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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson



The discovery of the New World changed European society greatly and effectively brought about the modern era. Let's consider the state of Europe in about 1475 and then ask how the new discoveries affected those characteristics.

The People

In a physical sense, they were mostly young: forty-five percent of the population was under fifteen. They were poor by our standards; Most of them went to sleep hungry; and most of them were sick. There were the weaknesses of malnutrition, endemic ills such as malaria and tuberculosis, and periodic waves of epidemic bubonic, typhoid, cholera, and other contagious diseases.

They were able to endure great privations, but these things seem to have taken their toll. Emotionally, they were contemptuous of the death of themselves or others, ready to gamble on anything, intolerant of the beliefs of others, and prone to violent swings of emotion.

The Economy

The economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, and land was still the basis of wealth, but the agricultural technology was not able to feed the population as well as produce sufficient raw materials for manufacture.

Exchange was based upon gold and silver, but the supply of both was being drained by an unfavorable balance of trade with the East.

There was a growing recession because of lack of capital and of a diminishing internal consumer market. Wealth was concentrating in the hands of a few.


Society was stratified with a few wealthy and many poor. Europe suffered from "over-population," a large permanently under-employed class.

There were almost constant wars, in which the kings were attempting to gain and solidify their power against a land-hungry and greedy nobility. Already split by proto-nationalism, the Europeans were beginning to split along religious lines.

Intellectual Life

Life was still dominated by scholasticism, based upon realism, and ultimately upon the logical manipulation of categories. Moral guidelines were in disarray. The church was not powerful enough, nor the immediate past relevant enough to provide an understanding of the new forces that were at work: capitalism, nationalism, mercantilism, science.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.