Background: An Age of Renaissance and Recovery

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Background: An Age of Renaissance and Recovery


Medieval Prosperity and Growth, 10001300. For centuries before Christopher Columbuss famous 1492 voyage, Europeans were already gaining greater knowledge of the world around them. Beginning around the year 1000 Europe experienced what historians have labeled a commercial revolution of the High Middle Agesa period of remarkable and unprecedented growth in economy and population. Large cities, mostly absent from the European landscape since the dissolution of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, reappeared and were connected to one another by ever-expanding networks of roads and commerce. Part of the impetus for Europes dramatic economic expansion in this era came from long-distance trade that brought to Europes markets the consumer products of Asia. Fueled in large measure by contacts established during the Christian crusades against the Muslim-dominated Holy Land beginning in 1081, Europeans of means developed a taste for spices, silk, and other luxury goods of East Asian origin. Demand for such products was filled through complex patterns of intercontinental trade. Muslim traders brought goods from China, India, the Spice Islands (modern Indonesia), and other parts of South and East Asia to the port cities of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Italian ships from the maritime city-republics of Venice and Genoa took the goods across the Mediterranean to European markets. From its swampy but strategically advantageous lagoon at the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, Venice became Europes dominant medieval commercial power. The Venetian gold coin called the ducat became the standard of trade across the continent.

Routes East. Through centuries of armed conflict as well as trade, Venetians and other Europeans became quite familiar with the culture of their Muslim neighbors to their immediate south and east. However, the civilizations and cultures further east, including the technologically advanced Chinese, long remained in the European imagination distant shadows and the subject of fanciful legends. Only a handful of Europeans actually traveled during the High Middle Ages directly to the sources of the coveted East Asian trade. Though few in number, journeys by Europeans to the Far East were facilitated somewhat during the time of the short-lived Mongol dynasty in China. Beginning with the great warrior-emperor Genghis Khan, the Mongols established an empire stretching from Asias Pacific coast to the steppes of southwestern Russia. The era of Pax mongolica, or Mongol dominance, facilitated trade of all sorts across the Eurasian landmass. Some Europeans managed to follow the trade routes eastward, and a few, such as the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, produced written accounts of what they saw in their travels among the people and cultures of Asia. After the fall of the Mongol dynasty in 1368 and the dissolution of their vast empire, however, the lines of contact between Europe and East Asia constricted significantly.

Crisis. In Europe meanwhile a series of cataclysmic disasters brought to an abrupt end the prosperity and growth of the High Middle Ages. The 1300s began with a series of failed harvests and widespread famine across Europe. Then from 1347 to 1351 Europe was ravaged by the Black Death (bubonic plague) that killed as much as one-third of the continents population. From a peak of some eighty-four million people in 1300, Europes population dipped to slightly more than fifty million by 1351, mostly as a result of the waves of famine and pestilence. Population decline was coupled with economic contraction and social unrest, and Europes tailspin continued into the early decades of the 1400s. The rise of the powerful Muslim Ottoman empire in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) presented in the fifteenth century a new external threat to Europe. The Ottomans conquered much of the Near East and North Africa. After besieging Constantinople in 1453, they began to move into the Balkan peninsula, that is, the southeastern corner of Europe itself. In short the era that historians call the Renaissance (approximately 1350 to 1600) was born in the midst of a deep crisis for European civilization.


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries European notions of the wonders and wealth to be found in East Asia continued to be shaped in large part by the extremely popular accounts of the thirteenth-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo. He was only a teenager when he set out from Venice with his father and uncle in 1271 on a journey through Asia which would last twenty-four years. After more than three years of perilous travel, the Polos reached the court of the great Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. The emperor took a special interest in the young Venetian, and soon Polo found himself employed as a diplomat and ambassador in the service of the powerful Chinese empire. Polo remained in this post for seventeen years, traveling on a variety of missions for the emperor and in the process becoming a wealthy and well-respected man among the Chinese elite. When the Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295 ragged and weary from the difficult return journey, their family, who had years earlier given them up for dead, reportedly did not recognize them and refused to have anything to do with them. Family sentiment, however, quickly became more nostalgic and affectionate when the disheveled travelers produced from their threadbare clothing large quantities of rubies and other jewels which they had brought back from Asia.

Through the course of his journeys Polo saw and learned a great deal about the politics, people, and cultures of the Far East. Yet his experiences might have disappeared entirely from the European historical record had it not been for the misfortunes which befell him soon after his return to Venice. In 1298 Polo commanded a warship in a battle against the naval forces of Venices principal commercial rival, Genoa, and during the battle he was taken prisoner. While in the hands of the Genoese, Polo met Rustichello, a fellow prisoner from the city of Pisa who became fascinated with Polos tales of his travels in faraway lands. During their long hours of imprisonment together, Rustichello produced detailed written summaries of Polos stories. Manuscript copies of these accounts circulated across Europe throughout the fourteenth century. After the development of the moveable-type printing press in the mid fifteenth century, dozens of printed editions of Polos travel stories appeared in all major European languages. His accounts of the people and wealth of the civilizations of East Asia long remained one of the bestsellers of the early print era.

Source: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Mans Search to Know His World and Himself (New York: Vintage, 1983).

Growth. Renaissance Europes economic and demographic recovery came gradually in the middle decades of the fifteenth century, as populations and economies across the continent began slowly to rebound. Throughout the preceding 150 years of crisis, long-distance trade with East Asia had been maintained. The Asian trade that survived the years of crisis had, however, increasingly fallen under the monopolistic stranglehold of the Muslim traders of the Ottoman empire on one hand and

the Venetian ship captains that dominated the Mediterranean Sea on the other. Both the Muslims and the Venetians made as high as 2,000 percent profits from this trade. By the time they reached European markets the spices and silks of Asia were prohibitively expensive for many people. The Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus and others wondered if it would be possible to find an alternative means of access to the legendary and lucrative East Asian trade, a route that bypassed the Muslim and Venetian middlemen.


William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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Background: An Age of Renaissance and Recovery

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