THE LAST CRUSADERS fled the Islamic world in 1291, driven out by Egypt’s mamluks, but in Europe residues of the Crusades persisted for years to come. Some of the blowback came from those military religious orders spawned by the Church of Rome. The Templars, for example, became influential international bankers. The Knights Hospitaller took over the island of Rhodes, then moved their headquarters to Malta, from which place they operated more or less as pirates, looting Muslim shipping in the Mediterranean. The Teutonic Knights actually conquered enough of Prussia to establish a state that lasted into the fifteenth century.
Meanwhile, Europeans kept trying to launch new campaigns into the Muslim world too, but these were ever more feeble, and some dissipated along the way, while others veered off on tangents. The so-called Northern Crusade ended up targeting the pagan Slavs of the Baltic region. Many little wars against “heretical” sects within Europe, whipped up by the pope and conducted by this or that monarch, were also labeled “crusades.” In France, for example, there was a long “crusade” against a Christian sect called the Albigensians. Then there was Iberia, where Christians kept on crusading until 1492, when they overran Granada finally and drove the last of the Muslims out of the peninsula.
The crusading spirit persisted in part because over the course of the real crusades, a new motivation had entered the drive to the east: an appetite for trade goods coming from places like India and the islands beyond them, which Europeans called the Indies. One of many desirable goods to be found in India was an amazing product called sugar. From Malaysia and Indonesia came pepper, nutmeg, and many other spices. Chefs of the High Middle Ages put spices in everything they cooked—often the same spices in savories and desserts; they just liked spices!1
The trouble was, the Crusades stoked an appetite for the goods but also separated European merchants from those goods by creating a belt of anti-Christian hostility that stretched from Egypt to Azerbaijan. European businessmen couldn’t get past that wall to trade directly with the source: they had to deal with Muslim middleman. It’s true that Marco Polo traveled to China in this period, but he and his group were just one anomalous band, and Europeans were amazed that they had made it all the way there and back. Most, in fact, didn’t believe he had really done it: they called Marco Polo’s book about his adventures “The Millions,” referring to the number of lies they thought he had packed into it. Muslims owned the eastern shores of the Black Sea, they owned the Caucasus mountains, they owned the Caspian coastline. They possessed the Red Sea and all approaches to it. Europeans were forced to get the products of India and the Indies from Muslim merchants in Syria and Egypt, who no doubt jacked the prices up as high as the market would bear, especially for their European Christian customers, given the ill will from all that happened during the Crusades, not to mention the fact that the Farangi Christians had aligned themselves with the Mongols.
What were western Europeans traders to do?
This is where the crusading spirit bled into the exploring impulse. Muslims straddled the tangle of the land routes that connected the world’s important ancient markets, but over the centuries, unnoticed by Muslim potentates and peoples, western Europeans had been developing tremendous seafaring prowess. For one thing, Europeans of the post-Crusades era included Vikings, those invading mariners from the north who were so good at seafaring, they had even crossed the North Atlantic to Greenland in their dragon boats. One wave invaded England where the word North-menslurred into Norman. A few of these then moved to the coast of France, where the region they inhabited came to be known as Normandy.
THE EUROPEAN QUEST FOR A SEA ROUTE TO THE INDIES
But it wasn’t just the Vikings. Everyone who sailed regularly between Scandinavia and southern Europe had to develop rugged ships and learn how to manage them in the big storms and high seas of the North Atlantic; western Europeans, therefore, ended up very much at home on the water. With such accomplished mariners amongst their subjects, some ambitious monarchs began to dream of finding a way to skirt the whole land mass between Europe and east Asia and with it the whole Muslim problem: in short, they got interested in finding a way to get to India and the islands further east entirely by sea.
