castile and pitched his case. Isabella saw the possibilities in going around the Portuguese and offered him three ships for the voyage. Although the support was less than he had hoped for, Columbus accepted the ships and set sail. On 12 October 1492, he arrived in what is today the Bahamas and sailed around in search of gold, though he never did find any. He did return later, however, and this time with 17 ships and 1500 workers, whom he deposited on the island of Hispaniola, which now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although he is considered the European discoverer of the New World, Columbus never truly understood what he had supposedly found.
The Spanish, however, soon understood that this was a New World and set about stealing everything they could find in it. We must understand that Spanish exploration and its resulting empire differed sharply from the Portuguese model. Whereas Portugal wanted trade, Spain wanted colonies. Moreover, these colonies existed solely for the benefit of the mother land, which meant that economic activity was never about trade but expropriation. This difference in attitude explains much of the later brutality toward the native populations, though we should not forget the religious foundations of Spain’s later behavior either. Having just finished expelling a large population of dark-skinned, non-Christian peoples from their territories, the Spanish now had an entirely new population of dark-skinned, non-Christian peoples on their hands. The results were tragic.
The Spanish desire for money combined with their religiously-inspired indifference to create massive oppression and enslavement in the New World. One example is the brutal exploitation of local populations in the famed Potosí silver mines in Peru. This model would be followed throughout the Spanish territories, because the Spanish state needed bullion to fight its ever growing list of enemies. This included the French, the Dutch, the English, and Protestants everywhere, as in 1517 the German monk Martin Luther had sparked a religious revolution on the Continent. It was American gold and silver that fought the Protestants on the Continent throughout the sixteenth century and paid for the ill-fated invasion of England in 1588.
Spain’s need for money was not, however, the only force at work in the New World. There were two others. One the one hand, the economic opportunities that beckoned called a host of Spanish adventurers to the New World, where they stole every bit of land they could acquire. These conquistadores were in search of anything that would make them rich and they created an exploitative system of land tenure whose outlines were still present in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, which had been more than happy to justify acts of brutality against Iberia’s Muslim residents, now saw the New World as an enormous pool of new souls for the church. The church brought an important tension into the new empire. Although it supported Spanish conquest, because the people directly affected were not Christian, once the locals converted, it became the church’s responsibility to protect them against the most brutal forms of exploitation. As the sixteenth century progressed, the church served as an important restraint on the worst excesses of the conquistadores. (This is the environment in which the Friar Bartolomeo de las Casas wrote his critical works.)
Spain’s arrival in the New World had many long-term effects, and none was more important for world history, or more brutal, than the population shift that came with colonial exploitation. First, the Spaniards almost wiped out the local population. This was due, in part, to the brutal treatment of the locals by their conquistador overseers. More important, however, was the spread of Old World diseases to which the indigenous peoples had never been exposed. Among these diseases, small pox was the worst, and some historians estimate that up to 90% of the local population may have died as a result of its rampage. Second, with fewer workers available locally, it became necessary to import them from elsewhere. Thus, began the involuntary transplantation of large numbers of Africans from their home Continent to the New World. By 1560, over 100,000 people had been sold into slavery in Africa and were shipped across the Atlantic. This massive movement of peoples was made possible by Portugal’s wresting of the slave trade from Muslim slave traders, though the Portuguese soon lost control of this trade to the Spanish, who in turn lost it to Dutch and the English. By the mid-1620s, with the rise of Dutch shipping, perhaps 400,000 people had been sold to slavery and sent to the New World. Overall, historians estimate that between 10 and 12 million people were forcibly removed from their African homes and sent to the New World.
The Portuguese and Spanish experiences merely mark the early stages of what became a massive European project to explore, to understand, and to control the world. Between 1499 and 1502, another Italian adventurer named Amerigo Vespucci became the first European to see the massive South American Continent. (Both the continents took their name from Amerigo.) In 1513, a Portuguese named Vasco Nuñez de Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the American side. He named this body of water the Pacific, because its waters seemed to be much more peaceful than the nasty Atlantic. True Pacific navigation began, however, with another Portuguese named Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan was convinced that it was possible to reach Japan from the New World, and set out to find the way. In 1520, he discovered a Southwest Passage around Chile and Argentina that is now called the Straits of Magellan. This was a terrible voyage, as the supplies ran out and the crew was forced to survive in rats and water-soaked leather. Everyone got scurvy, and twenty-nine crewmen died. In 1521, Magellan reached what is today called the Philippines, where he and 40 more of his crewmembers died. The crew’s surviving members bought cloves from the natives and returned to Europe via India and the Cape of Good Hope. Magellan had set out with five ships and 80 men. Only one ship returned, and with only 18 people on board. Though inauspicious, this voyage was the official beginning of European exploration in the Pacific.
