by  Winston  Churchill


The Round World

WE have now reached the dawn of what is called the sixteenth century, which means all the years in the hundred years that begin with fifteen. The name is inevitable in English, but confusing. It covers a period in which extraordinary changes affected the whole of Europe. Some had been on the move for a long time, but sprang into full operative force at this moment. For two hundred years or more the Renaissance had been stirring the thought and spirit of Italy, and now came forth in the vivid revival of the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, in so far as these did not affect the foundations of the Christian faith. The Popes had in the meanwhile become temporal rulers, with the lusts and pomps of other potentates, yet they claimed to carry with them the spiritual power as well. 

The revenues of the Church were swelled by the sale of "Indulgences" to remit Purgatory both for the living and the dead. The offices of bishop and cardinal were bought and sold, and the common people taxed to the limit of their credulity. These and other abuses in the organisation of the Church were widely recognised and much resented, but as yet they went uncorrected.

At the same time literature, philosophy, and art flowered under classical inspiration, and the minds of men to whom study was open were refreshed and enlarged. These were the humanists, who attempted a reconciliation of classical and Christian teachings, among the foremost of whom was Erasmus of Rotterdam. To him is due a considerable part of the credit for bringing Renaissance thought to England.

 Printing enabled knowledge and argument to flow through the many religious societies which made up the structure of medieval Europe, and from about 1450 onwards printing presses formed the core of a vast ever-growing domain. There were already sixty universities in the Western world, from Lisbon to Prague, and in the early part of the new century these voluntarily opened up broader paths of study and intercourse which rendered their life more fertile and informal. In the Middle Ages education had largely been confined to training the clergy; now it was steadily extended, and its purpose became to turn out not only priests but lay scholars and well-informed gentlemen.

The man of many parts and accomplishments became the Renaissance ideal.

This quickening of the human spirit was accompanied by a  questioning of long-held theories. For the first time in the course of the fifteenth century men began to refer to the preceding millennium as the Middle Ages. Though much that was medieval survived in their minds, men felt they were living on the brink of a new and modern age. It was an age marked not only by splendid achievements in art and architecture, but also by the beginnings of a revolution in science associated with the name of Copernicus. That the earth moved round the sun, as he conclusively proved and Galileo later asserted on a celebrated' occasion, was a novel idea that was to have profound effects upon the human outlook. Hitherto the earth had been thought of as the centre of a universe all designed to serve the needs of man. Now vast new perspectives were opening.

The urge to inquire, to debate, and seek new explanations spread from the field of classical learning into that of religious studies. Greek and even Hebrew texts, as well as Latin, were scrutinised afresh. Inevitably this led to the questioning of accepted religious beliefs. The Renaissance bred the Reformation. In 1517, at the age of thirty-four, Martin Luther, a German priest, denounced the sale of Indulgences, nailed his theses on this and other matters on the door of Wittenberg Castle church, and embarked on his venturesome intellectual foray with the Pope. What began as a protest against Church practices soon became a challenge to Church doctrine. In this struggle Luther displayed qualities of determination and conviction at the peril of the stake which won him his name and fame. He started or gave an impulse to a movement which within a decade swamped the Continent, and proudly bears the general title of the Reformation. It took different forms in different countries, particularly in Switzerland under Zwingli and Calvin. The latter's influence spread from Geneva across France to the Netherlands and Britain, where it was most strongly felt in Scotland.

There are many varieties of Luther's doctrine, but he himself adhered rigorously to the principle of "salvation by faith, not works." This meant that to lead a good and upright life on earth, as many pagans had done, was no guarantee of eternal bliss. Belief in the Christian revelation was vital. The words of Holy Writ and the promptings of individual conscience, not Papal authority, were Luther's guiding lights. He himself believed in predestination. Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden because Almighty God made him do so. Hence the original sin of man. About one tenth of the human race might escape or have escaped consequential eternal damnation in the intervening years. All monks and nuns alike were however entitled to console themselves by getting married. Luther himself set the example by marrying a fugitive nun when he was forty, and lived happily ever after.