One aristocrat who poured serious support into this enterprise was Prince Henry of Portugal (called “Henry the Navigator” even though he never went on any of the expeditions he sponsored). Prince Henry was closely connected to the king of Portugal, but more important, he was one of the richest men in western Europe. He funded sea captains to sail south along the coast of Africa looking for a way around it. Henry’s letters and proclamations show that he originally saw himself as a crusader, out to prove himself a great Christian monarch by scoring victories against the Moors and finding new souls to save for the one true faith.2
Many of the new souls his sailors found were living in black-skinned bodies and had commercial value as slaves, it turned out, and Prince Henry the Navigator morphed into Prince Henry the Slave Trader. In addition to slaves, as the Portuguese made their way south, they found all sorts of other marketable commodities such as gold dust, salt, ostrich eggs, fish oil—the list goes on and on. The constant discovery of new trade goods infused the crusader’s dream with an economic motive, and the Crusades gave way to what Europeans call the Age of Discovery. Perhaps the most dramatic discovery occurred in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, looking for a route to India, and stumbled across the Americas. His voyage was funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Christian monarchs who completed the Crusade against the Muslims of Iberia and founded a single, unified, Christian kingdom of Spain.
When Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, he famously believed he had reached the Indies. After his mistake became known, the islands east of India were called the East Indies, and these islands in the Caribbean the West Indies. Most Muslims were only vaguely aware of this momentous discovery. Ottoman sources mention Columbus’s voyage in passing, although by the 1570s, a few Ottoman cartographers were creating fairly accurate maps of the world showing the two Americas right where they are in fact located. By then, Spain had built the rudiments of a new empire in Mexico and the English, French, and others had planted settlements further north.
Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Middle World, Muslims had already discovered what the Europeans were originally seeking: Muslim traders had been sailing to Malaysia and Indonesia for centuries. Many Muslim traders who plied these waters belonged to Sufi orders, and through them Islam had taken root in the (east) Indies long before the first Europeans arrived.
Even before the Portuguese, Spaniards, English, Dutch, and other northern Europeans caught the exploring fever, southern Europeans were already making their clout known at sea, for their civilization had emerged out of seafaring, and their sailing prowess went back to the Romans, the Greeks, the Mycenaeans before them, and the Cretans and Phoenicians before that.
By the fourteenth century CE, the Genovese and the Venetians were competing for the Mediterranean trade in some of the biggest, sturdiest fleets around, and on the water, these Italians could fight. Venetians did vigorous business in Constantinople, and after the Ottomans took over they boldly opened commercial offices at Istanbul.
The Mediterranean trade drew tremendous wealth into Italy and spawned booming city-states, not just Venice and Genoa, but also Florence, Milan, and others. Here in Italy, money supplanted land as the chief marker of wealth and status. Merchants became the new power elite; families like the Medicis of Florence and the Sforzas of Milan supplanted the old military aristocracy of feudal landowners. All the money, all that entrepreneurial energy, all that urban diversity, all those sovereign entities in such close proximity competing for grandeur, eminence, and reputation generated a dynamism unprecedented in history. Any talented artist or craftsman with a skill to sell could have a field day in the Italy of this era because he could get so many patrons bidding against one another for his services. Dukes and cardinals and even the pope competed to lure artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to their courts because their works were not only beautiful but represented great status symbols. Italy began to overflow with the art, invention, creativity, and achievement that was later labeled “the Italian Renaissance.”
Books, meanwhile, were coming back into fashion. During the Dark Ages, hardly anyone in Europe knew how to read except clerics, and clerics learned the skill just to read the Bible and conduct services. Among Germanic Christians, in Charlemagne’s time for example, clerics revered Latin, the language in which Christian services were performed, because they thought of it as the language God spoke. They worried that if their Latin deteriorated, God would not understand their prayers, so they preserved and studied a few ancient books written by pagans such as Cicero purely as an aid to mastering the grammar and structure and pronunciation of the old tongue. They wanted to ensure that they would be able to continue sounding out syllables that would reach God. When reading writers such as Cicero, they tried assiduously to ignore what they were saying and focus only on their style so as not to be contaminated by their pagan sensibilities. Their efforts to preserve Latin petrified it into a dead language suitable only for ritual and incantatory purposes, incapable of serving as a vehicle for discussion and thought.3 Nonetheless, their reverence for books as artifacts meant that some churches and monasteries kept books tucked away in basements and back rooms.
