Chapter fourteen economic expansion and a new politics

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Chapter Summary

Chapter Fourteen describes the years of economic and territorial expansion, as well as increasing centralization within European political units, that together laid the foundations for the West’s domination of the globe. By the late fifteenth century, many signs of relative improvement in European affairs were evident. The population had begun to increase, cities expanded, and marginal land came under cultivation. Commercial life experienced an enormous revitalization, sparked in part by the inflationary impact of New World bullion, but more profoundly by the new spirit of capitalist profit seeking that would come to drive European economic life. Such forces had extremely disruptive effects in the countryside as poverty and vagrancy contributed to growing crime and disorder. Within cities, where living conditions were, if anything, worse than in rural areas, economic opportunities nonetheless fostered the creation of a new urban aristocracy destined to rival the ancient nobility.

The most startling sign of Europe’s new internal vitality appeared in its external relations. Beginning with expeditions sponsored by the visionary Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese used maritime and weapons superiority to end Arab domination of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. Their empire of forts and protected sea lanes contrasted with the empire created later by the Spanish conquerors of the New World. There, by 1550, the conquistadors had overthrown the ancient Aztec and Incan civilizations, replacing them with an empire characterized by European settlement, massive exploitation of native peoples, and an economy heavily dependent upon the slave trade.

The profits that accrued to the Spanish crown were the envy of other European monarchs, in particular those of England and France. However, the English and French monarchs were equally absorbed in the process of centralizing and consolidating their power. In England, the Tudor dynasty cleverly adapted pre-existing institutions like parliament and the law courts to regularize finances, restore local order, and curb the power of the great nobility. When Henry VIII undertook to break his country’s religious ties with Rome, his minister Thomas Cromwell handled the different forces in the country so skillfully that the crown and parliament both emerged from a potentially explosive situation with their powers enhanced. The creation of the Anglican Church vastly enriched the crown through the confiscation of monastic lands, but Henry’s unwillingness to address doctrinal issues raised by Protestant reformers meant that those questions would haunt his successors.

In Valois France, monarchs started at a relative disadvantage because of the strength of local nobility, estates, and parlements. They, however, were able to use a well-developed reliance on Roman law and royal decree, and a prerogative of royal access to special taxes, to fund a large standing army and more centralized administration. Through war and inheritance, Louis XI and Charles VIII acquired vast additional territories and engaged in a long struggle with Spain for control of Italy. Francis I raised revenues by a widespread sale of offices, took steps to gain control of the French church, and curbed the power of parlement through the device of the lit de justice.

The union of Ferdinand (of Aragon) and Isabella (of Castile) opened an extraordinary era for the Iberian peninsula. Allying with urban elites, the Cortes of Castile, lesser aristocrats and minor officials, the monarchs were able to lesson the autonomy of the greatest landowners, establish a uniform code of law, and increase their revenues. In addition, they used war against religious enemies, both internal and external, to give the country a religious unity far greater than that enjoyed by other rulers. When their grandson Charles V inherited the throne in 1516, Spain became part of an international Habsburg empire, with the result that her finances were drained by decades of warfare throughout the continent.

In other parts of Europe, the trend toward royal consolidation did not occur. The Holy Roman empire’s fragmentation into hundreds of virtually independent political units made a mockery of the Emperor’s claims to authority. In both Hungary and Poland the nobility not only prevented assertions of royal dominance, but managed to impose serfdom on the peasantry as well. The Ottomans, whose empire reached its greatest extent under Suleiman the Great, fared better, in part because their rule left great power in the hands of local nobility anyway. In Italy, the lack of political unity had devastating effects, as French, Spanish, and Habsburg armies fought throughout the peninsula for decades.

The emergence of dynamic, highly competitive political states in Europe fostered a new diplomacy based on the use of resident ambassadors, formal protocol, intelligence gathering, and increasingly complex treaties and alliances. It was not surprising that Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat who had spent his life observing the new realities, would write a book in this era analyzing the acquisition and uses of political power. The bleakness of his vision concerning human motivation and the purposes for which power is exercised continues to shock readers.

