(EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE – continued)

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EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE (4 of 7)

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Cannon, Politics and Machiavelli

The End of Byzantium

The emperors at Constantinople had been losing territory in Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks, and with this they lost revenues from taxing agricultural production. In the 1100s they lost eastern markets to Venetian and Genoese maritime traders and revenues from customs duties. Constantinople had come to see the upkeep of their merchant fleet as a drain on their meager money supply, and the city's neglected fleet rotted away while foreign ships came and went from its port.

The government also lost revenues with the growth of big estates, which were worked by a growing army of people living in bondage. These estates were less efficient than lands worked by free peasants, and less was collected from them in taxes, while estates owned by the Church and worked by monks were often tax exempt.

The royal government continued spending money for extravagant displays necessary to keep up the appearance of grandeur. Constantinople became impoverished. Some of the poor of Constantinople emigrated. The once proud Christian people, enthusiastic for their racing team at the sports arena, were no more. By the 1400s Constantinople had a diminished population and Constantinople was diminished militarily.

When the Turks overran Constantinople in May 1453, Constantinople's thousand year reign as the center of the Roman Empire had come to an end. The flow of refugees from Constantinople to Italy included intellectuals with their manuscripts. This stimulated a new interest in the ancient past, an interest that was humanistic rather than concerned with sin and salvation. Byzantium's loss was Italy's gain. Wealthy businessmen in Italy began to support education and the arts – the beginning of what would be called the Renaissance.

Patriotism, Central Authority and the New State

Also on the rise in Western Europe was national identity, stimulated by the Hundred Years' War. The English and the French were looking more toward their king as a father figure, away from the Holy Father in Rome. France's king had gained politically with the numerous deaths of nobles during the war. There were now fewer local lords between the king and his subjects and fewer layers of authority: barons, earls, counts and knights. The expansion of the money economy had contributed to the breakdown of the old agricultural feudalism. Fiefdoms had been disappearing. Warring nobles were of the past. A new kind of state was developing. The king of France won the right to tax, judge and legislate for all inhabitants in his realm. Political power was becoming more centralized.

In England between 1455 and 1471 there was civil war between royal families, the Lancasters and the Yorks – the "War of the Roses." This was more of the usual wars concerning succession. Henry VI, king since, 33 in 1455, was enfeebled by insanity, and the two families were fighting for influence. Henry was captured by one family and then the other, the family having him in their possession claiming rule in his name. Henry was deposed in 1461 by a member of the York family, who became King Edward IV. In 1483 he was followed by his son, Edward V, who reigned a couple of months, followed by Richard III, the last of the York kings. In 1485 a member of the Lancaster family defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. (His bones, with marks from a violent death, were to be discovered during a parking lot excavation in August 2012.)

Henry Tudor, the only surviving male representing the House of Lancaster, became King Henry VII. He married Elizabeth of York, the leading Yorkist claimant to the throne. This union realigned the Yorks and the Lancasters, merging the red rose symbol of the Lancasters with the white rose symbol of the Yorks into a new red and white rose emblem of the Tudors. Henry VII strengthened his position by executing some who might be rivals claiming the throne (a policy that would be continued by his son, Henry VIII). Henry VII further strengthened his position by weakening the nobles through taxation.

The English people wanted order and an end to the disruptions and costs of warfare, and they supported strong central authority. Feudalism in England had come to an end.

In France, meanwhile, Charles VII (r 1403-61) had managed to reform the military, to pursue sound fiscal policies and encourage trade. He was succeeded by his son, Louis XI, who had been in revolt against his father since 1446. In 1477, he extended Valois authority to Burgundy, and in 1480 he wrested Anjou, Armagnac, and Provence (surrounding Marseille) from feudal rulers. His successor, Charles VIII married Ann of Brittany, adding Brittany to territory belonging to the French king. As historian Max Boot writes, "Charles VIII presided over the most powerful nation in Europe at a time when the very concept of a 'state' was just taking shape." note31

In Italy much wealth had been accumulated from commerce and trade, and city-states were controlled by wealthy merchants and bankers, while patriotism had remained local. Five powers dominated Italy: Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal states (in central Italy, including Rome) and Naples (which ruled the southern half of the peninsula). Competition for territory was intense, and an old worry appeared. There was worry that one state might become so powerful as to rule the others. So alliances were formed. Warring in Italy was continuous, including a war in 1450 between Venice and Milan, with an alliance between Florence, Naples and Milan on one side and Venice and the papacy on the other.