Then, in the twelfth century, Christian scholars visiting Muslim Andalusia stumbled across Latin translations of Arabic translations of Greek texts by thinkers such as Aristotle and Plato. Most of these works were generated in Toledo, where a bustling translation industry had developed. From Toledo, the books filtered into western Europe proper, finding their way at last into church and monastery libraries.
The Arabic works found in Andalusia included a great deal of commentary by Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna to the Europeans) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Their writings focused on reconciling Greek philosophy with Muslim revelations. Christians took no interest in that achievement, so they stripped away whatever Muslims had added to Aristotle and the others and set to work exploring how Greek philosophy could be reconciled with Christian revelations. Out of this struggle came the epic “scholastic” philosophies of thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and others. The Muslim connection to the ancient Greek works was erased from European cultural memory.
European scholars began gravitating to monasteries that had libraries because the books were there. Then, would-be students began gravitating to monasteries with libraries because the scholars were there. While pursuing their studies, penniless scholars eked out a living teaching classes. Learning communities formed around the monasteries and these ripened into Europe’s first universities. One of the earliest emerged around Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Another very early learning community became the University of Naples. Then a university developed at Oxford, England. When a fight broke out among the scholars there, the dissident group migrated to Cambridge in a huff and started a learning community of its own.
The scholars in these protouniversities came to realize that most would-be students didn’t know enough to even begin studying, so they developed a set of standard courses designed to get students ready to begin, courses in rhetoric, grammar, logic, and arithmetic, for example, that were designed to teach students merely how to read, write, and think. Students who successfully completed this basic course were called baccalaureates, Latin for “beginners”; now they could begin to learn some actual subject such as theology, philosophy, medicine, or law. Today, of course, the baccalaureate is the degree one gets for graduating from a four-year liberal arts college.
As wealth accumulated in Europe, a few people were able to spend all their time studying, reading, writing, and making art. With Greek thought back in the mix, a set of new ideas filtered into the imagination of learned Europeans. The Greeks had said, “Man is the measure of all things,” and their pagan pantheon had represented “God” as a collection of deities with human personalities who interacted with one another and with humanity in dramatic ways. The Greeks had taken a penetrating interest in the natural world and the human here-and-now. They had made great strides in discerning patterns among natural events as a first step toward explaining them. People who read and discussed the ancient Greek texts got interested, therefore, in unraveling the mysteries of life on earth, an orientation quite at odds with the attitudes fostered by the church since the fall of Rome, for in the Christendom of the Middle Ages, the prevailing doctrine declared the material world to be evil. The only point of being here was to get out of here, and so the only subject worth studying was the hereafter and the only texts worth consulting were the scriptures and scriptural commentaries. The new humanists did not think of themselves as competing with Christianity; they were hardly godless atheists; but Church officials saw a threat in the new forms of thought. They could feel where all this was going.
Christianity grew within the framework of a dying Rome. It developed a hierarchy that resembled and shadowed the administrative hierarchy of Rome. As the imperial structure crumbled, the Christian structure took its place by default, becoming the framework that continued to support civilized life. The Byzantine emperor, always the head of the imperial hierarchy, automatically evolved into the head of this Christian hierarchy. The various bishops were subservient to him as the head of the Church, just as the governors had been (and were still) subservient to him as the head of the empire. The doctrines of the Christian religion were formulated by bishops at councils convened by the emperor and updated periodically at similar councils, with the emperor always having the final say.
