Transition To Modern History

The chief interest of modern history lies in the fact that it presents us with what lies nearest to ourselves, and discloses the events and influences that have directly and immediately created the conditions under which mankind now live and act. The main feature of this period is the growth of freedom. The revolt of human spirits in the Sixteenth Century, known as the Reformation, was the unfurling of the standard round which the Nations rally the banner of Free Spirit, face to face with its Creator, and determined to have truth found, and right done, without regard to human tradition, authority, intervention, or privilege. The essence of the Reformation is the dogma that man is, in his very nature, destined to be free. From religious freedom came, in a large measure, the political rights now enjoyed by the greatest and most enlightened peoples of the world. The great political fact of modern history is the consolidation of monarchy, in the form of sovereigns invested with an authority emanating from the State. The fixed and positive principle of this institution is the exclusive right of one family to the possession of the throne, and the hereditary succession of rulers, further restricted by the law of primogeniture. This, or a President with similar duties, gives to the State an immovable center. Sovereign power is consigned as a trust to the dynastic family, or President, while Parliaments, with various degrees of controlling power, possess security that that trust shall be faithfully discharged.

Rieh indeed has been the harvest reaped in freedom’s field. The spirit of inquiry, once set free, has changed and blessed the whole world. To this we owe, in modern literature, some of the noblest creations of the human intellect. To this are due the discoveries of science, which have made life longer, easier, brighter. Hence have come, in every land, the triumphs of truth and genius over prejudice and power. This it is which has created the greatest of modern republics, and has filled the colonial world with flourishing self-governing peoples; has revealed the secrets of Central Africa and the isles of the great Pacific; has diminished distance by steam, and destroyed it by electricity; has struck off the fetters of the slave; and, last and best, has made the Nations know each other, and, in that knowledge, has prepared and is preparing for the reign of universal peace.

The Fifteenth Century may be well regarded as a time of transition from mediaeval to modern history, because during those years the previous growth of new ideas resulted in discoveries, changes, and inventions which in the end completely revolutionized the social, political, and much of the religious condition of the world, and brought about in most of its essential features the state of things under which we now exist. Five Centuries ago, for good or ill, mankind in Western and in Central Europe had come to thinking for themselves, to testing the claims to reverence of long-established systems and doctrines in religion, philosophy, and science, to rejecting much of what was old, to adopting much of what was new, and making change and progress the watchwords of the world’s enduring conflict with the powers of nature and the problems of existence, instead of clinging to tradition as the guide through every maze, and keeping timidly in view the landmarks of life’s voyagers in the past. The changes which ensued under this condition of the minds of men concern alike religion, politics, commerce, the social system, literature, art, science, and war. An old order of things passes away in this transition time, and a new order comes. Not that these changes all occurred within the narrow bounds narrow as viewed amidst the whole vast field of history of this one hundred years of the Fifteenth Century. Much of the new had come before this period begins; far more has happened since the period ended; but none the less that hundred years is the time when men in Western and in Central Europe woke up to many of the facts around them, began to reason freely on those facts,_ and to act boldly from the judgments formed thereon, and thus, while gathering up the harvest of the past, sowed seed for crops that should be garnered in the Centuries to come.

A list of the great events and changes belonging to this transition period will show the supreme importance of the time. Many of them are related to each other, as will easily be seen, in the way of cause and effect; taken together, they changed at once or in remote results the aspect and condition of the whole world. They are these : The general application of the mariner’s compass to navigation, with the rediscovery of America and of the route to India round the Cape; the use of gunpowder in war, with the general fall of feudalism and of chivalry, and the rise of standing armies and absolute monarchies; the invention of printing, with the spread of books and of education, and the general revival of classical learning; the beginning of the modern State system of Europe, with the intrigues of diplomacy and the development of policy known as the “balance of power”; the establishment of social order and strong centralized government, with the extinction or depression of constitutional liberties; and the final destruction of the long-decaying Eastern Empire by the establishment of a powerful Mahometan Empire in Southeastern Europe, shortly before Islamism was finally driven from Spain in the southwest of the Christian continent.