Given the potential loot involved, it was only a matter of time before other European states got involved in exploration, trade, and expropriation. The Dutch and the English soon surpassed both the Portuguese and the Spanish in their naval abilities. The reasons behind their relative rise were two-fold. First, both countries developed better ships. Second, both also developed better ways of raising capital to finance trade, as unlike in Portugal and Spain, it was private investors that put of the money to finance exploration and trade. In 1600, for example, the English founded the English East India Company, which pooled resources to finance the construction of trading posts and shipments. This distributed the risk among many investors, which encouraged more people to invest their money in new enterprises. The Dutch did something similar in 1602, with the founding of the Dutch United East India Company. The initial profits from these ventures were huge, as European demand for exotic spices and other products remained strong throughout the century.
English commercial interests and political jealousies were deeply enmeshed in further exploration. Already in 1553, for example, English ships discovered the White Sea and began trading with a Russian settlement at Archangel. From 1577 to 1580, the English adventurer and pirate Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. The English and soon the French also began exploring and colonizing that part of North America that later became the United States and Canada. Already in 1498, England sent the Italian explorer John Cabot to examine the area that would later be know as New England. In 1607, the English founded their first successful settlement, Jamestown, in what is now the State of Virginia. The first slave ships dropped of their human cargo in 1618. Further to the north, a Frenchmen named Jacques Cartier first explored what later became Canada through a series of voyages up the St. Lawrence River. There are important distinctions between the French and the British model of exploration and settlement. The French sought trade only, especially in valuable animal skins. The English, however, wanted to found self-sustaining communities that would provide their own defense and engage in trade. This difference in strategy was a key reason behind the ultimate British victory in North America, as local British settlements grew stronger and more prosperous over time, while French trading posts stagnated.
There was, however, more to the Age of Exploration than the charting of the Pacific and the settlement of the New World. Though often forgotten, Russian exploration in Siberia and in what later became Alaska was just as important in reshaping how people viewed the world. In order to understand how Russian exploration came about, we need to consider Imperial Russia in terms of world history. During the sixteenth-century the Mongol Empire in the east began to break up in to separate states. In addition, Ottoman power in the south also began to wane. At the same time, the Russia state also grew stronger and was able, as a result, to begin moving south and east. In 1552, Ivan IV’s troops took the city of Astrakhan on the Caspian, which opened the region to almost three centuries of Russian aggression. To the east, in 1581 an expedition funded by the Stroganov family headed into the wilderness to set up trading posts and to bring back furs. This trade made the Stroganovs extremely rich and pulled ever more Russian settlers eastward.
The Russian settlers that headed east encountered a variety of indigenous tribes. Some of the tribes simply acquiesced to Russian control. Others, however, fought to maintain their independence. In 1642, for example, there was a great uprising in Yakut that was only put down after forty years of fighting. It is estimated that 70% of the local population was killed as a result. Trade then led to further exploration, as the Russians soon encountered the Pacific from the other side. From 1725 to 1730 a Dane in Russian employ named Vitus Bering sought a northeast passage to Europe. Instead, he encountered a place that is now called Alaska. Russian traders soon followed, seeking skins and other natural products. Alaska remained a Russian territory until 1867, when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Seward negotiated its purchase from the Russian government for $ 7.2 million, which amounted to about 2 cents per acre. Of course, no one asked the people who actually lived there what they wanted. In the United States the deal was ridiculed as Seward’s Folly, or Seward’s Icebox. American attitudes changed with the gold rush and, later, the discovery of oil there.
It is also important to recognize that the Age of Exploration extended right through the eighteenth century, as various Dutch, French, and English explorers sailed around the world, charting new waters and seeking new territories to exploit. Abel Tasman, for example, encountered the islands of Fiji and Tonga in the first half of the seventeenth century. He is, however, most important historically for having been the first European to sail completely around an island that now carries his name, Tasmania. He was also the first to suggest that Australia was a large island, though he really had no idea how large it was. The Portuguese had long believed that a great southern territory existed, calling it terra australis incognita. Today it is called Australia. In this context, two eighteenth-century explorers are worthy of note. First, Captain James Cook, who began his career exploring the parts of Canada that Britain had stolen from France, before heading into the Pacific. Cook made three famous voyages in the South Pacific and was the first to chart both New Zealand and Australia fully. Second, is Louis-Antoine Bougainville, who became the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe in 1769. In 1764, he founded a colony on what is today the Falkland Islands. The French ceded this territory to Spain in 1767. In 1833, the British threw out the Spanish. In spite of Argentina’s subsequent efforts to expel them, the British are still there.
