No matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. The Christians of Western Europe learned the truth of this cynical bit of folk wisdom in 1409, when they suddenly found themselves with not two but three rival popes to choose among. As all too often seems to happen, this worsening of the crisis arose from an attempt to resolve it, in this case by a group of earnest Church reformers who are known to history as the “Conciliar Movement.”

Over the almost 1400 years of its existence, the Church had somehow managed to avoid instituting a stable, codified method of dealing with popes who got too big for their britches. This lack, said many of the intellectuals from the new universities, was the real reason the Church had wound up with two popes in the first place. Their Conciliar Movement was predicated on the thesis that a body was needed to which even popes would be answerable, one entrusted with adjudicating between claimants to the papacy, monitoring the popes’ conduct, and if necessary deposing them. A number of Europe’s monarchs, tired of the chaos brought on by the current pair of dueling popes, supported the movement. The most notable among them was King Sigismund, who ruled over Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, and lacked the title of Holy Roman Emperor thanks only to the aforementioned chaos, which made it unclear just who was empowered to confer it upon him.

With Sigismund’s active backing, clergymen from across Europe met at Pisa in the spring of 1409 to take the question of who was the rightful pope into their own hands. Pulling no punches, the attendees deposed both of the current popes and elevated out of their own ranks a single replacement, who took the name of Alexander V. But instead of meekly accepting their altered circumstances, the extant popes in Rome and Avignon found there was one thing on which they both could agree: that this would-be Council of Pisa had no authority over them whatsoever. There were now three men claiming to be God’s one and only spokesman on Earth.

So, the first attempt by the Conciliar Movement to restore order from chaos had managed only to create more of the latter. Yet in turning a troubling situation into a patently absurd one, it laid the groundwork for eventual success. Five years after the Council of Pisa adjourned, Sigismund hosted a second gathering in the German town of Konstanz, with the announced goal of putting the papal house in order once and for all. In a telling measure of how untenable the current situation had become in the eyes of just about everyone, this Council of Konstanz turned into the largest single gathering in the entire history of the Church to that point: 29 cardinals, 33 archbishops, 150 bishops, 300 members of university faculties, 14 heads of universities, 26 princes, 140 nobles, and 4000 ordinary priests. It took the same basic approach to the problem of the papal succession as had the Council of Pisa, but the sheer weight of its numbers made this council’s proclamations impossible to ignore.

This holy synod of Konstanz, being a general council, and legally assembled in the Holy Spirit for the praise of God, for ending the present schism, and for the union and reform of the Church in its head and members, ordains, declares, and decrees as follows. First, it declares that this synod represents the Church Militant, and has its authority directly from Christ, and everybody, of whatever rank or dignity, including also the pope, is bound to obey this council in those things that pertain to the faith, to the ending of this schism, and to a general reform of the Church in its head and members. Likewise, it declares that if anyone, including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, [and] ordinances of this holy council in regard to the ending of the schism or the reform of the Church, he shall be subject to proper punishment, and, if necessary, recourse shall be had to other aids of justice.

Like the Council of Pisa before it, the Council of Konstanz decided that all of the current popes would have to go to make way for a compromise candidate. Their replacement was Martin V, a well-meaning if somewhat anodyne figure — a rather typical compromise candidate, in other words. Never mind: the schism was ended, and the seat of an undisputed papacy was once again Rome, where even the current king of France was by now willing to concede it probably belonged.

Although the Council of Konstanz succeeded in its immediate goal of ending the era of a hydra-headed Church, the longer-term project of the Conciliar Movement — that of bringing a measure of accountability to the papacy in general — was less successful. No permanent oversight body was established at Konstanz. In its stead, a motion was passed that there would be called another council similar to this one in five years, and then another seven years after that, followed by one every ten years thereafter. These councils did indeed take place, but their jurisdiction in most matters was denied by the popes, and they were unable to do much of anything to rein in the papacy. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the popes were, if not as powerful in temporal political terms as Innocent III had once been, every bit as dictatorial and unaccountable within the Church as he had been, even as they and those around them in Rome lived every bit as opulently as the infamously corrupt Avignon popes. In a rare moment of introspection, Pope Pius II lamented from his deathbed in 1464 that

people say that we live for pleasure, accumulate wealth, bear ourselves arrogantly, ride on fat mules and handsome palfreys, [and] keep hounds for the chase, spending much on actors and parasites and nothing on defense of the faith. And there is some truth in their words: many among the cardinals and other officials of our court do lead this kind of life. If the truth be confessed, the luxury and pomp of our court is too great. And this is why we are so detested by the people that they will not listen to us, even when we say what is just and reasonable.