So closely did Christianity intertwine with Rome that when the empire split in two, the church divided too. In the east, the emperor remained the head of the church. In the west, the very title of “emperor” dropped out of existence. Politically, the continent fragmented into small realms ruled, essentially, by warlords. In this context, the Church emerged as the single source of cultural coherence and unity in western Europe, the cultural medium through which people who spoke different languages and served different sovereigns could still interact or travel through one another’s realms. To serve this function, the doctrines of the Church had to be uniform, universally understood, and universally accepted, so the Church developed a ferocious propensity for spotting and stamping out heresies.
By the time of the Crusades, church officials in western Europe were regularly executing heretics—anyone whose publicly stated convictions departed from the prevailing doctrine—by tying them to stakes and lighting bonfires under them.
As the Church tightened its grip on daily life, the bishop of Rome became the preeminent figure in western Europe. People called him il pape, the pope, because they considered him the “father” of the Christian community. In the east, the patriarch of Constantinople was the leading religious figure, but there were many patriarchs and he was only the first among equals. In the west, the pope acquired an authority transcending that of all other bishops. Around the time of the Crusades, Catholics began to propound the doctrine that the pope was infallible.
Meanwhile, the church was extending its reach across the continent and down into every cranny. Every rural village, every town, every neighborhood in every city had its parish priest and its local church and every priest was administering exactly the same rites in the same way and in the same language. The hierarchy became fully rationalized and embedded: every priest answered to a higher bishop, every bishop to an archbishop, archbishops to cardinals, and cardinals to the pope.
But then, as the Crusades died away, this hegemony began to crack. Here and there, reformers began to question the authority of the church. In the late fourteenth century, an Oxford professor named John Wycliffe shocked church officials by translating the Bible into that most vulgar of languages, common English. And why? So that common, ordinary folks could read and understand what the Bible said for themselves. Church officials couldn’t fathom why ordinary folks would need to understand the Bible for themselves when they had priests to do the understanding for them.
Wycliffe went further. He suggested that clerics should all be poor, like the apostles, and that land should be taken away from churches and monasteries and put to secular uses, which offended the church deeply. Wycliffe had powerful political protectors, so he managed to live out his natural life span, but four decades after his death, a pope had his bones dug up, crushed into powder, and scattered over a river: the rage, it seemed, persisted.
It persisted in part because Wycliffe’s ideas would not die out. In the generation after his, for example, the Bohemian priest Johann Huss embraced Wycliffe’s idea that all people had a right to a Bible in their own language. He commenced a great translation project. When church officials quoted canon law at him to show that his actions were wrong, he quoted scripture back at them and declared that the Bible trumped church councils. This was too much. The church arrested Huss and burnt him at the stake in a fire fueled with copies of the vulgate Bibles he had been promoting. In short, Christianity did to its first reformers what Islam had done to the proto-Sufi Hallaj.
Killing reformers, however, could not kill the hunger for reform. Wycliffe, Huss, and others of their ilk had scratched through to something smoldering dangerously among the people: an unrequited desire for real religious experience.
The bureaucratization of religion had made the church powerful and given Europe cultural unity, but the religious bureaucracy eventually couldn’t deliver the core experience that was its raison d’etre. German theology professor Martin Luther put his finger most precisely on the dysfunction. Luther was a man tormented by guilt. No matter what he did, he felt like a sinner headed for hell. The Christian rites were supposed to alleviate this guilt by washing him clean of sin, but for Luther the rites weren’t working. He tried everything—fasting, self-flagellation, daily communion, endless penances, but at the end of it all, when the priest told him he was pure now, Luther didn’t believe him. He had only to look into his heart to see that he was still impure. He knew because he still felt the guilt.
Then one day, a great insight hit Luther. He could not have salvation until he believed himself saved. If he lacked this belief, it didn’t matter what the priest said or did. If he had this belief, it didn’t matter what the priest said or did. Which raised a big, big question: of what use was the priest? Why was he even in the mix?
In fact, the conviction gripped Luther that salvation could not be earned, like a pension. It was a gift, which could only be received, and then only through faith, an inner process, never through “works,” external deeds and doings.
