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A History of Europe


1485 to 1618

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

How the White Man Got Ahead of Everybody Else
The Politics of Europe at the End of the Fifteenth Century
The Subjugation of Italy
Artists of the High Renaissance
The Beginning of the Spanish Century
Sixteenth-Century Population and Economics
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Part II

The Reformation
The Ups and Downs of Charles V
Revolts in France and the Netherlands
The Spanish Armada
Merrie Olde England
Sweden Returns to the Stage
How to Elect a King

How the White Man Got Ahead of Everybody Else

The period of history from about 1450 A.D. to the present is commonly called the modern era, and has been marked by two major trends of civilization: (1) the absorption of the last uncivilized lands and peoples into civilized nations, (2) the growing domination of Western (European) civilization over all others. The first trend has already been covered elsewhere on this site; here we will look at what caused the second trend.

For Europe the path to world domination was usually a slow, upward climb. Two European civilizations--those of the Greeks and the Romans--had amazed the world with their accomplishments, but more recently the most impressive civilizations had been those of the Arabs and the Chinese. Then in the late Middle Ages, Europe's rivals sank into stagnation. The empire of the Arabs broke up in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the Turks, recent converts to Islam, took over; they were not yet completely civilized, and thus did not promote the scholarship that was a characteristic of Islam up to that point. China succeeded in civilizing Korea, Japan and Vietnam, only to suffer permanent trauma when the Mongols conquered it in the thirteenth century. Meanwhile the Europeans were quietly making progress.

The modern historian no longer looks at political events, like wars and the actions of kings, as the only factors that can affect a nation. Usually he will look for economic trends as well. Before the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people were farmers, so anything that increased production on the farm increased the nation's income. Because Europe was colder and wetter than those places where agriculture had been practiced previously, some unknown inventor in the Roman Empire developed a heavy, wheeled plow, that did a better job of aerating the soil than the plows used in more arid climates. It took much of the Dark Ages for this tool to catch on, but once it did, farmers could afford the next labor-saving devices--the waterwheel and the windmill. As a result, every century after 600 A.D. saw Europe get a little richer, allowing its economy to advance from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism. Even the Black Death was only a temporary setback, because European society grew more efficient during the period of recovery.

Because the farms were producing more food than ever, Europe saw the return of cities; urban life had disappeared when the Roman Empire fell. Now that people could work somewhere besides the farm, the literacy rate began to rise; the typical fifteenth-century European was better educated than his grandparents, as well as richer. Two inventions worked together at this time to make education available to the new urban class: paper and printing. Previously books were extremely expensive, because they had to be copied by hand, and because the most popular writing material, parchment, was costly to make; it took about 300 sheepskins, for example, to make enough parchment for one Bible.(1) A medieval noble might have a library of twenty volumes, and only the Church could afford more than that. The cost of bookmaking didn't come down until the introduction of a cheaper material, namely paper. China had invented paper about two thousand years ago; the Arabs learned the paper secret in the eighth century, and they kept it out of Christian hands for as long as possible. Moslem Spain began producing a poor quality paper in the eleventh century; the Italians learned the secret near the end of the thirteenth century; Germany became the first land in Christendom to make paper on a large scale, around 1400. Once it became widely available, paper replaced parchment, and the supply of books began to increase, bringing down the price.

Paw prints on a page.
Another drawback to copying books by hand. Before the ink dried on this page of a 15th-century book, a cat walked across it. Those paw prints have lasted for ages, while the cat's name has been forgotten.

Printing had also first appeared in the Far East. The Chinese and Koreans had experimented with block printing for centuries, but it never completely replaced hand-copying, for reasons explained in my Chinese history. What made Johann Gutenberg's printing press so special was that it used movable type; the letters were interchangeable between pages, making his equipment far more versatile and practical.

Few inventions have altered the course of history as thoroughly as movable type did (see Chapter 9, footnote #33). Within a couple of decades, Gutenberg's printing press was being used all over western Europe, to copy the works of the past, and to produce new books. We estimate that between 1455 (the year Gutenberg perfected his printing press) and 1500, Europeans published about 40,000 titles. Books became more affordable, too, now that they were so much easier to make. Before long, the printing press would also turn out pamphlets and tracts, allowing the rapid spread of new ideas to anyone who could read. That is why historians talk so much about how important the printing press was to Europe's intellectual awakening. And because Gutenberg lived in the German city of Mainz, the Germans, so long scorned as barbarians by those living on the shores of the Mediterranean, could finally catch up with the rest of civilized Europe. At the end of the century, one German writer claimed that "Once upon a time Germany was poor in wisdom, power, and wealth; now it is not only equal to others in glorious work, but surpasses loquacious Greece, [and] proud Italy." For most of the time since, Europeans, rather than Asians, have been the world's most literate people; in the nineteenth century, a European could boast that a single bookshelf in one of his country's libraries was worth as much as all the literature from a non-European culture.

The invention of printing helped to encourage another trend, the standardization of languages. Because communications broke down with the fall of Rome, the Latin spoken by the Romans and the German spoken by barbarians developed differently in every isolated community, until every nation, county and city of western Europe had its own dialect--and sometimes its own language. That is why scholars wrote in Greek if they lived in eastern Europe, or Latin if they lived in the west; those were the only languages understood by more than a few people. If you had suggested to a thirteenth-century English poet that he compose verses in English, he would have answered, "Yes, but what kind of English? That of London, York, or Cornwall?"

We saw in Chapter 8 that from 1200 onward, Italian writers composed poems and stories in Italian, rather than Latin. While the Hohenstauffen dynasty ruled Italy, Sicily was the most important region of it, so if Sicily had remained important after Frederick II's family was gone, today's Italians might all speak the language with a Sicilian accent. Instead, the next major author to come along, Dante Alighieri, was from Florence, and the people who read The Divine Comedy got the idea that Tuscan, the dialect Dante used, was the correct form of Italian. As a result, Tuscan became the most widely used dialect; one hundred years after Dante, people all over Italy were speaking and writing in Tuscan.