Now, let us consider the Age of Exploration’s broader effects and significance from a world historical perspective. First, the Age of Exploration put two worlds into contact that had known nothing of each other for millennia. Second, Europe’s exploitation of the New World changed the economic system of the Old World, giving a decisive advantage to the Atlantic powers. The Middle East and Asia’s relative decline cannot be understood fully without reference to these broad changes. Third, the New World was decimated by contact with the old one, as the introduction of strange diseases nearly wiped out the indigenous population. Fourth, the discovery of the New World set in motion a massive population shift the likes of which the world had never seen. Some of this was due to voluntary migration, but most of it was due to the extension of traditional African slaving patterns to the New World, with devastating results for the victims of this increased trade. The Old World and the New were now one, and we still feel the effects of this change today.

Lecture 28: Olmecs, Mayans and Teotihuacan - Mesoamerica to AD 900

This week we turn to another group of civilizations with traditions radically different from any of the civilizations we have considered so far. These civilizations are called Mesoamerican, because they appeared in an area that extends from southern Mexico through Central America and into Peru. Each civilization we will discuss developed in isolation from civilizations on other continents. Whereas the Mediterranean world, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East were in regular contact with each other, the civilizations that straddled North and South America had no access to the constant ferment we have traced across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Mesoamerica, thus, went its own way, and the concomitant isolation brought certain handicaps. Mesoamericans never developed the wheel, nor were they able to use draught animals to plow their fields. In addition, some civilizations, as we will see, rose without developing literacy. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that Mesoamerican civilizations did not develop in isolation from each other. Much as we have seen in other areas, there was a constant process of interaction, which included trade, cultural borrowing, war, and domination. Mesoamerican civilizations rose, declined, and fell for many and varied reasons before the first European set foot in the New World.
We will begin understanding Mesoamerica by considering the Continent’s prehistory. Somewhere between 30,000 and 15,000 BC small numbers of people migrated from Asia across a land bridge to North America. The land bridge existed because the world was still at the tail end of its last Ice Age, and the earth’s glaciers held back enough water to lower the sea level. There is sporadic evidence of cave dwellers that may date back as far as 21,000 BC, but by 13,000 BC a large wave of migration from Siberia began and these people dispersed quickly across the entire land mass. There is archeological evidence that by 9,500 BC human beings had reached the southern tip of South America, which amounts to a journey of 17,000 kilometers.
The Americas’ first inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers. Indeed, much of humanity’s migration southward was probably due to the constant search for food and game. By 8,000 BC, however, the last Ice Age came to an end and this had important consequences for the people in the Americas. First, as the earth warmed the sea level rose above the land bridge, cutting off the Americas from the rest of the world for the next 9,500 years. Second, the large game animals on which these people relied were unable to survive in the higher temperatures and began to die out. By 7,500 BC most of the large game was extinct and the locals turned to the sea and to agriculture, though there is evidence of mastodon hunting as late as 8000 BC.
By 7,000 BC most of the peoples in Mesoamerica were cultivating crops that have today become standard. Maize, beans, chili peppers, avocados, squashes, and gourds all appeared, becoming fundamental to the Mesoamerican diet. Maize is both an interesting and strange case, because unlike with modern grains, we do not know where it came from, since there are no wild species left. The development of corn cultivation would, nonetheless, be of extraordinary importance, since it is an extremely nutritious crop. Much like rice was to China and Japan, maize became the foundation of empires. As we look forward, archeologists have shown us a gradual transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. By 6,500 BC Mesoamericans living in Oaxaca were growing chili peppers and squash. Between 5000 and 3,500 BC the first signs of modern maize appeared. By 3,500 BC beans appeared in recognizable modern form. These early villagers lived in Neolithic circumstances, weaving cloth, making pottery, and fashioning stone tools. By 4,000 BC pottery appeared in Ecuador and Colombia. And pottery has been found in the Tehuacán valley dating to 2,300 BC. These early villages were small and probably egalitarian in their social structure.
