logo General History in Outline and Story



    The Middle Ages was a time when men and nations wee full of driving power. It was this quality which made it, on the one hand, a violent and cruel age, and, on the other an age of great undertaking and developments.
    In those thousand years (500 to 1500) present-day Europe was being made in the fires of war. Before the end of this time England was becoming a strong nation under the rule of the Tudors. A daughter of the first Tudor, a Welshman, became Queen of Scotland, and as an outcome of this Scotland was united with England and Wales (in 1603), and 'Great Britain' came into existence. The Swiss, men of the mountains like the Welsh and the Scotch, made themselves independent in the twelve and thirteen hundreds. The French, moved by Joan of Arc to a new love of their country, with her help put an end to the attempts of the English kings to make themselves rulers of France, which had been going on for about a hundred years. After the Hundred Years' War France was ruled by a long line of kings with unlimited power, the first and one of the most feared of whom was Louis XI.
    In Spain a long Crusade of seven hundred years against the Arabs came to an end with the taking of Granada, the only strong town still in the hands of the Mohammedans, in the same year as the discovery of America (1492).
    Unlike these other countries, German and Italy, chiefly because of their connections with the Holy Roman Empire, did not become united till very much later.
    The men of the Middle Ages had universities and colleges, workers' and traders' organizations, systems of law, and representative government. They put up great houses and armed buildings, churches and monasteries ; and they were responsible for the growth of towns like London and Paris , Rouen and Bruges, Florence and Venice. They took a great pleasure in words, and in forming the languages of their nations (Dante in Italy, Chaucer in England, and so on). There is almost no development in present-day society which has not its roots in the Middle Ages.
    But the men of the Middle Ages were very different in some ways from the men of today. They went about with their eyes shut to much which now gives us pleasure. They had no feeling that the earth was beautiful or surprising, little love of living as a good in itself. Full of fears of death and the Last Day, they were not interested in the natural things about them, and went their narrow way conscious chiefly of Earth's dangers.
    Then, by degrees, came the Renaissance, or 'new birth' - the birth of a new outlook on existence, a new pleasure in natural things, in art, and in learning. As in the great days of Greece, men were full of the desire for knowledge, and their minds were ever questioning.
    The seeds of this great change had been planted in the Middle Ages. In the Crusades Europe had come face to face with the thought and ways of the East, and had been slowly becoming conscious of how much there was outside itself, and of the unlimited range of experience. "The world was so full of a number of things " -- and it was all before them, only waiting discovery. Again, in the verse of Dante and the painting of Giotto, of Italy, and in the science of the English friar Bacon, we have the first rays of the coming day which was to put an end to the night of the Middle Ages.
    Dante is looked on, with Homer and Shakespeare, as one of the greatest verse-writers of all time. He came at a time (1265-1312) of warring Popes and cruel rulers, when the heads of the Church were interested chiefly in keeping their power, and the monks in living without working and the common man was poor in everything but fears and false beliefs. Dante's great work in verse was produced when he was living away from his country, in bitter need and very unhappy ; but his voice is like that of the early prophets, making clear the great purposes of God and giving men hope of a new and better Age. His face, with its serious lines and air of deep thought, is that of a man who was naturally great ; his lip, in the picture of him painted by his countryman Giotto, is curved as if in disgust at the bad and foolish men about him.
    The start of the Renaissance was the start of a great flowering of science, art, and verse. And though all countries had their part in this new development, it was in Italy that it first took root, and to Italy that other nations came for their ideas. In the great Italian towns men got together the early Roman and Greek writings and went through them with loving care, and so took up the threads of Greek learning, and went on with the work of the Greeks.
    Vasari, in his book about the painters of Italy, gives an account of how he got together for the library of a great price of Florence "forty-five writers, and had two hundred books ready in twenty-two months ; and before his death the price was able to see his new library complete, and the books listed and put in order, in all of which he took great pleasure." And this was before the days of printing !