What do you think is to be done in such a shameful state of things? We must inquire by what means our predecessors won authority and consideration for the Church. We must maintain that authority by the same means. Temperance, chastity, innocence, zeal for the faith, contempt of Earth, [and] the desire for martyrdom exalted the Roman Church and made her mistress of the world.

But the popes who followed Pius II paid little heed to his words. His direct successor Paul II commissioned a solid-gold, jewel-encrusted tiara for the papal brow that cost more than many a palace; Richard P. McBrien labels this Holy Father “one of history’s least popular popes” and “a vain, intellectually shallow, ostentatious playboy.” Still, McBrien reserves the title of “the most notorious pope in all of history” for Alexander VI, who held the office from 1492 to 1503. Alexander said that he believed the doctrine of clerical celibacy to be mistaken, and registered his disagreement by openly siring half a dozen or more children with several different women, all of whom lived with him at the same time as a sort of papal harem.

Other unsavory aspects of the Church were likewise all too prominent during the fifteenth century. Torture and executions by burning at the stake became if anything even more common, as the Inquisitors continued their zealous labors. With unorthodox religious beliefs and practices seen by most secular rulers as a dangerous source of social unrest, the Inquisition became more than ever a tool for state control and oppression, a harbinger of forms of totalitarianism that were still to come in history. Many shameful episodes resulted, of which I will mention only a couple of the most prominent here.

Joan of Arc, the legendary “Maid of Orléans,” was born into a relatively prosperous peasant family in 1412. She came of age during a dark time for her native France, when it was on the verge of definitively losing the Hundred Years War. The region of Burgundy, the richest in all of France, had elected to split with the French King Charles VI and join the side of England. And truly, Charles inspired little in the way of confidence or loyalty from his subjects. He earned his posthumous epithet “the Mad” by standing stock still for hours whilst insisting he was a statue made out of glass, smearing himself with his own feces and running naked through his gardens, and leaping off his throne at random moments to physically attack his courtiers. In 1420, two years after abandoning Paris to the English, this deranged specimen sold out his country for his own ease, signing a treaty with King Henry VI of England which disinherited his son by promising all of France to the English king just as soon as he died. In return, Henry agreed to quit prosecuting the war while waiting for that event to come to pass.

It did so just two years later, causing few tears in any quarter. Yet the dead king’s court proved unwilling to accept the subjugation to the English crown to which he had condemned them. Rather than Henry VI, they elevated Charles VI’s nineteen-year-old son to the throne as Charles VII. But the boy wasn’t any more suited for the role of wartime leader than his father had been, being weak-willed and insecure. To make matters worse, Henry, incensed at the French court’s failure to live up to their late monarch’s pledge, redoubled his efforts on the battlefield, and soon seemed on the verge of winning through force of arms the title of king of France.

In the midst of all this, Joan of Arc was growing up in a village called Domrémy in northeastern France. From the time that she turned twelve in 1424, she heard voices whispering to her. When she was seventeen, their message became clear. “Go to the succor of the king of France,” the archangel Michael told her, “and thou shalt restore his kingdom.” Defying her father, who had threatened to drown her if she persisted in deluding herself and those around her about these voices of hers, she ran away to the town of Vaucouleurs, telling the people there of her divine calling. They proved more credulous than her father had been; they bought her a horse and hired an escort to guide her to the resort town of Chinon, where, what with Paris being in enemy hands, the French king currently had his court. Perhaps in order to avoid the unwelcome attention of ruffians on the road, she cut her hair short like a boy’s and dressed like one as well. She made it safely to Chinon. Then, amazingly, this illiterate peasant girl somehow convinced the king’s handlers to admit her to his presence. And once there, she convinced him of something he himself had never seemed to more than half believe: that he was the one and only legitimate king of France, who ruled by the will of God.

