The Pageant of America: A Pictorial History of the United States - Vol. 1

By Clark Wissler; Constance Lindsay Skinner et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
CONTACTS WITH THE EAST

THE story of Vinland passed into legend and, outside of Scandinavia, was forgotten. Mediaeval Europeans'lived out the cycle of their lives ignorant of even its existence.

The Dark Ages were a time of confusion, of quarrels, forays, and wars. The nobility was an aristocracy of arms on land, and armored knights clashed in battle and in sport. The system of feudalism maintained what law and order existed. The stone castle of the feudal baron was a center of offense and defense for the people who lived about it and who did homage to the lord for his protection of them. Walled towns where dwelt artisans and men of commerce closed their gates at night against enemies from without. Nations, vague shadows of what they were later to become, were forming and dissolving. Steadfast above confusion stood the church, a super-state, the greatest stabilizing force of the time. Symbols of its power and aspirations were the cathedrals lifting throughout Europe their towers toward the heavens.

Barbarism had been left far behind by mediaeval Europe. Modern languages were taking shape, and a new literature and art were appearing. Education was not yet general. A few could read books laboriously copied by hand in the monasteries, but the masses of the people looked to the officers of the church for their instruction. The mental horizon of the average man was pitifully limited. Yet in this crude and undeveloped Europe there was the promise of a future greatness.

Need is the starting-point of progress. Mediaeval Europe in its daily life needed products which its own environment, rich though it was, could not supply: spices to season a diet of bread and salted meats; drugs for medicine; silks, precious stones, silver, and gold to gratify the demands of luxury as the standard of living rose. Peoples living in sub-tropical lands to the eastward produced these goods. Europe slowly became aware of it. Trade sprang up. Then began an expansion which carried Europeans not only to the civilizations of the East but westward to America, as explorers brought back tidings of rich lands across the Atlantic.

143 Temple of St. Sophia, Constantinople, from G. J. Grelot, Relation Nouvelle d'un Voyage do Constantinople, Paris, 1680

-77-

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