In a similar fashion, a standard German dialect arose in the 1520s, when Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German. Once again it was the author's way of speaking and writing--in this case the form of German used in the state of Saxony--that was accepted. For English, two works of literature established the standard, William Shakespeare's plays and the King James Bible. France also produced a standardized form of French in the sixteenth century, but because the works of several authors were involved, and France's literacy rate was lower than that of neighbors like Germany and England, local languages/dialects like Provenšal managed to survive until about 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered that all schools do their instruction only in the official French. Finally, at the end of the sixteenth century, Don Quixote, the brilliant satire by Miguel de Cervantes, established the official form of Spanish.

The rise of standardized languages not only made communication much easier; it also slowed down the rate at which vocabulary and grammar changed. For example, it became necessary around 1520 to produce a new English translation of the Bible, because John Wycliffe's 140-year-old translation could no longer be understood, but today English speakers can still enjoy Shakespeare's works without the need to learn another language, four hundred years after the Bard wrote them.

An educated person is a more flexible person; he is aware that there is more than one way to solve a problem, and that research may discover a better answer than the ones known already. The medieval European mindset was rigid instead of flexible, because books were written in the Church's secret language and the Church owned most of the books in circulation. Now that those barriers had been lifted, more people began thinking for themselves, and the "Age of Faith" ended. Nobody at the dawn of the modern era was more curious about the world than the Europeans. Their intellectual flexibility allowed European technology to progress at an ever-increasing rate, producing exciting changes with every generation. By contrast, other cultures would not allow a challenge to their traditions; often the attitude here was that their ancestors had already learned everything worth knowing. Asians, for example, might try European-made clocks and guns, but any idea that disagreed with what they believed was rejected outright--or not noticed at all.

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The Politics of Europe at the End of the Fifteenth Century

The barbarians who carved up the Roman Empire created several medium-sized kingdoms, and over the course of the Dark Ages, all of them in turn subdivided into smaller states, some no larger than counties. After the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, Louis XI and Henry VII reintegrated France and England, respectively. Portugal had also taken on its modern-day appearance, but the rest of Europe still looked like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Spanish part of the puzzle pulled itself together in the late fifteenth century. We noted in the last chapter how Castile and Aragon were united by marriage in 1469, but technically they remained separate administrative units while Ferdinand and Isabella were alive. In 1481 the final war with Granada began, and the two Christian rulers found it very slow going, with a long siege required for every town and castle. Even so, by 1490 only the city of Granada was left. On the first day of 1492, the Castilians took the Alhambra, and the rest of the city surrendered the next day. The Moslem ruler, Boabdil, waited for Their Catholic Majesties to arrive, formally abdicated in their presence, and rode off to exile in Africa. According to legend, he stopped for a last look over his lost domain at a mountain pass now called Suspiro del Moro (the Sigh of the Moor), and as he shed a tear at the sight, his bossy mother, Aisha, said, "Fitting you cry like a woman over what you could not defend like a man." The treaty that ended the war promised freedom of worship, but soon Ferdinand and Isabella, egged on by the Inquisition, were exiling every Moslem (and Jew) they could find.

Now that all of Spain had been liberated, there was talk about sending a Crusade across the Straits of Gibraltar, thereby turning the tables on the Moorish invaders. Ferdinand thought this would have been a profitless operation. The Portuguese had been active in Africa since 1415, and in 1494, the pope produced a treaty that awarded all of Africa to Portugal. However, the leader of the Spanish church, Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, provided the organization and the funds needed for such an expedition, and neither Isabella nor Ferdinand would say no to him. They easily took a Moroccan port, Melilla, in 1497. Ximenes personally led the force that captured the next port, Oran, in 1509, and in 1510 they seized three more ports--Bougie, Tunis and Tripoli--plus an offshore island near Algiers. Then they stopped, because they would have been overextended if they had tried to invade the hostile interior of Africa. What's more, Spain had found more attractive opportunites in the New World, so it made sense to send available men and resources there. The tide began to turn when Algiers called on the Turks for help; they responded by sending the notorious pirate Barbarossa, and Algiers eventually became the capital of the Ottoman Empire's westernmost province.

On paper, the three most important states of Christendom were France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Poland. France was the richest, and after 1250 was considered by many to be the dominant state of Christendom; the other two were the largest. In practice, however, none of them were managed very well. France's problem was the behavior of its kings and dukes. This was largely because the French kings still gave their brothers duchies that were about as big as the king's "royal domain" around Paris, ignoring nearly a thousand years of experience which spoke against this practice. The duchies acted like independent states and held back taxes and soldiers that should have gone to the crown. Even worse, the dukes had a knee-jerk reaction against any attempt to centralize the state, and if not allowed to do what they pleased, they were likely to go over to the enemies of France. We saw in the previous chapter, for example, how the most dangerous duchy, Burgundy, supported England for most of the Hundred Years War. After the war the French kings spent much of their time cutting the dukes down to size.

Across the Rhine, the Holy Roman Empire never lived up to its name. It could not be called "holy" when its emperors were fighting the popes (see Chapter 8), nor was it really "Roman" because the emperors were German (though the Hohenstaufens spent so much time in southern Italy that they saw themselves as Italian).(2) The "Empire" was really an aristocratic republic that used Christian terminology; each emperor started out as the ruler of a minor state, and had to be elected by his peers. From the start the Empire had been too large to administer properly, and in the late thirteenth century it turned into a confederation. Politics encouraged this dissolution; to win an election, the emperor had to make concessions to the dukes, margraves and archbishops who voted for him, something that could (and often did) come back to bite him later on. But while it was still an honor to wear the imperial crown, it was also a burden. No additional revenue went to the person crowned, and he was given additional responsibilities, like defending central Europe from Turkish invasions.(3) Indeed, because the emperor did not become richer or stronger by holding the title, the nobles usually voted for the Hapsburg family's candidate, to keep the Hapsburgs from becoming as powerful as previous dynasties. Equally paralyzing, the emperor could not take any important action without the consent of the Diet, a parliament whose membership was open to every noble holding land in the Empire, down to the lowliest knight. The Diet showed how inefficient government by committee can get; it met infrequently, the members took their duties lightly (many didn't even bother showing up for meetings, and sent deputies instead), and some members were foreigners who held property in the Empire, like the king of Denmark (Of course they had no wish to see the Empire run efficiently!).