Charles asked his new political and spiritual mentor to go to the vital city of Orléans, where what was left of his army was making a last stand against the English. She did so gladly. Her first act upon arriving was to send a letter to the English commander, suggesting that they all stop fighting one another and join together in a Crusade to the Holy Land instead. When he spurned her offer, she rode at the vanguard of a French counterattack that drove the English back. She was struck in the shoulder by an arrow during the fighting, but lost no time returning to the fray after the wound had been dressed. Word of her exploits spread like wildfire through all of Europe. To the French and their supporters, she was an angel of God on earth; to the English and their supporters, she was a witch who made a mockery of the duties and strictures of her gender.

The only surviving depiction of Joan of Arc dating from her lifetime, this drawing was made by Clément de Fauquembergue in May of 1429, when she was still free and very visible on the battlefields of France. (Public Domain)

Whatever she was, she proved a fearsome ally to the young King Charles; the French soldiers who now fought more stalwartly than they had in years against the English did it more for this peasant girl than for their king. Although she never personally raised arms against the enemy, she continued to inspire those men who did so from the front, prancing on horseback in gleaming battle regalia. But in May of 1430, she was ambushed by a group of Burgundian soldiers, pulled off her horse, and captured. She was eventually handed over to the English, who asked the Inquisition to try her for heresy and witchcraft.

The Church was left in a difficult bind; delivering a verdict must mean choosing sides between the English and the French. It went with what it judged to be the politically astute option. Despite recent battlefield setbacks in Orléans and elsewhere, England still seemed to have the upper hand in the war; Paris was still firmly in its hands, a recent French attempt to retake the capital having failed. Surely it was best for the Church to stay on Henry VI’s good side, given that he looked likely to be king of both England and France before long, with a territory comparable to that of the Holy Roman Emperor under his rule. The Inquisitors duly decided that the voices Joan of Arc still claimed to be hearing came not from God but from Satan. On the morning of May 31, 1431, she was burnt at the stake in Rouen. Even the English were impressed by her steely calm as the flames rose around her and finally consumed her. “We are lost,” said one of their number according to legend. “We have burnt a saint.”

Time showed his pessimism to have been well-founded. The life and death of Joan of Arc, who was by now the most famous woman in Europe, inspired a heretofore demoralized, divided France to come together and win the war it had been losing. Charles VII woke up fully to his kingly duty and authority and led the charge, first subduing the rebels in Burgundy and then reclaiming Paris in 1436, 99 years after the Hundred Years War had begun. Its name notwithstanding, the conflict would trundle on for no less than seventeen more years — Medieval warfare was a much slower-paced affair than its modern equivalent — but the tide had irrevocably turned against the English. In the final peace settlement that was signed in October of 1453, England gave up all its claims to French territory, with the exception only of the Channel port of Calais, which it would manage to retain for another 105 years.

These events forced a hasty reevaluation in Rome. In 1456, the Inquisition reopened its case on Joan of Arc, annulling the guilty verdict. Her rehabilitation would be completed in 1920, when the Church officially canonized the woman it itself had so cruelly executed.

The Spanish Inquisition was another, even more notorious collusion between the agents of the Church and worldly politics, 50 years after Joan of Arc was burnt.

The states of the Iberian Peninsula had been growing smaller in number and larger in size for centuries. By 1475, there were just four left: Aragon, Castile, Portugal, and Granada, the last being the one remaining enclave of Islam in Western Europe, right at the southern tip of the peninsula. That year Ferdinand, the seventeen-year-old crown prince of Aragon, married Isabella, the eighteen-year-old queen of Castile. Four years later, Ferdinand became king of Aragon as well, uniting more than 80 percent of the peninsula into the new country of Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella have a rich if checkered historical legacy, being the uniters of Spain, conquerors of Granada, authors of the Spanish Inquisition, and sponsors of Christopher Columbus. (Public Domain)

