The Search for the Just Society

Edward J. Dodson


This lesson continues with the historical development of societal hierarchies, concentrating on Western civilization between the beginning of the Renaissance and the formation of the modern European nation-states. Included in the discussion is the role of the Italian city-states versus the central and northern European feudal states and the changes in socio-political arrangements that accompanied the gradual dissolution of the manor system and feudalism.


In conjunction with the Crusades the merchants of the coastal cities of the eastern and northern Italian peninsula became suppliers to the armies of Christian Europe. Spices, tapestries and other goods came west in the trade. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Greek scholars also migrated to Italy, bringing with them the ancient manuscripts of Greek philosophers and scientists.


The prosperity of Venice, Genoa and other Italian cities built cosmopolitan centers of culture. Religious scholars, such as Petrarch, scoured the churches of Italy for ancient Latin manuscripts, bringing them together for translation and study in new universities and libraries established by these humanist intellectuals.

The works of Aristotle were first made available to Europeans from translations by Moslem scholars. With the resurrection of interest in ancient Latin and Greek, the works of Plato, Cicero and Virgil (among others) became increasingly available to European scholars -- stimulating discussion, debate and eventually the questioning of not only conventional wisdoms but of the ancient philosophies themselves.

By the early fifteenth century, the manor system was breaking down in central and northern Europe. The privatization of landed property eroded the feudal ties between manor lord and producers, and the rough balance of power between individual lords fell victim to advances in armaments, new military tactics and the expanded use of coinage and merchant banking activities (bills of exchange, etc.).


As the Age of Exploration began in the fifteenth century, Portugal and Spain were the first states to emerge out of feudalism. One of the reasons for this was that the Christian princes had to forge alliances with one another to drive the Moslem Moors out of the Iberian peninsula.

Throughout the fifteenth century Portugal sent expeditions down the western coast of Africa in search of markets and a route to India and Asia. They reached the Azores in the Atlantic and eventually reached China and Japan.

The feudal kingdoms of Aragon and Castille were united by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, who eventually sponsored the voyages of Columbus in an effort to find a new route to the East by heading west.

The pope sanctioned the Spanish and Portuguese empires by dividing all of the non-Christian world into two spheres of influence assigned to either Spain or Portugal. This served to create animosity toward papal authority on the part of the English, French and Dutch.


In central Europe, the German princes forged a loose confederation, taking the name of the Holy Roman empire and electing one prince as Emperor. By electing the emperor, the individual princes made sure the emperor remained relatively weak and could not challenge their own independence and power. This kept Germany from becoming a true nation-state until the late nineteenth century.

Resistance to papal authority and a desire to reduce Roman Catholic Church holdings in their territories brought many German princes to Protestantism and to support of Martin Luther.


The Normans remained powerful in western Europe between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. In 1066 the Normans invaded and conquered the Angles, Saxons and the various Celtic tribes (of Wales) who had dominated England since the withdrawal of the Romans. As the strength of the French kings of central France increased, Norman territory was gradually ceded.

Repeated wars were fought by Anglo-Norman kings to recover lost territory on the European continent.

The Burgundian kingdom separated France from the Holy Roman empire, and was periodically allied with the Normans against the French. Over several centuries of warfare, Burgundian territory was also ceded to the French.

By the early thirteenth century, the Normans had intermarried with the Angles and Saxons of England and the Celtic tribes of Wales. Thus, a wholly new people, the English, emerged whose ties to the Norman-French were greatly reduced; the ambitions of English kings continued to include a reclaiming of their ancient lands on the continent, but not as a principle of reuniting a separated people.

The Anglo-Norman king, John, was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 partly because he tried to force the English lords to provide money and soldiers so he could conduct a war against the French king to regain Norman territory on the continent. From this point on, the English retreated from their aspirations to become a land power and by the reign of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century Britain was beginning to build a strong navy. Explain that the use of term Britain at this point in history refers to the union of England and Wales only. Neither Scotland nor Ireland were as yet part of the British empire; and were, in fact, at war with Britain on a rather continuous basis to gain or regain sovereignty.


Spain and Portugal became the strongest supporters of Roman Catholicism; yet, even the Spanish monarchs were at times at odds with papal authority. Renaissance writers had also increasingly challenged Church doctrine as being in conflict with original Christian teachings. Evidence of this was provided by discovery and translations of Latin documents from the early era of the Christian church.

Many widely-accepted documents attributed to the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. were found to be forgeries based on the type of Latin used.

Challenges to Church orthodoxy and practices reached a climax in the early sixteenth century with the teachings of John Calvin and Martin Luther. The intent of these Protestant leaders was to cleanse the Church of its corruptions; and, although they initially preached the virtues of peaceful change, both Calvin and Luther eventually forged alliances with German princes to forceably achieve their objectives.

The conflict between Catholics and Protestants erupted in war and persecution in France, where the Hugenots were driven to The Netherlands (and England) to escape religious intolerance.

For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the question of whether Roman Catholicism or some form of Protestantism would be the state religion was integral to the building of nation-states and alliances between the nation-states of Europe.