A proper description of the Empire is almost impossible. Its official boundary had changed only slightly in the two centuries since the Hohenstaufen emperors. It included all of modern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Bohemia-Moravia (today's Czech Republic), Schleswig-Holstein (two north German duchies ruled by Denmark since 1460), Switzerland, the Low Countries, Alsace-Lorraine in what is now eastern France, Corsica and all of north Italy but Venice. It had no central treasury, no imperial capital, and no standing army. The Empire was divided into about 2,000 separate pieces of territory--some of which were nothing more than a castle with a little land surrounding it--organized into nearly 300 self-governing states.(4) All the largest states were in the east: Pomerania, Brandenburg, Lusatia, Silesia, Saxony, Bohemia, Moravia, Bavaria and Austria. Bohemia, Moravia, Lusatia and Silesia had Slavic, not German populations, and at the beginning of this period, all of them except Bohemia belonged to the king of Hungary. Also important was the bishopric of Salzburg, an independent theocracy in the middle of Austria.

The Hapsburgs entered the modern era in a weakened state. During a long, inept reign, Frederick III (1439-93) had lost most of the family's estates, leaving only Austria and Slovenia. The next emperor, Maximilian I, succeeded in building a new empire, through the use of political marriages. For himself he landed the Low Countries by marrying the heiress of Burgundy. He probably would have taken a French heiress next, Anne of Brittany, if France's Charles VIII hadn't married her first. His biggest wedding coup involved his son Philip and the daughter of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella; more about that later.

Poland was riding high at the beginning of the modern era. Its merger with Lithuania in 1386, like that of Castile and Aragon, had been a complete success, creating a huge realm that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It also gave the Poles leadership over half of the eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), and eastern, non-Polish cities like Smolensk, Kiev and Odessa. Despite being a two-headed state, it coordinated defense very well; the Poles managed diplomacy and armed action against enemies to the north and west, while the Lithuanians did the same for enemies to the east and south. At this stage the Polish-Lithuanian army had the best cavalry in Europe, the Hussars, and they could kick the butt of everybody else. However, it seems that the nobility believed things would always be this way, because they set up a government that rarely got anything done; its parliament, known as the Sejm (Diet), required a unanimous vote for any law or decree to be passed. Like their counterparts in France and Germany, these nobles were paranoid about any attempt to modernize the country, so Poland fell behind its neighbors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Polish cavalry.

Modern-day re-enactors, dressed up like the king of Poland and his Hussars.

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The Subjugation of Italy

Corrupt politics left its mark on Italy in the final years of the fifteenth century. Rodrigo Borgia, a cardinal from Aragon, became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. One of the most wicked men to ever hold that office, Alexander ruled over a Vatican that teemed with scandals, and climbed to the top by bribery and promoting the sale of indulgences, even to murderers: "The Lord desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should live and pay." When it came to patronage of the arts, pleasure-seeking and spending money, Alexander outdid the other Renaissance-era popes. His son Cesare Borgia was a political and military genius; maybe he could not inherit the Papacy, but he ruthlessly worked to create a state for the family in central Italy. The plan was for a friend of the Borgias to succeed Alexander on his death, and that he would give away part of the Papal State to Cesare. It didn't work because Cesare fell ill about the same time that his father died (1503); while he recovered, a Borgia enemy became the next pope. Four years later Cesare was dead himself, killed on a military campaign in distant Navarre.(5)

Lorenzo the Magnificent died in the same year that Alexander VI became pope. Lorenzo's son, Piero, was dim and fickle by comparison. Innocent VIII, the immediate predecessor of Alexander, declared prophetically that "the peace of Italy is at an end." Two years later, the people of Florence suffered a major fit of revulsion, against both the debauched pontiff and their own ungodly lifestyle; they chased the Medicis away and put a monk, Girolamo Savonarola, in charge. For the next four years Savonarola worked to turn the center of the Renaissance into a city of righteousness; he called the pope "Antichrist" in his weekly sermons, and denounced luxury. Hymns replaced racy songs, religious processions replaced tournaments, and people destroyed their worldly books, paintings and hairpieces in "bonfires of vanity." Eventually this got to be too much for the Florentines, though, and when the pope threatened Florence with both excommunication and invasion, they hanged Savonarola, burned his body, and went back to their old liberal ways.(6)

In 1483 Charles VIII, the thirteen-year-old son of Louis XI, became king of France. He had a claim to the crown of Naples, dating back to the days when Charles of Anjou ruled southern Italy (see Chapter 8), but because of troubles at home like the Hundred Years War, no French king had tried to enforce it for nearly two hundred years. Ferdinand of Spain had a better claim, because a relative of his ruled Naples now; Charles tried to buy him off by giving back the Aragonese province that Louis XI had purchased from Ferdinand's father (Rousillon). To keep the English off the Continent, Charles signed the Treaty of Étaples with Henry VII (1492). Finally he settled Maximilian I's claim to all the Burgundian lands once owned by his wife by giving Artois, Picardy and the County of Burgundy to the Hapsburgs. Thus, Charles threw away the very sensible gains of Louis XI so that he could attack Naples (1494). Pope Alexander VI made concessions to get Charles out of the Papal State as quickly as possible, and then formed an anti-French League of Venice. Charles returned to France a year later, after barely escaping defeat at the battle of Fornovo (Taro).

From the Italian point of view, the best years of the Renaissance ended with Charles VIII's invasion. They had gotten used to being without major wars and foreign domination, and figured that their diplomats could keep the status quo indefinitely. Now that was all over; Francesco Guicciardini voiced the sentiments of many when he wrote about "those happy times before '94" in his History of Florence (1509). Nor was this an accident; the Italians knew that they had brought the calamity upon themselves. It started in a dispute over who was the rightful duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (the current officeholder) or his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza. The king of Naples was Gian's father-in-law, so naturally he supported Gian's claim. In response, Ludovico called on the French for help, promising to back Charles if he marched on Naples to assert his Angevin claim. Italian leaders had made such appeals to foreign powers in the past, but usually it was only a bluff. This time, to Italy's great misfortune, the French actually came, bringing an army greater than what any state in the peninsula could match.