The union wasn’t greeted with unmitigated joy inside said country; Ferdinand and Isabella stood at the head of a fractious kingdom riven with tensions and rivalries. Fortunately for them, they were a power couple for the ages, a perfect pairing of pragmatic realpolitik with strident idealism. Ferdinand was a brilliant schemer, whose talents would later cause Machiavelli to praise him as “great and extraordinary,” “the foremost king of Christendom.” “The king of France,” Ferdinand laughed on one occasion, “complains that I have twice deceived him. He lies, the fool; I have deceived him ten times, and more.” The beautiful Queen Isabella, on the other hand, came across almost like a royal Joan of Arc: a born zealot, she was warm and kind to those she considered orthodox practitioners of the Christian faith, more ruthless even than her husband to those she deemed heretics. For his part, Ferdinand saw an expanded Inquisition in Spain as a wonderful means of social control, a way of taming the many wayward factions inside the freshly-fused kingdom.

In 1478, Ferdinand and Isabella asked Pope Sixtus IV for permission to run what amounted to their own personal Inquisition in Spain; in a breach with centuries of precedent, they asked to be allowed to name their own Inquisitors. Perhaps sensing that the royal pair was on the path to building the most powerful state in Europe, the pope agreed to this huge concession. A new government agency, the Consejo de la Suprema Inquisición, was formed in Spain to direct the effort.

The Inquisitors roamed the width and breadth of the countryside. Upon entering a new village, their first act was to announce an “Edict of Faith,” abjuring all people who knew of any deviation from orthodox thought or behavior among any of their neighbors, friends, or family to report it, under penalty of being judged as guilty as the original transgressors should they fail to do so. Anyone who was accused was considered guilty by default; the burden was on him to prove himself innocent. Innocent or guilty, the safest choice for the accused was generally to confess immediately, in order to spare himself the rigors of torture. For despite the presumption of guilt, the rules of the Inquisition were set up such that a final verdict of guilty was almost impossible to issue without a confession, making the whole proceeding an exercise in extracting one by fair means or foul. Punishments after the guilty verdict was handed down could range from a mere verbal reprimand to burning at the stake, depending on the severity of the crime and how quickly it had been confessed.

Needless to say, the system was ripe for corruption. Everywhere the Inquisitors went, people used their tribunals as a way to avenge petty grudges and assuage old enmities that had nothing to do with religion. Where grudges and enmities weren’t enough to meet their quota of heretics judged and punished, the Inquisitors sweetened the pot by offering informers a portion of the money and property they seized from the accused. Meanwhile they themselves accepted bribes to look the other way here, or to look extra hard over there. Even Pope Sixtus IV grew dismayed at the monster he had unleashed. In 1482, he issued a decree that effectively reversed the one of four years earlier, making the Inquisitors once again answerable to the bishops of the areas where they operated. But Ferdinand and Isabella simply ignored the order. Forced to choose between putting up some more direct resistance or shutting up, Sixtus did the latter, and the Spanish Inquisition proceeded apace.

It succeeded magnificently in establishing the young Spanish monarchs’ absolute control over their kingdom, by keeping the citizenry too scared and mutually suspicious to mount any challenges to their rule. Burnings at the stake became public spectacles which everyone was expected to attend; failing to do so, or failing to display sufficient enthusiasm once on the scene, risked drawing the Inquisitors’ attention to oneself, something to be avoided at all costs. As well as instructing the people on the fiery torments that awaited all unbelievers, the executions demonstrated the awesome power of the state, operating as it was hand in glove with the one true religion of the land. In scattered times and places, brave local leaders dared to deny the Inquisitors entry to their towns and villages, but such rebellions were uniformly put down in bloody fashion. Estimates of the number of people burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition in the 25 years in which it was most active vary widely, from less than 4000 to more than 30,000. But those who suffered most comprehensively from it, and from the mood of xenophobic intolerance it created, were undoubtedly the Iberian Peninsula’s non-Christians.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued an ultimatum to all of their Jewish subjects, giving them four months to either be baptized Christians or leave the country. About 50,000 of them chose the former course, about 100,000 the latter. Some of this second group attempted to sail to other Mediterranean lands in rickety boats, a large percentage of them drowning in the process. The bulk of them, however, fled to Portugal, only to be greeted with the same ultimatum of convert, leave, or be killed there four years later. Entire families of Jews committed suicide in despair, or were killed by Christian mobs in Spain or Portugal after their deadline had expired.

