Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

End of the Middle Ages

Writers of histories are not agreed as to just when the Middle Ages came to an end; but all unite in saying that the change had come by about the year 1500.

If we ask what this change was, the question is easy to answer, though perhaps hard to understand. When men had come to think different thoughts, and live under different institutions, in the Church and in the State, from those we have been describing, then the end of the Middle Ages had come. Feudalism ceased to be a sufficient tie to bind men together in society, and national states arose. Chivalry ceased to be the noble institution its founders had hoped to make of it and became a picturesque mimicry of high sentiment, without real hold on the life of the time. Men came to rely less upon their guilds and communes, their orders and classes, and act more for themselves as individuals. Ignorance, too, became less dense; and as men learned more of the world, and of themselves, superstition became less universal and degrading.

It was such changes as these that mark the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a new time. Many of the events of which we have been reading helped to bring on these changes, and put an end to this period of history.

The Crusades did a great deal, by bringing the different peoples of Europe into contact with one another, and broadening their minds. At the same time, the Crusades helped to develop the commerce which kept the nations in touch, and gave them the wealth needed to encourage art and literature.

The long struggle between the Papacy and the Empire, as we have seen, broke down the power of each, and so prepared the way for the rise of new institutions.

The Hundred Years' War between France and England, by making these nations feel that they were  French and English, helped to complete the break-up of the old system, and bring in a time when all Europe was divided into a number of national states, each with its own interests and government, and owing obedience to no emperor or other superior.

The capture of Constantinople by the Turks and the fall of the Eastern Empire was another event which helped bring the Middle Ages to a close.

After the Crusades had come to an end, a new branch of Turks, called the Ottomans, had risen to power. In the course of a century and a half, they made themselves masters of all Asia Minor and Palestine, and of a good part of Southeastern Europe as well. At Adrianople, where the Goths had won their first great victory, they fixed their capital; and their "horse-tail" standards were thence borne far up the valley of the Danube, into Hungary and Austria.

For many years the walls of Constantinople proved too much for them, and there the Eastern Empire prolonged its feeble existence. When the Hundred Years' War was just coming to an end, a new sultan came to the throne whose entire energies were devoted to the capture of that city and the making it his capital. In 1453 the attack began. Great cannons,—the largest the world had ever seen,—now thundered away, along with catapults, battering-rams, and other engines which the Middle Ages used.

After fifty-three days, the city was taken. Then the Christian churches became Mohammedan mosques; and the standard of the Sultans floated where for a thousand years had hung the banner of the Eastern Emperors. In this way was established the Ottoman Empire, the continued existence of which causes some of the hardest problems which the Christian nations have to face to-day.

To escape from Turkish rule, great numbers of Greek scholars fled from Constantinople to the West, bringing with them their knowledge of the Greek tongue, and great quantities of Greek manuscripts.

All these events which we have been recounting helped to bring the Middle Ages to a close; but other things helped even more than these. One was what we call the Revival of Learning; another was certain great inventions which the later Middle Ages produced; and a third was the discovery of new lands and new peoples across the seas.

Although the monks had done much for learning during the Middle Ages, nevertheless a great deal of the knowledge and literature of the olden time had disappeared. Many of the most famous works of the old Greek and Latin authors had been lost sight of altogether. Others, also, which the monks had, they did not understand; and still others they almost feared to read because they were full of the stories of the old gods, whom the Middle Ages regarded as evil spirits. The Latin, too, which the monks spoke and wrote was very incorrect and corrupt; and practically no one outside of the Eastern Empire understood Greek at all.

About the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, men began to take a new interest in the old literature. They began to write more correct Latin. They searched for forgotten manuscripts which might contain some of the lost works. They corrected and edited the manuscripts they had, and began to make dictionaries and grammars to aid them in understanding them. Soon some began even to learn Greek, and collect Greek manuscripts as well as Latin ones.

Above all, scholars tried to put themselves back in the place of the old Greeks and Romans, and look at the world through their eyes, and not through the eyes of the medieval monks.