Cannon and Charles VIII to Italy

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII, then at odds with Ferdinand I of Naples, offered Naples to Charles VIII of France, who had a vague claim to the Kingdom of Naples through his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou.

Charles entered Italy with 25,000 men (including 8,000 Swiss mercenaries) in 1494 and marched across the peninsula, reaching Naples on 22 February 1495. France had around thirty-six of the latest in cannon. Borrowing techniques used in casting church bells, French cannons of molded bronze were lighter and could be moved around and transported more easily. And the French had better gunpowder and ammunition, cannon balls that went farther and hit harder than the stone shot of former times. Max Boot writes that "By the 1490s, smoothbore, muzzle-loading artillery had essentially reached the shape it would assume for the next 350 years." note32

The French army subdued Florence in passing and took Naples without a pitched battle or siege. Charles was crowned King of Naples. His cannon had frightened and made a big impression on the Italians. In the city-state of Florence, the Dominican friar Savonarola, known for his book burning and destruction of what he considered immoral art, believed that Charles VIII and his cannon were sent by God to purify the Florentines. He looked forward to Charles ousting sinners and making the city a center of morality appropriate for a restructured Catholic Church.

Instead, an anti-French coalition of powers, the League of Venice, arranged by Innocent's successor, Pope Alexander VI, drove Charles back to France. Charles wanted to rebuild his army and return to Italy, but he was now heavily in debt and couldn't afford it.

In Italy, Charles left behind concern about the nature of warfare in the mind of many including a Florentine named Machiavelli – his view more secular in its interpretation of events than Savonarola's. Savonarola, by the way, was later excommunicated by Pope Alexander, charged with heresy and executed.



Machiavelli, cropped portrait, painted by Santi di Tito in the second half of the 1500s.

Word had spread that walls and castles were no longer much of a defense. The world had noticed this when the Muslims finally broke down Constantinople's walls (with European cannon and cannoneers) in 1453.

Castles were on their way to becoming relics. Rulers saw that security would have to be provided by something more than stone walls, namely large standing armies and perhaps good alliances and a balance of power, which required diplomacy.

Addressing the art of diplomacy at the end of the1400s was Niccolò Machiavelli. William H McNeil describes him as "well educated in the humanist tradition." Machiavelli anticipated the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century – which contained views of events as of human origin rather than God-directed. Machiavelli believed that a ruler should be concerned not with how things ought to be but with how things are and that politics should be about empirical realities rather than religious faith. He was of the city of Florence and advised the ruler of Florence that there were bad people in the world and that his realm might have to contend with them other than with prayer and Christian love. As late as the twentieth century and perhaps the twenty-first, these views would earn him a reputation among a few people as an unprincipled schemer and a cynic.

Machiavelli claimed that a good ruler maintained permanent embassies in other lands and based his diplomacy on good information. His better known work, The Prince, was written in 1505 and published in 1515. Machiavelli was trying to win back his standing as a diplomat. It is believed that he wanted a new appointment from the Medici family, which ruled Florence. He urged a development similar to what had been taking place in France. An advanced princely state, claimed Machiavelli, needed a professional military rather than old seasonal mobilizations by knights. He saw rulers as needing the support of their subjects gaining in strength by political and other improvements. He wrote that a prince should act in the interest not just of himself but in the interest of his subjects, that a prince should create institutions that serve and evoke loyalty. Societies, he held, should be governed by laws rather than whim.

Machiavelli described the king of France as still "placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords ... and the king cannot take them away without danger to himself. " Machiavelli observed that Turkish rule in Constantinople was benefitting from a more centralized administration. Later in the 1500s France's monarchs would seek similar centralization at the expense of the landed aristocracy. note33


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