Between 1200 and 900 BC, however, this egalitarianism began to disappear, as the large earthen pyramids and stone sculptures signaled a change in political and social organization. Ceremonial centers appeared, over which a permanent cadre of priests and other members of the ruling elite to presided. The first sign in Mesoamerica of civilization along these lines came with a people we now call the Olmecs. The word Olmec means “the rubber people,” in reference to the rubber trees that grew in the area; we do not know, however, the name the Olmecs had for themselves, since none of their documents has survived. The first Olmec ceremonial center appeared around 1200 BC on the site now occupied by the town of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo served as the Olmec capital for about 400 years and was replaced by new centers in La Venta (800-400 BC) and, later, Tres Zapotes (400-100 BC). These areas were agriculturally wealthy, thanks to a large annual rainfall. The rain served an organizational purpose similar to the flood of the Nile: in order to live in this area, it was necessary to develop extensive drainage systems. This the Olmecs did, and some of them still function today.
The change from village life to civilization is most apparent in Olmec artistic practice. San Lorenzo is famous for its stone monuments. These monuments weighed as much as forty-four tons and were made from basalt brought from 50 miles away. The labor involved in this work was on a par with the work we have seen in Egypt, and it suggests a centralized politics that could direct resources and people to specific projects. This probably meant that Olmec society was authoritarian, and it is worth keeping in mind when considering some of the beautiful things they left behind. The most striking of Olmec monuments are the famous “colossal heads,” which may show people wearing helmets that were used in public sporting events. (I will talk about them in a minute.) Olmec art also provides a glimpse into its religious structures. The main theme of religious art was a group of deities that was usually a hybrid between a jaguar and human being. There was a variety of gods based on this mixture, ranging from feminine to masculine. This half jaguar/half human theme was central to Olmec art and it was later exported to many other Mesoamerican civilizations. The spread of Olmec art was due in large measure the extensive trading network that it controlled. Olmecs exported goods such as pottery and cloth and imported things such as obsidian from Mexican highlands and Guatemala, as well as jade after 900 BC. The Olmecs were perhaps ancient Mesoamerica’s finest jade artists and their artifacts have been found far and wide. There is evidence that Olmecs sent armed escorts with their caravans, in order to ensure that their goods arrived. This early stage of civilization disappeared quite abruptly, however, around 900 BC. It may be that a tribe invaded San Lorenzo and destroyed many of the Olmecs’ key monuments, though some historians believe, however, that the Olmecs destroyed the city themselves. It is not clear why. Nonetheless, with the decline of San Lorenzo, the power center shifted to La Venta, which was more easily defended. This city flourished until 400 BC, when the Olmecs destroyed and abandoned it. Thereafter, Tres Zapotes took the lead until it finally collapsed around 100 BC.
The Olmec civilization was not only the first great civilization in Mesoamerica but also was fundamental to every later culture in the area. Olmec influence extended across Mesoamerica in terms of art and culture. Let us consider briefly four contributions that persisted in other cultures. The first was writing. The later Mayan script, for example, was based on the Olmec language. Second, Olmec religious ideas persisted. The Olmec tendency to include Jaguars and serpents in their religious imagery persisted up through the Maya, Teotihuacan, and even the Aztecs. If you go to Teotihuacan today you will notice the ubiquity of Jaguar motifs. This is important evidence of Olmec influence, since Jaguars have never lived in that part of Mexico. Third, we have the example of sport. The Olmecs played a rough contact sport that is best described as a mixture between soccer and basketball. Anywhere from 2 to 4 heavily padded players competed on a large court to shoot a hard rubber ball through a stone hoop--and they had to do this without using their hands or feet. This game was extremely popular among the Mayans, as they built stadiums for the event. Finally, there was the Olmec calendar. Actually, it was two calendars, one that marked the solar year and another that marked the ritual year. The Mayans, in particular, proved to be great borrowers of this tradition. Thus, much like the Romans in Europe, or the Chinese in Asia, the Olmecs exerted a strong influence over every later cultural tradition.