Armed with this insight, Luther looked around and saw a world full of people pursuing salvation through “works,” and to make it all worse, works prescribed by a vast, wealthy, well-organized bureaucracy, the Church of Rome. It filled him with horror, for if his insight was true, all these “works” were for naught!
Of all the “works” prescribed by the Church, the one that most alarmed and offended Luther was the granting of indulgences. An indulgence was a remission of punishment for certain sins, which the Church proclaimed itself empowered to give, in exchange for good and valuable considerations. The practice went back to the Crusades, when the pope offered indulgences to those who signed up to fight the heathen Turk. Later, as crusading opportunities faded out, the Church began to grant indulgences in exchange for cash contributions. Given the petty corruption that inevitably infests any far-flung bureaucratic system, some clerics here and there—let’s face it—probably handed out indulgences in exchange for cash contributions to, well, themselves. Any way you look at it, by Martin Luther’s time, the whole practice of granting indulgences had come to mean that people could supposedly buy their way out of purgatory and fast-track their way into heaven.
Making people pay to get into heaven was bad enough. But to Luther the practice smacked of something worse. If salvation was a direct, personal interaction between each individual and God, then the Church was extorting bribes to let people through a gate they had no actual power to open or keep shut. It wasn’t just corruption. It was thievery and deception of the worst sort!
On Halloween night, 1517, Luther nailed an inflammatory document to the door of a church in Wittenberg in which he set forth ninety-five “theses,” ninety-five objections to the Church and its doings. Luther’s paper was an overnight sensation, and it sparked the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation was no single thing. Once Luther opened the gates, the passion spread in numerous directions with numerous reformers launching separate movements and many new sects springing up, each with its own idiosyncratic creed; but generally they had four tenets in common:
• Salvation could be a palpable, right-here/right-now experience.
• Salvation could be achieved through faith alone.
• No person needed an intermediary to connect with God.
• People could get everything they needed to know about religion from the Bible; they didn’t need to know Latin or the conclusions of church councils or the pronouncements of priests and scholars.
In some ways, the Protestant Reformation came out of the same sorts of dissatisfactions and hungers that had given birth to Sufism. In the West, however, no Ghazali appeared to synthesize orthodox dogmas with the quest for personal religious breakthrough.
In other regards, the Protestant Reformation resembled the movements of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyah—the exact opposite of Sufism. Like those Muslim theologians, Protestant reformers sought to delegitimize all later accretions of doctrine and go back to the original source: the Bible. The Book.
But ultimately, the Protestant Reformation was nothing like anything that had happened in Islam. Protestant Reformers rebelled against the Church and the pope, but in Islam, there was no church or pope to rebel against. In the West, the religious reformers who broke the hegemony of the Catholic Church didn’t do so to raise up some monolithic new church but to empower the individual. Such a quest in no way pitted them against Christianity itself, because Christianity was inherently about the individual: a plan for the salvation of each person. Islam, however, was a plan for how a community should work; any reform movement that sought to secure for each individual the right to practice the religion as he or she thought best would inherently go up against the core doctrines of Islam itself.
By empowering the individual, the Protestant Reformation had consequences that went far beyond religion. At some level, breaking the hold of “the Church” amounted to breaking the hold of any church. It’s true that the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were talking only about religious strivings, and it’s true that each sect had a pretty definite and limited idea of a person’s proper relationship to God. Probably none of the reformers thought they were encouraging people to think outside the box on matters of faith. And yet, calling the quest for salvation the province of the individual legitimized the authority of each individual to think what he or she wanted about God, no matter what the reformers intended. And legitimizing the authority of individuals to think what they wanted about God implicitly legitimized their authority to think what they wanted about anything.
