The constant waging of local conflicts, advancements in existing technologies, and general agreement throughout diverse communities that experimentation was not only acceptable but also inevitable led the nation-states of Europe in the direction of developing new technologies of warfare.
The introduction of new weapons set into motion an arms race which has continued to the present. As new military technologies were introduced the players were forced to buy the new weapons and adopt the new techniques or face annihilation on the battlefield. Each new offensive weapon was countered with a defensive weapon or formation. Huge cannon balls capable of smashing projectiles, through thick masonry walls were countered with earthworks which proved impervious to cannonballs. As states grew in size and wealth, the ambitious among them acquired the weapons and armies which helped to spur their growth during periods when offensive weapons overwhelmed defensive ones.
John Mohawk, “Discovering Columbus: The Way Here.” View from the Shore, 39-40
Patterns of Feudalism
Knight pledging his alliance
Feudalism in Europe consisted of a wide variety of social organization with two common elements:
- The individual received protection in return for his personal service to a stronger, rich man.
- Ownership of land, or some other valuable commodity, passed from the original, weak owner to the lord.
The destruction caused by whole groups of people marching over the countryside and waging war was a prologue to the feudal era. After each Conflict new fragments of territory were taken over by someone. Eventually “Europe” became merely a name for a bewildering variety of communities, some autonomous, some interconnected, identified by different terms: the manor, the city, the church, business, the military.
Feudal process was the incessant wrestling within and between these communities to establish relations of dominance and dependency. In such a world the ordering restraints of religion and law often became mere instruments for conquest, petty or grand.
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America, 4
As a result of contact with the East, Europe began a brisk trade, centered on the Mediterranean Sea. Venice and Genoa were in the best geographic position to monopolize business arrangements with the powerful Moslem rulers. By the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, wealthy Europeans had become enamored of such luxuries as teas, spices, silk, gold, and jewels, and Portugal and Spain wanted to open up their own routes to the riches so they wouldn’t have to pay middlemen.
Changes in Spain
The Mezquita in Cordoba
Spain itself went through tremendous upheaval during the reconquest. The bulk of the population had converted to Islam, but from tiny remnants of the old regimes grew the mighty kingdoms of Leon, Castille, Aragon, and Portugal, determined to reconquer the whole territory. At the same time, all the various rulers waged wars among themselves, vying for power and internal domination. In retrospect it seems that Spain was preparing itself for the conquest of a new continent, although any notion that such a place existed would have been labeled dreaming in the fifteenth century.
Ferdinand and Isabella
The rise of nation-states and, eventually, nationalism also helped set the stage for conquest.
The disintegration of the Roman Empire in Europe had led to a decentralization of government that in turn led to a fragmentation of power. As the weak sought protection from the strong, the strong forced the weak to do their bidding. The feudal system arose as the method of organizing society after centuries of struggle when Europe was invaded over and over. Peasants suffering from constant encroachment by marauders entered into arrangements with more powerful lords, giving them their land and their service (including military service) in return for protection.
However, the concept of feudalism can’t be limited to the single institution of vassalage and lordship. Nor does the term “feudal system” imply that the arrangement was systematic. Patterns varied greatly.
The modern nation-state of Spain was unified by the political marriage between Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon, and Isabella, heiress to the throne of Castile, in 1469 (they met four days before the wedding). From 1479 on, they ruled as “the Catholic monarchs.”
The only part of the country not under their control was Granada, the last remnant of the Moorish Empire, established in the ninth century. They used that problem to their advantage, organizing war-hungry barons and nobles to conquer Granada. But when Granada fell in 1492, the war machine ran out of land to conquer inside Spain, and the only avenue open was for the barons to go back to fighting each other.