“No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.
– William Occam, c. 1320.

To talk about Columbus in 1492, and the history of America in the next 200 years, it may be useful to remember that we are the sum of all of our parts. That means, it may help to get a grasp on where Columbus and those who followed were from, their countries, their leaders, their religion.

All of this can be summed up in a few words: Kings, Queens, and Popes; famine, plague, and war.

Europe might not be hardly recognizable by today’s map makers. Many of the countries we blithely refer to as “England” and “France” were disconnected and dysfunctional. Several plagues had decimated families, cities, towns, villages. Forests were being burned and cut at a ridiculous rate to make ships and weapons for a rediculous number of wars. Soil was badly eroded and poor. Crops failed, starvation was common-place. The Crusades of only a couple of centuries before had taken terrible tolls on populations and economies. The 15th was the century when Joan of Arc got screwed both ways by Pope and King alike.

Let’s take a look.

1439 – Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invents the first printing press that utilizes movable type. This is the most important invention in the history of mankind and sets the stage for more inventions, discoveries, revolutions, and conquests until this day.

SPAIN – Columbus was working for his Castillian Queen, Isabella. Actually, she wasn’t his queen. He was from Genoa but the action was in Spain (Castille and Aragon would soon merge into what is now the greater part of Spain). Spain was also feeling its oats, having just ousted the last of the Moors (Muslims) from its shores. While this was great for PR, the royal treasury was really feeling the strain. Burning, exiling, and harassing the country’s Jewish population also didn’t help.

ENGLAND – ruled by Henry VII, the VIII’s dad. Not much was going on, but it should be noted that Henry VII really liked the Spaniards. That’s an important footnote in history. He invaded France, or at least that part known as the Pas de Calais on the coast. Of course, his son, the aforementioned Henry VIII would go on to really screw up England, which, blessedly, we’re not going to spend a great deal of time here, except to note that his break with the Catholic Church was not a definitive schism: his wishy-washiness (“What’s the difference between a conservative and a reformer? Got me!”) led to all sorts of confusion, oppression, and brutality. Thousands died horrible, bloody deaths from burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, crucifixion and hangings.

FRANCE – ruled by Charles VIII, who succeed his father, Louis XI. France wasn’t the France we know today, for a ménage e trois of reasons. First, France was made up of several provinces and fiefdoms; all of them had their own set of royals and rules. Second, the region was still recovering, literally, from several iterations of the plague – the Black Death – which killed millions and decimated whole villages and towns. Third, France was still feeling the effects of a war that lasted 100 years, hence the name, the Hundred Years War, that had finally ended in 1453.

GERMANY & ITALY – both of these areas had entered some really messy periods in their respective histories. Neither were ‘real’ countries yet, German still tribal, Italy comprising city-states. Anybody care for some artery-clogging servings of the Holy Roman Empire following by a rich desert of the Italian League? From the so-called glory of Rome, Italy had morphed into a bunch of city states that were ruled by dukes, doges, popes, princes.  At least there was a LOT of great art. Leonardo da Vinci was doing his thing about this time.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH – Puulleeze, don’t tell me the Church wasn’t a country. Technically, it wasn’t but this is about the time that the Church and its various popes began to come into its own as a force to be reckoned with – especially if you were a king, a queen, Jewish, or anybody who was Perceived to be Satan. Or could think, invent, or come up with a theory. And soon, the Church would play a major part in the New World! How lucky is that!

This is the Church of the Inquisitions, begun in the 12th century, when Jesuit priests showed up in small mountainous villages and proceeded to scare the bejeezus out of ignorant peasants, burning a few at the stake for good measure before moving on to the next village. While Columbus planned and schemed, the Spanish Inquisition (starting in about 1478), was doing the same, with the approval of the same Queen Isabella, by the way.

During most of the 1400s, the Church had another drama called the Great Schism, where Pope vs. Pope was the name of the game for about 40 years. In all, there are something like 12 popes during this century, with nepotism and corruption pretty dominant. For reference, this is the century of the Borgias.

Everybody who lived in pretty much the whole European world existed under the whims and fancies of a king, a queen, a pope or all three. Divine Power with its underpinnings of tyranny and superstition were the common factors. It was a really cruddy time to be a peasant.

All of this is important since it sets the stage for the generational experiences, and their codes of conducts, of Columbus and those who followed him, all the way up to the first Pilgrims in the 17th century trying their hand at the New World Survival Game. End Oppression! wasn’t just a campaign slogan for them: their great-great-great-great-great and so on grand people lived with it, as they did. It did not matter if you were in England, France, Spain, the news was the same all over – but because of the printing press there were now lots of leaflets and flyers out and about. You could read the news for yourself. Kings, queens and popes, the misery they promulgated on a wholesale basis fills today’s library shelves. But that was life in the 15th century. After all, when your king was chosen by God, and you believe that, there’s little room for argument.

The discovery of the New World was the apex of a monumental moment in the world’s history. Timing, they say, is everything, and look what was happening. Just 60 years’ before, remember, the Gutenberg Press with its magical movable type was invented and within just a few years hundreds of the machines had spread throughout Europe, printing bibles, essays, books, seditious texts.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses on a door and (maybe inadvertently) launched the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s outrage over the practice of selling indulgences (“You screwed your neighbor’s wife???!!!??? How could you? But 10 chickens ought to take care of it with the Big Guy upstairs,” wink, wink) was the basic reason for his theses, but there were 95 of them. He had a lot of venting to do and with the help of the Burg’s printing press, everybody could read all about it.

The rapid, widespread availability of the pillar of Christianity – the Bible – created questions and challenges, something that the Holy See had never seen before. Then along comes Columbus with his astounding discoveries, and a paranoid Church geared up their own armies of priests to keep an eye on things in this New World.

An interesting alternative history question might be what if the New World hadn’t been discovered for another 300 years or so? Or, what would have happened if there was NO New World, nothing but a lot of ocean betwixt Europe and Japan?

The New World provided a geographic pressure vent for Europe’s downtrodden and put-upon peoples . Coming out of the Dark Ages, subjected to Inquisitions and an ever-increasingly insecure Catholic Church, the 20 Years War, the 100 Years War, the War of the Roses, the Black Death, topped off by the Protestant Reformation that caused incredible political upheaval and bloodshed, the Old World was a mess. And just in time, here’s Columbus sailing back and forth between the Caribbean and Castile, and a solution presented itself.*

The New World was pristine, clean, God’s land ready for the plow. It meant hope, even if it meant danger and hardship (heck, they already had that). All they had to do was wipe out those pesky natives, the “man-like apes” that seemed to be everywhere.

*Almost didn’t happen – the Spanish crown was a bit insecure and quickly attempted to censor and round up all of the letters, journals and pamphlets being written by their conquistadors and priests. A lot of the books and journals still got out and made their way north into Europe and England (Spanish Historical Writing about the New World, John Carter Brown Library Exhibit).