There was no rational thinking behind the strategy of Charles VIII. If there was a logical direction for French expansion, it was north into the Low Countries, not across the Alps. Unfortunately his tutors had not taught him diplomacy, but stories of bravery and chivalry. Moreover, southern Italy looked like a good base for future crusades against the Turks (the Turks took the Italian port of Otranto in 1480, and only the sultan's death had caused them to withdraw), so Charles must have seen the whole business as a great adventure. It didn't do France any good, even in the short run. Ferdinand had the pope's blessing (henceforth he was known as "Ferdinand the Catholic" for his activities in Italy), so he reclaimed Naples as soon as Charles left. Before he went home, Charles announced that he had a claim to Milan, too, and tried to take over his ally. Consequently Milan joined Ferdinand and Naples in expelling the French.

Charles died suddenly in 1498, and a distant relative, Louis XII, succeeded him. Louis was less foolish than Charles, but he also let his legal rights dictate his strategy. The French invaded Italy again, occupying Milan in 1499; a year later, Ferdinand and Louis signed a treaty which dropped the claim of the illegitimate Aragonese line to Naples, and divided the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between France and Spain. Despite these intentions, a quarrel ruined the agreement almost immediately. Fighting resumed, and after the French suffered two defeats at Cerignola and Garigliano (1502-03), Ferdinand added both the territory and the crown of Naples to his collection. Since the French remained in Milan and Genoa, most of Italy had been divided and conquered by the two greatest powers in western Europe. Ten years later, Niccolo Machiavelli would lament that his native land had become "more a slave than the Hebrews, more a servant than the Persians, more scattered than the Athenians; without head, without government; defeated, plundered, torn asunder, overrun; subject to every sort of disaster."(7) Over the next generation, famine would stalk the war-ravaged areas of the peninsula, while non-Italian armies killed more men in a single afternoon than the condottieri had lost in half a century.

Now the scene of the conflict moved north. The most important remaining independent state, Venice, had used the chaos of the recent war to take Rimini and Urbino from the Papal State, so Pope Julius II formed an alliance with Louis XII, Ferdinand, and Maximilian I to teach the Venetians a lesson. Against this coalition, Venice didn't stand a chance, and lost most of its mainland territory (1509). Then the pope abruptly shifted gears again, leaving the alliance to form a new one, the "Holy League to Liberate Italy." This time the League included Ferdinand, Maximilian, Henry VIII of England, the Swiss and even the recently defeated Venetians; their goal was to drive the French out of the peninsula. There was an interesting episode in this war where the pope became a military leader, putting on armor and going forth to capture Perugia and Bologna. Louis managed to get Scotland to attack the English, but the Scots went down to defeat in the battle of Flodden Field, and their king, James IV, was killed (1513). Encircled by his enemies, Louis had to abandon Italy in the same year. Meanwhile to the west, direct warfare across the Pyrenees gave Ferdinand the opportunity to annex Navarre in 1512, completing the unification of Spain.

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Artists of the High Renaissance

We call the turbulent years from 1494 to 1527 the "High Renaissance," because painting, sculpture, and architecture reached a peak of perfection, and this period produced some of the greatest minds of all time. Since the Medicis no longer ruled Florence, the cultural center of Italy shifted to Rome. The popes were lavish patrons, and all the great artists of this period worked in the Vatican at one time or another. Neither popes nor artists had a problem with representations of pagan mythological figures in the decorations of the papal palace, so the Vatican filled up with secular as well as religious art.

The great architect of the High Renaissance was Donato Bramante (1444-1514), from Milan. Bramante's most important commission came in 1506 when Pope Julius II requested that he replace the old church of St. Peter, built by the emperor Constantine (see Chapter 5), with a more majestic structure. Bramante's plan called for shaping the church in the form of a Greek cross, with an immense dome on top. His design exemplifies the spirit of High Renaissance architecture--to create buildings that approach the monumentality and grandeur of Roman architecture. In Bramante's own words, he would place "the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Maxentius." The project took most of the sixteenth century, and Bramante only lived long enough to see the first stage of it; thus Michelangelo and others had to finish it.

The three greatest High Renaissance artists were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. An extraordinary man, Leonardo (1452-1519) was skilled in many fields: engineering, mathematics, architecture, geology, botany, physiology, anatomy, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. Like Giotto and Donatello, he got his start as an apprentice to another great artist, Andrea del Verrocchio in this case. In his early years, he would follow his subjects around the streets of Florence for hours until he could paint them perfectly, and his observation of how birds fly caught details that nobody else saw until the invention of high-speed photography. In his spare time, he drew sketches of various devices he got ideas for, including parachutes, helicopters, tanks, rotating bridges, and weather instruments like the hygrometer. Many of these designs were practical, and all show an imagination far ahead of its time. Wanting to learn everything, he constantly experimented, and thus a lot of what he started was never finished.

Besides being a superb draftsman, Leonardo was a master of soft modeling in light and shade; by using several layers of translucent paint, he could give a picture an astonishing illusion of depth. He also applied his knowledge of human nature, the best-known example being the enigmatic smile in the Mona Lisa. As he explained it, "A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul."

Leonardo was less successful with frescoes, paintings done on wet plaster. Fresco work has to be done before the plaster dries, and Leonardo wanted to work at a slower pace. The alternatives he tried didn't work, causing many of his masterpieces to peel off the walls within a few years. His famous mural The Last Supper, for example, has needed repainting several times. His last years were also a story of sad futility. In 1506 he found employment with the king of France, and the great thinker ended up arranging fireworks displays and doing tricks for children at the French court. Many of his sketches, including his anatomical drawings, lay forgotten in an attic in Rome, and thus did not play a part in the scientific revolutions of the modern era.