    The men of the renaissance took a great interest in those inventions which had long been in use in old China. These discoveries had been made again and again at different places, but it was not till almost 1500, when the Renaissance was in full flower, that their great value was clearly seen and profited by.
    The art of printing, like the making of paper, had long been common among the Chinese, but it was only about 1450 that it came into use in Europe, John Gutenberg of Mainz being responsible for the invention of printing with separate metal letters. Up to this time all the books in the West had been in handwriting, like those of the Florentine library talked about earlier. The price of such books was very high, and only a small number of persons had the chance of reading them. But in a short time the printing machines were at work putting the new ideas before a wider public.
   It was not long before the great printers of Venice, with their two hundred printing machines, were producing beautiful copies of the early Greek writing ; and almost as early the printers of Basel were getting out the works of Erasmus. By degrees books became cheaper, so that more persons were able to get them, and this had most important effects. In the Middle Ages the Church, that is to say, first the monasteries, and then the universities under the authority of the Church, had completed control of learning and of letters ; but this came to an end when printed books made the knowledge of the churchmen public property. It is not surprising that the invention of printing is sometimes said to be the greatest event in history.
    Again, gunpowder, another early Chinese invention, came into Europe about 1320 and slowly made great changes in the art of war. After the invention of great guns the strong buildings of the feudal chiefs, the steel dress of the fighter and his war-horse, quickly became things of the past, and the days were gone when a man might make a name for himself in history by the force of his good right arm.
    Last, the ship's compass -- the first made about 1302, and used by Columbus on his journey to America -- made possible safer journeys into unmapped seas.


    With the use of these inventions and the development of the science of geography there came a time of great discoveries, of a great expansion of trade, of colonies and new Empires overseas. New countries in the West and new ways to the old lands of the East were now open to European sailors and traders.
    It was by chance that Columbus, when he made his great journey to the West in the interests of Spain came on a 'new world' (1492). "I have done my best to see all the books on geography and other science," he had said to the King and Queen of Spain, who had given him the money for his under-taking. but he went with th idea that he was on his way not to the new lands of America, but to the gold and jewels of India and Cathay. Men who have been moved by ideas, however, have frequently made history, even when their ideas have been wrong. and so it was with Columbus.
    He himself was the European of whom there is any record * to put his foot in the 'New World' of America. He went on land beautifully dressed, with his uncovered blade in his hand. At the back of him came his men, and after kissing the earth which they had been waiting so long to see, they all went down on their knees to God for giving them a happy end to their journey. The great machines in which they had come across the sea (they would have seemed little more than pleasure boats to us), which seemed to be moving on the water with wings, put such fear into the Indians (as the red men of America were named in error) that they took the newcomers for men from the sun who had come down to see the earth.
        * We have said earlier that it is probable the Northmen had been there before him.
    The second great discovery was made by the Portuguese Vasco da Gama in 1497. This was the discovery of a new sea-way to the East (which had been equally the purpose of Columbus) down the west side of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope. Portugal's hundred years' attempt to make this discovery was well rewarded, and before long her ships were coming back from 'the Indies' with ever-increasing stores of gold and goods.
    Last, Magellan of Portugal (starting in 1519), and after him Drake of England (starting in 1577), went across the Pacific, another new discovery, and made the first journeys round the earth.
    The way of India and the Spice Islands across the Atlantic, the first part of which had been covered by Columbus, was made complete by Magellan. It was so long, however, that it did not come into serious competition with the way round the Cape -- which was the regular road to the East for almost four hundred years -- till the Suez Canal was cut.
    In a short time the Europeans were building up new colonies in the new lands overseas. the exchange of goods between all parts of the earth was now started again -- a thousand years after it had been broken off by the fall of the Roman Empire.


    While these discoveries were being made in the East and in the West, and new lands, new plants, and new animals were coming to the knowledge of Europe, men of science were making clear the secrets of the skies to minds still full of strange beliefs and fears. The first great event was when Copernicus the Pole put forward the surprising theory, based on observation and reasoning, that the sun was in the middle of the physical system, though it had long been the general belief that the sun and the stars went round our small earth.