The Muslims on the peninsula suffered a similar fate. Their last redoubt of Granada fell to Spain the same year the Spanish Jews were expelled. Ten years later, another Spanish royal edict gave those Muslims who still remained two and a half months to be baptized as Christians or to leave. The cruelest part of the law was the stipulation that Muslim girls under age twelve and boys under age fourteen must be left behind by those parents who chose exile for themselves. Perhaps because of it, a larger proportion of Muslims than Jews elected to accept conversion, at least publicly. Even after doing so, they were hounded relentlessly by the Inquisitors, who suspected that they were still followers of Mohammad rather than Jesus in secret. And it really does appear that conversion was only a delaying tactic in many cases; it is estimated that as many as 3 million of these allegedly “former” Muslims left Spain over the course of the sixteenth century.

While the Spanish Inquisition would not be formally ended until the scandalously late date of 1834, it had already passed its maniacal peak by 1505, becoming thereafter a latent rather than an acute threat for the people of Spain. It presents a challenge to interpret in terms of history. On the one hand, coming as it did just at the end of the Middle Ages, we might wish to see it as one of the last gasps of the Medieval mindset, of religion as an unnervingly palpable, tangible force in life. But on the other hand, there is also something terrifyingly modern about its use as an instrument of social control by a tyrannical state. It seems to teeter on the threshold between the Middle Ages and Modernity, neither totally the one nor the other. Call it a liminal, transitional event.

Indeed, the fifteenth century in general was a time of transition for Europe, and on a breathtaking scale at that. At the century’s outset, few would have given particularly good odds for this backward, plague-devastated continent to surge to the fore and dominate the next epoch of history, the first truly geopolitical age, in which every part of the world would come to know of and interact with every other part of it, whether it wanted to or not. And yet by the end of the century, Europe really would be well on its way to world domination, with the phenomenon that economic historians now call “The Great Divergence” already in its opening stages. Over the following few hundred years, Europe would become wealthier by far than any other region of the world — in fact, wealthier than any place in the world had ever been before — on the wings of what the same economic historians call “The First Globalization.”

If we wish to isolate a linchpin year for Europe’s transformative century, it seems to me that 1454 is an excellent choice. The year before that one, two great symbols of the Middle Ages passed away. One was the Hundred Years War, that longest and last of the Medieval wars. The other was the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed at last with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, who made it the capital of their own burgeoning Ottoman Empire. The people of Medieval Europe had never ceased looking back to the Roman Empire of late Antiquity. Now, though, even the Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the glory that was ancient Rome, was gone. The only thing left to do was stride forward into the future. To wit: the year after our linchpin year of 1454, a goldsmith, gem merchant, and tinkerer named Johannes Gutenberg, living in the German city of Mainz, printed 180 copies of the Vulgate Bible using his ingenious new invention, Europe’s first movable-type printing press.

The Gutenberg Bible is unremarkable in terms of content, being simply a mechanically printed version of the more than 1000-year-old Vulgate Latin Bible of Saint Jerome. Yet those examples of it that remain in libraries and museums have a strong claim to being the most important surviving physical artifacts of all of Western civilization. This one is found in the United States Library of Congress. (Mark Pellegrini)

The printing press was one of five technological innovations that powered Europe’s meteoric ascent on the global stage after 1454. Ironically, none of them was invented first in Europe; all existed in China and in some cases in the Muslim world as well long before they reached the West. All of which is to say that, if matters had played out just slightly differently, the epoch of Modernity could have ushered in a worldwide heyday of Chinese or Muslim instead of European culture. Tellingly, the Chinese themselves group four of the developments I’m about to discuss together as the “Four Great Inventions” of their own civilization.

