History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
The Europeans - Why they left and why it matters

Painting of medieval peasants

Our story begins in 15th and early 16th century Europe - with an undertanding of the English who eventually decide to immigrate to the "New World."


The Europeans - Why they left and why it matters
Discussion Goals

  1. To review the geopolitical realities of Europe in the Middle Ages.
  2. To understand the political, social, and economic systems of feudalism and emerging mercantilism in 15th, 16th, and 17th century Europe.
  3. To examine the realities of everyday life in 15th, 16th, and 17th century Europe.
  4. To explore the changing role of religion in 16th century Europe and how it impacted European immigration to the "New World."
  5. To discuss why some Europeans were willing to leave their homelands in exchange for the uncertainties of life in North America.
  6. To address the question, "why does any of this matter?"

Goal #1: To review the geopolitical realities of Europe in the Middle Ages

map of Europe in 1300Map of Europe in 1600Map of Europe in 1800

Access the power point presentation: "A Geopolitical Understanding of Medieval Europe"


Goal #2: To understand the political, social, and economic systems of feudalism and emerging mercantilism in 15th, 16th, and 17th century Europe

This story - adapted in part from Joanna Brooks Why We Left (2013) - begins with understanding the lives of English peasants in the 15th century. Before the end of the century, peasants had some sense of economic independence through their relationship to the land. Many lived on ten to thirty acres of land - land that was owned by the king but entrusted to one of his lords to whom they peasants paid rent. In exchange for the rent - usually paid for in crops and/or services - peasants had some common rights to graze stock, cut wood, draw water, or grow crops on the lord's land. Such common rights gave the peasants some economic independence. They grew their own crops; grazed animals and used their wastes to fertilize their gardens and provide milk, butter, and cheese not only for their use, but also to sell; and they used the lord's forests for firewood, fruits and nut, game and fish. This was the system of feudalism.

During the 15th century, feudalism was a political, social, and economic system in which every man was Image of Feudalismbound to every other man by mutual ties of loyalty and service.

In the 1500s, a type of feudal pyramid existed that described the social/political/economic power structure of medieval society:

The pyramid can be altered by adding the most powerful person in Europe during this time to the top of the pyramid - the Pope.

By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the old feudal order was changing - especially in England. The King, as well as his nobles and knights, were less interested in the old relationships whereby land and agriculture were the heart and soul of the economy. Land no longer was viewed as "an anchoring relationship embedded in a set of land use rights" (Brooks: 23). Instead, a whole new economic system developed around capital and commercialism.

At the same time, England's population was dramatically increasing. From an estimated population of 2.5 million in 1520, there were 5 million English men and women in 1680. Further, its cities experienced huge population increases, from 50,000 in the 1520s to 400,000 by 1650.

What resulted was a profound economic transformation whereby the King allowed his nobles and knights to convert their lands and lease them for progressive "improvement" so that they could use the profits from the new leases to finance commercial, industrial, and colonial ventures.

The consequences were dramatic:

The "bottom line" - the social, political, and economic lives of the vast majority of English men and women were dramatically changed by the end of feudalism and the origin of mercantilism.


Goal #3: To examine the realities of everyday life in 15th, 16th, and 17th century Europe

Social, political, and economic inequality. Because life was socially and economically stratified, the peasants had little chance to improve their standard of living. They were completely dependent upon the upper class - Wood print of life in medieval Englandtheir landlords and monarchs - to determine the laws, modes of protection, rents, and wages. Life was especially difficult for women and children of all classes and economic groups. Women had few if any rights. One exception - as seen in the video "Medieval Lives: The Peasant" - indicates that between 10th and 13th centuries, Welsh women had the right to divorce their husbands for "stinking breath."

Inequality was especially seen in the common law practice of primogeniture - the principle of inheritance, in which the firstborn male child received all or his parents' most significant and valuable property upon their death.

Fragile food supply and famine.While almost 90% of Europeans made their living from the land, about 1/5 of the landlords owned enough land to feed themselves. Hunger was a constant companion to the majority of people. Additionally, warfare, bad weather, poor transportation, and low grain yields forced Europeans to face the constant prospect of food shortages. Further, the slightest fluctuation in prices could cause the sudden deaths of additional tens of thousands who lived on the margins of perpetual hunger.

