Medieval Exploration

Medieval Exploration

Late 5th Century to Mid-15th Century

In West European history the period between the 5th century and the mid-15th century CE is known as the Middle Ages.  It begins with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE and ends with the revival of “civilization” in 1450 CE starting with the European Renaissance.  It is divided into two distinct phases: the Dark Ages (500-1000) and the High Middle Ages (1000-1450). The “Dark Ages” occurred because so many aspects of Roman civilization such written language, complex government, and access to long-distance trade were lost due to Rome’s inability to protect its frontiers.  As a result, numerous Germanic tribes (i.e., Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals), as well as other ethnic peoples such as the Magyars (from Central Asia) were able to settle on former Roman territory. In addition, Huns, Vikings, and Mongols, conducted many raids into the area beginning in the 5th century.

The High Middle Ages came about due to several factors:  the rise of towns/cities; the Crusades which exposed the crusaders to the more sophisticated cultures of Byzantium and Islam; the revival of the Silk Road in the 13th century reintroduced Western merchants and their customers to the cultures of China, India, Persia, Arabia, and East Africa; and finally, the Bubonic Plague which originated in Central Asia was brought to Europe by Italian merchants in 1347.  Within four years one-third of Europe’s population had died.

Medieval European vessels were built of wood and powered by sail or oar, and, on occasion, both. Although there was a large variety, most were based on two designs:  clinker in the north, carvel in the south. By the end of the Middle Ages carvel construction dominated the building of large ships. This period would also see a shift from the steering oar or side rudder to the stern rudder and the development from single to multi-masted ships.  Navigational tools such as the compass, the kamal, astrolabe, and the mariner’s quadrant provided celestial navigation and when combined with portolan charts enabled sailors to navigate across oceans rather than skirt along the coast.

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