The result was that many things began to seem different to them. They no longer feared this world as the monks had done. They took delight in its beauty, and no longer thought that everything which was pleasant was therefore sinful. And because they believed that man’s life as a human being was good in itself, the new scholars were called "humanists," and their studies and ways of thinking "humanism."

This change in the way of thinking came only gradually, and it was a hundred years before humanism began to spread from Italy, where it first arose, to the countries north of the Alps. But then the Germans contributed something which helped to spread humanism more rapidly. This was the invention of printing.

The making of books, by forming each letter in each copy, separately with the pen, was so slow that men had long hunted for some means of lessening the labor. They found that by engraving the page upon a block of wood, and printing from this, they could make a hundred copies almost as easily as one, so in the fifteenth century "block books," as they were called, began to be made. But the trouble with these was that every page had to be engraved separately, and this proved such a task that only books of a very few pages were made in this way.

Then it occurred to John Gutenberg, of Strasburg, that if he made the letters separate, he could use the same ones over and over again to form new pages; and if instead of cutting the letters themselves, he made moulds  to produce them, then he could cast his type in metal (which would be better than wood anyway), and from the one mould he could make as many of each letter as was necessary.

In this way printing from movable metal types was invented by Gutenberg, about the year 1450. It seems like a very small thing when we tell about it, but it was one of the most important inventions that the world has ever seen.

The first book that was printed was the Bible, in Latin. Soon presses and printing offices were established all over Western Europe, printing Bibles and other books, and selling them so cheaply that almost every one could now afford to buy. The invention of printing thus served to spread humanism and the knowledge of the Bible throughout Europe, and these two together brought on the Reformation and helped put an end entirely to the Middle Ages.



The introduction of gunpowder was also, in the end, of very great importance.

Nobody knows just when or by whom gunpowder was invented; but it was used to make rockets and fireworks in India and China long before it was known in Europe. In the fourteenth century the Moors of Spain introduced the use of cannon into Europe; and by the date of the battle of Crecy (1346) cannon were to be found in most of the western countries. These, however, were usually small, and were often composed merely of iron staves roughly hooped together, or even of wood or of leather; and the powder used was weak and without sufficient force to throw the ball any great distance.

It was not gunpowder, as is sometimes said, that first overthrew the armored knight of the Middle Ages; it was the archers who did this, and the foot-soldiers armed with long pikes for thrusting, and with halberds hooked at the end by means of which the knight might be pulled from his horse.

As the cannon were improved, however, they became of great service in breaking down the walls of feudal castles, and of hostile cities; and so, in the end, they helped greatly to change the mode of making war. But it was not until the Middle Ages had quite come to an end that gunpowder had become so useful in small hand guns that the old long-bows and crossbows completely disappeared.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


Two other inventions that came into use in the Middle Ages were also of great importance in bringing in the new time. These were the compass, or magnetic needle, and the "cross-staff" used by sailors for finding latitude.

Like gunpowder, the compass came from Asia, where it was used by the Chinese long before the birth of Christ. It was introduced into Europe as a guide to sailors about the beginning of the fourteenth century. It enabled them to steer steadily in whatever direction they wished, even when far from land; but it could not tell them where they were at any given time.

The cross-staff did this in part, for it could tell them their latitude by measuring the height of the north star above the horizon. The "astrolabe" was another instrument which was used for the same purpose. These were very ancient instruments, but they did not begin to be used by sailors until some time in the fifteenth century. Even then the sailor had to trust to guess-work for his longitude, for the watches and chronometers by which ship captains now measure longitude were not yet invented; and sailing maps were only beginning to be made.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


Yet, in spite of these disadvantages, and in spite of the smallness of the vessels, and the terrors of unknown seas, great progress was made in the discovery of new lands before the close of our period. The commerce of the Italian cities made their citizens skillful sailors, voyaging up and down the Mediterranean and even beyond the straits of Gibraltar. The Normans and certain of the Spanish peoples, early sailed boldly into the northern and western seas.

