European civilisations were still in their infancy at the end of the fifteenth century. This is perhaps the predominant underlying cause of the continent’s relative ‘backwardness’ around this time. Such backwardness was manifested in a wide range of features – political, cultural, economic and even technological – for which Europe could be compared (with unflattering results) to the more advanced civilisations of the East. Yet with the aid of hindsight, one can begin to appreciate that many of the region’s apparently ‘backward’ features, are precisely what enabled an infantile Europe to grow into the dynamic world power which dominated later centuries.
The ancient ‘western’ civilisations of the Greeks and Romans were Mediterranean rather than European empires. The development of civil society in northern Europe is hence a relatively recent phenomena – due in part to favourable climatic changes which occurred circa 1000 CE. Warmer temperatures thawed out the far north of Europe, making new areas accessible for agricultural development, thus allowing new societies to grow there.
Europe’s peripheral position (at the far western edge of the Eurasian landmass) caused it to be cut off from the rest of civilisation for a large portion of its developmental years. During its early years, this isolated region was (justifiably) considered to be little more than “a frontier in a forest”. Medieval Europe had only a cursory knowledge of the world beyond its borders, with popular tales (persisting into the fifteenth century) telling of “dog-headed men” inhabiting the East. It wasn’t until the Crusades of the early second millennium that Europe was introduced to the ‘civilisation’ of the Eastern-dominated world system.
As a newcomer to the global trade network, Europe initially met with limited commercial success. Geographical impediments restricted access to new markets, with mountain ranges barring direct access to the East. The Islamic world was another physical obstacle, as it impeded access not only to the East, but also to the gold-rich West African markets. European merchants were forced to work through Arab intermediaries, who naturally took their own share of the profits.
Compounding this problem was the limited desirability of Western merchandise. Europe’s basic trade goods (mostly agricultural produce such as grain and wool) were unappealing to many other civilisations (China especially). This was evident in the early sixteenth century, when Portugal resorted to military (naval) strength in order to force Asian powers to trade with her. Europe’s lack of desirable exports led to a pronounced trade imbalance with imported Eastern goods. This deficit was largely paid off in silver and gold, which caused Europe to suffer from a “gold famine”. It is not surprising that Europe began to see itself as the “poor neighbour” of Africa and Asia. When one considers the oriental luxuries (e.g. silk, spices and tapestries) being imported from abroad, it becomes difficult not to think of Europe as being comparatively poor and primitive.
Another aspect of the world system from which Europe took more than it contributed, is that of technology. What Francis Bacon (an English philosopher of the seventeenth century) identified as man’s three greatest inventions – “printing, gunpowder, and the magnet” – all derived from China. Arnold reluctantly admits: “In 1400 its maritime technology was in many respects Europe’s equal” – a rather ungracious concession when one considers the evidence of Chinese superiority in this regard. Such important techniques as watertight bulkheads, stern-post rudders and navigational aids (the compass, in particular) all made their way to Europe from China. Certainly, Woodruff is in no doubt that fifteenth century China possessed “the world’s greatest sea-going fleet”.
While Europe may not have been quite as technologically advanced as China at this time, to call her ‘backward’ would perhaps be overly harsh. What the Europeans truly excelled at was adapting and improving others’ technology. It becomes evident that in many cases the Europeans put Chinese technology to better use than the Chinese did! Perhaps the best example of this is Gutenburg’s printing press. By 1500 there were 1700 of the machines facilitating mass communication in 300 European towns. The less flexible Chinese (block printing) technique would have run into great difficulties had they attempted such mass production of books.
It is also worth noting Europe’s own ‘technological tradition’. The horse-collar, horseshoe, waterwheel and crossbow were all developed during its so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Europeans were particularly adept at manipulating mechanical technology, and tapping non-animal sources of energy – England had 5624 watermills back in 1086 CE. Some Historians have suggested that the region’s labour shortages may encouraged these labour-saving techniques. However, one should not assume Europe’s mechanical superiority or uniqueness in this regard; fourteenth century China used a water-powered hemp-spinning machine “as advanced as anything in Europe until about 1700”.
Another common mistake would be to overestimate Europe’s military capabilities at this time. Western Europeans may have made the “best known and most advanced gunpowder weapons”, but this by no means ensured success. Fifteenth century Portuguese invasions of West Africa are a case in point – the outnumbered Europeans were driven back by Africans wielding spears or bows and arrows. Furthermore, Europeans were not the only people with advanced gunpowder weaponry. It was Turkish artillery which demolished the walls of Constantinople in 1453, bringing the Byzantine empire to its knees. Each of the three great Islamic empires (Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal) could muster armies of vastly greater size than Europe’s, and appeared to be equally well armed. Indeed, sixteenth century Mughal India could raise an army of a million men.
The relative ease with which the European powers conquered the Americas was not so much due to any military superiority, but rather the devastating effect of Old World diseases (against which the previously isolated Native Americans had developed no immunity). Within fifty years of the Spaniards’ arrival, Mexico’s population fell by ninety percent. The impact of disease on warfare can be seen by reconsidering the Portuguese-African invasion. In this case it was the Europeans who suffered from alien pathogens (such tropical diseases as malaria and yellow fever proved especially troublesome), and this susceptibility to illness likely contributed to their defeat.