Poor health and the spread of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases and poor health care were directly responsible for high mortality rates. A third of all children died before reaching age five; half died before reaching the age of 10. Less than half the population reached adulthood.

An uncertain economy. Throughout Europe, the economy was uncertain at best. At its worst, it triggered poverty.

Overpopulation. Before 1450, over 90% of Europe's population lived in small rural communities - the vast majority who lived a life of unremitting labor. Within a century, there was not enough land to meet the needs of all the people. The population throughout Europe, but especially in England, was exploding. Consequently, rural areas were overcrowded, and the cities became even more overcrowded and dangerous.

Dangerous standards of living in urban and rural areas. Due to the overpopulation problem, rural areas were overcrowded, and the cities became even more overcrowded and dangerous. As one famous Russian traveler - Peter the Great - noted in 1698:

"London ... was rich, vital, dirty and dangerous.  The narrow streets were piled with garbage and filth which could be dropped freely from any overhanging window.  Even the main avenues were dark and airless because greedy builders, anxious to gain more space, had projected upper stories out over the street.  Through these ... alleys, crowds of Londoners jostled and pushed one another.  Traffic congestion was monumental.  Lines of carriages and hackney cabs cut deep ruts into the streets so that passengers inside were tossed about, arriving breathless, nauseated and sometime bruised.  When two coaches met in a narrow street, fearful arguments ensued ... London was a violent city with coarse, cruel pleasures which quickly crushed the unprotected innocent.  For women, the age of consent was twelve (it remained twelve in England until 1885).  Crimes were common and in some parts of the city people could not sleep for the cries of 'Murder!' rising from the streets.  Public floggings were a popular sight, and executions drew vast crowds.  On 'Hanging Day,' workmen, shopkeepers and apprentices left their jobs to jam the streets, joking and laughing, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the condemned's face.  Wealthy ladies and gentlemen paid for places in windows and balconies overlooking the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, where executions took place ... The most ghastly execution was the penalty for treason: hanging, drawing and quartering.  The condemned man was strung up until he was almost dead from strangulation, then cut down, disemboweled while still alive, beheaded, and his trunk was then chopped into quarters. Sports were heavily stained with blood.  Crowds paid to see bulls and bears set upon by enraged mastiffs; often the teeth of the bear had been filed down and the cornered beast could only swat with his great paws at the mastiffs that leaped and tore at him.  Cockfights attracted gamblers, and large purses were wagered on the specially trained fowl." .... Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great, pp. 212-13

Child victimization. In addition to outrageous mortality rates for European children due to exposure, disease, and malnutrition, poor children were also victims of abandonment, slavery, and infanticide. To relieve overcrowding in homes, English parents often sent their children to live as servants where many often became victims of assault, rape, and even murder.

Intolerance. Europeans were intolerant of non-Catholic religions, of people who were different, and of the poor.

Warfare. Largely as a result of the reformation, religious warfare became a regular feature of 16th Century Europe. Additionally, political and economic warfare wracked the continent. The most celebrated of these conflicts involved Spain and England in a religious, political, and economic battle.

An idealistic image of the "New World." Amid all these negative factors was one optimistic kernal of hope. Beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s publication of Utopia about an idealistic imaginary island in the Western Hemisphere, some Europeans had an image of the New World where settlers could escape from the miseries of Europe and where they might experience some degree of freedom.

Discussion:


Goal #4: To understand the changing role of religion in 16th century Europe and how it impacted European immigration to the "New World"

Religions and religious affiliations have been evolving for thousands of years. In the last 2000 years, since the beginning of Christianity, we have witnessed many changes in religion - many of which have led to conflict and even war. To get a good idea of spread of religion over the past 5,000 years, let’s look at this overview - http://www.mapsofwar.com/ind/history-of-religion.html]

This was the status of religion in Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. But it was greatly complicated by the political status in Europe. At the beginning of the 16th century, the political power of the kings was increasing in most Western European nations. As we have already learned, much of Europe was fragmented into many German principalities,duchies and cities, known collectively as the Holy Roman Empire.