Although there were other heirs to the Olmecs, particularly the Zapotecs in Monte Albán, the people in Teotihuacan and the Maya are the two most important successors. Teotihuacan civilization arose in the Mexican highlands. This area was drier than the semi-tropical area in which the Olmecs appeared, but it had several large lakes that were rich in fish and waterfowl. These lakes were drained over the centuries and only small remnants of all the previous waters exist. Teotihuacan was probably a small agricultural village by about 500 BC. The presence of large water supplies allowed the community to flourish and by 200 BC it may have had a population of 50,000 people. It is that this point that Teotihuacan enters its period of ascendancy. By AD 100 its most famous monuments, the pyramids of the sun and the moon, had been built. The pyramid of the sun is the largest structure built in Mesoamerica. It is as broad as the great pyramid at Khufu, though only half as tall. Between AD 400 and 600 Teotihuacan became an enormous metropolis, with 200,000 residents and scores of palaces, temples, and enormous markets.
Teotihuacan was a highly organized city and civilization. Unfortunately, we do not know much about its organizational structure, since its written records disappeared when the city declined. The remaining archeological records suggest, however, that Teotihuacan was a theocracy, with priests determining when planting and harvesting was to take place. Priests calculated the calendar, which allowed the people to know where they were in time. Teotihuacan was also an important merchant hub. It included artisans, merchants, and farmers. The artisans were famous for their orange pottery and the work they did with obsidian. The resulting goods moved throughout Mesoamerica, as is evidenced by Teotihuacan’s wares appearing as far south at Guatemala City and as far north as Durango.
Teotihuacan remained mainly a farming community until about AD 500. Its influence seems to have been spread through commerce and its cultural reputation. The Mayan settlement of Kaminaljuyú, for example, came under Teotihuacan’s influence in the fourth century without any evidence of conquest. After AD 500, however, Teotihuacan came under military pressure from other peoples. This is suggested by changes in artistic styles. Until this time Teotihuacan’s artisans rarely depicted warlike scenes. After AD 500, however, this art comes to included eagles, coyotes, and jaguars, which were normally associated with war and military conquest. After AD 650, Teotihuacan entered a period of decline, and around AD 750 invaders sacked the city and burned it, destroying most of the records. After this attack the inhabitants deserted the city and it fell into ruin.
The Mayans, perhaps the greatest of Mesoamerican civilizations, appeared further south in the area that is today Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Guatemalan highlands, in particular, provided fertile soil and sufficient rain for a rich agriculture. During the third century BC small villages began to appear in and around the area, the most important of which was Kaminaljuyú, which was located near modern Guatemala City. Kaminaljuyú was a ceremonial center, rather than a traditional city, as those who worked the land returned to their villages after participating in the center’s ceremonial life. The city center was a major consumer of labor: it probably took 12,000 to 15,000 workers complete its major monuments. By the fourth century AD, however, this city came under Teotihuacan’s sway and lost much of the influence it had over other Mayan settlements.
After Kaminaljuyú’s relative decline, Mayan society’s center moved to lowland areas, which were not quite as agriculturally productive. In order to deal with the poor soil, the Maya developed an extensive terrace network that trapped tropical topsoil, thereby increasing crop yields. In this way the Maya produced the maximum amount of food possible, including crops such as maize, cotton, and cacao, which was highly prized and even became a form of currency. From about AD 300 to 900 the Maya built more than 80 large ceremonial centers in and around the Yucatan peninsula. Some of these centers turned into cities, with thousands of inhabitants. One of the most famous of the cities was Tikal, which between AD 600 and 800 had a population of around 40,000 people. Tikal had large plazas and was full of temples, pyramids, and every other form of public building. The Mayans organized themselves into a series of small kingdoms. Tikal was the most important, though other major kingdoms centered on Palenque and Chichén Itzá. These kingdoms were constantly at war with each other. The purpose behind this warfare was not, however, to destroy the enemy, but to take captives, because captives became either slaves, or human sacrifices.
Mayan society was ruled by kings and a large class of priests who oversaw the ritual sacrifices and other ceremonies that Mayan religion deemed necessary for perpetuating civilization. The Maya built on the religion that they had borrowed from the Olmecs, devising both a sophisticated calendar and complicating Olmec forms of writing. The Maya were great astronomers and mathematicians. Not only could they plot the course of the planets, but they also invented zero and were able to use it mathematically. Indeed, Mayans could predict eclipses centuries before anyone in Europe could do the same. Mayan priests used these skills to find the Mayans’ position within a complicated calendrical system. The Mayans had two calendars, on that was based on the 365-day solar year and another that was based on a ritual calendar of 260 days. By finding out where the Maya were within these two calendars, the Maya believed that each day could be ascribed a particular meaning.
