Europe in the 15th Century is not a dominant world power. It is made up of a number of small, constantly warring dukedoms and principalities. It is still recovering from the Black Death and hostile powers (Mongols, the Ottomans, Arabs) control large chunks of the continent. However, unique conditions will favor the Europeans and allow them to discover, conquer and subjugate the New World. Alone amongst other world powers at the time, the Europeans embrace science and through the newly invented printing press, are able to widely spread knowledge. Constant warfare has given Europeans many incentives to develop the very best weapons (including muskets and steel swords) as well as naval technology (clocks and compasses). The fall of Constantinople means that the land-based Silk Road trade route with the East is now in Muslim hands and European merchants have the incentive to seek out profitable new ocean-based trade routes. Finally, the recent Reconquista of Spain in 1492 means that Spain has thousands of demobilized conquistadors, searching for new glories.

Europe during the Fifteenth Century (the 1400’s), was divided and poor when compared to the rest of the world. Europe’s ascension to becoming the world’s dominant superpower would have seemed unlikely to any non-European from this time period. Europe does have some unique characteristics that will confer advantages on it, beginning with its geographical location – at the western end of the world’s largest continent, able to trade with dozens of countries all along the very long east-west axis of Eurasia

This is the basic premise of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”. The long axis of the Eurasian continent means that ideas, inventions, crops, animals etc. can all be exchanged. And the similarity of climates means that crops or animals that can live in China will also be able to thrive in France. The flow of paper and gunpowder from China to Europe is a good example of the longitudinal exchange. Also, diseases spread quickly – which means that Eurasians were exposed to many more diseases and got a chance to build up more immunity than residents of Africa or America did.

The Renaissance (the ‘rebirth’) is a loose label we give to the time period in Europe after the Middle Ages and before the modern world takes shape with the Reformation, then the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. It roughly covers the era from 1300 to 1600 in Europe. It is characterized by the recovery of lost knowledge (the Greek and Latin texts of ancient Rome); an increase in scientific inquiry and an emphasis on individuals as opposed to the emphasis on groups (usually religious) that characterizes the Middle Ages.

The printing press is the key – it dramatically increases the number of books in print; reduces the per-unit costs and helps spread knowledge to groups of people that would have been unable to afford books made the “old-fashioned” way (laboriously copied onto sheets of lambskin called ‘vellum’). The mechanical clock and the compass were key inventions for shipping in that they made accurate, reliable navigation possible for the first time in history.

By the mid 15th Century, gunpowder and cannons were commonplace in European armies. The invention of the arquebus – the first personal firearm – gave European soldiers the ability to kill at a distance that was not common elsewhere in the world. European steel was strong and lightweight, meaning almost every soldier could afford a breastplate which protected him from arrows, swords (and even an arquebus at long range).

The European style of warfare in the 15th Century was for two groups of professional soldiers to fight each other until one group was destroyed or had completely lost the ability to resist. Contrast this with the rest of the world in which most soldiers were poorly trained slaves or volunteers and battles ended when one side gave up. Europeans were used to war; fought until they or their enemy were totally defeated and were comfortable with high casualty rates (on both sides).

Ocean crossings in a slow boat are a problem – can you carry enough food and water to survive? Faster boats don’t have this issue. The caravel, developed by the Portuguese in the 1400’s, was a very fast boat with a low draft (meaning it could handle low levels of water). This made it ideal for both a deep-ocean crossing (speed) and exploring coastlines and sailing up rivers (low draft). 

In 1454, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. This meant the Turks now controlled the products of Asia (especially spices) being imported into Europe. They could charge high fees for transshipment and effectively had a monopoly on all Asian trade coming in on the old Silk Road. Spices were cheap to buy where they grew in Asia. A shipload of spice could be purchased for very little money and then sold for a fortune in Europe. Finding reliable ocean routes from Europe to Asia that bypassed the Turkish land route monopoly would allow European merchants to realize huge profits from the spice trade.

Muslims had conquered Spain during the early Middle Ages and it took hundreds of years for the Spanish to finally drive them out. This “driving out” (called the Reconquista) was completed in 1492 – the same year the kingdoms of Spain united under one crown, that of Ferdinand and Isabella. The new rulers need fast money, to help pay off war debts. And the victorious Spanish army – the Conquistadors – need new sources of money (and glory). Add to this the availability of this amazing new sailing vessel, the caravel – and the huge profits available in the spice trade and it makes sense that Spain and Portugal would take the lead in voyages of exploration.

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Discovery Day 1 Resources

ActivityWhat's So Hot About Spices?

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Recommended BookGuns, Germs and Steel

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Related Lesson Plans


Essential Questions

#1: What made Europe different from the other world powers (China, India, Africa) during the 15th Century?

#2: How did the Renaissance give Europeans an advantage in the discovery and colonization of the New World?

#3: How does living on a "broad" continent like Asia give you advantages over those living on "tall" continents like America?

#4: Explain how and why the spice trade changed after 1453 and why this gave Europeans the incentive to explore the oceans?