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic church had taught Luther that people received salvation through their faith in God and their own good works on earth. But Luther felt he, and most ordinary people, were incapable of leading the kind of life that merited salvation. Painting of Martin LutherLuther turned to the Bible and gradually became convinced that God did not require men and women to earn salvation, but rather that salvation came by faith alone. Once people believed they had such faith, moral behavior was possible and salvation was inevitable

By 1517, Luther was especially troubled by an increasingly popular church practice - the selling of indulgences - a donation to the church that Catholics paid after confessing their sins to a priest and doing an assigned act of devotion.  The payment was made in place of  punishment for sins and secured forgiveness and a swift entry into heaven upon death.  Over time, it even became possible to purchase an indulgence for the dead. The Dominican Friar John Tetzel, who was in charge of selling indulgences in Germany, used this popular advertizing slogan to sell indulgences: "As soon as coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."

On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany. The Theses all related to Luther's dispute over the sale of indulgences. Word of Luther's Theses spread throughout the crowd that day and soon, many people called for their translation into German. A student copied Luther's Latin text and then translated the document and sent it to the university press; from there it spread throughout Germany. Later, Luther wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz protesting indulgences and explaining his criticisms of other church practices.

After receiving Luther's letter, the archbishop sent it to Pope Leo X.  Before the pope could react, however, the "Ninety-Five Theses" became a sensation among the German people who were stunned that Luther had challenged the pope and the church.  Luther took full advantage of the newest technology in Europe to inform Germans of his ideas - movable type printing press developed by Johann Gutenberg.  He and other pamphleteers who were increasingly called Protestants began publishing a steady stream of pamphlets criticizing the church.  Map of the Protestant Reformation in EuropeThe Protestant Reformation had begun and soon began to spread throughout Europe. Protestants argued for the following reforms:

In January 1521, Pope Leo threatened to excommunicate Luther, but because he had become a hero to so many Germans, he instead agreed to summon him to an assembly of German nobles headed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.  There, all his books and pamphlets were piled before Luther.  After he admitted to writing them, he was asked to recant and subsequently refused.  Charles declared Luther  a heretic and an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire.  Luther then went into hiding for a year when he wrote and published more pamphlets criticizing the church and began translating the New Testament into German so all literate persons could read the word of God for themselves.  He returned to Wittenberg in 1522 and continued to preach the first Protestant religion known as Lutheranism.  He died at the age of 63 in 1546.

During the 1520s, disputes arose between Luther and other Protestants over many religious issues.  For instance, the issue of whether or not infants should be baptized caused a formal split, with those disagreeing with Luther becoming known as the Anabaptists - those against infant baptism.  One of the biggest splits was between Luther and John Calvin.

John Calvin and Calvinism.  Calvin, a Frenchman,  believed that because man was helpless before an all-powerful God, there was no such thing as free will. Painting of John CalvinThus, man was predestined for either Heaven or Hell and could do nothing to alter his fate. He argued that while good works were not required to go to Heaven - as the Catholic Church decreed - good works did serve a purpose by acting as a divine sign that the individual was making the best of their life on earth. He further argued that some people had been "called" by God to do a certain thing on earth. Some men and women who seemed ill-fitted for life on earth were greedy, lazy and immoral. Others, however, were called - they seemed to work happily in their lifetime and accomplished a great deal. These people woke up early, worked hard at their calling, were thrifty, sober, and did not engage in frivolity - and in so doing, they acquired wealth. Certain men who were called were also imbued with the correct spirit of acquisition and therefore were destined to become wealthy. Such spirit eventually became known as the Protestant Work Ethic.