    Then Galileo of Pisa, with the new invention, the telescope, was able to make a more detailed observation of the sky, and to give support to the teachings of Copernicus. The 'lens' (a bit of glass of a certain form, which has the property of making things seen through it seem nearer and clearer) had been made some use of by the Arabians, and an account of it had been given by Roger Bacon, but so far the chief invention based on it had been eye-glasses. Galileo saw how this knowledge might have further uses for seeing things at great distances ; and by turning his telescope on the stars and the moons of Jupiter he was able to make the arguments of Copernicus seem much stronger. About the same time his German friend, Kepler (1571-1630), was working on the laws of motion of all these bodies.
    But most men had no belief in these discoveries about the earth and stars. The Church, feeling that Galileo was attacking the authority of the Bible, was very much against him and had him put in prison. Writing from France, a great man of science said wisely : "You have done no good by putting Galileo in prison. That will never make it certain that the earth is at rest. If it is seen, by expert observation, to be turning round, then not all the men on it will be able to keep it from turning, or themselves from turning with it." [Footnote : 'Pascal.']
    Galileo became unable to see in his later years, as did Milton, the great English verse-writer. Galileo's work was taken further by Milton's countryman, Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest men of science of all time, whose birth took place in the year of Galileo's death (1642). He made the discovery of the laws of attraction between bodies, and was the writer of a great book, the Principia (1687), which was the start of a new Age in science and mathematics. "It may well be kept waiting one hundred years for a reader," said Kepler of his book, "as God has been waiting six thousand years for someone to make these observations" But the value of Newton's work was quickly seen, and before his death he was respected by all the men of learning in Europe. Great as his discoveries were, to himself Newton seemed to have done no more than get together some brightly-colored stones from the edge of the sea of knowledge, "like a little boy playing on the sands." He had a very deep feeling for religion, and all his science was undertaken with the desire to make clear the complex and beautiful work of a Great Designer.
    The Renaissance was no less noted for its art than for its science. The most beautiful paintings in existence were done at this time, and the great painters were men of very wide interests and powers. Leonardo da Vinci was expert not only at painting, and at working in stone, bronze, and other materials, but at designing buildings and machines ; among other things he made designs for engines worked by water. And in addition to this, he was a man of science, who gave the first suggestion of a number of later discoveries. He became certain before Copernicus that the earth went round the sun, and before Harvey that the blood was moving through the body ; he had the idea of light-waves when the rest of Europe was still talking of light as a substance ; and he made some of the earliest attempts at flight.
    Other great painters of the Renaissance were Michael Angelo, whose death was in the same year as Galileo's birth (1564), Raphael, and Titian -- all at work between 1450 and 1570.
    One of he greatest workers in stone and metal was Benvenuto Cellini, who came from Florence, the birthplace of a number of the great men of the Renaissance. He has given us a history of himself which is a mine of interesting details about the times. One of his works of art was a beautiful salt-vessel for the King of France. It was all made of hand-worked gold, and was in the form of a man and a woman representative of the sea and the land. At the feet of the man was the sea, with its waves painted in their natural colors, and at the feet of the woman the land, covered with animals. Cellini says that when he put it in front of the King he gave a loud cry of surprise and was unable to take his eyes off it.
    Of the writers of plays and verse whose works make the Renaissance so important, we will give here only one -- William Shakespeare, the greatest of them all. When Shakespeare came the Renaissance was no longer in its first flowering -- his birth was in 1564, the same year as Galileo's -- but he was a true son of that great Age.
    All these great inventions, discoveries, new developments in science and in art, were part of that new birth which is named the Renaissance. With these changes a page was turned in the history of man. Men were faced by the facts that their earth was only one, and one of the smaller, of a number of possible worlds. At the same time it was far wider, and stranger, and more interesting earth than their fathers had had any idea of, offering unlimited chances for their hands and brains. And the new science was the key to it all. It is not surprising that a great number of the ways and ideas which had been current in Europe for a thousand years in a short time became things of the past. A new order of society was in process of birth.