Lecture and Discussion Topics

1. How did capitalism disrupt society in the Old World and in the New World?

2. Discuss how a handful of ambitious Spaniards overcame two sophisticated empires in the New World.

3. Describe a New World mining operation or ranch or sugar plantation to show the economic and social roles of the different inhabitants.

4. Read excerpts of the letters of Christopher Columbus and Kirkpatrick Sale’s biography of the explorer (see page 484). Ask students to evaluate Columbus’ understanding of the people he encountered and his responsibilities toward them.

5. Compare Isabella of Castile to the wives of Henry VIII. What role did women play in state building in the sixteenth century?

6. Initiate a discussion in which students enumerate the types of problems that all monarchs faced in the sixteenth century. Then compare the regional variations facing the different dynasties of Europe.

7. Use Machiavelli’s The Prince to open a discussion on moral philosophy as it applies to individuals and to states functioning within an international system.

8. Compare and contrast the efforts of European rulers to centralize their domains. What techniques did they employ? What obstacles did they face?

Supplemental films

Aguirre, Wrath of God. 96 min. Color. 1972. Werner Herzog film of exploits of an actual Spanish conquistador.
The Black Robe. 101 min. Color. 1991. Vivid depiction of Catholic missionaries and Indians in the Great Lakes.
Christopher Columbus: The Americas, 1492. 30 min. Color. 1977. Time-Life Films. Docudrama of Columbus.
Columbus and the Age of Discovery. Seven 58 min. episodes. Color. Films for the Humanities.
Conquest of Souls. 45 min. Color. 1978. McGraw-Hill. Catholic missionary activities in the New World and in Europe.
The Moslems in Spain. 39 min. Color. 1979. Examines how Islamic culture fused with Christian culture to create Spanish culture.
1492:Queen Isabel and Her Spain. 32 min. Color. International Film Bureau. The year when Spain conquered Granada, expelled the Jews, and sent Columbus to the New World.
Francisco Pizarro: Inca Nation, 1532. 30 min. Color. 1977. Time-Life Films. Docu-drama of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Six 90 min. episodes. BBC. Life at court and demands it placed on women.
Ferdinand and Isabella . 30 min. Color. 1994. Film Archives. Brief insight into the unification of Spain.

Multiple Choice Questions

The page numbers listed below indicate the correct answers and their locations in the text.

1. Which of the following probably contributed to the population increase that began in Europe in the late fifteenth century?

a. eradication of the Black Plague

b. increased knowledge of the causes of disease

c. a warming climate that may have caused improved harvests (p.474)

d. more intense cultivation, even though slightly less land was being farmed
2. Inflation, which began around 1500, indicated

a. impending crisis for the European economy

b. declining demand for goods

c. an increase in demand (p.475)

d. a increase in people’s debts
3. In the sixteenth century the capitalist outlook

a. had no real impact on Europe’s economy

b. resulted in profits that encouraged further economic growth (p.476)

c. could not operate because free markets did not exist

d. relied upon the teachings of the Catholic church for legitimacy
4. Which social group did not benefit from the new prosperity of the sixteenth century?

a. landowners

b. peasants (p.477)

c. artisans

d. merchants
5. As a consequence of the economic changes of the sixteenth century,

a. the real wages of ordinary laborers rose markedly

b. crime and vagrancy in the countryside decreased as peasants enjoyed good markets in products for food

c. a new aristocracy developed out of the commercial and office holding opportunities (p.480)

d. work in cities became harder to find
6. The country that pioneered overseas exploration in the fifteenth century was

a. Italy

b. Spain

c. Portugal (p.481)

d. England

e. France

7. The Portuguese were able to break the Arab monopoly of trade in the Indian Ocean by

a. designing ships that were faster and more maneuverable than those of the Arabs

b. allying with Spain against the Arabs

c. fighting battles at sea with effective fire power

d. a and c (p.482)

e. all of the above

8. In the sixteenth century Spain was able to extend its authority to the Americas because

a. with the conquest of the Muslims in Spain there were many experienced soldiers looking for adventure