The Reformation in England and Puritanism.  In the early 16th century, England was a second-rate power torn apart of internal disunity.  Religion in England was reformed not by determined spiritual idealists like Luther and Calvin, but by a determined monarch.  King Henry VIII had been unable to produce a male heir to his throne by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  When Pope Clement VII refused Henry's request for an annulment, he divorced her without papal consent in 1527 and married his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Henry then established a new protestant church - the Church of England or Anglican Church - dissolved England's monasteries, seized all church lands and sold them to powerful members of the English gentry at bargain prices, and declared himself head of the new Church of England.

Thereafter, English Protestants were divided between the followers of the new Church of England and the Puritans, Puritansthe "pure" Calvinists whose "divine plan" called for reforming the evils of society and limiting Church membership to the "elite." Decades of religious strife followed, beginning with Henry's son, Edward VI (1547-1553), who became king at the age of 10 and whose Protestant regents persecuted Catholics; continuing with the reign of his stepsister, Mary (1553-1558), a staunch Catholic who executed many Protestants; and ending with the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) who restored Protestantism and executed over 100 Catholic priests. Her heir, James I (1603-1625) was committed to ridding England of the Puritan threat to the Church.

Results of the Protestant Reformation.


Goal #5: To discuss the expectations of Europeans who favored exploration to North America

At least 5 distinct groups of Europeans were interested in North America, and each had specific expectations about what they might find.

Goal #6: To address the question, "why does any of this matter?"

Most of you are not history majors and you may have been wondering over the past few days, "why does any of this matter?" There is a very easy answer for this rather complex question - because it tells us a great deal about who we are today!!

  1. It tells us that the first waves of European immigrants to the "New World" were largely people no longer wanted or welcome in Europe - so called "disposable people" who were forced to carve out a new life in an unfriendly environment and dedicated to the idea that hard working, Protestants could, as individuals, create a better life for themselves.
  2. It tells us that immigrants to America came from diverse social, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. Thus, America was never destined to become a "melting pot" where people blended together to form a common American community.   Rather, thousands of individuals with different ideas about EVERYTHING settled here. In short, those who left England to begin their lives in the "New World" had  similar objectives - to escape hardships, achieve economic betterment, find some sort of political, economic, and religious freedom -  but they had very different backgrounds and very different ideas of how to achieve their objectives.
  3. It tells us that the ideas we had at the beginning of this course about how and why the earliest European Americans came to America were rather simplistic. Instead, learning more details about who the Europeans were and why they came to North America helps us better understand our major course theme - American history is full of controversy, conflict, and compromise - as well as five other of our course themes:


Conclusions

"The Europeans - Why They Left"
  1. By the late 15th century, the English King, as well as his nobles and knights, were less interested in the old feudal relationships whereby land and agriculture were the heart and soul of the economy. Instead, a whole new economic system developed around capital and commercialism. What resulted was a profound economic transformation whereby the King allowed his nobles and knights to convert their lands and lease them for "improvement" so that they could use the profits from the new leases to finance commercial, industrial, and colonial ventures.
  2. The consequences of this economic transformation were dramatic: the landlords', knights', and peasants' relationship to the land dramatically changed; the land itself was physically altered through various economic "improvements;" a new "permanent proletariat" of landless laborers arose in England; mercantilism became the economic foundation of the English economy; and social, political, and economic inequality greatly increased. In short, the social, political, and economic lives of the vast majority of English men and women were dramatically changed by the end of feudalism and the origin of mercantilism.
  3. Life in 14th, 15th, and 16th Century Europe was characterized by a social, political, and economic inequality; a fragile good supply and famine; poor health and living conditions; an uncertain economy; overpopulation; dangerous standards of living; child victimization; intolerance of those who were different; religious strife; and warfare.
  4. The legacy of religious strife intensified European interest in colonization. Many Europeans - especially the English - who embraced the new Protestant faiths - especially those with a Calvinist base - saw the "New World" as a safe haven for practicing their religion.
  5. The 16th century colonists to the "New World" were of two sorts: those who chose to immigrate to the "New World" and who sought an escape from the hard realities of life in Europe and wished to create new spiritual, social, economic, and political lives and lifestyles and those who involuntarily immigrated to colonial North America. The resulting religious, economic, social, and political diversity of these immigrants, it is clear that early America was not a "melting pot".

     


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