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MODULE 1: A TRIBUTE TO THE COMMON FLEA From grade school, we are all indoctrinated with the basics of the discovery of America: Columbus, three ships, 1492, and so on. Omitted from that simplistic—and occasionally musical—narrative is any explanation for why Europeans would feel compelled to strike out for destinations unknown in the first place. What compelled Europeans to undertake expensive, occasionally dangerous, and potentially unprofitable voyages? EUROPE IN TURMOIL If you were an aficionado of good wine, good food, and a premature, prolonged, and agonizing death, Europe in the late Middle Ages was the place for you. In the two centuries that preceded Columbus’ maiden voyage, the population of Europe suffered through a series of calamites so utterly destabilizing, that they dismantled the traditional European worldview and laid the groundwork for a new and revolutionary way in which to understand the universe and the role of man in it. Life in Medieval Europe was, for the vast majority of inhabitants, a struggle on general principle. Some problems, however, proved particularly harmful. Let’s examine each of these in turn. War By 1300, Europe had begun to make a slow and painful transition to a traditional feudal political structure—in which kings, dukes, lords, earls, counts and no-counts each governed their own independent manors—toward one marked by the leadership of individual monarchs over thousands of
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square miles of land and thousands of inhabitants of all shapes and sizes. Each of these aristocrats had their own private armies, and thus smaller scale conflicts over land were staple elements of the European lifestyle. Occasionally, however, larger conflicts emerged that brought more durable consequences. The best example of this was the Hundred Years’ War (1336-1453) that erupted between England and France over the question of controlling continental commerce. Now, you should know that the fighting was not continuous over a century—people gotta sleep, after all—but instead occurred sporadically over that period. The war introduced the phenomenon of the professionalized, standing army, a symbol of modernization among nations, and a host of innovations in both weapons technology and military doctrine. It saw the rise to prominence of leaders like Henry V of England, and Joan of Arc in France. Ultimately, however, France prevailed, and England was forced to surrender its continental interests — after which it devoted its national energy and resources to developing its strength on the high seas. Even after the war technically ended, peripheral civil wars continued for decades among wealthy families who hired unemployed professional soldiers to challenge the growing sovereignty of European monarchs. What did this mean for the average European? Wars are costly undertakings in both blood and treasure, and the character of the war devastated the European population, the continental economy, and
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