Of this array of topics some have been fully treated, and need now only to be mentioned and insisted on for recognition and remembrance as established and important facts; we may here include the change in the art of war, the virtual end of feudalism as a power against the crown, the extinction of chivalry in its romantic and visible forms, the creation of standing armies, the acquirement of absolute power by the continental sovereigns and the gradual decay of the representative Assemblies or Parliaments, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, and the beginnings of a revival of classical learning. In proceeding to deal with the rest of these matters, we shall take first a glance at the position of the different States of Europe about the year 1450 the middle of the Fifteenth Century.

In the West, Portugal had entered upon the brilliant career of geographical discovery which has given this little State an enduring fame in the pages of history. After sharing, as the Province of Lusitania, the fortunes of the rest of the Peninsula, and being conquered by the Saracens, Portugal became an independent Kingdom under Alphonso I, after his defeat of the forces of Castile in 1137, and his great victory over the Moors at Ourique, in the south of Portugal, in 1139. A Cortes or Parliament gave the Kingdom a code of laws and a constitution in 1181, and a hereditary monarchy was fully established. King Dionysius of Portugal (reigned 1279-1325) encouraged agriculture (and bears the honorable title of the “Farmer”), manufactures, and trade; he admitted to the Cortes the representatives of towns; he was a liberal patron of learning, and founded the University of Coimbra in 1308. The Portuguese have styled him, from his wise and beneficent rule, the “Father of his country.” John I reigned from 1385 to 1433, and did much for Portugal. Lisbon now became the capital instead of Coimbra. The arms of Portugal were carried into Africa in the capture of Ceuta (1415), and this led to the expeditions of discovery on the west coast of that continent, which were the foundation of Portugal’s geographical renown.

France was about to become a great and compact State in the final expulsion (1453) of the English from their possessions in the land (save at Calais). Italy needs little mention at this point. The northwest of the country was mostly held by the Duchy of Milan (or The Milanese, as the territory is often called), including a number of flourishing cities under the rule of Francesco Sforza, a brave and unscrupulous leader of mercenaries, who seized his power in 1450. Venice and Florence have been dealt with in the volume “Ancient and Mediaeval History.” The Popes held the center of the land; in the South were a Kingdom of Naples (or Sicily) and a Kingdom of Sicily (in the island) the former a fighting ground between a branch of the Spanish House of Aragon and the Dukes of Anjou, of the ruling House of France. Burgundy (soon to cease to be a duchy) in the east of France, ruled to the North also what is now French Flanders, Belgium, and much of Holland. The rise of Switzerland has been given in the preceding volume of this work.

The decay of the power of Germany as an Empire has been recorded. The Duchy of Austria was gaining ground in the Southeast. There was no Prussia yet, only a small electoral State called Brandenburg. The German Emperor, who was Duke of Austria, was also King of the Slavonic State of Bohemia. The Magyar Kingdom of Hungary was a strong bulwark for Europe against the inroads of the Turks.

In the east of Europe the powerful Slavonic Kingdom of Poland included much of what is now Prussia and Russia, and was also serviceable to Europe as a defense against the Turks. This repeated mention of the Moslem invaders of Europe brings us to the account of their presence there in a force so formidable and so perilous to Christianity after stating first that the rise of Russia to importance in Europe will be given hereafter, and that Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (united in 1397 by the treaty called the Union of Calmar, a town in southeast of Sweden) formed a realm subject to fluctuations due to frequent revolts by one State or the other. Sweden rises to importance at a later date in European history. The invasion of Europe by the Turks must be traced back to the inroads of the Asiatic people called Mongols or Moguls (generally known in Europe as Tartars) in the Thirteenth Century. This warlike race, under their famous leader, Genghis Khan (ruled from 1204 to 1227), conquered the north of China between 1209 and 1215, and then, turning west and south, overran Turkestan, captured Bokhara and Samarcand, and carried their ravages into Europe as far as the banks of the Dnieper. It is estimated that the exploits of Genghis and his followers caused mankind the loss of over five millions of lives of every age and both sexes. It is certain that in the cities of Central Asia they destroyed countless treasures of literature and art. In religion these Mongols became, in the end, Mohammedan. Ogdai, the successor of Genghis, led his warriors on through Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and ravaged the land, but made no settlement except in part of Russia. In Asia the Mongols drove before them from the east of the Caspian Sea the Turks, who finally overwhelmed the Christians of Palestine in 1243. In 1258 a descendant of Genghis Khan took Bagdad. In Asia Minor the Kingdom of the Seljukian Turks was overthrown, and then the power of the Ottoman Turks began. One of the emirs (leaders) of the Turkomans who had been driven from their abodes by the Mongols was named Othman. He was simply a bold and successful captain of a band of robbers, who, in A. D. 1300, made himself master of much of Asia Minor, founding upon the ruins of the Saracen, Seljuk, and Mongol power the Empire of the Ottoman Turks in Asia. Othman died in 1326, and his successor fixed the capital of the Sultanate at Brusa (or Broussa) in Bithynia. Religious fanaticism and a passion for military glory were the spurs to action and success with this new dynasty of conquerors, and the Eastern Empire of Rome was in no condition to stay their progress westward, being weak, effete, and ready to vanish away.