The Reformation affected every .country in Europe, but none more than Germany. Luther's movement appealed to the nationalism of the German people who were restive under the exactions of Rome. He gave them a translation of the Bible of which they have remained rightly proud. He also gave the German princes the opportunity to help themselves to Church property. His teachings in the hands of extremists led to a social war in Southern Germany, in which scores of thousands of people perished. Luther himself was passionately on the opposite side to the masses he had inflamed. Though he had used in the coarsest terms the language which roused the mob he did not hesitate to turn on them when they responded. He would go to all lengths to fight the Pope on doctrinal issues, but the oppressed multitude who gave him his strength did not make effective appeal to him. He called them "pigs," and grosser names, and rebuked the "overlords," as he described the aristocracy and well-to-do governing powers, for their slackness in repressing the Peasants' Rebellion.


Heresies there had always been, and over the centuries feeling against the Church had often run strong in almost every country of Europe. But the schism that had begun with Luther was novel and formidable. All the actors in it, the enemies and the defenders of Rome alike, were still deeply influenced by medieval views. They thought of themselves as restorers of the purer ways of ancient times and of the early Church. But the Reformation added to the confusion and uncertainty of an age in which men and states were tugging unwillingly and unwittingly at the anchors that had so long held Europe.

After a period of ecclesiastical strife between the Papacy and the Reformation, Protestantism was established over a great part of the Continent under a variety of sects and schools, of which Lutheranism covered the larger area. The Church in Rome, strengthened by the heart-searching Catholic revival known as the Counter-Reformation and in the more worldly sphere by the activities of the Inquisition, proved able to maintain itself through a long series of religious wars. The division between the assailants and defenders of the old order threatened the stability of every state in modern Europe and wrecked the unity of some. England and France came out of the struggle scarred and shaken but in themselves united. A new barrier was created between Ireland and England, a new bond of unity forged between England and Scotland. The Holy Roman Empire of the German people dissolved into a dust of principalities and cities; the Netherlands split into what we now know as Holland and Belgium. Dynasties were threatened, old loyalties forsworn. By the middle of the century the Calvinists were the spearhead of the Protestant attack, the Jesuits the shield and sword of Catholic defense and counterattack. Not for another hundred years would exhaustion and resignation put an end to the revolution that began with Luther. It ended only after Central Europe had been wrecked by the Thirty Years War, and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 terminated a struggle whose starting-point had been almost forgotten. It was not until the nineteenth century that a greater sense of toleration based upon mutual reverence and respect ruled the souls of men throughout the Christian world.


A well-known Victorian divine and lecturer, Charles Beard, in the 1880's poses some blunt questions.

Was, then, the Reformation, from the intellectual point of view, a failure? Did it break one yoke only to impose another? We are obliged to confess that, especially in Germany, it soon parted company with free learning; that it turned its back upon culture, that it lost itself in a maze of arid theological controversy, that it held out no hand of welcome to awakening science. Even at a later time it has been the divines who have most loudly declared their allegiance to the theology of the Reformation who have also looked most askance at science, and claimed for their statements an entire independence of modern knowledge. I do not know how, on any ordinary theory of the Reformation, it is possible to answer the accusations implied in these facts. The most learned, the pro-foundest, the most tolerant of modern theologians, would be the most reluctant to accept in their fullness the systems of Melancthon and of Calvin. . . . The fact is, that while the services which the Reformers rendered to truth and liberty by their revolt against the unbroken supremacy of medieval Christianity cannot be overestimated, it was impossible for them to settle the questions which they raised. Not merely did the necessary knowledge fail them, but they did not even see the scope of the controversies in which they were engaged. It was their part to open the flood-gates; and the stream, in spite of their well-meant efforts to check and confine it, has since rushed impetuously on, now destroying old landmarks, now fertilising new fields, but always bringing with it life and refreshment. To look at the Reformation by itself, to judge it only by its theological and ecclesiastical development, is to pronounce it a failure; to consider it as part of a general movement of European thought, to show its essential connection with ripening scholarship and advancing science, to prove its necessary alliance with liberty, to illustrate its slow growth into toleration, is at once to vindicate its past and to promise it the future.1