It was this aspect of the Reformation that cross-fertilized with the European rediscovery of ancient Greek thought, the renewal of interest in pagan Latin writers, and the trickling influence of Arab thinkers. Individuals who felt they could seek salvation on their own terms were naturally going to speculate freely on the nature of God and the world and with all these interesting ideas floating around, some people inevitably were going to start playing with new ways to put together the pieces of the puzzle they saw around them.
If the Church had still been ubiquitous and all-powerful, every idea would have required that an addendum be accounted for: how does it relate to the faith? If one were thinking, “I wonder why everything falls down instead of up,” the voice of the church inside one’s conscience would immediately ask, “and how will the explanation help me to be a better Christian?” There’s only so far and so fast a mind can roam if it’s dragging around this baggage all the time.
Liberated from this baggage, Copernicus could posit that the Earth went around the sun. This simple and daring hypothesis explained everything about the motion of the stars and planets except for why God would make the universe revolve around something other than His most precious creation. If you didn’t have to deal with that second part, you could much more easily work out an answer to the first part. A lot of nature’s puzzles were like that: they became much easier to explain if you didn’t have to square your explanation with the dictates of the faith.
For most thinkers, this didn’t mean contradicting the faith; it just meant that faith was one thing and explaining nature was another: they were two separate fields of inquiry and never did the twain have to meet. Separating inquiries about nature from the framework of faith enabled Europeans to come up with a dazzling array of scientific concepts and discoveries in the two centuries following the Reformation.
Francis Bacon and René Descartes, for example, overturned the Aristotelian method of inquiry and elaborated the scientific method in its stead. They and others also helped establish the mechanistic model of the universe, which held that every physical event had a purely physical cause. Galileo, Descartes, and others went on to dismantle the Aristotelian idea that everything is made earth, air, water, and fire, replacing it with the atomic theory of matter, which laid the basis for modern chemistry.
Andreas Vesalius mapped the anatomy of the human body for the first time, and William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood. Together, they and others laid the basis for modern medicine. Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek discovered the world of microorganisms, which eventually led to Pasteur’s powerful germ theory of disease.
Robert Boyle began the process that led to formulating the four laws of thermodynamics, just four laws that govern the transformation of energy into work in any system from a rabbit’s digestive tract to the birth of the universe.
And let us not forget to mention the greatest scientist of them all, Isaac Newton, who invented differential calculus, explained the motion of all objects in the universe from pebbles to planets with three simple formulas, and discovered the laws of gravitation, thereby definitively explaining the motion of all heavenly bodies, the work begun by Copernicus and Galileo. Just for a capper, he described the wave nature of light and discovered the spectrum. No scientist had ever done so much and none has equaled his achievements since. It’s ironic, therefore, that he himself felt his proudest accomplishment was remaining celibate all his life.
But here’s the really interesting mystery to think about. Muslim scientists had come right to the threshold of virtually all these discoveries long before the West arrived there. In the tenth century, for example, al-Razi refuted Galen’s theory of four humors as a basis for medical treatment. In the eleventh century, Ibn Sina analyzed motion mathematically, as Newton was to do so fruitfully six centuries later. In the thirteenth century, about three hundred years before Vesalius, Ibn al-Nafis described how blood circulated in the body. Ibn al-Haytham, who died in 1039, discovered the spectrum, described the scientific method, and established quantification and experiment as the basis for scientific exploration: he pretty much pre-Newtoned Newton and pre-Descarted Descartes. Muslims had already elaborated the atomic view of matter, which they took from Indian scientists, and some had elaborated the mechanistic model of the universe, which they had gotten from the Chinese.
The momentous thing was not so much the discoveries themselves as the fact that in the West they persisted, they accumulated, and they reinforced one another until they brought about a complete and coherent new way to view and approach the world, the scientific view, which enabled the West’s later explosive advances in technology. Why did all this happen in the West but not in the East?
Possibly because Muslims made their great scientific discoveries just as their social order started crumbling, whereas the West made its great scientific discoveries just as its long-crumbled social order was starting to recover and in the wake of a religious reformation that broke the grip of church dogma on human thought, empowering individuals to speculate freely.
