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The Age of Discovery

The Age of Discovery was actually preceded by an earlier period in which western Europeans discovered far more about the world and which laid the foundations for the Age of Discovery that was to come. This occurred in the second half of the Middle Ages, beginning with the discovery of Iceland in the mid Ninth Century. The Age of Exploration was built on an earlier exploratory age in the Middle Ages.

The first Medieval precursor to the Age of Discovery was to the west - the Norse expansion across the north Atlantic. The Vikings had spent centuries perfecting a variety of highly efficient clinker-built, open ships capable of not simply hugging the coastline or making short voyages across relatively calm seas, like Greek and Roman vessels, but also striking out across deep ocean. Viking sailors developed a knowledge of the currents and conditions in the north Atlantic over centuries of trading, raiding and settling from England and Ireland to further afield to north Scotland, the Orkneys and the Faroes.

Ocean-going Viking ships could tack against the wind and Viking navigators developed techniques for position estimation during days of voyaging far out of sight of land. The first landfall on Iceland was accidental, with a Faroese Viking called Naddoðr who was sailing from Norway to the Faroes overshot the islands and ended up on the east coast of a new land he called "Snowland". The first permanent settlers on what came to be called Iceland landed in 874, though it seems there had been Irish monks living there previously.

In around 930 AD Gunnbjørn Ulfsson was blown off course on a voyage west of Iceland and sighted a rocky coastline to the west he named "Gunnbjarnarsker" (Gunnbjørn's skerries. In 978 AD Snæbjörn Galti sailed west to investiage the coast Gunnbjørn had reported and became the first European to land on Greenland. In 982 AD Eirikr Þorvaldsson, known as Erik the Red, was exiled from Iceland and decided to make a settlement in southern Greenland, becoming the first permanent settler there. He gave it the name "Greenland" to make it more attractive to settlers and at its peak, Viking Greenland had an estimated 2000-4000 inhabitants, around 400 farms, 12 churches, a cathedral and two monasteries. Later Medieval changes in climate made the settlements less and less viable and they collapsed and vanished sometime in the Fifteenth Century.

In 985 AD history repeated itself again and Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course on a voyage from Iceland to Greenland. Three days sail west of Greenland he sighted land to the west which looked forested. Bjarni was keen to find his parents in Greenland and turned back without exploring this new coast further, but it is now known to have been the coast of Newfoundland and the first European sighting of North America.

Erik the Red's son Leifr Eiríksson sailed to explore the coast Bjarni had sighted and wintered on what is now the northern tip of Newfoundland in 1001 AD. Around nine years later Þorfinnr Karlsefni made a settlement in what the Vikings called Vinland (Newfoundland and Labrador) with around 160 settlers. They had several encounters with the native American inhabitants, some friendly and some hostile, but the settlement was short-term - largely to hunt for furs and gather much needed timber - and never became permanent colonies, possibly because of the hostile natives. Modern archaeology has established that this kind of short-term Viking influence along the coast from Newfoundland to Maine contiued into the late Eleventh Century at least.

When Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in 1098 AD, the average western European's grasp of geography was minimal and even learned men's understanding was based on fairly vague information from Roman era encyclopaedias. It was believed that there were three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa - and that the equator was impassible due to increasing heat in the Tropic of Cancer as you travelled south. Contrary to modern myths, people did not believe the earth was flat but knowledge of the world to the east was based largely on some accounts of Alexander the Great's campaigns and a lot of very fanciful information from works like Pliny the Elder's Natural History. In the absence of better information, Pliny's accounts of races of dogheaded Cynocephali in the east along with the headless Blemmyae and the one-footed Scipodae were still considered scientific.

With the success of the First Crusade and the establishment of Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East, western Europe suddenly came into much closer contact with the rest of the world. Crusaders and pilgrims were followed by merchants, who were keen to take advantage of the appetite for eastern silks, velvets and spices the Crusaders brought back to Europe. "Frankish" trade communities were established in the port cities of the Crusader kingdoms but also further east and in the trading cities around the Black Sea, such as Trebizond. It was not long before entrepreneurial merchants, most Italians, were venturing much further east and for the first time in centuries Europeans were exploring central and eastern Asia.

Rumours about the Mongol Empire had long been current in Europe, mainly in the form of the legendary kingdom of "Prester John", who was said to be a mighty Christian ruler in the far east who was keen to unite with the Christians of Europe against their common Muslim enemies. The reality of the Mongols became much more apparent in the punitive raids on Hungary and Poland by two Mongol armies in 1240-41 AD which resulted in several crushing defeats of European forces and with the Mongols advancing as far west as Croatia.

Alarmed by this sudden incursion by a previously unknown and powerful pagan army, Pope Innocent IV dispatched several diplomatic missions to the Mongols. The first two were to Tabriz, in modern Azerbaijan, where letters from the Pope to the Great Khan were delivered to Baiju Khan. But the most important diplomatic mission was to the Great Khan in Karakorum in what is now modern Mongolia's Övörkhangai Province. This massive journey of many months and thousands of miles, the first such journey of discovery in many centuries, was undertaken by the Franciscan friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine. Del Carpine was not hugely successful as a diplomat (a copy of Güyük Khan's haughty reply to the Pope is preserved in the Vatican Archives), but his descriptions of the lands he travelled through and the peoples he encountered are detailed and accurate and sparked great interest in the far east amongst many western Europeans.

