In the start of this website we spoke of Ireland beginnings and its land parting from America some 385 million years ago – see ‘Rock of the Hooves’. Then in 1492 Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ and found America. Consequently a link was renewed not of land masses but of its peoples. Suddenly the word European became meaningful to Renaissance scholars. In all likelihood the great majority of those who lived in Europe and could read only with difficulty, if at all, had not even heard of the word. Likewise Ireland became known by the Venetian, Spanish and Grecian explorers who heretofore have sailed eastwards to India and China as from the 13th century. The physical nature of Europe could not be assessed until the sixteenth century. Well organized smaller powers could still hold their own against the greatest rulers in Europe. The best example was the Swiss confederation of townsmen and free peasants. In the corners of Europe in particular, communities prospered such as the Cossacks bands of the Polish and muscovite frontiers on the steppe. Ireland was no different where Gaelic Ireland beyond the English Pale had native Irish began building castles also in their new location and recovering some of the land stolen by the Normans.
The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of unprecedented change. It was the beginning of the modern era, and it saw a revolution in almost every aspect of European life. The renaissance in Italy was peaking and spreading north, even arriving in backwaters like England (Hale – The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance). Life was largely prosperous for the average person, the economy was growing. The mechanisms of commerce, systems of international finance, ocean-going trading fleets, an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, were all building a recognizably capitalist, money-based economy. Geniuses were stepping all over each other on the street corners producing scientific innovation after innovation. Technological innovations like gunpowder were changing the nature of warfare and the military caste nature of society — the cannon probably had a great deal to do with the rise of the centralized nation state as we know it. The printing press created a media revolution. It brought ideas, partisan rhetoric, and how-to manuals to the people. Most of all, it brought the Bible, in its original tongues and in the vernacular, to the masses. A spirit of inquiry, a desire to return to first principles, was blowing through the Church, which had been the unifying cultural foundation of Europe for a millenium.
Gold silver and spices brought from India and China and traded by Merchant Princesses had drove the Renaissance. The countryside in those countries did not escape. Land had to be worked, stomachs had to be filled, rents had to be found, taxes had to be paid. Yet in all European countries most people lived on the land. The total population of France was still only 7 or 8 million in mid 15th century, while England’s population was only 5 million by the late 1500s and did not reach 8 million until 1800. While London’s population was still only 500,000 in the 1650s’, nevertheless it and other towns and city population expansion put pressure on the agrarian economy. The price of land rose rapidly resulting in marginal grain growing land in England being cultivated. Some peasants in England and the continent benefited greatly from the grain price and market opportunities. Those with surpluses for sale began to make profits, enabling them to consolidate their holdings and strengthen their position. The yeomen in England, coqs de village in France and Volbauer, or wealthy tenant farmers with full rights in communal resources in Germany, were all emerging as rural elites by the mid-sixteenth century. They managed this by refusing to subdivide their properties (even where partible inheritance was the local custom) and keeping strict control over their children’s marriages. By the later sixteenth century their increased wealth was obvious. They boasted the largest, most richly decorated houses, the most servants, oxen, barns, grain, wine, and silver. Their dominant economic and social status meant they were entrusted with seigneurial tasks (like collection of dues and taxes, or acting as local administrative officials and often acted as creditors within their local community.
England was jealous of the great power of Spain, and became increasingly preoccupied with the necessity of extending her own dominion and her trade overseas. And so Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Ralph Lane were sent to our shores and the power Gaelic Irish Clansmen who had re-established themselves during the 1400s’ was once more threatened.
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