The Protestant Reformation was thus a key to the resurgence of Europe. But the Reformation also intertwined with another European development of tremendous consequence, the emergence of the nation-state as a form of political organization. The two were intertwined because when Luther and the others defied the Church, they took refuge with one or another of the monarchs of Europe, monarchs who had variously been struggling with the pope for some time now over who had final power in any given locale, the religious establishment or the secular one. The Reformation triggered an outburst of violence throughout Europe that ended with the Peace of Augsburg (1555). There the contending forces agreed on a landmark principle: that each monarch would have the authority to say whether his state, big or little, would stay with the Church of Rome or adopt one of the new Christian sects. Augsburg was only a ceasefire, it turned out. The pressure burst out again as the Thirty Years’ War, a kind of civil war that raged all over Europe, basically over the issue of which religion was to prevail. When the conflict wound down finally, and a treaty was signed at Westphalia, in 1648, the principle established at Augsburg was confirmed. So along with empowering individualism, the Reformation ended up dismantling a Europe-wide ideology in favor of a system in which church and state reinforced each other to promote nationalism.
Some of the first germs of nation-states formed in England and France, whose monarchs had fought the sporadic Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to 1453. It wasn’t actually one continuous war, of course, but a series of campaigns interrupted by periods of peace. Before the war, there really was no such thing as “England” and “France.” There was just territory, controlled by various nobles, who had various affiliations with other nobles. Empires, such as that of the medieval Carolingians, had been collections of territories. Being the emperor of these territories meant possessing the right and power to collect taxes there and draft soldiers from among its people. Emperors could mix and match and shuffle their collections of territory, trading or fighting over patches with other monarchs the way children fight over toys or exchange baseball cards. The people of two territories owned by the same emperor did not feel any sense of common peoplehood on that account. They weren’t united in a feeling of kinship just because they both belonged to Charles the Bald.
A sense of shared peoplehood did, however, begin to develop over the course of the Hundred Years’ War. For one thing, it became more distinctly the case that people in France spoke French and people in England spoke English. The French began to feel ever more united with others who spoke their language and lived in the same invaded territory and ever more distinct from the English-speaking armies who kept coming amongst them. Meanwhile, English soldiers, thrown together with one another over long campaigns that might recapitulate a campaign their fathers had been on, and which their sons might go on, felt ever more united with each other in a team-spirit kind of way. Over this period the “king” developed into something more than just the biggest nobleman: the idea of “king” as embodiment of “nation” began to form.
The Hundred Years’ War began as a war between big-shot nobles and their knights, with yeomen who came along to carry the baggage and sometimes shoot their silly bows at other yeoman, those arrows being completely ineffectual against the real warriors, the men in metal suits. Partway through the Hundred Years’ War, however, the English longbow was invented, a bow that could shoot harder and further than previous bows and whose arrows could pierce armor. Suddenly, a team of archers standing far behind the lines, could bring down a row of knights before they even got off their lists.
From that moment on, knights no longer determined the outcomes of battles, which meant that knights were obsolete. Feudal political organizations consisted of networks of personal connections. As feudalism faded, people who controlled money could organize large impersonal forces for war and eventually for work too. On the one hand, this transformed the king as a power figure in his country: he was the one person best situated to organize funding for large-scale military campaigns. But on the other hand, kings had to organize their fundraising through their nobles. In England, the organization of nobles whom the king had to call together to ratify a new military campaign was called “parliament.” The English monarch’s dependence on parliament to legitimize taxation eventually led to the development of democratic institutions in England—but that was still far down the line. In 1400, the transcendent grandeur of a king was big news all by itself.