But it was the little state of Portugal that led the way in the discovery of new worlds. A prince of that state gave so much attention to discovery in the first half of the fifteenth century, that he was called Prince Henry "the Navigator." Under his wise direction Portuguese seamen began working their way south along the coast of Africa. In this way the Madeira and Canary Islands, the Azores, and Cape Verde were discovered one after another before 1450; and after Prince Henry’s death, a Portuguese captain succeeded in 1486 in reaching the southernmost point of Africa, to which the Portuguese King gave the name "Cape of Good Hope." Twelve years later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama realized this hope by reaching the East Indies, and so opened up communication by sea with India.

Six years before, as we all know, Columbus while trying to reach the same region by sailing westward, discovered the new world of America,—though he died thinking that he had reached Asia and the East Indies.

So we come to a time when Europe had emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, and was preparing, first, to make a reformation in religion, and then to go forth and found new Europes across the seas. But the details of these events belong to the story of Modern Times, and not to the Middle Ages. To complete our story we need only tell what was the condition of each of the principal states of Europe at this time, and point out the part it was to play in the new period.

Germany was the country which was to take the lead in bringing about the Reformation in religion. Its people were more serious-minded than the peoples south of the Alps, and felt more keenly the evils in the Church; above all, it was there that the great reformer, Martin Luther, was born. But Germany was split up into a great many little states, each with its own prince or king, and each practically independent of the Emperor. So there was no national strength in Germany; and when the movement began to establish colonies and take possession of the New World, Germany took no part.

Italy also was too much split up among rival cities and warring principalities to take any part in colonization; and the Eastern nations, such as Russia and Poland, were not used to the sea. Sweden for a while became very powerful in the seventeenth century, owing to the ability of its great King, Gustavus Adolphus, and it established colonies on the river Delaware. The Dutch also for a time became a great seafaring people, and established colonies on the banks of the Hudson. Both these countries, however, soon lost their strength, and their colonies, for the most part, passed into the hands of larger and stronger nations.

It was the nations of Western Europe,—England, France, and Spain,—that were to take the lead in building up new Europes across the water.

England at the close of the Middle Ages was just coming out of the long War of the Roses which was mentioned in the last chapter. That war had brought Henry VII., the grandfather of the great Queen Elizabeth, to the throne; and under him England was strong, united and prosperous. Thus when the Venetian, John Cabot, asked King Henry for ships to sail westward to the lands newly found by Columbus, his request was granted. In that way the beginning was made of a claim which, after many years, gave the English the possession of all the eastern part of North America.

France also was strong, united, and prosperous at the close of the Middle Ages. Through several centuries the kings had been busy breaking down the influence of the great nobles, and gathering the power into their own hands. So France was ready to take part in the exploration and settlement of the New World. The result was that the French got Canada and Louisiana, and for a while it seemed as though the whole of the great Mississippi basin was about to pass into their hands.

It was Spain, however, that was to take the chief part in the work of making known the New World to the Old, and in establishing there the first colonies.

From the days when the Moors came into Spain in 711, the Spanish Christians had been occupied for nearly eight hundred years in defending themselves in the mountains against the Mohammedans and in winning back, bit by bit, the land which the Goths had lost. Little by little, new states had there arisen—Castile, Leon, Aragon, and Portugal. Next these states began to unite—Leon with Castile, and then (by the marriage of Isabella to Ferdinand) Castile with Aragon. In the year 1492, the last of the Moors were overcome, and the whole peninsula, except Portugal alone, was united under one king and queen.

Thus Spain, too, was made strong, united, and prosperous; and was prepared, with the confidence of victory upon it, to send forth Columbus, Vespucius, De Soto, Cortez, and Magellan, to lay the foundations of the first great colonial empire.

All this was made possible by the Middle Ages. The blending of the old Germans with the peoples of the Roman Empire, that made the Spaniards, the French, and, to a certain extent, the English people. The events of the Middle Ages that shaped their development, and formed the strong national monarchies which alone could colonize the New World. And it was the institutions and ideas, which had been shaped and formed and re-shaped and re-formed in the Middle Ages, that the colonists brought with them from across the sea.

So, in a way, the story of the Middle Ages is a part of our own history. The New World influenced the Old World a very great deal; but it was itself influenced yet more largely by the older one.