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Western Europe Widens its Horizons

Great empires developed in India and China as well as in the Mediterranean world. Although many of the beliefs and ways of life under these empires endured, in time most of the empires themselves tended to split apart. What happened in Europe after the Western Roman Empire broke up? At first, life was much more difficult than it had been in Roman times. Gradually, however, the people of Europe developed their own ways of making a living and governing themselves. They revived Greek and Roman ideas and borrowed others from the Arabs. In short, they combined new and old to build a European civilization which exists today.

Describing life in Europe in the Middle Ages, after barbarian invasions wrecked the Roman Empire. Most people lived in small farming communities, cut-off from one another. Central governments were much weaker than the local governments of powerful noblemen. Western Europe was united only by the Roman Catholic Church, to which all Christians belonged. The growth of towns and trade in Europe, increasing population and wealth enabled Europeans to undertake the Crusades, a series of wars to reconquer the Holy Land. The resulting contacts with eastern European and Moslem civilizations sparked a revived interest in learning and the arts which spread over western Europe.

How did kings in such countries as England and France increase their power? As central governments became stronger, people felt greater loyalty to kings than to local nobles. The growing power of kings led to conflicts with churchmen and a great split in the Roman Catholic Church left many kings stronger than ever. Finally, how did the Europeans use their new strength and knowledge to explore distant lands? Explorers found new routes to China and India and discovered the Americas. By the 1600’s, western Europe had widened its horizons to include many parts of the world.

Europeans Explore and Settle Other Lands


Visitors to the Portuguese city of Lisbon, on a certain day in 1499, would have found the people in a holiday mood. Groups of townsmen who gathered here and there talked excitedly about the arrival of two ships and there was good reason. In the two years since these vessels had sailed down the river and slipped out of sight, they had completed the first trip from Europe around Africa to India and back. Such an event indeed deserved to be celebrated. Not only had the fearless captain of this expedition, Vasco da Gama, performed a great feat of navigation, but he had brought back spices and other goods worth 60 times the cost of his voyage. No wonder the people shouted. No wonder King John of Portugal rubbed his hands with glee and heaped honours on da Gama. For here, reasoned King John, lay the key to power and prosperity. Suppose each Portuguese ship returned laden with goods worth 60 times the cost of its voyage. Portugal quickly would become rich and powerful. How much better off he was, the king thought, than if he had listened to Columbus! That man had pestered him for years to provide the ships, money and men to sail westward across the Atlantic to India. To be sure, Columbus had finally obtained backing from the monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. What had he accomplished? For the most part, all he had found was a tropical wilderness peopled with savages and he had brought back little to compare with the rich cargoes in the holds of da Gama’s vessels. Yes, in 1499 it looked as if little Portugal would get ahead of all other European countries in the race for wealth and power. Several years passed before other voyages across the Atlantic proved …

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Kings Compete for Power with Nobles and the Church


Henry Tudor was a patient young man, who waited and watched while civil war raged in England and quarreling lords fought to see who would be king. He waited safely in France, biding his time until his spies told him the hour had come to strike. Then from northern France he crossed the English Channel with 2000 soldiers. Ahead of Henry and his soldiers had gone his agents, who sought to weaken the position of England’s King, Richard III. Henry’s agents had plotted secretly with some of Richard’s supporters, lords who led small armies of their own. That was why when the battle was fought at Bosworth Field, England, in 1485, first one group and then another broke from King Richard’s ranks and joined Henry Tudor’s forces. Screaming “Treason, treason!” King Richard III hurled himself into the thick of the fray. He wanted to kill young Henry Tudor, but King Richard himself was struck down. As the King’s armour clad body crashed heavily to the ground, the light golden crown that fitted over his helmet rolled under a nearby hawthorn bush. When the battle was over, a soldier picked up the crown and placed it on Henry Tudor’s helmet. For over a hundred years, Henry Tudor (who became King Henry VII) and his descendants ruled England. There had been kings in England for centuries, but powerful feudal nobles had often refused to accept their authority. Moreover, for 30 years before Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth, England had been engaged in a disastrous war between two branches of the royal family. But though Henry Tudor and his descendants met with op position, they steadily increased their powers. As a result, England became a unified and prosperous country. We learn how strong monarchies, or kingdoms, developed in Europe during the later Middle …

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The Revival of Town Life and the Growth of Learning

middle ages

Pierre watched the merchant caravan clatter down the narrow dirt road that led through the manor. Pack mules threaded their way to avoid the deep puddles, while the horses strained as they pulled the creaking two wheeled carts. Pierre envied the merchants as well as the sturdy bowmen who guarded the caravan. During his seventeen years Pierre had never been more than a few miles from the manor where he had been born a serf. He was not free to move around as were these merchants who were city folk. Was it true, as Pierre had heard, that a serf who escaped to a town or city and lived there for a year and a day was forever free? He wondered. The merchant caravan disappeared around the bend in the road. Should Pierre follow it? To stay on the manor meant a serf’s life — a life of back-breaking toil. That night after dark, his mind made up, Pierre slipped unseen across the fields and onto a narrow  path that led over the surrounding hills. For two nights he walked as rapidly as he could, sleeping fitfully in deep thickets during the daylight hours. Soon after sunrise on the second morning the forest trail led to a wider road, an hour’s journey out of the city of Lacourt. Pierre helped to free an oxcart bogged down in the mire of the roadside ditch and then trudged toward Lacourt in the company of the grateful driver. The young serf’s eyes grew wide with wonder at the unfamiliar sights as he approached the outskirts of the city. Completely encircling it was a wall of stone four times the height of a man. At one point the wall was pierced by a gateway, its great oaken doors swung back. Through the opening Pierre could …

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Leadership of Churchmen and Nobles in the Middle Ages


The civilizations of India, China and the Moslem world progressed to about the year 1500 A.D., but what had been happening in western Europe in the centuries after Roman power began to decline and barbarian tribesmen had overrun the lands once part of the proud Roman Empire? What had taken the place of Roman might, government and law in western Europe? As Rome’s rule faded away, western Europe entered a period known as the Middle Ages or the medieval period. For a long time there was neither a single empire nor nations as we know them to day. Central governments, such as there were, had little power. Warfare and violence were the rule rather than the exception. Bands of armed men roamed the countryside robbing and killing. Commerce dwindled from a stream to a mere trickle and cities diminished in number, size and importance. Men’s interest in art and learning became less and less. Only in the churches and monasteries where the men of God prayed and worked was there peace and learning. During the later Middle Ages forces were at work which were to bring about great changes in western Europe. For most people, however, the years from about 500 A.D. to 1300 A.D. were years of grinding toil on the little farms that encircled the villages. They were years of obedience to, and fear of, the grim armour clad fighting men who lived in the castles and manor houses dotting the countryside. They were years when the knowledge that had been developed by the Greeks and Romans was largely forgotten and the new learning of the Moslems was as yet little known. They were also years of ever growing religious faith. During that time the Catholic Church was not only the guardian of men’s consciences and souls; it …

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