While the forces of Renaissance and Reformation were gathering strength in Europe the world beyond was ceaselessly yielding its secrets to European explorers, traders, and missionaries. From the days of the ancient Greeks some men had known in theory that the world was round. Now in the sixteenth century navigations were to prove it so. The story goes back a long way. In medieval times travellers from Europe had turned their steps to the East, their imagination fired with tales of fabulous kingdoms and wealth lying in regions which had seen the birth of man—stories of the realm of Prester John, variously placed between Central Asia and the modern Abyssinia, and the later, more practical account of the travels of Marco Polo from Venice to China. But Asia too was marching against the West. At one moment it had seemed as if all Europe would succumb to a terrible menace looming up from the East. Heathen Mongol hordes from the heart of Asia, formidable horsemen armed with bows, had rapidly swept over Russia, Poland, Hungary, and in 1241 inflicted simultaneous crushing defeats upon the Germans near Breslau and upon European chivalry near Budapest. Germany and Austria at least lay at their mercy. Providentially in this year the Great Khan died in Mongolia; the Mongol leaders hastened back the thousands of miles to Karakorum, their capital, to elect his successor, and Western Europe escaped.

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been unceasing battle between Christian and infidel on the borders of Eastern and southern Europe. The people of the frontiers lived in constant terror, the infidel steadily advanced, and in 1453 Constantinople had been captured by the Ottoman Turks. Dangers

1 The Reformation of the Sixteenth

 Century, by C. Beard (1927 edition), pp.


of the gravest kind now jarred and threatened the wealth and economy of Christian Europe. The destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor imperilled the land route to the East. The road which had nourished the towns and cities of the Mediterranean and founded the fortunes and the greatness of the Genoese and" the Venetians was now barred. The turmoil spread eastwards, and though the Turks wanted to preserve their trade with Europe for the sake of the tolls they levied, commerce and travel became more and more unsafe.

Italian geographers and navigators had for some time been trying to find a new sea-route to the Orient which would be unhampered by the infidel, but although they had much experience of shipbuilding and navigation from the busy traffic of the Eastern Mediterranean they lacked the capital resources for the hazard of oceanic exploration. Portugal was the first to discover a new path. Helped by English Crusaders, she had achieved her independence in the twelfth century, gradually expelled the Moors from her mainland, and now reached out to the African coastline. Prince Henry the Navigator, grandson of John of Gaunt, had initiated a number of enterprises. Exploring began from Lisbon. All through the later fifteenth century Portuguese mariners had been pushing down the west coast of Africa, seeking for gold and slaves, slowly extending the bounds of the known world, till, in 1487, Bartholomew Diaz rounded the great promontory that marked the end of the African continent. He called it "the Cape of Storms," but the King of Portugal with true insight renamed it "the Cape of Good Hope." The hope was justified; in 1498 Vasco da Gama dropped anchor in the harbour of Calicut; the sea-route was open to the wealth of India and the Farther East.

An event of greater moment for the future of the world was meanwhile taking shape in the mind of a Genoese named Christopher Columbus. Brooding over the dreamlike maps of his fellow-countrymen, he conceived a plan for sailing due west into the Atlantic beyond the known islands in search of yet another route to the East. He married the daughter of a Portuguese sailor who had served with the Navigator, and from his father-in-law's papers he learnt of the great oceanic ventures. In 1486 he sent his brother Bartholomew to seek English backing for the enterprise. Bartholomew was captured by pirates off the French coast, and when he finally arrived in England and won the notice of Henry Tudor, the new King, it was too late. Christopher however had gathered the support of the joint Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, and under their patronage in 1492 he set sail into the unknown from Palos, in Andalusia. After a voyage of three months he made landfall in one of the islands of the Bahamas. Unwittingly he had discovered, not a new route to the East, but a new continent in the West, soon to be called America.