Discovery Day 1 Vocabulary

Arquebus: the first crude personal firearm resembling a musket; it was adopted by European armies in the 1400's.

Black Death: a sickness that swept through Europe and Asia in the 1300's, killing about one-third of the population.

Caravel: a small but very fast wooden ship used by Europeans; capable of both river travel and deep-ocean voyages.

Conquistador: refers to any Spanish military officer in the 1400's and 1500's. They were usually wearing steel armor to protect their chests and heads and were armed with both steel swords and guns.

Constantinople: capital of the Byzantine Empire, it controlled trade with the East (especially in spices). It fell to the Turks in 1453.

Reconquista: the long process of retaking Spain from the Muslims, finally completed under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

Renaissance: a cultural movement beginning in the 1300's in which Europe recovered ancient Roman and Greek knowledge and made advanced in art and science.

Silk Road: a trading route that connected Europe to China; it ended at Constantinople.

Explorers Timeline

15,000 BCE: Evidence of earliest humans in the New World at Monte Verde in South America

13,000 BCE: The Clovis culture is evidence of the earliest humans in North America

200-900 CE: The Golden Age of the Mayan culture in Central America (the Yucatan)

900-1400 CE: The height of the Mound Builder culture in North America (MIssissippi River)

1350's: Black Death in Europe

1400's: Renaissance begins in Italy then spreads to Europe

1450's: The printing press is invented and spreads through Europe

1453: Constantinople is conquered by the Turks

1488: Bartolomeu Dias becomes the first European to sail past the southern tip of Africa

1492: Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella completes the Reconquista

1492: Columbus makes first contact with Native Americans in the New World

1517: A German priest (Martin Luther) begins a protest against the Roman Catholic Church, as the Protestant Reformation begins in northern Europe.

1519-21: The Spanish led by Cortez, conquer the Aztec Empire.

1519-21: The Spanish led by Pizarro begin a war of conquest against the Incan Empire.

1535: Jacques Cartier explores and claims the shores of eastern Canada for France, while searching for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific

1539: De Soto begins his expedition to the interior of America

1542: The Spanish implement the New Laws that make it illegal for Spanish landowners in the New World to use the Natives as slaves.

1552: The Valladolid Debates are held, one of the earliest attempts to end slavery and improve treatment of Native Americans.

1558-1603: The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who will expand the power of England and fund the first English explorations of the New World

1565: Spanish permanently settle at Saint Augustine, which becomes the capital of Spanish Florida

1568: The Netherlands rebel against the Spanish king, beginning the Eighty Years War a long and expensive conflict that will nearly bankrupt the Spanish crown.

1585: Sir Walter Raleigh founds a colony on Roanoke Island, near present-day Manteo in North Carolina

1589: Henry IV begins his reign, unifying France and ending the religious wars

1605: Samuel de Champlain founds the first permanent European settlements in Canada (Port Royal in 1605, Quebec City in 1608)

1607: Jamestown is founded by English settlers on the coast of Virginia, in the territory of the Powhatan tribe

1614: Pocahontas marries John Rolfe and they travel to England (along with the very first shipment of Virginia tobacco) where she dies of disease in 1617

1619: The first Africans are brought to Virginia, originally as indentured servants but by the 1650's, as slaves

1620: Puritans seeking religious freedom found the Plymouth Colony in what will become Massachusetts

1630: Puritan leader John Winthrop creates the Massachusetts Bay Company and brings thousands of Puritan colonists with him to America. The city of Boston is founded.

1640's and 50's: The English Civil War pits Royalists who support the King against Parliamentarians who support democratic government

1650's: With the publication of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, the Enlightenment begins in England as science begins to challenge religion

1660: Charles II becomes King of England and the Restoration begins

1663: Parliament passes the Navigation Acts requiring most colonial trade to pass through English ports on English ships and pay English taxes

1675-78: Native leader Metacom fights a war of extermination against the English in the Northern colonies. Ten percent of all English men are killed in this conflict called "King Phillip's War" but the Natives are finally defeated .

1680: The Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico temporarily ends Spanish control of that region

1688: The Glorious Revolution begins in England replaces James II with William and Mary, who agree to a limited monarchy and the English Bill of Rights

1689: John Locke publishes his Two Treatises on Government, which introduces the concept of "consent of the governed"

1689: The Boston Revolt occurs as angry colonists revolt and capture Edmond Andros, the governor of the Dominion of New England

1690's: Spanish colonists found permanent settlements at Santa Fe in New Mexico and at San Antonio in Texas

1692: The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts demonstrate to the Puritans the need to separate their religion from their government

1701-14: The War of the Spanish Succession focuses the attention of England on Europe and the American colonies are left alone to solve their own problems. This is known as salutary neglect

1730's: Led by charismatic preachers, the First Great Awakening moves American Protestants towards a more personal sense of spirituality

1739: One of the largest slave revolts in the English colonies, the Stono Rebellion, takes place and is violently suppresed in South Carolina, near Charleston