AP U.S. History Notes

Europe and the Impulse for Exploration


Europe experienced radical economic and social changes between the 11th and 14th centuries. The medieval world was based on feudalism, a highly regulated and hierarchical form of society in which everyone had their place and responsibilities. The manorial system, in which lords owned the land worked by their vassals, or serfs, started to wane in the late Middle Ages with the development of nation-states. Medieval cities, dominated by the guilds that brought economic stability, became the centers of commerce.

Many people moved from the country to the city where they found more opportunities to make a living. This demographic shift diluted the power of the feudal lords and forced them to make several compromises. For example, many people who remained in the country negotiated long-term leases for their own plots of land on which they could grow crops to sell or to feed their families. Medieval farmers also increased their crop yields—and their profits—by adapting the horse collar, an improved iron plow, and the three-field system of agriculture. Although many former feudal lords continued to receive a percentage of the harvest, an emerging cash economy undermined feudalism in the countryside and helped support a growing population throughout Europe.

Economic changes further stimulated the growth of commerce. The emergence of capitalism created a largely urban middle class committed to expanding markets. National and international trade interests grew as more people looked to buy products and goods.

Uniform printed documents, including sales receipts and licenses, also advanced the growth of commerce in Europe. Bills of exchange, which served as an early form of credit based on promissory notes, took the place of oral agreements in the purchase of products or services. The widespread use of printed documents increased the importance of reading and writing skills and allowed shoppers to compare the value of goods different tradesmen offered. The printing of mercantile newspapers also promoted literacy. By learning about commercial laws and regulations and the dealings of other merchants, the middle class became more business savvy in their transactions and added to the economic burst. As the members of the middle class attained more wealth, their influence over government leaders increased. More importantly from the perspective of American history, the emergence of capitalism and the growth of commerce gave impetus to voyages of trade and discovery.

The founding of the colonies in the New World coincided with the rise of mercantilism. Many European rulers during the 16th and 17th centuries embraced the precepts of mercantilism, an economic system that sought to increase national wealth through a strictly regulated economy and a favorable balance of trade. In short, a nation’s strength was directly linked to its ability to be self-sufficient and accumulate capital. Colonies were acquired to supply raw materials to the “mother country” and serve as exclusive markets for domestic manufactured goods.

One of the first countries to embrace mercantilism in America was Spain, whose colonies existed primarily to increase national wealth and power. Commodities such as sugar and tobacco, as well as precious metals and jewels plundered from the Indians, were sent directly to the mother country and Spain’s economy prospered. However, since most of the riches were used to create great displays of wealth for the nation’s elite, and no new trade opportunities were developed, Spain remained a reasonably poor country.

The English also embraced mercantilism as they entered the race for American colonies. Since the Dutch controlled a majority of the merchant vessels used to ship products from the New World, the English Parliament enacted the first of a series of Navigation Acts that permitted only English ships to carry American goods. The Navigation Act of 1660 enumerated specific commodities, including tobacco, sugar, and cotton, that could be shipped only within the English empire.

This protective navigation system employed by Parliament was an immediate success. Merchant shipping increased dramatically at the expense of the Dutch, who ceded their colony of New Netherland to the English. Ironically, the Navigation Acts, which ultimately drove a wedge between the American colonists and the mother country, increased smuggling and hastened the march toward independence.

Technological Factors

The explosion of trade opportunities in Europe and the discovery of riches in the New World prompted the development of better navigational tools. For years mariners determined their latitudinal direction by following the east to west advancement of the sun and by tracking the movement of the stars at night. When land was out of sight, navigators could only refer to the speed of the ship and the time it took to reach a particular destination to estimate how far east or west they had traveled. As the voyagers traveled farther distances, they relied on a variety of both new and existing navigational tools to help them reach their destinations safely.

The most popular equipment used by seafaring explorers of the Middle Ages included:

  • Compass – The compass had been used for centuries to determine direction. Early versions were crude and not always reliable. Mariners typically used the compass only when it was cloudy because they did not get consistent readings.
  • Astrolabe – The astrolabe was also a common instrument used for many years. It was used to measure the position of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Navigators measured the angle of a celestial body above the horizon to determine their latitude positioning.
  • Cross staff – Mariners used the cross staff to measuring the height of objects above the horizon. This information helped them to determine how far north or south of the Equator they were.

