In This Chapter
● Reflecting on the Renaissance
● Capturing (and renaming) Constantinople with the Ottoman Turks
● Cruising around Africa and to the New World
● Welcoming a new era
So when did the Middle Ages come to an end? As I say in Chapter 1, historians have been arguing over this point for years and show no sign of stopping. In general, they agree that the period ended in the fifteenth century, although the official moment at which it ceased is very much open to debate. Some historians even argue that the medieval period carried on into the sixteenth century. For the purposes of this book, I have chosen the end of the fifteenth century as the cut-off point.
In this chapter I look at some of the major events of the fifteenth century and consider how the old medieval way of life came to an end. From my point of view, the Middle Ages - and this chapter - definitely finish with the discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. But before bidding ‘That’s all, folks!’, this chapter covers a few final flourishes and fascinating beginnings.
Heading Back to the Future: The Renaissance
Most historians agree that the Renaissance is the period that grew from the Middle Ages. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, a massive cultural change spread across Europe, beginning in the Italian city of Florence.
The Renaissance takes its name from the French word meaning ‘rebirth’ that derives from the Italian word Rinascimento. The Renaissance is fascinating because instead of being a historical period, it describes a big cultural change. But this cultural change was so widespread across Europe that the term has come to be identified as a historical period such as ‘Middle Ages’, signifying a period of time between the Medieval World and the early modern era.
In this section I look at how the Renaissance happened within the final years of the medieval period and what was so significant about this new phase.
Digging for the Renaissance's roots: Cold hard cash
The Renaissance - which began in the Tuscany region of Italy, in particular its biggest city Florence (around 240 kilometres, or 149 miles, north of Rome) - was all about culture: it comprised a revolution in art, architecture, music and philosophy inspired by the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome. This revival had begun in the fourteenth century with scholars like Petrarch (1304-74) who were fascinated by the study and translation of classical texts. That said, however, the Renaissance took place only because of a new preponderance of money: lots and lots of Italian cash!
As I discuss in Chapter 18, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Italy led a revolution in trade throughout the Mediterranean. However, Italy itself wasn’t a unified entity in the fifteenth century and wouldn’t actually become one for around another 500 years.
The development of trading and financial services made the big cities of Italy - such as Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan and Genoa - incredibly wealthy and influential. Added to these cities was the wealthy and influential Rome, which was also home to the pope (apart from that Avignon business - check out Chapter 19 for more on Avignon and the antipopes).
Money was incredibly important in Italy because it bought power. Nobody had overall control of the state, and instead the peninsula was made up of competing, and frequently feuding, city states. The lack of a monarchy or even a nobility like the rest of Europe meant that social mobility was available for people with money, including the Medici family in Florence (see the later sidebar ‘Five fantastic guys’ for more on family founder, Lorenzo).
Feeding on the stream of culture
Just as trade brought money into Italy, it also brought new ideas and foreign influences. The gradual decline and eventual fall of the Byzantine Empire (flip to the ‘Bidding Bye-Bye to Byzantium’ section later in this chapter) encouraged huge numbers of intellectuals and artisans from the East to travel westwards in the hope of finding new patrons. Cash-rich Italy was just the place to come to because its new moneyed political leaders were looking for big juicy cultural status symbols on which to spend their money.
The travellers also brought with them ancient texts that had been lost in Christian Western Europe for centuries. These poems, plays and texts on art and architecture, which the early Catholic Church had considered pagan, were all rediscovered during this period.
Italy’s wealthy leaders also had more leisure time to spend reading and indulging in the arts than other European nobles. While Henry VI of England, Charles VII of France and all their attendant nobles spent their money on the seemingly endless pursuit of the Hundred Years’ War (which I relate in Chapters 21 and 23), leading Italians were able to spend money on painting, sculpture, architecture and immense and impressive libraries to house their burgeoning collections of classical texts and artefacts.
Italy’s renewed interest in art and culture didn’t just express itself in rich men reading ancient poetry and building fine palaces: it also involved a reignited passion for learning. In the following quote from Niccolo Machiavelli’s History of Florence, he explains how Lorenzo de’Medici encouraged this passion for learning throughout Tuscany (the later sidebar ‘Five fantastic guys’ has more on Machiavelli and Medici):
Lorenzo took the greatest delight in architecture, music and poetry; and many of his own poetic compositions, enriched with commentaries, appeared in print. And for the purpose of enabling the Florentine youths to devote themselves to the study of letters, he established a university in the city of Pisa, where he employed the most eminent men of all Italy as professors. He built a monastery for Fra Mariano da Chianozzona, of the order of St Augustine, who was a most admirable pulpit orator. And thus, beloved of God and fortune, all his enterprises were crowned with success, whilst those of his enemies had the opposite fate.
