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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Prompt:

Define the age of expansion and conquest and explain HOW, WHY, and WHEN it developed.


  • Crusades
  • The Black Death 

The age of expansion and conquest is a term used to describe the geographical, political, and commercial expansion --which took place between the 1450's and 1650, as the nations of Europe searched for a new trade route to the Orient which led to the conquest of new lands and trade routes. In order to understand HOW the age of expansion and conquest developed, it is important to understand the "internal development growth process." Two factors helped bring about this "process" : (1) the Crusades and (2) the Black Death .   

One of the indirect but important causes of the age of expansion and conquest was the Crusades which started in 1095 and were completed by 1291 (there were a total of eight Crusades during this time period) as western Christendom sought to rescue both the Byzantine empire and the Holy lands from the Muslims or Turks.

The results of the Crusades were very far reaching as European soldiers brought back dramatic stories and examples of the wealth of the East in the form of perfumes, silks, spices and fruits which stimulated the demand for developing trade between the two areas.

Much of the trade as well as the crusaders themselves were transported by Italian seamen from Italian city-states. The Italian city-states and their merchants recognized the importance of the demand for Italian ships. This demand was created by the need to carry crusaders, their supplies and the new found trade between Europe and the Holy land. Consequently; the Italian city-states quickly developed a monopoly in this area.

 Hence, the significance of the Crusades was that they helped stimulate the transformation of western Europe from the economic stagnation of feudalism to the dynamic expansionism of modern capitalism (new value system is created).

The Black Death from 1347-1350, was another major factor which helped bring about the transformation of Europe during the Middle Ages .

The population reduction cannot be accurately estimated, but figures range from 20 to as high as 50%.

Death tolls of this magnitude threw the European social order into chaos. Feudal nobles lost their peasants, and peasants lost their lords. Security of the peasants was jeopardized by the death of nobles and the death often served as an invitation for expansion by an aggressive neighbor.

The disaster hastened great economic changes. Agricultural production was disrupted as fields were left untilled and crops unharvested and peasants suddenly found their labor in short supply . The peasants demanded and received land leases for longer terms and lower payments .

Thus. the Black Death weakened the bonds of feudalism but society was energized by a new set of conditions and opportunities .‚Äč

Hence; the Crusades and the Black Death helped bring about the ( 1) decline of the manorial economy and (2) feudal social structure. The decline in these areas helped bring about the (3) development of commerce which, in turn, (4) accelerated the growth of towns. This resulted in the (5) increased use of money from trade between various towns and parts of western Europe and (6) led to the development of the bourgeoisie or business and merchant class. All of these interrelated activities led to the breakdown of the self-sufficiency of the manor, which had rested on the use of products available within its confines .

In conclusion, constructive forces were fashioning a new Europe. These forces were revitalized trade, new towns, expansion of industry, and a money economy. As a new society began to take shape the bourgeoisie emerged (merchants and businessmen), and serfdom declined. The new class meant that a powerful, independent , and self-assured group whose interest in trade instead of warfare was to revolutionize all social and economic history as the bourgeoisie, challenged the landholding nobility .

The WHY behind the Age of Expansion and Conquest occurred once the kings consolidated

their power under their new national state. They realized that finding a direct route to the Orient would wipe out the whole succession of charges levied on goods from the Far East to Europe and would break the Italian monopoly on the Mediterranean.

Hence, in the political realm feudalism with its many local sovereignties gave way to the kingship which was substantially aided by these new economic forces. The kings were to impose their will on the nobles and become masters of new nations . During the fifteenth century, four national monarchies (Portugal, Spain, England , and France) consolidated their power and brought order out of the chaos created during the preceding century.

English, French, and Spanish consumers living far from trade centers were tired of paying high prices to middlemen. A short-cut to the Orient would divert these profits to the country which was fortunate enough to discover it; thus, this became the major objective of the "Age of Expansion and Conquest ."

The WHEN for the Age of Expansion and Conquest came about with the ability of the kings to consolidate their power under a new national state and their subsequent participation in the age of discovery occurred at different times for each nation. The participation occurred for each nation when the "internal developmental process" (the decline of the feudal system to the rise of the bourgeoisie class) caused by the new social, economic and political forces that had developed during the Middle Ages was completed.