In spite of the Maya’s great achievements, by about AD 800 the people began to desert their cities. Only Chichén Itzá, among all the others, continued to flourish. No one knows why this happened. We only know that the monuments the Mayans put up every two years to mark time’s passing stopped appearing around AD 800. It may have been problems with the weather, foreign invasion, or disease; but by the ninth century Mesoamerica’s greatest civilization was disappearing. This decline, together with the destruction of Teotihuacan would open the door to other, small civilizations. We will trace the rise of these others next time, and we will also discuss Mesoamerica’s other great centers for civilization that appeared in the Andes.

Lecture 27: Incas and Aztecs, Mesoamerica to 1500

Last time we ended with the fall of the Teotihuacan and Mayan civilizations. Today I want to begin by looking further south to Mesoamerica’s Andean civilizations. Sometime around 12,000 BC the hunter-gatherers that had moved from Siberia into North America reached Central America and began moving into South America, particularly into the Andes. These people remained nomadic hunter-gatherers for years. In the highland regions they hunted, pursuing creatures such as deer, llama, and alpaca. Along the coastal lowlands, the settlers turned to the sea, learning to fish and hunt shellfish. In addition, since the climate in both areas was moist and temperate, wild squashes, gourds, and potatoes were easy to gather.
Around 8,000 BC, however, the favorable climate began to change, becoming warmer and drier. At this point, the human communities had to learn settled agriculture in order to survive, and soon villages and other permanent settlements began to appear. By about 1000 BC, these villages had become complex and wealthy enough to generate distinct civilizations. The very earliest Andean societies developed largely independently of societies further north, though there was some minor influence through trade. The cultivation of maize and squash, as well as artistic objects, for example, moved from the north to the south, while Andean metallurgical skills traveled north. Andean society was centered on the regions that now make up Bolivia and Peru, a mountainous region that not only impeded trading routes with other societies further north but also isolated Andean societies from each other. The region is full of sharp valleys and swift rivers that discouraged empire building, though several civilizations managed to overcome these problems.
Farming techniques had spread through most of the Andean region by 2000 BC. The local people cultivated beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts as their major crops. The also grew cotton, with which they made the twine that went into their textiles and fishing nets. The coastal communities developed first, since they had access to greater resources. But civilization did move further up into the Andes over time, particularly as the cultivation of the potato spread. By 1800 BC, so many incipient societies had appeared that distinctive differences became apparent in things like pottery and textiles, and these various peoples began to build large ceremonial centers that included pyramids and temples. After about 1000 BC a large religious center appeared in the central Andes that is now called the Chavín Cult. This religious cult spread across Peru between 900 BC and 800 BC, but disappeared by 300 BC. As was the case with the Maya, the reasons for the decline remain obscure. The nature of this cult is not clear, nor do we know its original name. It is named Chavín after Chavín de Huántar, its most prominent site. The religious centers devoted to this cult included large temple complexes with intricate stone carvings of jaguars, hawks, eagles, and snakes.
As the Chavín cult spread, life became ever more complex across the Andes, as it witnessed by the increasing complexity of cultural objects. Elaborate textiles with intricate patterns spread across the Andes. Light and strong fishing nets began to spread along the coasts, while the basic principles of metallurgy were discovered and distributed widely. Gold and silver jewelry as well as copper tools began to spread across the entire region. The Chavín cult was, however, never a full-blown state. Its rise and spread points us in a different direction. As the Andes region became ever more economically productive, cultural patterns emerged that were characteristic of civilized societies. Moreover, like some Mayan religious centers, some of the Chavín Cult’s religious complexes evolved into full-blown cities. Huari, Pucara, and Tiahuanaco all developed into cities that had populations over 10,000, with separate ceremonial and residential areas.
After developing large cities the Andeans began to move toward regional states. The first such states arose when conquerors were able to unify various river valleys into a larger organization. These conquerors then managed the economy centrally, building irrigation networks and overseeing trade. This was an important change for the Andeans, because it united highland, valley, and lowlands economies into a larger market. Highland economies produced potatoes, llama meat, and alpaca wool. The valleys produced corn, beans, and squash. Finally, the coasts produced sweet potatoes, fish, and cotton. As these goods moved freely through the various zones, the states that controlled the region became richer. It is important to recall, however, two important aspects of these developments. First, the rising Andean states were based on military conquest and control. Second, the nature of this control and the belief systems associated with it are mostly lost to us, since these civilizations did not use writing. This latter theme will be important late.