However, European nations probably spent as much time fighting amongst themselves as against distant enemies. The region’s extremely fragmented political scene must have struck its Eastern contemporaries as being a sign of severe barbarism and backwardness. Europe contained some five hundred independent political units circa 1500. This is in distinct contrast with China, who could boast the world’s most advanced and stable government. Indeed, all other major civilisations at this time were empires, based around powerful, centralised governments. Europe was alone in its apparently disorganised distress.
It is, however, precisely this political fragmentation which set Europe apart from the rest of the world. That which began as backwardness later contributed to a matured Europe’s global domination. The many states were in perpetual competition with one another, a system which provided – as Jones put it – “an insurance against […] stagnation”. No single man or nation had the power to impose disastrous policies upon the rest of Europe. This balance of power protected Europe from the abuses of power which could happen elsewhere – such as the Chinese emperor who called a halt to all large-scale maritime voyages after 1430.
The all-encompassing umbrella of ‘Christendom’ was perhaps the single unifying element of European culture. But even this was not to last. Martin Luther, a German priest, set the Protestant Reformation in motion when he publicly protested against the Catholic church in 1517. This schism in the church was pounced upon by opportunistic rulers, and caused many long and bitter religious wars to shake Europe. Despite its initial religious intensity, the Reformation eventually spelled the end of Christian dominance in the everyday lives of Europeans. Through its challenge to traditional papal authority and emphasis on religious individualism, the Reformation effectively cleared the way for secularism – a concept which would radically change the future.
The implication of this is that the dominance of the Catholic church in pre-Reformation Europe was a feature of backwardness. Some historians have pointed to elements of Christianity (its progressive view of time, affirmation of the material world, dualism and justification of human domination over nature) which set it apart from other religions as encouraging scientific development. However, it wasn’t until after the Reformation that great scientific progress was made. Furthermore, the (Christian) Byzantine empire had none of the dynamism or originality of Western Europe. Hence the growing secularism of Western society in later years would seem the better explanation for its progress. Such an hypothesis is consistent with China’s technological achievements in earlier centuries. It was, after all, a secular society; Confucianism being the dominant religion, which Woodruff describes as “not a religion so much as a system of order”.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, a new sort of society was developing at the north-western tip of Eurasia. Inquisitive and outward-looking, it hungered for the knowledge and wealth it saw beyond its own borders. Naturally, this new European civilisation appeared in many respects to be ‘backward’ when compared to an older, wiser China. But with the energy and dynamism of youth, this new culture learned from – and in some cases, surpassed – its elders. Its advantage lay in being not so bound by the past or tradition, not so scared of change. European civilisation followed a unique developmental path, with unique results.
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Andrea, A. and Overfield, J. The Human Record: sources of global history, Boston 2001.
Arnold, D. The Age of Discovery, 1400-1600, London 1983.
DeVries, K. Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500, Aldershot 2002.
Hunt, E. and Murray, J. A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550, Cambridge 1999.
Jones, E. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, Cambridge 1987.
Peers, D. Warfare and Empires: contact and conflict between European and non-European military and maritime forces and cultures, Aldershot 1997.
Stavrianos, L. A Global History: From Prehistory to the Present, Englewood Cliffs 1988.
Strayer, R. The Making of the Modern World, New York 1995.
Wilson, N. World Eras: the European Renaissance and Reformation, 1350-1600, Detroit 2001.
Woodruff, W. A Concise History of the Modern World, 1500 to the present, New York 1998.
 R. Strayer, The Making of the Modern World, New York 1995, p.22.
 E. Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, Cambridge 1987, p.161.
 D. Arnold, The Age of Discovery, 1400-1600, London 1983, p.3.
 D. Abulafia, ‘The Role of Trade in Muslim-Christian Contact during the Middle Ages’ in The Arab Influence in Medieval Europe, ed. D. Agius and R. Hitchcock, Berkshire 1997, p.5.
 N. Wilson (ed), World Eras: the European Renaissance and Reformation, 1350-1600, Detroit 2001, p.41.
 Abulafia, p.19.
 W. Woodruff, A Concise History of the Modern World, 1500 to the present, New York 1998, p.18. Note however, that Abulafia (p.48) refutes this view, citing high demand for Western arms and timber by Middle Eastern Muslims.
 Arnold, p.30.
 E. Hunt and J. Murray, A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550, Cambridge 1999, p.59.
 Arnold, p.9. also Strayer, p.112.
 Arnold, p.7.
 L. Stavrianos, A Global History: From Prehistory to the Present, Englewood Cliffs 1988, p.179.
 Arnold, p.4.
 Woodruff, p.16.
 Ibid., p.16.
 Stavrianos, p.257.
 Jones, pp.61-62.
 Ibid., p.58.
 Strayer, p.29.
 Ibid., p.30.
 Jones, p.202.
 K. DeVries, Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500, Aldershot 2002, p.346.
 Arnold, p.25.
 DeVries, pp.344-5.
 D. Peers, Warfare and Empires: contact and conflict between European and non-European military and maritime forces and cultures, Aldershot 1997, p.xviii.
 Stavrianos, p.335.
 A. Andrea and J. Overfield, The Human Record: sources of global history, Boston 2001, p.46.
 Arnold, p.25.
 Jones, p.106.
 Ibid., p.119.
 Strayer, p.32.
 Strayer, pp.35-36.
 Woodruff, p.28.
 Strayer, p.37.
 Ibid., pp.30-31.
 Woodruff, p.15.