Raphael, whose full name was either Raffaello Santi or Raffaello Sanzio, only lived to be 37 (1483-1520), but he probably produced more great works of art, in many styles, than any other painter in history. By the time Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome to decorate the Vatican (1508), Raphael had successfully learned the styles of Leonardo and Michelangelo. His Stanza frescoes in the Vatican, which combine classical and Christian subject matter, show careful planning and immense artistic knowledge; some have called them a pictorial encyclopedia of humanism. Raphael possessed neither Leonardo's curiosity nor Michelangelo's power, but he could portray either an appealing serenity, as was the case in his lovely Madonnas, or the hectic gestures and exaggerations that characterize many mid-sixteenth century works ("Mannerism"). Most critics consider him the master of perfect design and balanced composition.

Whereas Leonardo tried to do everything, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) concentrated on painting and sculpture, excelling in both of them. Stories of his stormy and temperamental personality made him the original eccentric genius, and there is something almost superhuman about both Michelangelo and his art. His great energy allowed him to complete in four years the entire work of painting the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, an area of several thousand square yards, while lying on his back on a suspended platform. With his unrivaled genius for rendering the human form, he devised many expressive positions and attitudes for his figures, from his scenes of Adam & Eve to the portrayal of the Last Judgment.

Despite his painting skill, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor first. He found sculpting an appropriate challenge for his intellect, because it took longer than painting, required physical exertion, and because it made too much noise to do while listening to music. Even so, he successfully produced classical-style sculptures, especially those that glorified the human body.(8) In 1546 he got Bramante's job as chief architect of St. Peter's, and he designed the cathedral's great dome. Michelangelo's dome has influenced the design of most major domed buildings ever since. He was still actively working as a sculptor when he died at the age of 89, long after the end of the High Renaissance.

Venice contributed to Renaissance art by introducing rich colors, the result of experimentation with oil glazes by Giovanni Bellini in the late 15th century (Italian artists had used mostly tempera paints up to this point). Bellini's students, especially Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (1477?-1576), produced a sensuous style that was full of decoration, rich costumes, striking nude figures, radiant light and a variety of color tones. This enthralled the Venetians, but not some Florentine purists. One of them, Michelangelo, remarked that although he admired Titian's "coloring and style, it was a pity good design was not taught in Venice."

Finally, the opening years of the sixteenth century saw humanism and Italian-style art spread beyond Italy, sparking a "Northern Renaissance." The Reformation cut this movement short in much of northern Europe, especially Germany, but in France, England and Spain it lasted for the rest of the sixteenth, and even into part of the seventeenth century. Unfortunately a discussion of the many individuals involved is beyond the scope of this work; I'll just have to list the most important names, with the confidence that any humanities student will recognize them. Germany gave us Albrecht Dürer, a master at making art from woodcuts, while the Netherlands was home to Desiderius Erasmus, one of history's greatest philosophers. From France came the satirist François Rabelais, and from England we have several writers, chief of which were Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Spain took until 1600 to produce some great talent of her own, but eventually gave to the world the painter El Greco, the novelist Miguel de Cervantes, and the dramatist Lope de Vega.

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Not all of the talented men of the High Renaissance were artists; this age also gave us Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), one of history's most famous political scientists. A native of Florence, Machiavelli got his first experience during Savonarola's revolution. The republic that followed Savonarola gave Machiavelli many kinds of work: he led diplomatic missions, reorganized the Florentine army, and wrote speeches for the gonfalonier (president) of Florence. When the Medicis returned in 1512, Machiavelli offered his services to them, because ideology meant nothing to him. No such luck; they didn't trust him because he had worked for their enemies, so they tortured, briefly imprisoned and expelled him. He moved to a villa at San Casciano, twelve miles from Florence, and spent the rest of his life writing books and proposals, in the hope that the Medicis would give him another chance at employment. Among these works was a small book called The Prince, which, as Count Carlo Sforza put it, "made Machiavelli famous and infamous."

In his manual on how to run a government, Machiavelli showed no interest in how things should be; all that mattered was how things really were. There was no place for righteousness, no place for Utopias, and no place for God, in his vision. For him the ultimate goal was gaining power and keeping it; whether his ideal prince had the support of the people he ruled was incidental. This morally blind man has left many readers cold, but one has to remember that he lived in a place full of morally blind men. Many kings and statesmen have regarded The Prince as political wisdom, and have often used it to justify what they planned to do anyway. However, he also gave good advice on why a regular army is better than a corps of mercenaries, and as a true Italian patriot, he called for getting all foreigners out of the peninsula. He proposed an alliance of all states in Italy, with a single Italian army to defend against invaders like France and Spain, yet a complete political unification was too much even for him; when somebody suggested such a union, Machiavelli wrote back a tart reply: "Don't make me laugh."

A central topic in The Prince was the question, "Is it better to be loved or to be feared?" Idealists in any age would say the former, but Machiavelli preferred the latter. "It is much safer to be feared than loved," he wrote. "Men have less hesitation to offend one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you."(9) He went on to discuss Cesare Borgia, whom he traveled with for several months, and how he was a cruel ruler, but never had a problem with revolts in the area he ruled. However, he also pointed out that a wise ruler will try to avoid being hated. Along similar lines, he felt that stinginess serves a leader better than generosity. A generous leader must "burden the people extraordinarily, to be rigorous with taxes, and to do all those things that can be done to get money." The subjects of a generous leader will never be satisfied, and will become resentful easily, while a man with a reputation for stinginess will be praised for even the smallest gift he gives to his subjects. Finally, he argued that a leader's first priority should be military matters. Like it or not, these ideas have been required reading for "princes" ever since, including today's presidents.

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The Beginning of the Spanish Century

The best years of Spanish history ran from 1492 to 1588. In the first two decades, Spain racked up an astonishing list of successes: discovering the New World, taking on the leading role in the war against Islam, and beating the French more than once in Italy. Spaniards were still getting used to the idea of being a unified country, and now they were the most important nation in Christendom. Some of this was just luck, but the wealth of the Americas wouldn't arrive until after Ferdinand's reign ended, so he deserves some credit for the reason why Spain got off to such a good start. On the Italian front he showed his ability to keep a cool head in an age when few kings could do so; he negotiated a deal that favored the French, waited until they blew their advantage, and ended up with the whole prize.