The first great civilization to emerge from the ferment of the Chavín period was the Mochica, which takes its name from the Moche River Valley. It dominated the valleys and coast of northern Peru from about AD 300 to 700. Most of what we know about this civilization comes from pottery remnants, which reveal a warlike society that was also socially and economically complex. The Mochica was only one of many civilizations that rose up in the post-Chavín period. No single state was, however, able to unify all the valleys, mountains, and coasts, so that by AD 1000, the Andes hosted a diverse array of civilizations each of which cultivated its own, radically different culture. One example is the Chucuito, a people that dominated the highlands around Lake Titicaca after the twelfth century. The Chucuito cultivated potatoes and herded llamas and alpacas. They were highly organized politically, as is evidenced by the extensive terraces that they built to grow potatoes, maize, tomatoes, greens, and chiles. In the lowlands another civilization called the Chimu emerged in the tenth century, dominating the Peruvian coast until the arrival of the Incas. Chimu civilization was large and complex, having extensive irrigation networks and a lively local economy. Its capital city Chanchan had a population of about 50,000 and boasted massive brick buildings that indicated the ability to direct resources to specific projects, and the city itself was organized tightly around clans. Each clan owned one city block and coordinated with other clans to make the city function.
The various civilizations that appeared after the Chavín period flourished until the mid-fifteenth century with the rise of a warlike people known as the Incas. The Incas migrated for centuries throughout the Andean region, but were repeatedly expelled by local peoples. They finally settled around Lake Titicaca around the mid-thirteenth century. Initially, they lived peacefully. But around 1438 and Inca ruler named Pachacuti (1438-1471) launched a series of military campaigns that subdued the Incas’ neighbors. After gaining control of the highlands, Pachacuti then turned on the Chimu, whom he subdued by getting control of their water supply. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Inca Empire extended from Quito to Santiago and had a population of about 11.5 million.
The Inca Empire was ruled by warrior-administrators. Inca armies were composed of troops of subject peoples and a well-trained bureaucracy that extended deeply into the Empire. Obedience to the government was obtained by the practice of taking family members as hostages and forcing them to live at the Inca capital Cuzco. When subject peoples rose up, the Incas made the rebellious population move to a new area and settled their own peoples in the vacant area. The Empire’s administrators relied on a unique method for storing information called quipu. Quipus were knotted strings that helped people to remember administrative information, such as taxes and labor services owed by various communities. The system was cumbersome, but it worked, as the empire was well administered. The Inca, for instance, built an extensive road system that extended to 10,000 miles. With it the administrators in Cuzco could communicate easily with the entire empire, as a corps of official runners was kept on staff to pass messages from one end of the empire to the other.
The Inca organized their society well, but they were also jealous of alternate sources of power. All long distance trade was, for example, run wholly by the government. Thus, the Inca never developed a merchant class that could threaten the priests and elite administrators. Throughout all of its life, the Inca priests and bureaucrats held privileged positions. Aristocrats ate the best food, wore the best clothing, and had extensive rights and privileges. Most of society consisted of peasants, and their lives were controlled by extensive labor services that the state required of them. The Incas also controlled power through their religion. The elite worshipped the sun as a god, whom they called Inti. The other heavenly bodies and natural forces were considered divine. In Cuzco four thousand priests, attendants, and virgin devotees served the great sun god. The great temple there also attracted pilgrims from all over the empire. The high priests engaged in extensive sacrifices of animals in order to placate the gods. This highly complex, though authoritarian, society then collapsed before the Spanish invasion of 1532.
With the fall of the Incas, we now turn our attention to the north, where life continued after Teotihuacan’s fall. After Teotihuacan fell several regional states rose on the Mexican highlands and authority fractured. This area was unified again with the appearance to two peoples the Toltecs and the Mexica. The Toltecs migrated into the area during the eighth century, from the arid lands of northwestern Mexico, settling at Tula. This people proved adept at waterworks, as they tapped the Tula River to water their crops of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, chiles, and cotton. Between about AD 950 and 1150 this civilization became wealthy enough to support a population of about 60,000 people in the capital city, with another 60,000 in the surrounding region. The Toltecs were a warlike people, maintaining a large army that they used to subdue surrounding peoples. These peoples paid tribute which was then used to beautify the capital city. As a result, Tula became an important political and cultural center. Its artisans made textiles, pottery, and obsidian for export, while importing jade, turquoise, and animal skins from the rest of Mesoamerica.