Extending the Renaissance throughout Europe
Although the Renaissance started in Italy and was based in the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, the movement soon spread throughout Europe. The late fifteenth century saw what historians consider to be the Northern Renaissance in Hungary, Poland, The Netherlands and Germany. This cultural flourishing was mostly expressed through art and literature that showed a pronounced and greater interest in the ancient world and classical and mythological themes. It was also expressed in huge building programmes. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) was the first big patron of the arts during the northern Renaissance and filled his court with artists and scientists.
Five fantastic guys
The Renaissance was absolutely bursting with talented and influential people. These days the term Renaissance man is used to describe somebody who has a wide array of cultural interests and that's exactly what a noble and influential man was expected to have in the fifteenth century.
Following is a quick guide to five of the greatest Renaissance men:
● Lorenzo de'Medici (1449-1492): Very much the father of the Renaissance, Medici was an Italian statesman who effectively ran the city of Florence during the second half of the fifteenth century. His family operated the Medici bank, which had become fabulously wealthy during the big trade expansion of the previous century (which I describe in Chapter 18). A massive patron of the arts, he sponsored the careers of many of the great artists of the period and was also responsible for huge building programmes throughout Florence. As a skilled politician he managed to survive numerous assassination attempts - something else that was very popular during the Renaissance. After his eventual death (from natural causes), the hub of the Renaissance moved from Florence to Rome.
● Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): Arguably the greatest figure of the Renaissance, Leonardo was interested in everything and worked as a hugely talented artist, writer and inventor. As well as producing famous paintings such as the 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Last Supper', he also produced incredible journals filled with his studies of anatomy, science and engineering. His 1505 book The Codex on the Flight of Birds contains plans for several flying machines, including two versions of something like a helicopter. A true individual, nobody like da Vinci had come along since Aristotle, and probably no-one like him has come along since.
● Michelangelo Buonorroti (1475-1564): Probably the most famous artist of the Renaissance, Michelangelo began his career sponsored by the Medici family in Florence. He is as famous for his sculpture as for his painting, in particular 'David' which you can still see in Florence today. Probably his greatest work was the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He had incredibly high standards and was known for his exacting temperament, which resulted in his famously broken nose after he criticised a student and was punched in the face!
● Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527): Machiavelli was probably the greatest philosophical figure of the Renaissance, writing texts such as The Art of War and most famously The Prince, a treatise on how to succeed in politics. The low and cunning tactics that he sometimes advised have led to the term 'Machiavellian' to describe an untrustworthy and coldly ambitious person. During his political career he was responsible for the Florentine militia and also worked as a diplomat. He was eventually deposed from office and tortured before his release and retirement.
● Baldessare Castiglione (1478-1529): Not as famous as some of the other people I mention, Castiglione was a courtier, soldier and author. He wrote a book called The Book of the Courtier that perfectly describes life, manners, education and conduct in a Renaissance court. The book was hugely influential during the Renaissance and shows how the idea of chivalry developed further from medieval ideals and became more political. Castiglione's work also illustrates how social mobility became possible during the Renaissance, because individuals were able to develop courtly and aristocratic manners through practice and schooling, instead of these useful assets being restricted to birth and status.
The Renaissance took slightly longer to reach France and England who were locked into the Hundred Years’ War all the way through until 1453 (turn to Chapter 23 for the conclusion to that conflict). In England the first real effects of the Renaissance came during the Tudor period, where Henry VIII filled his court with humanist scholars like Erasmus. Later on, the reign of Elizabeth I during the sixteenth century, saw the production of the plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as well as the philosophical enquiries of Francis Bacon. Across the Channel in France, the greatest impact of the Renaissance was felt in the duchy of Burgundy which had connections with the Low Countries and the developments there and was visited by many Flemish and also Italian artists.
Bidding Bye-Bye to Byzantium
Ironically, just as Western Europe was rediscovering the culture of the Ancient World through the Renaissance, the last remaining civilisation that had survived the fall of Rome was brought crashing to an end. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire that had existed for more than 1,000 years, dating back to the time of Constantine in the fourth century, was savagely ended.
In May 1453, the Ottoman Turk Sultan Mehmet II successfully captured the city of Constantinople, and the new Ottoman Empire was founded in Asia Minor.
Making Way for the new Turks
Byzantium had been in trouble for a while. In Chapter 22, I mention the visit of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, to France and England in 1400. He had been looking to build up support for a Crusade-like war against the Ottoman Turks who were threatening the city of Constantinople. By that point he was getting desperate because the Byzantine Empire was hanging by a thread.