Ferdinand and Isabella's heir was a daughter named Joanna. She married Philip I, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian's son by his Burgundian wife. Philip died in 1506, at the age of twenty-eight, and that caused Joanna to go insane, earning her the nickname of Juana la Loca, Joanna the Mad. She spent the next three years traveling around Spain, to get her mind off the tragedy, but it didn't work, because she brought Philip's body with her. Eventually Ferdinand had to declare her incompetent; he locked her up in Tordesillas Castle, along with her dead husband and some musicians for entertainment, and there she spent the remaining forty-seven years of her life.

The combined possessions of Castile, Aragon, Burgundy and the Hapsburgs now passed to the eldest son of Philip and Joanna, Charles V. Born in Ghent in 1500, Charles was raised with every privilege; his tutor, for example, would one day become the Dutch pope, Adrian VI. Now he had a fabulous inheritance: the Low Countries, Austria, Slovenia, Spain, nearly half of Italy, various Mediterranean islands, most of the New World, and dibs on the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. It included a third of Christian Europe, more than any king had held in centuries, so Charles looked like a reincarnation of Charlemagne. As one of his advisors put it: "Sire, God has granted you a most wonderful grace . . . He has set you on the way toward a world monarchy, toward a gathering of all Christendom under a single shepherd."

The truth, however, was quite different. Charles was not a master soldier or politician, but a moody fellow who liked to attend funerals and eat fish; H. G. Wells called him the best example of how a mediocre person can rise to the top. And many Europeans had outgrown the Crusader mentality by now, so it was no longer possible for all Christians to unite behind one leader for a holy war; people were beginning to pay more attention to a ruler's nationality than to his religion. Charles found most of non-Hapsburg Europe opposing him, canceling out the assets he had. Three groups gave him trouble constantly: the French, the Turks, and the Protestants.

Among these groups, the French acted first. In 1515, the year before Charles became king of Spain, the French got a dashing new king, Francis I. More than forty years of struggles between the Hapsburg and Valois royal houses followed. As soon as his coronation was over, Francis led an army over the Alps, crushed the Swiss in a two-day battle at Marignano(10) and re-occupied Milan. Then Maximillian died in 1519, and the German electors had second thoughts about electing a Hapsburg, in view of how much Charles had already. Francis campaigned for the imperial crown, playing on the electors' misgivings; England's Henry VIII also offered himself as a candidate, because he was related to the Hapsburgs by marriage. Charles won the election by borrowing 800,000 ducats from the House of Fugger(11), and spending it on bribes.

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Sixteenth-Century Population and Economics

At the beginning of the period covered by this chapter, Europe's population was generally rural, as was the case everywhere. We estimate that 3.25 percent of the people lived in towns of 30,000 or more. However, this figure averages out the whole continent; in eastern countries like Poland, Hungary and Russia, few towns existed, so those nations remained medieval longer than western Europe did (Russia didn't begin to modernize until Peter the Great came along, at the end of the seventeenth century). At the other extreme, northern Italy and the Netherlands had populations that were 10 percent urban, and because they made a living through commerce and manufacturing, they were the first to make the shift from a land-based economy (feudalism) to a cash-based one (capitalism). These two areas contained most of the continent's industry and built most of the ships, so the Mediterranean had one trade network, and northern Europe had another. Merchants and bankers traveled between the networks as well, either by walking across France or Germany, or by sailing around Spain. By the end of this period, Europe's urban population was 5 percent of the total; in the Netherlands it grew to 15%.

The Hanseatic League (see Chapter 9) still dominated the North-Baltic Sea network at the beginning of this period, but the League's Dutch rivals were catching up fast. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when national governments were weak and long-distance commerce was limited, the League stood out as the world's best example of international cooperation. Then came the rise of centralized nation-states, with policies like mercantilism; this was something that a loose commercial alliance couldn't deal with. One by one the countries beyond Germany closed their ports to the League, starting with a former member, Novgorod, in 1494 (Novgorod had been conquered by Moscow's Ivan III in 1478). Although the League continued to exist until 1669, after 1530 it was no longer important. However, Denmark, the League's traditional enemy, did not benefit from its decline; in return for English and Dutch help against the League, the Danes had promised to let them have the League's trading privileges, so first Antwerp, and then Amsterdam, replaced Lübeck as the Venice of the north.

The commodities carried by the Italian and Dutch traders hadn't changed much from the usual cargoes of the Middle Ages. Poland and the Teutonic Knights were still the main source of grain, Russia provided furs, and Scandinavia provided fish. England, the Low Countries and northern Italy continued to make the best textiles. The best iron came from Sweden, and most of the coal came from England and Belgium; production of both rose dramatically during this period, though the industrial revolution was still a couple of centuries away. The source of sugar shifted more than once, moving from the Mediterranean to the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, and then to the New World in the sixteenth.

At the beginning of the modern era, the most lucrative products came from Asia; Venice and Genoa picked up Asian silks, porcelain and spices from Ottoman and Mameluke ports, and brought them to Europe. Those goods, especially the spices, were ridiculously expensive by the time they reached the consumer, because they had passed through so many middlemen. Spain and Portugal, who were among the countries farthest away, definitely knew they were paying too much. This motivated the Iberians to build first-rate fleets of their own, and send out explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama to find a cheaper trade route to the Orient.

Europe's older cities served the same purpose as the capitals of ancient empires--they were home to the king and his court. They consumed nearly all the wealth they generated, unless they happened to be on a key trade route, like Constantinople. The new Italian and Dutch cities, on the other hand, were like the ancient Phoenician and Greek cities, in that commerce was the main reason for their existence. Most medieval Europeans paid their bills through barter or labor; only clerks and governments handled coins on a regular basis. That however, was now rapidly changing, as money became available again and Europeans found that cash was so much easier to use than other forms of payment, like bushels of grain, bundles of cloth or live animals.