The enterprise and prudence of the Turkish rulers were conspicuous. A standing force of picked infantry was raised from among the bravest and strongest of the Christian children whom the Turks enslaved, and brought up as Mohammedans with a thorough training in arms. This formidable body of troops was named the Janissaries, or “new soldiers,” and soon became a terror to all opponents. It was the valiant Soliman who first invaded Europe in 1355, and secured his connection with Asia Minor by fortifying the Dardanelles. In 136o the Sultan Amurath I took Hadrianople, and made it the capital of the Ottoman realm in Europe. At the head of his Janissaries he swept on into Macedonia and Servia, and gained a great victory at Kossova (in Servia) in 1389, over a confederacy of Slavonian peoples. The Sultan Bajazet (ruled 1389 to 1402) invaded Thessaly, reached the walls of Constantinople, fortified the Bosphorus, and made the Greek Emperor pay tribute. Thus, by the year 1400, the Greek Empire was reduced to the possession of Constantinople, a part of Greece, and a few outlying fragments to west of Turkey and in northeast of Asia Minor.

A temporary respite came in the downfall of the haughty Bajazet before the attack of a new foe from inner Asia, the famous Timour the Tartar, or Tamerlane, who by an irruption into Asia Minor diverted Bajazet from the siege of Constantinople in 1402, defeated and captured him at the battle of Angora, and carried him about for public show in a cage. Amurath II (died in 1451) did much to strengthen Turkish rule in Europe. Under his son and successor Mohammed II, the last of the Eastern Empire fell. Mohammed II became Sultan in 1451, when Constantine (XI) Palaeologus was Emperor, and at once set himself to complete the Turkish conquest. With a vast army, supported by a powerful fleet and aided by heavy cannon (now first used, perhaps, with really great effect in battering walls), he assailed Constantinople in a siege of fifty-three days’ duration. On May 29, 1453, the great city was stormed by the Turks; Constantine fell fighting; a fearful slaughter of the citizens was made; the splendid church built by Justinian became the Mohammedan Mosque of Saint Sophia; and the Ottoman Empire was established in Europe, with Constantinople for its capital, as a great and formidable power. Before his death in 1481 the Turks had conquered the Morea, the rest of Asia Minor (Empire of Trebizond, in northeast), Bosnia, Epirus, and the islands of Negropont and Lemnos.

During the greater part of what is called ancient history and the Middle Ages, the historic stage was limited to Europe, a part of Western Asia, and a strip of Northern Africa. The travels of Marco Polo in Asia, between 1271 and 1295, had first given the modern world some glimmering of light on the remote east of Asia, and the close study by Christopher Columbus of Polo’s famous book influenced the great discoverer in his desire for exploration. The English traveler, Sir John de Mandeville (born at St. Alban’s about 1300), traveled much in Asia and northern Africa, and his accuracy in .describing what he saw himself has been confirmed by travelers in modern times. The Arabs were familiar with the fact that Africa might be circumnavigated, and the Jewish traders to Mozambique by the east route first made known in modern Europe the existence of the Cape of Good Hope. America had been discovered about A. D. 1000 by Scandinavians, who reached the shore near where Boston now stands, but so low was the state of intelligence in Europe that the very memory of their voyages had been altogether lost. It is quite uncertain at what epoch the polarity of the magnet first became known in Europe. It was certainly known to a few as early as the Thirteenth Century, and was, perhaps, first applied to commerce in the Fourteenth Century by the Genoese navigators, who steered into the Atlantic Ocean toward England and Flanders, and began to interchange the exports of London, Bruges, and Alexandria. It was not, however, generally used in navigation till early in the Fifteenth Century.