The Ottomans first came into contact with people from Western Europe in 1227 when they migrated into the Great Seljuk Empire in Anatolia (the eastern part of modern-day Turkey). The already established Seljuk Turks were struggling themselves at the time and the Ottomans continued farther west across modern-day Turkey under their leader Ertugrul. In 1299 the Ottomans established a town near the Marmara, the sea between the Black Sea and the Aegean. This new settlement was right in the middle of the lands that had formerly been part of the Byzantine Empire but over which the emperor now had no control.
When Ertugrul died, his son Osman replaced him as leader. Using his name, Europeans began referring to the people as ‘Ottomans’. They were a war-like people and over the next 100 years were amazingly successful in gaining control of territory across the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.
Crusading for the sake of trade
The expansion of the Ottomans brought them into conflict with Europe’s great trading cities who had established colonies throughout the eastern Mediterranean (check out Chapter 18 for more details). In 1387 the Ottomans took the important port of Thessalonica from the Venetians and in 1389 the battle of Kosovo destroyed the kingdom of Serbia and added the region to the growing Ottoman Empire.
Europe responded by launching the last real attempt at a Crusade in 1396. This time the quest wasn’t about reclaiming the Holy Land from Arab control but preventing a new enemy from threatening trade interests. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund I led contingents from around Europe including Hungary, France, Venice and Poland. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Nicopolis (in modern-day Bulgaria) on 25 September 1396. Accounts of the battle vary, but the result was a massive defeat for the Crusaders, with thousands killed in battle and thousands more prisoners executed.
The failure at Nicopolis was very much the last stand against the Ottomans, and after that the leaders of Western Europe left those of the eastern countries to it. As for the Ottomans, their eyes turned to the one remaining prize in the region - the ancient and magical city of Constantinople.
Taking Constantinople, in all its faded glory
By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Byzantine Empire was in tatters. Indeed, it was barely an empire, just the outlying districts around the once-great city of Constantinople. Even the city itself was fading, and throughout the first half of the fifteenth century its population gradually drifted away to make their lives elsewhere. Many of its intellectual and artistic inhabitants found their way to Italy and helped to create the Renaissance.
The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II still desired to control the city. Despite its failing fortunes, Constantinople remained the jewel in the crown for the Ottomans, a potent symbol of how far they had come. From Mehmet’s perspective, he hoped the conquest would make him the most successful sultan ever. As he became forever known as ‘Mehmet the Conqueror’, he was probably right! In addition, the city had important strategic significance; it was the gateway to the Black Sea and a potential springboard for further campaigns westwards into Europe.
The end came for Byzantium fairly swiftly. Mehmet moved on the city at the beginning of April 1453 with a massive force of more than 100,000 men. Barely more than 5,000 remained within the walls of the city to defend it. The emperor, Constantine XI, was desperately awaiting the arrival of a relief force from Venice.
Initially the defenders managed to repel the Ottoman advances even when their walls were battered by cannon fire. But in late May news came through that no Venetian fleet was coming and all hope left the defenders. The final assault came on 29 May. The emperor was cut down in the fighting and Constantinople fell.
Launching a new empire
The Byzantine Empire had existed for more than 1,100 years. The people who fled the city headed for Trebizond on the Black Sea, where an independent empire continued for a while until Mehmet mopped up this settlement in 1461.
Constantinople itself became the centrepiece of the Ottoman Empire. With its name changed to Istanbul the city flourished again as part of a new empire that lasted all the way through until 1923.
Given that the Hundred Years’ War also finished in the same year as the fall of Constantinople (as I describe in Chapter 23), 1453 may appear to be a pretty good year to identify as the end of the Middle Ages. But one more set of events really brought the medieval era to a close - the beginning of the age of exploration.
Exploring a Whole New World
As the then-known world collapsed or reinvented itself, a whole new one was being discovered. The fifteenth century was the age of exploration, heralded in particular by the activities of two men: Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus.
Sailing to the East: Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) was one of the first explorers of the Age of Discovery. Born in Portugal he was the son of a knight and probably studied mathematics. During his youth, Portugal was becoming an increasingly important trading power, particularly when the influence of Venice and other Italian cities began to fade after the fall of Constantinople and the loss of their trading colonies in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Age of Discovery
Columbus and da Gama were only two of the many Europeans who engaged in exploration during what historians refer to as the Age of Discovery. For about 150 years from the end of the fifteenth century, a whole group of people set out to explore the limits of the known world and chart and map its boundaries.
The Crusades (see the chapters in Part III) had seen Europeans gain knowledge of Asia Minor and the Near East, but only as a by-product of a series of wars. The Age of Discovery saw people make even longer and more hazardous journeys just to find out more about the world they lived in.