b. diseases brought by the conquistadors decimated the native population

c. the Spanish monarchy had developed an administrative apparatus that could be transferred to the new territories

d. all of the above (pp.483-484)
9. Hernando Cortes achieved a rapid victory over the Aztecs because

a. he was able to exploit their superstitions (p.484)

b. his army was very large

c. he had overwhelming superiority in firearms

d. b and c
10. The early European settlers in the New World were

a. encouraged by officials to intermarry with natives

b. composed of equal numbers of men and women

c. driven to leave Europe by hardship at home (p.485)

d. mostly aristocrats motivated by the chance for independent command or the allure of fortune
11 Colonizing Europeans solved the labor shortage they faced in the New World by

a. kidnapping volunteers from their own countries

b. relying extensively on forced labor

c. transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas

d. all of the above (pp.485-486)
12. Which of the following was not true of England in comparison with other European states in the sixteenth century?

a. a smaller percent of the population was legally noble

b. it relied less on the use of Roman law and more on precedents as interpreted by jurists

c. the king relied upon powerful noble families to administer the counties (p.488)

d. its kings were more likely to consult the country’s wishes as expressed in a parliament
13. In England, common law

a. helped to unify the country

b. was administered by traveling judges

c. became an source of power with which to oppose the crown

d. all of the above (p.489)
14. Henry VIII’s break with Rome

a. came at the recommendation of Sir Thomas More

b. strengthened the power of the Parliament of England (p.490)

c. pleased Emperor Charles V

d. infuriated Martin Luther
15. The role of the Parlement of Paris was to

a. register royal edicts (p.492)

b. pass legislation

c. authorize new taxes

d. all of the above
16. The French monarchy increased its income in all but which of the following ways in the sixteenth century?

a. levying new taxes on the lower classes

b. selling public offices

c. appropriating a portion of church income

d. convening the Estates General to obtain authorization for new taxes (p.494)
17. Ferdinand and Isabella consolidated royal power in Spain by

a. creating a single political and governmental system for all their kingdoms

b. eliminating the power and privileges of the great nobles

c. obtaining from the papacy the right to make major ecclesiastical appointments in Spain (p.496)

d. all of the above
18. Ferdinand and Isabella pursed religious unity and consolidation by

a. establishing their own Inquisition

b. expelling the Jews

c. crusading against Muslims in southern Castile

d. all of the above (p.497)
19. In the empire controlled by Charles V in the sixteenth century,

a. France was the only major Continental territory west of Poland that was not nominally under his jurisdiction (p.498)

b. Charles made clear to the Spanish elites that Spain was the most important part of the empire

c. Charles made clear to the princes of Germany that the Holy Roman empire was the most important part of his holdings

d. Charles made no claims on the independent republics of Italy
20. The biggest drain on Spain’s financial resources during the sixteenth century was the cost of

a. paying for the government’s huge bureaucracy

b. supporting the wars of the Habsburgs (p.500)

c. supporting the colonies in the New World

d. defending the treasure fleets against pirates
21. In the Holy Roman empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

a. the emperors and Diet created a strong central government

b. the emperors were unable to control either lay or ecclesiastical princes (p.501)

c. the emperors succeeded in stopping the fragmentation of the lands they ruled

d. the empire sponsored overseas expeditions
22. The fate of Italy in the sixteenth century revealed that

a. small political units could not survive against larger, more centralized powers (p.504)

b. cleverness and self-reliance could allow sturdy citizen republics to play large powers off against each other successfully

c. acknowledged leadership in culture and the arts would ensure political independence

d. the papacy was a good focus of leadership for those wishing for Italian unity
23. The new diplomacy that emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries relied upon

a. occasional emissaries sent by princes as the need arose

b. the papacy to serve as intermediary in disputes

c. a fully developed understanding of the balance of power in Europe

d. the development of diplomatic immunities for ambassadors (p.507)
24. Niccolo Machiavelli’s goal in writing The Prince was to

a. persuade the Italian states to unite against foreign aggressors

b. explain how power works

c. teach rulers to be more cunning and manipulative

d. all of the above (pp.507-508)

Essay Questions

25. What factors contributed to the economic boom of the sixteenth century? What areas of the economy experienced the most dramatic growth? Did the prosperity of the age extend to all segments of society?