Because of their financial strength, the northern Italian towns were tremendously influential, even though none of them belonged to large political units. The Venetian and Genovese fleets controlled the Mediterranean, and Venice still had a string of island bases left over from the Crusades. Milan and Florence were rich because they were manufacturing and banking centers. All four cities ran their budgets like today's nations and corporations, and collected taxes that averaged nearly a ducat per head a year. Nobody else could match this collection rate. The Mameluke sultans of Egypt could raise about two thirds of this amount from each of their subjects, because their subjects were concentrated along a natural highway, while the best others could manage was a third of a ducat per head, and even then the taxpayer usually ended up paying less than that. England's kings were kept on a tight leash; the Tudor monarchs had to live off whatever they collected from their own estates, plus customs duties, and if they wanted more they had to ask Parliament for it.(12)

Economics is not an exact science today, but five hundred years ago the winds of the market place were totally unpredictable. A nation's income could change violently from year to year, and while most governments prepared budgets, they were really statements of hope, not to be taken seriously. Beyond Italy, most rulers did not seem to realize that it is easier to spend money than to earn or collect it, so just about every court spent itself into the red, and because they were credit risks, they had to pay usurious interest rates (10-30%) on the funds they borrowed. They continued to follow the age-old practice of showing off their social status by spending large sums on stuff they did not need; for example, the wedding and dowry of a minor princess might cost more than her state's income for that year. Most European states went bankrupt at least once per generation, so kings could turn on their creditors without warning. They might accuse them of crimes and balance the books by making them pay fines, or if they were Jews, exile or massacre them and confiscate their belongings. As time went on, Europeans gained more respect for the rule of law, so royal bankruptcies grew less bloody, but they still happened with distressing regularity. When kings found that they couldn't solve their problems with violence, they tried debasing their coins, which increased the money supply and caused inflation at the same time. Usually this reduced the value of their debts, at the expense of making the lives of the common people miserable. If everything else failed, they might sell some of their legal rights and their landholdings, but this was a quick way to lose political power. Thus, the clever king or prince would always keep an eye out for any way to increase his income.

Spain thought it had found such an opportunity when the conquistadors captured the gold and silver of the New World. Galleons returning with their holds full of gold, silver and gems, and the boom in commerce this influx of cash produced, combined to raise Spain's annual income to nearly ten million ducats by 1600, more than five times what it had been a century earlier. Among Spain's rivals, only France could produce even half that amount. The New World colonies also had sugar plantations, as we mentioned above, and Mexico eventually became an exporter of leather. The huge income from all these sources was good for the Spanish state, but surprisingly, the lives of the Spanish people did not get better; in fact, life got tougher for them. There were four reasons for this:

1. The law of supply and demand. This concept was not well understood before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. If you suddenly inject a large sum of money into a market, and leave the supply of goods constant, more people are going to want to buy those goods, causing prices to rise. Over the course of the sixteenth century, prices went up fourfold, and Spain was the country hardest hit. Each price increase started when a Spanish silver shipment arrived at Cadiz, and it spread across Europe in a ripple effect. Wages increased too, but not enough to keep up with inflation.

2. The bills of the crown. The wars, politics and debts of Charles V and Philip II cost a tremendous amount, so much so that often the money was spent before it even got to Spain. If there was any left over, it was spent too, instead of being invested toward increasing future returns.

3. Money talks. To those who aren't skilled in managing it, it says "Goodbye." This reason ties into #1 and #2 above. Wealth flees those who do not know how to use it wisely, and is attracted to those that do. That is why the winners of national and state lotteries usually spend all their winnings within a year, and why tycoons like Donald Trump can lose a fortune and quickly acquire another one. It also explains why wealth-redistribution programs like socialism and potlatching never solve the problem of poverty. In the sixteenth century, most of the skilled money managers were Italians or Dutchmen; Spain showed that the rules of personal economics can apply to whole nations as well.

4. Spain wasn't able to produce everything its colonies required. The Spaniards who settled the New World needed manufactured goods, but the mother country made its living from raw materials: farming and mining. Spain would have to switch from feudalism to capitalism to meet the new needs, and Spaniards were so obsessed with chivalry and tradition (remember Don Quixote) that their society remained stuck in the Middle Ages. Because of inflation, Spanish industry produced goods that were too expensive to attract customers. The government responded with a policy of mercantilism to protect its workers, but smugglers still managed to get the cheaper products of other countries into Spain. Because of the crying need for them in the colonies, goods manufactured by rivals like the Netherlands even showed up in the cargo holds of Spanish ships.

If anyone benefitted from rising prices, it was the merchants, and because the Netherlands had so many of them, this explains how the Dutch could wage a war for independence that lasted eighty years. Another side effect was the economic split in the Low Countries. The south (modern-day Belgium) remained under Spanish rule during and after the war, so it stagnated, while the free north boomed, making Amsterdam the fastest-growing city in Europe. It was in the Netherlands that capitalism evolved into the form we recognize (the stock market was a Dutch invention). In addition to being the best money managers, the Dutch could also build and run ships at a lower cost than anybody else. For these reasons, the early seventeenth century would be the time when the little Dutch republic went on overseas ventures that amazed the rest of Europe.

During the Middle Ages, Italy always maintained a healthy financial lead over the north; that ended in the sixteenth century. The most obvious reason was Portugal's discovery that one can sail to Asia by going around Africa, eliminating the need for Venetian traders. Italy was in a poor location to take advantage of New World discoveries, compared with the nations on the Atlantic seaboard. When Italians (Columbus, Vespucci, Verrazano, the Cabots, etc.) went across the Atlantic, they did so in the service of others. On top of all that, the spice trade wasn't showing the old-time profits. The Venetians, believing that the spice must flow, continued to handle as much of it at the end of this period as they did at the beginning, so the matching amount that the Portuguese brought back caused prices to drop. There was also a disruption of trade for much of the period between 1520 and 1571, when the Ottoman Empire attacked Christendom by sea. Most important of all was the same factor that put Spain behind the Netherlands; Dutch goods and services were cheaper than everybody else's. By 1550 Venetian ships stopped sailing into the Atlantic, and English and Dutch ships started making regular trips into the Mediterranean; in fact, half of Venice's larger ships were Dutch-built by 1600.

Population figures for the sixteenth century have a considerable margin for error, but the trends are fairly definite. The total number of Europeans grew from about 72 million to 90 million, a 25% increase. The Mediterranean basin grew the least, while Poland and Russia grew the most (about 40%). This rapid increase was due to the settling of the Ukraine. Previously the Ukraine was the home of nomads, most recently the Golden Horde, but now the invention of firearms eliminated the nomads' military advantage over peasants. The Golden Horde collapsed in 1502; in the 1550s Ivan the Terrible eliminated the last states ruled by Genghis Khan's descendants, except for the Khanate of the Crimea.