Before nation-states emerged, the strongest forms of political organization were loose collections of territory with quasi-independent authority vested in many figures, at many levels. The overall leader had to operate through many intermediaries. Any order he gave was likely to be modified by every authority figure through whom it passed, not to mention distorted as it was translated into various languages, not to mention altered as it was made to fit local customs, not to mention lost entirely as people at the final, most local levels forgot (or refused) to pass it on. The greatest roar of the greatest emperor was likely to dissipate into a faint noise by the time it reached the smallest villages in the most outlying provinces. But in a nation-state, where everyone spoke more or less the same language, where a single network of officials administered the rules from top to bottom, where everyone was more or less on the same page, the king’s policies traveled without much distortion to every cranny and corner of his realm.
That’s not to say that England or France was that kind of nation-state in 1350 or 1400, but both were heading that way, and so were some of the principalities in northern Europe. The emergence of the nation-state enabled a single coherent government to set policies that affected all aspects of the lives of all the people living in its realm of control, people who still thought of themselves as subjects but were on their way to becoming citizens. So later, when the West went east, it was a case of nation-states, hard and sharp as knives, cutting into empires, loose and soft as bread.
The European quest for a sea route to the Indies, a direct aftermath of the Crusades, came to a head just as nation-states were emerging in Europe, just as the Protestant Reformation was turning the individual into a major actor on the historical stage, and just as the synergy between individualism and resurgent classical learning was giving rise to modern science.
In 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope, proving at last that a ship could sail from the Atlantic Coast to the Indian Ocean. A stream of traffic followed his route. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic and discovered two big continents hitherto unknown to Europeans. A stream of traffic was soon going back and forth to the Americas.
Because Spain financed Columbus, Spain got first crack at the wealth of the Americas. This good fortune made Spain the richest nation in Europe for a while. Spain sucked so much gold out of the Americas, and spent it so freely at home, that the European gold market crashed. Ironically, that crash destroyed the Spanish economy, and Spain ended up as one of the poorest European nations.
The gold of the Americas, however, also washed through the whole economy of Europe. This happened just around the time that western Europe was firming up into nation-states, and nation-states have such coherence that they tend to operate as if they were individual persons. Before the nation-state emerged, it wasn’t possible for some guy in England to hope that “England” would get richer, and to take personal satisfaction and pride in this happening. He might want wealth to flow to his area; he might want his town to get richer, or his family, or even his king, but England? What was England? Now, however, in areas where the people thought of themselves collectively as “a nation” it was easy and inevitable for people to think in terms of policies that would benefit the nation. One such policy was mercantilism.
Mercantilism was quite a simple concept, really. It was based on the notion that the economy of nations was like that of individual people. An individual person who earns a lot of money and spends very little becomes rich: guaranteed. For any individual person, the most desirable form that (incoming) money can take is gold. Accumulate lots of gold and you’re set. So people in western Europe easily fell into thinking that the wealth of their nations depended on bringing in as much gold as they could and letting out as little as possible. And they saw how this could be done: by selling lots of products to their friends and neighbors for gold and buying—ideally—nothing.
To sell a lot you have to make a lot. To buy nothing, you have to be self-sufficient. But how could a nation sell and sell and never buy? Where would the raw materials come from? This is where mercantilism, which was intertwined with nationalism, which was intertwined with the Protestant Reformation, which was intertwined with the ethos of individualism, which was intertwined with Renaissance humanism—intersected with European sea prowess and the urge to explore the world—which came right out of the Crusades.
All these synergistic, cross-fertilizing developments were beginning to peak in Europe just around 1600. At that moment, Europeans were master mariners. They were rapidly getting organized as compact nation-states. They were rethinking the world in scientific terms. They had the gold of the Americas burning holes in their pockets. And they were economically energized by protocapitalist entrepreneurs armed with a new ethos of individualism.
Incredibly enough, all of this development went virtually unnoticed by the Muslim world where, at that very moment, Moghul civilization was peaking in India, Safavid culture was peaking in Persia, and the Ottoman empire was only just past its peak period of efflorescence in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Hijaz, Egypt, and North Africa.
And then the two worlds began to intermingle.