The Search for the Just Society
Edward J. Dodson
INSTRUCTOR'S MANUAL, LESSON 3
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
BEGINNINGS OF THE RENAISSANCE
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
EXPANSION TO THE NORTH
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
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
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.).
THE FIRST NATION-STATES
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
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
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
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 NORMAN KINGDOM
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
Many widely-accepted documents attributed to the 3rd and 4th
centuries A.D. were found to be forgeries based on the type of Latin
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
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.
HENRY VIIIs ENGLAND
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.
THE SPANISH ARMADA
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.
A UNITED BRITISH ISLES
Elizabeth I died in 1603, leaving no heir. James VI of Scotland
(son of the executed queen) then became King of all the British
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.
OLIVER CROMWELL AND
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.
KEY POINTS OF DEPARTURE
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.