One of them is wood-pulp paper. Made by soaking shredded wood fibers in water, then draining away the liquid and pressing flat that which was left behind, paper was suitable for cheap mass-production, something that cannot be said for the parchment and vellum that was commonly used as a writing surface prior to its arrival in Europe. For parchment and vellum were made from animal skins, a much rarer and more precious resource than wood — the latter being a material that, to coin a phrase, grew on trees.

A second development was the aforementioned movable-type printing press. Its name came from the small pieces of type, each representing one glyph, which were arranged in a frame to form each page of a book. After being inked and pressed onto paper to print as many identical copies of one page as the operator wished, the type could be rearranged into a new configuration to make the next page. The printing press was a cheap and efficient way to churn out books in large quantities, able to do in a week what a dozen human scribes couldn’t do in a year.

A third development was the compass, by far the most infallible tool of navigation on sea and land yet devised. A fourth development, the only one not listed by the Chinese as one of their Four Great Inventions, was nevertheless seen in China before Europe: big sailing ships capable of crossing even the widest stretches of open ocean. And finally, a fifth development was gunpowder.

Of this group of five, Europe definitely learned about paper and gunpowder from China before the fifteenth century, probably via intermediaries in the Muslim world. The printing press and ocean-worthy ships were cases of belated parallel invention during that century. And the jury remains out on whether Europe borrowed the compass or discovered the magical direction-pointing properties of lodestones for itself. In either case, it appears to have happened already by the thirteenth century.

Still, it wasn’t until the second half of the fifteenth century that Europe had all five inventions readily to hand. And just what do you get when you put these five things together? The potential for something quite extraordinary, as it happens. Combine cheap paper with the movable-type printing press, and you have what has often been called the most revolutionary single advance in the history of human communication, if not of human civilization, full stop. Instead of being precious bespoke objects, books — and, more importantly, the information they contain — become almost a commodity good. This brings education and literacy, previously the province of the nobility and the clergy alone, to an emerging non-noble middle class, and eventually even to the masses of the peasantry.

Now, combine the compass with those large, ocean-worthy sailing ships, and you have the potential to travel and trade relatively reliably over vast gulfs of water. Add gunpowder to the mix, throw in the increasingly educated population provided by paper and the printing press, and you can build the guns and cannons you need to subdue anyone you meet there, along with the bureaucratic systems of administration you need to govern them effectively afterward. This, gentle readers, is the stuff of empires — modern empires, controlled by recognizably Modern nation-states rather than Medieval kingdoms.

The natural question to ask, then, is why it was Europe rather than China that came to command such empires, given that China had all of these tools at its disposal first. And although this is not a book about China, it may indeed be worth pausing for just a moment here to consider this question.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, it certainly would have struck any hypothetical observer with an all-encompassing view of the world as China that was on the inside track to global domination. At that time, the Ming dynasty could boast of ships eight or nine times the size of any to be found in Europe. Under the storied eunuch admiral Zheng He, these “dragon ships” sailed all over Southeast Asia, Arabia, and East Africa on voyages of discovery, diplomacy, and trade, the necessary prelude to full-fledged maritime empire. It would have seemed only a matter of time to our observer before they rounded the southern tip of Africa and reached Europe as well, after which all bets would be off.

But then, standing just on the brink of Modernity, China lost heart and turned away. After Zheng He’s death in 1433, the Ming emperors deliberately strangled ocean-going trade, forcibly directing their people’s gaze inward. By 1500, when Europe’s Age of Discovery was in full flight, they had made it illegal to so much as build a ship with more than two masts. China itself, they had decided, was more than big and rich enough. It was a colossal blunder, one for which the Ming emperors’ descendants are in some senses still paying today. But why did China turn away from the world? Or, to phrase the question a different way, why did Europe embrace the world with such gusto?