For most of the reign of Henry VIII, England was a Catholic state and at least nominally under the influence of the pope in Rome. Henry's queen, Catherine of Aragon was Spanish and devoutly Catholic. When, after more than twenty years of marriage, she produced only a daughter (Mary), Henry sought to divorce her. Philip of Spain intervened with the pope, and Henry's petition was denied.

Henry took the desperate action of having Parliament declare the Church of England independent of papal authority. The English church approved the divorce, and Henry was ex-communicated by the pope.>

Henry's break with the pope brought important changes to England. Henry confiscated the lands of the Catholic monasteries and redistributed them to lords who declared their loyality to him and the new church. In all ways other than subordination to papal authority, however, Henry's Church of England remained Catholic; it was not his intent to open England to Protestantism. o Within England, however, Protestant factions worked for further reform of the Church. After the death of Henry VIII, this element grew in power and influence. o Henry did finally have a son by his third wife, Jayne Seymour. His son assumed the throne as Edward VI and reigned until 1553, when he died after a short illness. Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, became queen and attempted to restore Catholicism as the state religion; in 1554 she married Philip II of Spain and committed England to an alliance with Spain.

Mary died in 1558, bringing Elizabeth I (daughter of Anne Boleyn) to the throne. Elizabeth supported the Protestants of Scotland in a war against Scottish Catholics and eventually executed the exiled Catholic queen, Mary Stuart, for treason. o Elizabeth I united the various factions (Catholic and Protestant, landed and merchant) under a banner of nationalism. Her empty treasury was gradually filled by excursions by Francis Drake, John Hawkins and other privateers against Spanish shipping and colonial outposts.


On the basis of his marriage to Queen Mary, Philip II of Spain now claimed the English throne as his own and in 1588 sent his ships north to invade England. The English privateers under Hawkins and Drake prevented the Spaniards from landing, and the Armada lost half its ships and men off the Scottish and Irish coasts.

A second Armada was dispatched in 1597 with equally disastrous results (although this time the English fleet was away and only the weather saved England from invasion; afterward, Elizabeth kept the fleet at home for the remainder of her reign.


Elizabeth I died in 1603, leaving no heir. James VI of Scotland (son of the executed queen) then became King of all the British Isles.

As king, James attempted to regain powers his predecessors had relinquished to Parliament; in this he was defended by Francis Bacon, who viewed the king as the sole protector of the rights of the people. Resistance against James grew after he secretly negotiated with Spain and had Sir Walter Ralegh executed at Spain's insistence for piracy. James was succeeded in 1625 by his son, Charles I in the midst of the Thirty Years' War. Charles was trying to raise funds for the war but was opposed by Parliament, which he dissolved and attempted to rule on his own. In 1639 the Scots marched against Charles and declared themselves once again independent. Civil war then erupted in England.


In 1645, the Roundhead army officer, Oliver Cromwell, was given command of the anti-Royalist forces. Charles sought refuge in Scotland and the army eventually occupied London, calling for important reforms, including the election of a new Parliament on the basis of popular vote and wider manhood suffrage. Chaos operated until Oliver Cromwell returned from Ireland, where he had crushed all resistance, and took over as Lord Protector of the new Commonwealth. Yet, despite adoption of a written constitution, Cromwell ruled without a Parliament until his death in 1658.


Neither the aristocracy nor the people of England were ready for a constitutional democracy. Charles I's son was invited back to England and was crowned king and the House of Lords was restored. Under Cromwell, England initiated an era of protectionism, primarily against the Dutch. He expanded the royal navy, which scored impressive victories against the Dutch and Spanish; yet, these adventures contributed to a rising national debt. With Charles II on the throne in 1660, the army was disbanded and a degree of religious tolerance returned to England (and Ireland).

By the mid 1660s, however, England was again at war with the Dutch and French, plague swept through London and the Great Fire destroyed much of ancient London. At this juncture, Charles II entered into a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France (in which Louis agreed to provide troops to Charles to support re-establishment of Catholicism in England). Protestants began a purge of Catholics in Britain and a plot against Charles II failed. Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother, James. James (James II) attempted to raise Catholics to key positions in the government and was opposed by Parliament, which he dissolved. Protestant Whig; leaders then began negotiations with William of Orange to come to England at the head of a multi-national Protestant army. In October 1688 William landed in England and James sought protection in France.


England vs. Other Continental Powers

The characteristics of the British Isles and the development of socio-political institutions there versus that of Spain, Portugal, France, etc. played a crucial role in the future of North America.

The continental powers were developing along centralized schemes of power in their monarchies. In Britain, the power of the monarchy was increasingly limited. Power was shifting first to hereditary landed interests and then expanded to include those who gained landed property by means of joint-stock company ventures, merchant banking and commerce.

At the same time the enclosures were driving peasants off the land and into the cities, many migrated to the expanding ports. Here, a much freer society evolved. Establishment of businesses in colonial ports distant from the reach of government also created the need for agreements based not on coercion but on voluntary association.


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