It was nearly a hundred years before England began to exert her potential sea-power. Her achievements during this period were by comparison meagre. The merchants of Bristol tried to seek a north-west passage beyond the Atlantic to the Far East, but they had little success or encouragement. Their colleagues in London and Eastern England were more concerned with the solid profits from trade with the Netherlands. Henry Tudor however appreciated private enterprise provided it did not involve him in disputes with Spain. He financed an expedition by John Cabot, who was a Genoese like Columbus and lived in Bristol. In 1497 Cabot struck land near Cape Breton Island. But there was little prospect of trade, and an immense forbidding continent seemed to block further advance. On a second voyage Cabot sailed down the coast of America in the direction of Florida, but this was too near the region of Spanish efforts. Upon Cabot's death the cautious Henry abandoned his Atlantic enterprise.

The arrival of the Spaniards in the New World, and their discovery of precious metals, had led them into wordy conflict with the Portuguese. As one of the motives of both countries was the spreading of the Christian faith, into undiscovered heathen lands they appealed to the Pope, in whose hands the gift of new countries was at this time conceived to lie. By a series of Bulls in the 1490's the Borgia Pope Alexander VI drew a line across the world dividing the Spanish and Portuguese spheres. This remarkable dispensation stimulated the conclusion of a treaty between Spain and Portugal. A north-south line 370 leagues west of the Azores was agreed upon, and the Portuguese felt entitled to occupy Brazil.

Although the Portuguese were first in the field of oceanic adventure their country was too small to sustain such efforts. It is said that half the population of Portugal died in trying to hold their overseas possessions. Spain soon overtook them. In the year of Columbus's first voyage, Granada, the only Moorish city which survived on Spanish soil, had fallen to the last great Crusading army of the Middle Ages. Henceforward the Spaniards were free to turn their energies to the New World. In less than a generation a Portuguese captain, in Spanish pay, Magellan, set out on the voyage to South America and across the Pacific that was to take his ship round the globe. Magellan was killed in the Philippines, but his chief officer brought his ship home round the Cape of Good Hope. 

The scattered civilisations of the world were being drawn together, and the new discoveries were to give the little kingdom in the northern sea a fresh importance. Here was to be the successor of both of Portugal and Spain, though the time for entering into the inheritance was not yet. But now the spices of the East were travelling by sea to the European market at Antwerp. The whole course of trade was shifted and revolutionised. The overland route languished; the primacy of the Italian cities was eclipsed by North-West Europe; and the future lay not in the Mediterranean, but on the shores of the Atlantic, where the new Powers, England, France, and Holland, had ports and harbours which gave easy access to the oceans.

The wealth of the New World soon affected the old order in Europe. In the first half of the sixteenth century Cortes overcame the Aztec empire of Mexico and Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru. The vast mineral treasures of these lands now began to pour across the Atlantic. By channels which multiplied gold and silver flowed into Europe. So did new commodities, tobacco, potatoes, and American sugar. The old continent to which these new riches came was itself undergoing a transformation. After a long halt its population was again growing and production on the farms and in the workshops was expanding. There was. a widespread demand for more money to pay for new expeditions, new buildings, new enterprises, and new methods of government. 

The manipulation of finance was little understood either by rulers or by the mass of the people, and the first recourse of impoverished princes was to debase their currency. Prices therefore rose sharply, and when Luther posted his theses at Wittenberg the value of money was already rapidly falling. Under the  impulse   of American  silver there now swept across the Continent a series of inflationary waves unparalleled until the twentieth century. The old world of landlords and peasants found it harder to carry on, and throughout Europe a new force gathered influence and honour with the overlords and began to exert its power. For merchants, traders, and bankers it was an age of opportunity. Most famous among them perhaps was the Fugger family of Germany, who gained a graceful reputation by placing their immense wealth at the service of Renaissance art. On their financial resourcefulness both Popes and Emperors at one time depended.

As ever in times of rapid inflation, there was much hardship and many difficulties in adjustment. But a strong sensation of new growth and well-being abounded, and ultimately every class benefited by the general amelioration. For a world which, a century before, had lost perhaps a third of its population by the Black Death there was a wonderful stimulus of mind and body. Men were groping their way into a larger age, with a freer interchange of more goods and services and with far greater numbers taking an effective part. 

The New World had opened its spacious doors, not only geographically by adding North and South America as places for Europe to live in, but by enlarging its whole way of life and outlook and the uses it could make of all it had.