Prince Henry, known as “Henry the Navigator,” third son of John I (or John the Great) of Portugal, led the way in plans of maritime discovery. Portuguese colonies were settled in Madeira in 1420, at the Azores in 1433, and about the same time on the Gold Coast of Guinea. Before the death of this enlightened man in 1463 the full knowledge of the Western African Coast was thus pushed onward from Cape Nun (opposite the Canary Islands) to Cape Bojador, then to Cape Blanco and Cape Verde, and southward nearly to the equator. Under John II, of Portugal (reigned 1481-1495), perhaps the ablest King the country has had, the expeditions of geographical discovery were continued with zeal and with scientific method. Portugal received as citizens many of the learned and enterprising Jews, who had been driven from Spain, and she derived benefit from her tolerance of spirit. Bartholomew Diaz doubled the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, and when the coast was found to run northeast, giving a good prospect of success in reaching India, the King changed the name of the storm-beaten headland from Cabo Tormentoso, or Cape of Storms, to Cabo de Boa Esperanca, or Cape of Good Hope. In the following reign Vasco da Gama reached round the Cape the port of Calicut on the Malabar (southwest) coast of India, and the long-sought object of a sea route to Southern Asia was thus attained in 1498. To anticipate, for a moment, the grand achievement of Columbus, we will mention that the Portuguese Admiral Alvarez de Cabral, in April, 1500, on a voyage to the East Indies, made his way across the Atlantic to Brazil, which had been discovered three months before by Pinçon, one of the companions of Columbus. The Portuguese dominion in India was established by the energy and courage of Almeida de Abrantes, the first Viceroy, between 1506 and 1509, and of his greater successor Albuquerque, who conquered Goa and made it the capital of the Portuguese dominions in the East in 1511. In the Persian Gulf they made settlements at Ormuz and Muscat; at Madras, in the Bay of Bengal; in Ceylon, the Moluccas, Java, Sumatra, Celebes, and Borneo. The Portuguese began to trade with China in 1517, and with Japan in 1542. Most of the above possessions were, after-ward lost to the rising power of the Dutch in the Seventeenth Century.

Christopher Columbus was an ingenious, enterprising, and bold native of Genoa, but Spain claims the merit of his great discovery, because it was made with the assistance of her Queen, Isabella* About 1474 Columbus seems to have formed his plan of reaching the East Indies entirely by sea, a project to which he was urged by the desire of benefiting the merchants of Genoa, whose land trade with India by way of the Crimea and the Caspian Sea had been greatly injured by the irruptions of the Tartars and the Turks. It must not be forgotten that Columbus started with no idea of discovering a new world, but simply of making his way to India by a Western route in rivalry of the Portuguese efforts to reach the same goal round the south-ern point of Africa. It is also certain that Columbus never knew the nature of his own discovery, but died in the belief that it was actually some part of Asia; Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine, held the same opinion, and their immediate successors believed Mexico to be a part of Marco Polo’s China.

The first expedition that ever sailed round the world was that which started under the command of the famous Portuguese navigator Fernando de Magalhaens (or Magellan), who did not live to complete the voyage. He entered the service of Spain in 1519, sailed southwest for the Spice Islands of Asia, passed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific (his own name for the calm expanse of water that he saw), and across that vast ocean reached the Philippine Islands in 1521, where he died in a struggle with the natives according to the statement of his followers, who have been suspected of his murder. His lieutenant, Sebastian d’Elcano, took the ship back to Spain by September, 1522, after achieving the first circumnavigation of the globe. The earth was at last proved to be round by evidence which could not be denied.