In a way, the boom in exploration that began in the late fifteenth century was quite natural. The Renaissance revived ideas about discovery and enquiry in terms of both science and philosophy, and as an extension, acquiring greater knowledge of the Earth's surface became a passion for many people.
Traders at this time were particularly interested in developing a single nonstop route between the Atlantic Coast of Portugal and India, and Vasco da Gama was the man who succeeded. During his life he made three voyages around the Cape of Africa to the East. Europeans knew about India - Alexander the Great had been there 1,700 years earlier - but da Gama’s triumph was to develop a route to the popular trading region of the Indian Ocean, a route that nobody had previously sailed. Opening up this route brought in huge amounts of money from the extra trade in exotic goods, such as spices, that could be found there.
Vasco da Gama’s voyages established a route that thousands of trading ships followed in the years to come. Connecting with the Indian Ocean also moved the focus of trade from the Mediterranean. As the Middle Ages came to an end, the world must have seemed like it was getting bigger all the time.
Another important factor motivating the increased knowledge of the globe was the opportunity that exploration offered nations to expand and colonise overseas. Previously this kind of expansion had involved sending an army over the borders into a neighbouring country and engaging in bloody battles. Now opportunities existed to set up new states hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Portugal was at the forefront of the trend, and by the early sixteenth century it had colonies on the eastern and western coasts of Africa: its empire was also building up elsewhere on the other side of the Atlantic.
Going off the map: Christopher Columbus
Whereas Vasco da Gama went east, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) very famously went west. Like Vasco da Gama, historians know little about Columbus’s early life. He was born in the thriving Italian trading city of Genoa but moved to the Portuguese capital Lisbon when he was a young man. Here he worked in a cartographer’s shop, something that obviously fired his interest in navigation. Alongside his brother he spent many hours calculating routes and journeys.
Columbus’s great voyages came about because he was trying to solve the same problem as Vasco da Gama - find a quicker sea journey to India and the East. Whereas da Gama sailed round Africa, Columbus believed that if you sailed west across the Atlantic you would reach Asia from the other side. Simply put, he was aware that the Earth was a globe but he didn’t realise that the American continent was between where he wanted to go!
Financing the Voyage
One of the largest problems that Columbus had was money. He was turned down twice by the King of Portugal (John II) but eventually received funding from Spain. The two ruling monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, agreed in 1489 to fund him. Their own experts had told them that the expedition was doomed to fail as they believed that Columbus had got his calculations wrong, but the two monarchs ignored the experts. They wanted to prevent Columbus from taking his ideas elsewhere.
Here’s a portion from their actual letter to Columbus, giving him permission:
For as much of you, Christopher Columbus, are going by our command, with some of our vessels and men, to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean, and it is hoped that by God’s assistance, some of the said Islands and Continent in the ocean will be discovered and conquered by your means and conduct, therefore it is but just and reasonable, that since you expose yourself to such danger to serve us, you should be rewarded for it. And we being willing to honour and favour You for the reasons aforesaid.
‘Discovering' the New World
Columbus departed on 3 August 1492 from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera. By 12 October land had been sighted, which turned out to be an island in the Bahamas (possibly the one now known as San Salvador). He spent time exploring the islands and establishing harmonious relationships with the local people, before setting off to explore the northeast coast of Cuba and then heading back to Europe.
Columbus made three more visits to this part of the world, although he still thought that he’d reached the east Asian peninsula! That’s why he referred to the natives as ‘Indios’ and why Native Americans were called Indians for many years.
Of course, Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach this part of the world. Leif Eriksson and a bunch of Vikings had, somewhat incredibly, made the trip to North America more than 500 years earlier (as I describe in Chapter 8), but Columbus was the first person to establish full contact with the indigenous people. His first contacts allowed other Spanish and Portuguese adventurers to expand their countries’s empires into Central and South America during the century that followed.
To celebrate the 500-year anniversary of Columbus, in 1992 several films were made about his voyages. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is probably the best of them and features Gerard Depardieu as Columbus. Although a little bit of a trudge, the film does show the incredible scale of the journey and gives a good idea of the tricky political situation that Columbus found himself in when he returned. If you just can’t satisfy your Columbus fix, you can always watch the comedy Carry on Columbus (1992) instead!
Columbus’s voyages truly brought the Middle Ages to an end. Although his discoveries didn’t directly affect ordinary people, they did tie two parts of the world together that had previously not even known about each other. More than 1,000 years had passed since illiterate Germanic tribes smashed down the remnants of the old Roman Empire. Now kings of England and France were in place, and a sultan ruled Constantinople. New towns and cities were created with universities that were rediscovering the achievements of the Ancient World and using this knowledge to build a whole new world.