Around AD 1125, the Toltecs began to descend into internal conflicts. At the same time as this was occurring nomadic peoples entered the region and by 1175 the Toltec state was destroyed. Archeological evidence indicates that the city was burned, though people still lived at Tula afterward. By the middle of the thirteenth century another people showed up in the Mexican plateau who called themselves the Mexica. They moved around a bit before settling on Lake Texcoco and founding their capital Tenochtitlan. This site offered several advantages. The lake was full of fish and fowl, and it provided a ready source of irrigation for Mexica agriculture. The wealth that this area produced made the Mexica powerful enough by the early fifteenth century to begin attacking their neighbors. Under a series of powerful kings, the Mexica went from being a wealthy civilization to an empire in a very short time. Under Itzcóatl (1428-1440) and Motecuzoma I (1440-1469) the Mexica moved against Oaxaca, before turning to the Gulf coast, conquering the cities with whom they had been trading. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the Mexica then entered into an alliance with two other cities, Texcoco and Tlacopa (Tacuba). This is the origin of what we now call the Aztec Empire. The term Aztec derives from Aztlán, which is the Mexica’s mythical homeland. The aim of this new empire was to exact as much tribute from neighboring regions as possible. From all over central Mexico, goods poured in to the center to enrich the empire. In the end, the Aztecs used their increasing wealth to impose their rule on over 21 million people.
Unlike the Incas, but like the Mongols, the Aztecs never developed an extensive bureaucracy. After conquering a region, the Aztecs assessed the annual tribute and left the local populations to manage their affairs. Armies were only raised on an ad hoc basis. What kept people in line? The Mexica had a fearsome reputation as warriors and no one wanted to face them in battle, so most regions simply paid up. At the empire’s high-point, 489 territories were paying tribute, which made Tenochtitlan a very wealthy place. As a result, this city also became very large, reaching a population of 200,000 people by the early sixteenth century. (Few European cities could have equaled this number at the time.)
We know more about the Aztecs than we do the Incas, since some of their records survived the European invasion. (The Spanish burned many Aztec texts as a way of spreading Christianity.) What we do know of the Aztecs is that their society was rigidly hierarchical and was dominated by a military elite. Noble men were trained to fight in war and were expected to show their prowess on the battlefield. Public honor was bestowed only on those who went into battle. Much as in the Inca world, this elite ate the best food and wore the best clothes. There were even sumptuary laws that required commoners to wear coarse burlap garments, while the warrior elite were allowed to wear cotton. Alongside this warrior aristocracy was a priestly class that received special training in ritual lore and calendars. Priests ensured the continuation of society by placating the gods and watching the calendar. There was also a large merchant and artisan class that trafficked in gems, animal skins, and bird feathers, but they were clearly subordinate to the warriors. Finally, there was everyone else that worked the fields.
When the Mexica migrated to the Mexican plain they adopted many of the cultural traditions that they found. The Mexica already spoke Nahuatl, which had been spoken in the region since the Toltecs’ rise. They adopted the Olmecs’ ball game and their calendar. In addition, they accepted local gods such as Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl, which dated back to the days of Teotihuacan. The Mexica believed that the gods had set the world in motion through individual sacrifice. It was the spilling of divine blood that first wetted the earth, allowing crops to grow. Consistent with that belief the Mexica and later Aztecs placed great emphasis on spilling blood, both their own and the blood of human sacrifices. The perceived need to spill blood became very strong after the Mexica began worshipping Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli became the patron deity of the Mexica warriors early in the fourteenth century. As the Mexica’s military victories mounted, Huitzilopochtli’s priests demanded ever more sacrifices in the name of the war god, which included ripping the still beating hearts out of the victim’s chest. These ritual sacrifices were not, however, forms of entertainment. For the Mexica they were an essential part of keeping the world going. The blood of the sacrificed assured that the sun would shine and moisture would persist.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519 they found a strange and fascinating society. For them Tenochtitlan was a land full of gold and other unimaginable wealth. They did not know that the wealth was the product of tyranny. Nor did they hesitate to institute a new tyranny that was based on religious proselytizing and economic exploitation. When the last great Aztec king Motecuzoma II (1502-1520) fell in battle, Mesoamerica’s native traditions fell far, going from being official culture to a base culture. The same would happen in the Andes, where native tongues and religions became something for the common people to practice. And with this lecture, in particular, we can look to the rise of powerful kings in Europe, since it was European monarchies that projected power over the world’s waters. Keep that theme in mind as we move through the last section of this course.