The most popular equipment used by seafaring explorers of the Middle Ages included:

  • Quadrant – The quadrant was also used to determine positioning north or south of the equator. Gathering accurate readings on a moving ship was difficult so many navigators waited until they reached land before using the quadrant.
  • Chip board – The chip board measured the speed of the ship. The small board, tied to the end of several hundred feet of rope with knots at specific intervals, was thrown overboard. Sailors counted the number of knots to determine their speed.
  • Hourglass – The hourglass was one of the most commonly used navigational instruments. Depending on its size, the hourglass could be made to measure any amount of time. Sailors used it to track how far they had traveled or how long they had been on duty.

The age of exploration and lengthy sea voyages also triggered innovations in shipbuilding during the Middle Ages. One of the more popular vessels for open sea travel was the caravel. Used by navigators from Spain, Portugal, and England, the caravel was a small but fast merchant ship that typically carried few weapons. An improved version, the caravela redonda, was rigged with both square and lenteen sails that increased its speed and maneuverability. Columbus’s Pinta and Niña were these types of caravels and Magellan had one in his fleet that circumnavigated the world.

Another popular type of ship, the carrack, had sails similar to those of the caravel. However, the carracks were much larger and slower than caravels and typically carried supplies. A poor design on early models caused the ships to tip over in strong winds. Columbus first sailed to the New World aboard the carrack Santa Maria, which ran aground on a reef on Christmas Eve, 1492.

The most heavily armed merchant ship of the period was the Spanish galleon. Filled with enough guns and crew members to offer sufficient protection should it stray from the fleet, the Spanish galleon was often used to carry gold, silver and other riches from the Americas to Spain.

Rise of Nation-States

The spread of capitalism and the social and economic chaos that accompanied the decline of feudalism helped transform medieval Europe into unified nation-states, whose people typically shared common histories, cultures, and languages. As the populace became more organized and less dependent upon feudal ties, the growing urban middle class sought civil and financial order and stability.

To assure the safety of their families and livelihoods, citizens paid taxes in exchange for the services of professional armies raised by the new monarchs. In return, the national governments fostered commerce and trade that benefited the growing middle class and mercantile community. Combined with the other changes Europe was experiencing during the latter Middle Ages, strong central governments also contributed to the age of exploration and discovery.

Portugal became Europe’s first nation-state when John I began the rule of the House of Avis around the year 1400. The Portuguese sense of nationalism was bolstered by a homogenous population that shared a common language and culture, as well as a geographic isolation from the rest of Europe. The common language and shared cultural beliefs unified the Portuguese people. Although much of the kingdom’s population was devoted to agriculture, it had a long maritime tradition and vibrant commercial class.

Although not the largest or wealthiest European country, a stable monarchy, an expanded navy, and a steadfast dedication to exploration, helped Portugal create a trading network that encompassed several continents. Prince Henry the Navigator, as King John’s younger son was known, led the way in the exploration of sea routes to Africa and Asia. In large measure because of Portugal’s dominance along the African coast in the late-15th century, other European nations—including Spain—turned to the west for economic expansion.

After the unification of Portugal, the rest of the Iberian Peninsula was politically consolidated following the marriage of cousins, Isabella of Castile, and Ferdinand of Aragon. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who ruled jointly, invested heavily in exploration and military endeavors and led the Spanish empire to unparalleled wealth and power. In 1492, a truly watershed year in history, they supported Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage to the New World and their military forces conquered Granada, the last Islamic stronghold in western Europe.

Ferdinand and Isabella were so dedicated to enforcing orthodox Roman Catholicism throughout Spain that they established the ruthless Inquisition, which expelled or executed thousands of Jews and Muslims. After Columbus’s discovery, the Spanish monarchs were equally driven to convert Indians to Catholicism. Therefore, the Spanish explorers and conquistadores were motivated by religious and secular impulses in carving out an extensive empire in America.

