Western civilization through 1500: Interaction of economic growth and technological advancement
The Western civilization has continued to evolve to be what it is today tracing its roots back to the fall of the Roman Empire. Western civilization has continued to flourish up to the present era in the whole of Europe, New Zealand, North America and Australia.
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The years between 1300-1500 are always classified as the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. One memorable phenomena of this era was the “Black Plague” or Black Death, a bubonic plague outbreak that wiped close to a 1/3 of Europe’s population. The plague was rated as one of the most deadly pandemics in the history of mankind. This is because almost 75million people across the world lost their lives with the biggest number of victims being found in Europe where close to 50 million people died. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003). The results of the plague encouraged a radical transformation of the economy and the European society at large. There was an obvious shortage of labor providing a fertile ground for economic diversification and innovation in technology. This period was a very tough period in Europe; there was famine and pestilence, which would lead to the capital accumulation intensification in the urban areas, stimulating the growth of trade and industry (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003).
The Protestant Reformation played a very important role in the transformation not only on the dominance of the Catholic Church but the whole of Europe as well. The Reformation came about because the Catholic Church then, wielded so much power that it had become so wealthy and corrupt. This made the likes of Martin Luther revolt in1517 against this authority. His ideas would spread so quickly fueling the flames of Protestantism across Europe, which would eventually bear the fruits of the nation-state. Leaders like Henry VIII used these ideas to break away from the yoke of the Catholic Church (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)..
The invention of the movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 enable the ideas to be printed ant transmitted much faster than before greatly influencing the printing of the Bible and would help the development of academic freedom. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)
During the 14th century the influence of feudalism system was declining giving way to the influence of the middle class in Europe. The middle-class was normally defined as the social class that fell between the nobility on one hand and the peasantry on the other. This class consisted of people with some form of economic independence, and included professionals and merchants some farmers, skilled workers and bureaucrats. This class lacked great social and political power. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)
The rise of the middle class directly influenced the growth of towns and cities and went on to influence the growth of Europe economically. Subsequently the renaissance a new cultural movement in the West started taking shape. Renaissance began in Italy because Italy was generally dominated by city-states. The city-states were to some extent part of the Italy Roman Empire and were overseen either by the Pope of some wealthy aristocrats. It was during the renaissance period that a new age was ushered in, the age of scientific and intellectual inquiry. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)
This era was characterized greatly by various discoveries and technological advancement. Notable examples included Nicolaus Copernicus, the first to discover that planets revolve around the sun as opposed to the geocentric model of the universe as was previously believed, Galileo developed the telescope and Sir Isaac Newton pioneered physics. All this experiments and discoveries would eventually lead to the scientific revolution. Many other changes were taking place in Europe including the reformation, which marked the changes in the Christianity world. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)
Previously Europe was easy target to invasions from areas like Africa, Asia and other non-western regions in Europe, this played a big role in technological backwardness. However this was to change, by 1500 when Europe was soon to overtake the rest of world technologically.
A combination of trade and technology would lead to the unprecedented growth of the Western civilization. Europe had come of age and was now a “master of the globe” the change in Europe was the precursor to the beginning of globalization and modernization. (McKay, Hill, Buckler, 2003)
Agriculture was the predominant economic factor in the 1500s and this progress took shape in 2 forms:
-Technical innovation and
This two were interconnected because of the raise of the city-states, agricultural activity became intensified because there existed an incentive to produce more; the large population in urban centers greatly boosted the expansion of agricultural activity. This in turn led to the development of better farming techniques, which included improved drainage, better pasture and the increase in animal population. Agricultural advancement would eventually have serious implications of the reorganization of land from small to bigger farms. The decline in the number of small farm holders led to employment of wage labor and spurred the machinery advancement. (Spielvogel, Jackson J. 1994)
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Because of the increased methods of food and animal production the food became surplus and new markets for the produce had to be found. Partly this is one of the factors that led the western world to look further a field for not only new markets but resources as well. Western explorers who include such names as Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gamma laid the groundwork for the discovery of new lands. (Spielvogel, Jackson J. 1994)
It was Portugal that can be credited with the inventiveness for the exploration of the Atlantic. Riding on the zeal of the Christian missionary plus the thirst for wealth and the thrill for new discovery saw the likes of Prince Henry the Navigator heading and directing major explorations. Through such explorations, new frontiers were opened up. China and Indonesia were reached by 1514 by the Portuguese and by 1542 Japan was already experiencing the Catholic missionary activities. The Portuguese exploration prowess was soon to attract new-comers like the Spanish whose Ferdinand Magellan is credited for sailing the globe in 1519 and laying claim to places like the Philippines.
The evolution of new and lethal weapons like muskets and cannons greatly facilitated the imperial expansion both on sea and land by the West, which also included the Ottoman Turks. The new technology was also very instrumental in other empires like the Qing Chinese, Persian and Russian Empires. These empires were to be known as the “gunpowder states”. (Spielvogel, Jackson J. 1994)
The gunpowder states continued to conquer new lands and the relations between states and merchants was soon to replace the role of intermediaries that nomads played. There was also a major transformation of the labor systems because of the growth of slavery and serfdom. Because of these and various other changes it saw an increase in wealth and cultural contacts which increased the number of new opportunities across every field, thereby fueling the Western Civilization. It was during this time also that rapid changes in the environment occurred brought about by the movement of food and animals and with it diseases. (Spielvogel, Jackson J. 1994)
This was the beginning of the “age of discovery” or “the age of exploration” because of the increase in population in Europe. Because of the improvement of technology there was a need to establish new trading routes. Another driving force for these explorations was the search for gold silver and spices that were more or less trading commodities.
The renaissance era had brought with it new technologies and new ideas. This greatly improved navigational skills, cartography, firepower and shipbuilding. This was the beginning of over sea trade, which would eventually lead to slave trade.
The greatest initiative during the 16th century that can be said to have contributed to the Western Civilization is the Renaissance that brought with it the improvement in navigational skills. Motivated by the quest to search for new trade routes, Portugal and Spain led the pack in Europe by opening up virgin frontiers that would later pave the way for the colonization of new lands. However, Western civilization also brought with it the spread of diseases, slave trade and exchange of food crops across the continents in what was to be later called the Columbian Exchange. (Spielvogel, Jackson J. 1994)
McKay, Hill, Buckler, (2003): A History of Western Society Since 1400, 7th ed,
Spielvogel, Jackson J. (1994): Western Civilization: Volume I: To 1715. Second edition. St. Paul: West Publishing Company,.
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