Del Carpine's journey was followed not long afterwards by a similar epic exploration by another Franciscan, the Fleming William of Rubruck. Rubruck's intention was to convert the Mongols to Christianity. Leaving Constantinople in May 1253, he traveled through the Crimea to the Don where he met Sartaq Khan, who sent him on to the Volga to meet Batu Khan at Sarai in modrern Russia. From there he was sent on to the Mongol capital at Karakorum where he met the new Great Khan Möngke. Interestingly, Rubruck met several other western Europeans already in Karakorum, including a nephew of an English bishop and French silversmith. While the detailed accounts of the journeys by Del Carpine and Rubruck are the first such documents we have, obviously other travellers were making these kinds of journeys already.

The Crusades sparked a taste for eastern luxuries that merchants from across Europe, particuarly the Italian city states, rushed to help fill. There was, therefore, a clear incentive to cut out the middle men in the silk and spice trade and set up merchant missions in central Asia and the far east as a way of maximising profits. Journeys by the Papal diplomats and the missionaries who followed them showed that the road to the east was open thanks to the network of roads and caravan routes maintained by the Mongol Empire and as early as the 1250s Medieval European merchants were making their way as far east as China. While Marco Polo is a household name, he was predeeded by his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, who first arrived in China in 1261. Other Italian and French merchants followed and by 1335 the merchants' guidebook, the Pratica della mercatura by the Florentine merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, described the route from the Sea of Azov to Beijing as a regular established route for European merchants. By the mid Fourteenth Century the western European community in Beijing was so large it was granted its own Archbishop.

Europeans in China became aware of a world beyond even the furthest extent of Asia. Marco Polo described Japan though never visited it. But Medieval European explorers ventured as far afield as Sri Lanka, Sumatra and even as far as Java in search of spices and other tradable goods. In 1318 Odoric of Pordenone sailed from the Persian Gulf to India, then on to Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Java and Borneo before turning north to China. He returned to Europe overland, apparently going via Tibet.

These travellers debunked the Roman idea that the equator could not be crossed, since they were able to calculate latitude accurately and knew when they had crossed it. These Medieval travellers and explorers established a far more accurate understanding of the world beyond the Mediterranean than the Greeks and Romans ever had and books about the far east and travellers stories like the Travels of Sir John Mandeville became popular in Medieval Europe.

Viking maritime technology made voyages as far as North American possible for the first time. Viking ships influenced other ship designs in the North Sea and Baltic and the cog became one descendant of the earlier Viking knorr that made long voyaging with heavy cargoes possible. Cogs were distinctive in that they made use of a Medieval maritime innovation - the stern-mounted rudder. This allowed the steering of a much larger ship and overcame the limitations on size caused by the earlier side mounted external steering oar. Cogs gave way to the even larger hulks or holks which in turn gave rise to the carrack and the caravel. With the development of these versatile ocean-going ships in Medieval Portugal, Europeans were finally equipped to begin maritime exploration.

European exploration south along the coast of Africa was effectively blocked by Muslim control of Gibraltar and north Africa, though several windows of opportunity seem to have been exploited by intrepid European merchants. In 1291 the Genoese brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar with the aim of sailing around Africa to India. The length of the voyage was clearly beyond the means of their Italian galleys and they never returned. Similarly, in 1346 a Catalan, Jaime Ferrer, sailed from Majorca with the aim of reaching the fabled "river of gold" on the west coast of Africa, and also never came back.

But in the early Fourteenth Century Portuguese and Spanish sailors were able to show their newer style of ships were capable of ocean voyages of discovery - they rediscovered the Canary Islands in c. 1270 and then discovered the Madeira and the Azores in 1341.

Europeans had long since known of Africa as a rich source of gold and the ill-fated attempt to sail to India via the cape of Africa by the Vivaldis shows that this possibility was well known as well. The new caravels of the Portuguese allowed Bartolomeu Dias to sail to the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 10 years later Vasco da Gama was the first to sail from there to India.

So the Age of Exploration did not spring into being out of "thousands of years" of ignorance about the outside world. It was the result of hundreds of years of Medieval curiosity about the outside world and Medieval journeys of exploration, trade, diplomacy and religious mission. The Crusades made Europeans more curious about the rest of the world than the Greeks and Romans had been and gave them a taste for exotic spices, jewels and fabrics. This in turn opened a market for these items that inspired merchants to follow in the footsteps of diplomats and missionaries to China and beyond. But it was the Mongol Empire that made these journeys possible and its break up and the closure of Ming China to foreign influences led to Europeans looking to other routes to the east.

That's what inspired the voyages of Henry the Navigator's captains and it's also what gave Christopher Columbus his incentive to sail west. With Vasco da Gama and Columbus the real Age of Exploration began, thanks to Medieval innovations in maritime technology. The Age of Exploration had Medieval roots.



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