Elsewhere in medieval Europe, Henry VII established the Tudor dynasty in England in 1485, imposing a unified central government on the new nation-state. His son, Henry VIII, broke with the Catholic church; and following his death, religious conflict between the English Protestants and Catholics raged for decades. When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I assumed power in 1558, England’s hostility toward Catholic Spain intensified. Elizabeth secretly financed buccaneers who raided Spanish settlements and treasure ships. Both the English privateers and the monarchy grew wealthy from Spanish booty. England’s power was based on a strong and loyal navy and a diversified economy. The free flow of commerce and trade with other countries provided the stability England needed to found colonies in the New World.

A succession of power struggles dominated and often hindered the political evolution of France as a nation-state. During the Hundred Years War, England controlled much of France. Encouraged by the bravery of Joan of Arc, who claimed to be inspired by holy visions, French soldiers eventually overpowered the English. The end of the painful war, in 1453, sparked a new sense of nationalism. In the years that followed, Louis XI centralized the national government and France became one of the most populous and wealthy countries in Europe. However, it was not until the civil war ended between Protestants and Catholics around the year 1600 that France joined in the exploration of the New World.


Columbus’s famed voyage in 1492 joined two very different worlds. For thousands of years, Europeans and Native Americans lived completely separate lives, unaware of the others’ existence. When Columbus stepped onto the rocky soil of San Salvador, he started a historic chain of events that affected the lives of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Columbus and later explorers discovered a land unlike anything they had experienced. They encountered neatly patterned park-like settings in the middle of massive forests, caused by Native Americans burning and clearing out large areas of the forest to enhance their hunting efforts. The Spanish explorers saw strange creatures, including turkeys, llamas, iguanas, and rattlesnakes—which they colorfully described as “snakes with castanets.” Although they recognized the dog, they never imagined that anacondas, vampire bats, electric eels, or armadillos existed. The Old World explorers also enjoyed new plants and foods, including tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, beans, peanuts, pineapples, and chocolate.

In return, Columbus and subsequent European travelers introduced the Americas to many Old World foods and animals. Ships filled with cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses were dispatched to the Caribbean Islands and settlers planted wheat, sugar cane, peaches, bananas, and coffee. These crops thrived in the warm, sunny climate of the Spanish colonies. Other vegetation, including dandelions, clover, and Kentucky bluegrass were also brought to the New World, most likely mixed in with different seeds.

The exchange of plants and animals was generally well received by people of both worlds. The Indians of western North America, for example, quickly incorporated the horse into their culture, which enhanced their proficiency as buffalo hunters and warriors. Many of the new crops became staples in the diets of the people of the New World and eventually provided a dependable source of income for the European settlers. In the Old World, new foods—especially potatoes—helped feed a rapidly growing population. The European explorers also took advantage of several Native American creations, including canoes, snowshoes, moccasins, and hammocks. And new words, among them teepee, skunk, moose, tomahawk, and chipmunk were adopted into European languages.

Naturally, not all of the exchanges between the two worlds were positive. European voyagers brought with them pathogens that caused smallpox, measles, whooping cough, influenza, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. Outbreaks of smallpox and measles, in particular, often wiped out entire villages since Native Americans did not have the antibodies to fight the deadly germs. Frequently, the diseases killed or incapacitated so many Indians, they could not adequately defend their lands when the European invaders arrived. It is estimated that half the Aztec population died of smallpox during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Ultimately, perhaps close to 90 percent of Native Americans died after becoming infected with Old World diseases. Entire civilizations were eradicated with no descendants to carry on their unique cultures or philosophies. Although the Indians suffered more fatalities, European citizens did not entirely escape the threat of new disease. Many travelers who crossed the Atlantic contacted syphilis from the Native Americans and spread it throughout the European population. The exchange of animals, plants, and diseases thereby transformed both American and European cultures with distinctly mixed results.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Europe and the Impulse for Exploration" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 26 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/europe-and-the-impulse-for-exploration/>.