The population growth mentioned above would have been greater if Europe wasn't in the middle of the prolonged cold snap we call the "Little Ice Age." Colder weather means a shorter growing season, and thus smaller harvests, and increases the chance that a badly timed frost will kill the crops completely. It's hard for population to grow when there isn't enough food to go around. The growth that did occur was not enough to fill the mostly empty lands in the east, meaning that the nations which claimed this area found governing it a real challenge. Should they opt for centralization, and make the government in the capital strong enough to handle just about anything, or should they go with feudalism, and leave the management of remote areas in the hands of the local nobility? What makes this question interesting for us is that Russia chose the former solution, while Poland chose the latter. The result of these choices would be visible by the late seventeenth century; Russia became a nasty place to live, while Poland's central government would become too weak to get anything done.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. A few medieval scribes cut corners by re-using old parchments, scraping off the ink so that new words could be written on them. A book made out of recycled parchment pages is called a palimpsest, meaning "twice-used" in Greek. The last surviving copy of Archimedes' math text, for example, was converted into a prayer book around 1200. Imaging technology powerful enough to read the original words on the pages did not become available until the end of the twentieth century.

2. Before the Hohenstaufens, "there were a lot of Ottos and Rudolphs. All these were sort of emperors of Germany, although there was no German Empire at the time. To understand that, you really ought to be German. You might not understand it then, but you would have a fighting chance."--Will Cuppy. From The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1950, pg. 150.

3. We noted in Chapters 8 and 9 that the Holy Roman emperor had to wear many hats--emperor of western Christendom, king of Germany, ruler of his home state, and so on. Charles V explained it by listing the languages he needed to do his job: "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse."

4. A popular saying asserted that the Empire had a sovereign ruler for every day of the year!

5. The Borgias tended to poison anyone who got in their way. Much of the blame for the poisonings has fallen on Cesare's sister, Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1518), but now it appears that she got a reputation she didn't deserve. More likely her father and her brother were the ones responsible for all the deaths around them. In 1501 she married her third and last husband, Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, and once she got away from her awful family there were no more reports of any improper behavior. Alfonso remembered her with these words when she died: "It has pleased Our Lord God at this hour to take to Himself the soul of Her Grace the Duchess, my most beloved consort . . . I cannot write without tears, so heavy a burden is it to find myself deprived of so sweet and dear a companion, for such she was to me, both through her excellent conduct and that tender love there was between us . . . And I would rather fain have my friends lament with me than offer me consolation." That does not sound like a mass poisoner to me.
As for Alexander VI, there was a report that seven devils were seen in his chamber at the moment of his death; presumably they were there to take him away. No wonder Aleister Crowley, the notorious Satanist, claimed to be a reincarnation of Alexander VI, nearly 400 years later.

6. Though exiled from Florence, this was not the end of the Medicis; eventually they returned. In the meantime a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent became Pope Leo X (1513-22), and a nephew of Lorenzo became Pope Clement VII (1523-34). A great-granddaughter of Lorenzo, Catherine, became the queen of France by marrying Henry II.

7. Machiavelli, The Prince, XXVI.

8. The real genius behind David, Michelangelo's first great work, was in the type of stone he used. Around 1462 a minor Florentine sculptor, Agostino di Duccio, ordered an expensive 18-foot-long chunk of pure white marble. When the stone arrived from the quarry, Agostino complained about it being the wrong shape, and managed to make sure it was the wrong shape by carving a big gash up the middle. Then he gave up, thinking the stone ruined, and it lay in the builder's yard of the Board of Works of the Cathedral for the next thirty-nine years. In 1501 Michelangelo was short on funds, and a friend, Pier Soderini, arranged to have the stone given to him. From the stone everybody else considered useless, Michelangelo carved the young giant-slayer, using the "Agostino overgouge" as the space between the legs.

9. Machiavelli, The Prince, XVII.

10. Marignano is worth remembering because it marked the end of Swiss involvement in European politics. The Swiss had shown that the most effective defense against a cavalry charge is a force of well-disciplined pikemen; by having the pikemen work alongside men armed with the crude muskets of the day (arquebuses), it became possible for infantry to go on the offensive. Switzerland's victories against the Burgundians and the Hapsburgs convinced Europeans that Swiss pikemen were unbeatable, so everybody wanted to hire Swiss mercenaries, or if possible, train their own infantry to fight the same way. After Marignano the Spanish infantry, the Tercios, became the best pikemen in Europe, presumably because Spain's wars kept them busy all the time, giving them plenty of opportunities to practice their "iron cornfield" formation.
Because the Swiss were so active in northern Italy, they annexed a neighboring confederation, the League of Grisons, in 1497, and between 1503 and 1512 they took the area that would become the canton of Ticino; that is why 10% of Switzerland's population now speaks Italian. The major powers allowed them to keep these gains, so by 1513 Switzerland had reached its present-day borders, except around the shores of Lake Geneva.

11. The bankers of the Hapsburgs were the Fuggers, the richest family in Germany. Originally peasant weavers from Augsburg, the Fuggers made themselves wealthy through trading and moneylending in the fifteenth century. The richest of the Fugger patriarchs, Jakob Fugger, financed the election and wars of Charles V, while gaining control over the lead, gold, silver and copper mines of central Europe; he also obtained a monopoly in mercury production. His successor Anton Fugger (1525-60) had branch offices in Chile, Peru and Moscow. After Anton the Fugger fortunes declined, because of bankrupties in Spain (they paid for the Armada), and because of family conflicts and a lack of interest among the heirs. By the time of the Thirty Years War, state-run enterprises had taken over most of the mines and international ventures.

12. The Venetian gold ducat was the standard unit of foreign exchange from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, playing a role not unlike that of the American dollar in today's world economy. It contained 3.56 grams of gold which was never debased, making it worth about $150 in 2014 dollars. The coins of other states had their value pegged by how much gold they had in comparison to the ducat.

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