These discoveries of new lands and new markets for goods gave a great impulse to trade and manufactures, increased the wealth of Europe, and soon caused the building of powerful navies by the chief new maritime States, Spain, Portugal, England, and Holland. Sovereigns and statesmen began to see that commerce was a great promoter of prosperity and power for Nations, and the colonization of the world began in the East and the West. The effect of the adoption of the route to India round the Cape of Good Hope was disastrous to the Republic of Venice. The shortest and safest road to India from the Mediterranean was by the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and Venice had the command of the ports of Syria and Egypt through which the traffic of India passed to and from Central and Western Europe. By the adoption of the new route round Africa, Venice lost her commercial supremacy; Egypt, lately an avenue to India, was left out in the cold; the commercial monopoly of the European Jews was broken dawn; Western Europe, instead of the Mediterranean, became the center of the world’s trade, and the British Islands were soon put in the front of the great new movement, and in a position to obtain the commercial and maritime supremacy of the globe. The Dutch acquired at first the carrying-trade of goods which the Portuguese brought from the East to Lisbon, and the profit was such that the wide-awake Hollanders determined to get the Eastern trade and settlements into their own hands as soon as they could oust their rivals of the Peninsula.

Much was done for the revival of letters by the enlightened and munificent Medicis, but it was the fall of Constantinople that gave a great impulse to the study of classical learning which had long been gradually rising. The Latin language, in which all legal instruments were drawn up, and which all ecclesiastics used in their correspondence, had never ceased to be familiar to men of culture. During the dark ages, however, from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century, it is rare to meet with a quotation from any classical author of Rome; her greatest writers had almost ceased to be read. During the Twelfth Century, a change took place, and classical Latin authors began to be read, and the language to be written with greater purity. Frequent quotations are made from Livy, Cicero, Pliny, and others. Virgil began to be imitated, at a great distance, in Latin verse compositions. About the middle of the Fourteenth Century, a zealous desire to restore the ancient learning begins to appear. The copying of books had become a regular trade, and books were much lowered in price, an improvement which was aided by the introduction of paper made from linen rags. Translations from classical authors began to be made. It was south of the Alps, in Italy, that literature really flourished; France came next, and England and Germany were, in comparison, very backward.

The scarcity of manuscripts of the classics was the great difficulty to the early pioneers of the new movement. They lay hidden away in monasteries, in charge of those who did not value them, and were difficult to get at. Petrarch in his age (Fourteenth Century) took great pains to preserve the remains of authors who were perishing from neglect and time. Another great Florentine writer, Boccaccio, aided this work, and the errors made by transcribers were corrected by these Italian scholars, to a great extent, so as to furnish an intelligible text of the Latin classics a Century before the invention of printing. In the Fifteenth Century more still was done for classical learning. The Italian scholars gave up their lives to the rescue of manuscripts from a mouldering death, and to the revival of philology. To Italy, far more than to any other country, the world of letters owes the present possession of the recovered treasures of classical writing. To name one more of these illustrious and devoted men in what was then the most enlightened country in the world, Poggio Bracciolini, in the early part of the Fifteenth Century, discovered and rescued from destruction by damp and dirt the entire work of Quintilian, twelve comedies of Plautus, the works of Lucretius and Silius Italicus, and many other less known writers.

The Greek language had been all but forgotten in west-ern Europe. A few of the schoolmen knew some Greek, but the ignorance of it, even in Italy, was almost universal, and hardly a line from a Greek poet is found quoted between the Sixth and the Fourteenth Centuries. As with the classical Latin, so with the Greek, Petrarch and Boccaccio led the way in a revival of the language, and in the restoration of its learning. They both studied it themselves, Petrarch reading Plato with a scholar from Constantinople, and Boccaccio causing public lectures on Homer to be delivered in Florence. A little before the end of the Fourteenth Century, a scholar from Constantinople named Emanuel Chrysoloras, taught Greek literature at Florence, and then, in succession, at Pavia, Venice, and Rome. A taste for the new learning was created; Italian scholars went to the fountain-head at Constantinople, to drink deeper yet of the new Pierian spring, and returned to their native land, not only with stores of learning in their heads, but with rich treasures of manuscripts in their hands. In 1423, one of the zealous students brought home to Venice nearly 240 volumes of classical lore. The fulness of time was come for the general revival of Greek literature when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, and drove in flight over Europe a great number of scholars with their books. Some of the popes, especially Nicholas V, in the Fifteenth Century encouraged the Greek learning, and Bessarion, Theodore Gaza, and George of Trebizond spread the knowledge of it at Florence, Naples, and Rome, before the fall of Constantinople. Of the Greek exiles, Lascaris was, perhaps, the most illustrious. From Italy the zeal for the restoration of classical literature had spread slowly to France, England, and Germany : a Greek professor was first appointed at the University of Paris in 1458, and it was later still that Greek was taught at Oxford by Grocyn and Colet, and by Erasmus at Cambridge.