The reason for the divergent paths of China and Europe may have something to do with their internal politics. As a single kingdom with a strong central government, China could afford to be complacent, at least for a while. (The tragedy for China would be that, by the time it was clear that that little while was up, it would be too late.) But the many kingdoms of Europe, crammed together in a comparatively small space, jockeying constantly against one another for their very survival, couldn’t afford to rest on their laurels for even an instant. The existential competition spurred them relentlessly onward. Thus, although it took gunpowder hundreds of years to arrive in Europe from China, the people there were far quicker than the Chinese had been to adapt it to the needs of warfare once they finally had it in their hands. Already by the third quarter of the fourteenth century, when the Chinese were still using gunpowder primarily for fireworks and theatrical pyrotechnics, Europeans were marching to war with cannons in tow; 100 years after that, some European soldiers were already carrying arquebuses, or “hand cannons,” the ancestor of the musket and by extension the modern rifle.

After 1454, then, Europe was able and willing to pick up the baton that China had dropped. In its early stages, the Age of Discovery was driven by the churn and ferment taking place on the Iberian Peninsula, where the new country of Spain was feeling its oats under Ferdinand and Isabella and the much smaller, older kingdom of Portugal was looking for any advantage it could get to avoid suffering the fate of Granada. In 1482, the Portuguese captain Diogo Cão sailed down the west coast of Africa and up the Congo River, trading with the natives he met along the way. In 1488, his countryman Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the southern tip of Africa for the first time, pointing the way to the same African and Asian trading routes that had recently been abandoned by the Chinese. In 1498, Vasco da Gama made good on the promise of Dias’s voyage when he reached India by sea, returning to Portugal with his holds bursting with the exotic spices of pepper and cinnamon.

But it was Portugal’s larger rival on the Iberian Peninsula that made the most earthshaking discovery of all. After years of trying, a Genoese sailing master named Christopher Columbus finally convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to fund a sea voyage westward from Europe, in the hope of finding a faster, safer route to India than the one that went around the bottom of Africa. But he never did make it to his planned destination. Instead, on October 12, 1492, he bumped into two sprawling new continents whose existence nobody in Europe — or in China, for that matter — had suspected.

This vast, virgin land, larger than four Europes and just sitting there ripe for the taking, was such an astounding discovery that even Columbus himself couldn’t quite believe in it. He insisted right up until his death in 1506 that it was some outskirt of Asia that he had bumped into. Most other Europeans initially followed his lead in rejecting the very idea of a North and South America that lay between their own continent and Asia. But gradually the reality of the Americas seeped into even the hardest of European heads, and the chase for empire there began.

And on that auspicious note, we end our grand tour of the Medieval Church and Medieval Europe, with Europe on the cusp of the brand-new epoch of Modernity. We have just about arrived at the time of Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel as well, but we are still nowhere near ready to appreciate that unique artifact in context. In order to approach it properly forewarned and forearmed, we need to set the clock back slightly and readjust our focus, to what was going on in Italy specifically while the pieces that would lead to the end of the Middle Ages all over Europe were still falling into place one by one. We need to vicariously experience, that is to say, one of the most exciting cultural flowerings in all of human history: the Italian Renaissance.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

9 Comments for "Chapter 8: A Century of Transformation"

  • Ignacio

    Great article! I am immensely enjoying this series.
    I believe there is a minor typo here: “It really does appearS”. Thanks!

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks — for the correction and the donation. 😉

  • David Boddie

    Thoroughly interesting to read, as usual!

    One minor correction, perhaps: “Instead of [being/remaining] precious bespoke objects, books — and, more importantly, the information they contain — become almost a commodity good.”

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Michael

    Thank you for another interesting article.

    You’ve referred to both “Castille” and “Castile” – I think both are correct, one in Spanish and the other in English, but it might be nice to use the same name everywhere?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, absolutely. Thanks!

  • Emmanuel F.

    For details about the difference between China and Europe in the modern age, I can’t recommend enough “the gunpowder age” by Tonio Andrade.

  • RobbieAB

    > Combine cheap paper with the movable-type printing press,

    While the Chinese, may have had a movable-type printing press before the Europeans, there is a significant difference in the utility of the innovation due to the difference in alphabets: The Latin alphabet has a very limited number of glyphs compared to the Chinese alphabet. It is quite easy to see why it this specific innovation had so much impact in Europe and not in China for this reason.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, absolutely. Most Western European languages require less than 100 different carved metal glyphs. Classical Chinese requires about 10,000.


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