The Mediterranean World

The peoples who inhabited the semi-arid shores of the Mediterranean were united in a common world view - as the name suggests, they saw themselves as living at the center of the world. The region, similar in size to that of the Caribbean, had seen the rise and fall of several civilizations and, in the late 15th century, was again in flux. Prosperous city states were on the rise amidst the decline of medieval feudal society.

Renewed interest in Greek and Roman cultures fostered humanistic studies in art and science. New, stimulating ideas were spread with the advent of printing. Out of the doomsday mentality caused by the Black Death, civil wars, and economic uncertainties emerged expansionism, cohesion, and a sense of prosperity.

As the eastern Mediterranean reeled before the expanding Ottoman Empire, and Muslim rule ended in Iberia, western Mediterranean traders and mariners looked beyond the Straits of Gibraltar for alternative routes to the riches of the East.

The Setting

The Mediterranean Sea linked three continents -- Europe, Asia, and Africa. Surrounding that sea was a world of diverse peoples, languages, and religions. Even its northern shores, largely united by Christianity, exhibited a remarkable variety of tongues, customes, currencies, and political economies.

In the absence of nations, city-states dominated economic, political, and cultural activites in the late 15th century. Vibrant cities and ports, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Genos, Seville and Lisbon, were engaged in a variety of cultural and economic activities. They traded with each other and with merchants in other important centers like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Tunis. Traders followed the routes taken by thousands of pilgrims and crusaders during the Middle Ages on their way to the Holy Land.

Iberia: Cultural Diversity

The Christians, Muslims and Jews of the Iberian Kingdoms -- modern-day Spain and Portugal -- had coexisted throughout most of the Middle Ages in considerable harmony, despite periods of war and conflict. Close contact and currents of influence among these groups fostered a varied culture and flourishing intellectual life more advanced than anywhere else in Europe.

Unification of the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile began in 1469 when Princess Isabel of Castile married Prince Fernando of Aragon. In 1480, they established the Holy Inquisition to enforce orthodox christian belief and practice. In the very year of Columbus's first voyage, the monarchs conquired the last Muslim kingdom of Granada and expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Despite such repressions, the extraordinary cultural diversity of late medieval Iberia left an enduring legacy in art, architecture, language, music, foodways, agriculture, and urban life.

The Changing Order

The Renaissance was an age of paradox in Europe. This period witnessed dramatic changes in cultural and intellectual life, linked to the enthusiastic rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman past. Artists and writers brought a new, intense scrutiny to the individual human subject within the context of an emerging secular spirit. Yet, during the Renaissance, religious mysticism, superstition, and political authroitarianism intensified.

Though handwritten and illuminated manuscripts had been the preserve of the learned few, the invention of printing led to a democratization of information. The creation of increasingly modern and powerful economies, based on banking, trade, and commerce enabled an emerging middle class to participate in this free exchange of ideas. Readers were exposed to dramatically different world views, ranging from imaginary maps and accounts of travels to information partly based on practical experience.

"O Adam, you may have whatever you desire"

(Humanism's liberating idea, expressed in an essay by Pico della Mirandela).

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