Block-printing, or printing from blocks each presenting perhaps a whole page, had been known for many Centuries in China and for some ages in Europe before the invention of the moveable metal types which constitute in wide practical value the art of printing. As in the case of many other great improvements, it is impossible to assign to the real author with absolute certainty the glory of the invention of this method of printing. It is generally given now to John Gutenberg of Mainz (Mentz or Mayence) in Germany. Peter Schöffer, also of Mentz, made the immense improvement of inventing the casting of types, instead of the former method of cutting each individual type in wood or metal, a troublesome and expensive process. The earliest known complete printed book is what is called the Mazarin Bible, because the first copy was discovered in the library founded by Cardinal Mazarin at Paris its probable date is between 1450 and 1455. Several copies have since come to light. In 1462 appeared the second Mentz Bible (printed, as the Mazarin probably was, at the press of Gutenberg and Faust, or Fust), considered to be the first book printed with the cast-metal types. In 1465 the same press issued the first printed classical work, an edition of Cicero’s “Offices,” a treatise on moral duties. From Germany the art of printing was carried at once to Italy, and before the end of the Fifteenth Century many of the classical authors had been copied in the new form from which was to make their treasures of wisdom and of style immortal.

There is little need to dwell on the results that have proceeded from the invention of the art of printing; they amount to an intellectual transformation of the world. Two immediate or not remote effects may be noticed. Books were multiplied and cheapened, and not only was the new demand for mental light supplied, but the increased supply created a demand; cheap books bred readers, and as the press made books more abundant, there were more persons to whom they became a necessary of life. Again, the mode of communicating knowledge was changed; the pulpit was to a great extent superseded by the printing press.

It is easy to see how this affected the ecclesiastical world. The new ideas were silently spread by printing, nor could the exertions of the church in the pulpit either prevent or greatly counteract the working of what the orthodox held to be poison. The effect of oral eloquence is powerful while it lasts, but it is transient in its impression, and troublesome to produce the hearer must be brought to the speaker, and the memory carries little away. The printed, like the written, character abides, and it can be read, and thought over, and read again in the leisure of the fireside and the tranquillity of home. The political effect of the invention of printing was that the government was at once brought into direct relations with the governed without the intervention of ecclesiastical authority. The production of newspapers in the Seventeenth Century was a development which, in the most modern days, has acquired a prodigious influence. But we are dealing now with the close of the Fifteenth Century, when Europe, and through Europe the world, was about to enter, through the great awakening of the human mind, on a new career of rapid progress and unequaled interest, of changeful intellectual, physical, and moral conflict, which should affect in large degree the future of man-kind. For from printing came reading, and from reading came, for good or for evil, that which is called the Reformation–the great revolution in religious matters which for ages set enmity between the Nations of Europe.

As the chief States of Europe became settled in the form of strong centralized governments, having absolute monarchs at the head of them, with standing armies (save in England) to enforce their will, and with the succession to the throne hereditary in particular lines, there was developed that curious and pernicious disease of inter-monarchical (and sometimes international) jealousy known as the theory of the “balance of power.” It was held that no single State must be allowed to acquire such power as to make it formidable to others, and thus, in the way of alliances brought about by royal intermarriage or by the other resources of diplomacy, continual efforts were made to thwart an ambitious power and secure its rivals against unjust pretensions and undue aggrandizement. The results were frequent wars, waged by aspiring sovereigns for their own purposes with little or no regard to the people’s real interests, and a complicated condition of international relations which is known as the “states-system of Europe.”