26. Compare and contrast how the Spanish and Portuguese exploited their respective overseas empires. Your response should include discussion of their motives, the economic impact on each country, and their relations with the native populations.

27. England’s parliament gained importance and prestige during the reign of Henry VIII at the same time that monarchical power reached new heights. Show how these two apparently contradictory developments occurred and discuss the relationship that developed between the two branches of government.

28. All monarchs faced the challenge of increasing royal revenues in the sixteenth century. Why? How did these rulers enhance their revenues?

29. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the monarchs of western Europe were able to create vastly more powerful and centralized administrations, while those of central and eastern Europe were not. How do you account for this difference?

30. How did the practice of international diplomacy begin to change in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?

31. Slavery was virtually non-existent in Europe by ca. 1500, yet in the succeeding century the use of slaves became widespread by Europeans. Discuss this development in terms of religious, political, economic, and social factors. Which do you think was the most significant contributor to this increase in slavery?

32. Why are Henry VII of England, Louis XII of France, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain called the “new monarchs”?

33. How did monarchs begin to use religion as a tool in the consolidation of rule? When was the use of religion successful? When did it backfire?

34. How did capitalism become a significant contributor to social change? How did capitalism contribute to social unrest? And how did capitalism encourage further consolidation of royal authority in Spain, England, and France?


Evaluating Evidence

35. What do the monk and the woman depicted in a Merchants Clearing Accounts on page 476 symbolize?
36. Why do you think merchants portrayed themselves as honest, hardworking, intelligent, and wise in Allegory of Trade on page 477? Who were they trying to convince?
37. Consider the picture of a slave ship on page 486. Why did the conditions of the slave ship create such a high mortality rate during the journey?
38. Using Map 14.1, how were both Spain and Portugal ideally situated to take advantage of improvements in trans-oceanic shipbuilding and navigation?
39. How does the painting on page 491 represent consolidation of the authority of the English kings as well as English anti-Catholicism?

40. How did The Nuremberg Chronicle (see the excerpt on page 501)function as propaganda for Nuremberg and other German cities? What messages are they trying to convey in woodcuts such as this?

41. How do the paintings on pages 495 and 508 suggest the enduring influence of the Renaissance and its influence on learning?
42. Consider the portrayals of common people in the paintings on pages 479 and 503. What do these paintings express about the experiences of common people during this period?

Critical Analysis

Two Views of Columbus

43. How does historical perspective inform both of these passages about Columbus? How do you account for the tremendous discrepancy in their interpretations of Columbus?

44. What aspects of Columbus's voyages do both authors concentrate on, and what aspects do they ignore?

Henry VIII Claims Independence from the Pope

45. How does passage demonstrate the enduring nature of the conflict over power between the English kings and church that dates at least from the time of Henry II (r. 1154-1189)?
46. This passage describes the pope as a “foreign prince.” What are the connotations of that description regarding the state of the papacy at the time? What did Henry hope to achieve by treating the pope as such?


  1. capitalism

  2. vagrancy

  3. Bartholomeu Dias

  4. Christopher Columbus

  5. conquistador

  6. Aztecs

  7. Francisco Pizarro

  8. audiencia

  9. slave trade

  10. gentry

  11. common law

  12. Star Chamber

  13. Privy Council

  14. Louis XI

  15. Ferdinand

  16. Castile

  17. corregidor

  18. Moriscos

  19. bullion

  20. Matthias Corvinus

  21. The Prince

  22. enclosures

  23. Henry the Navigator

  24. Ceuta

  25. Vasco de Balboa

  26. Hernando Cortés

  27. Ferdinand Magellan

  28. Incas

  29. hidalgo

  30. Bartolomé de las Casas

  31. justices of the peace

  32. Henry VII

  33. Henry VIII

  34. Parlement of Paris

  35. Charles VIII

  36. Isabella

  37. Aragon

  38. Conversos

  39. Charles V

  40. Diet

  41. Machiavelli

  42. Guicciardini

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