A sea route to India
Europe’s isolation came to an end in the thirteenth century when the first sustained contacts were established with East Asia. During the Pax Mongolica, the “Mongol peace,” European merchants and the occasional missionary traveled as far eastward as China. The Europeans were amazed at the wealth of the countries they discovered here, the power of their rulers, and all the curious objects which no one in Europe knew anything about. Returning home, they would tell tales of their wondrous adventures. The objects they brought with them — spices, tea, precious stones, china, silk and so on — embodied these mysteries, and for that reason alone they were highly sought. This was not least the case for members of the elite who derived power and prestige from buying and displaying these exotic objects. There was, European merchants discovered, a lot of money to be made for those who could satisfy this market. It was the Italians who took the lead — the Venetians and Genovese in particular. Marco Polo, the most famous among them, was a Venetian.
Yet trade with the East was a perilous business. Goods traveled slowly on camelback across the caravan routes of Central Asia, and there were a number of things that could go wrong — robbers could attack, officials could interfere, and then there was the inclement weather and the turn of the seasons. As long as the Mongol Empire lasted, it was possible to deal with these challenges and the profits remained high. The Mongol khanates had not always been at peace with each other, but they understood the value of commerce, and they did what they could to encourage it. Yet with the end of the Pax Mongolica in the fourteenth century, both the risks and the costs associated with the caravan trade rose dramatically. The new rulers who appeared about halfway between Europe and East Asia wanted their cut of the profits. Both the Ottomans and Mamluk Egypt put up customs and tariffs which made it far more expensive to trade.
In response, the Europeans began looking for alternative ways to reach East Asia. They tried their luck by ship. One idea was to go down the west coast of Africa and find a passage to India that way. Once these attempts proved successful, trade moved away from the Mediterranean, away from Italy, and to the countries along Europe’s Atlantic coast. Here Portugal took the lead, and it was soon followed by Spain, although the Spanish, at least, to begin with, continued to rely on the services of Italian sea captains. The most famous of these, Cristoforo Colombo, “Christopher Columbus,” had the idea that it should be possible to travel to India by going westward, straight into the Atlantic Ocean. He did not find India this way, but he found a new world — a Novus mundus — of which no one in the old world had had any previous knowledge. Eventually, the new world came to be known as “America,” named after Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian sea captain.
Medieval Europeans had not had much interest in the world outside of their continent, we said, but there were two exceptions. First of all, there were the Vikings of Scandinavia. The Vikings traveled far and wide. Vikings from what today is Sweden went eastward along the large rivers of Russia until they came into contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. Meanwhile, Vikings from what today is Denmark and Norway went westward, exploring first Iceland, then Greenland and finally what they called Vinland, that is today’s “North America.” Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Americas.
The second exception concerns the military campaigns known as the “Crusades.” To some Europeans — notably a few militant popes — it was unacceptable that lands mentioned in their religious scriptures, and which before the Arab expansion had been predominantly Christian, now were in Muslim hands. The idea was to equip a pan-European army which could win them back. Altogether seven major Crusades were organized between 1096 and 1254, in which hundreds of thousands of Europeans took part. For a while, the Crusaders were quite successful. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and managed to establish small kingdoms throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Yet at the Battle of Hattie in 1187, the Crusaders were decisively defeated by the armies of the Fatimids, the caliphate with its base in Cairo. Although the Europeans gathered their forces for several more Crusades, they never achieved their ends.
Wars on behalf of the Christian religion continued on the fringes of Europe, both in Eastern Europe and in Spain. Lithuania was converted to Christianity in 1386 by means of armies consisting of so-called “Teutonic knights,” a military but also a religious order. In Spain, a project — the Reconquista — was undertaken to invade al-Andalus. In 1212, the Christian coalition won an important battle at Las Navas de Tolosa, yet it would take another 250 years before the Iberian peninsula was fully under Christian occupation. The last Muslim ruler — Muhammad XII of Granada, known to the Spaniards as “Boabdil” — was expelled in 1492, the same year that Columbus made his first journey across the Atlantic. The Christian victory severed seven hundred-year-old links between southern Spain and the centers of civilization in the East. They also forced both Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity at the pain of death or expulsion.