Opening the Way
Expansion seemed to have reached an impasse, horizons closed off and capacity limited. And then, suddenly, in the 1250s, everything began to change. This occurred at the very moment that one of the most serious crises yet experienced by the European economy was looming, and when statistics available to us—particularly in relation to agricultural prices and land rents—begin to show the first signs of a general winding down of energy; yet it was at this time that technological innovation and intellectual progress joined in bringing about developments that would postpone this decline. The result was two centuries of demographic growth and an expansion in rural economies that had important consequences for the towns.
For a start, things were happening in the naval shipyards. From the galley of antiquity to the caravels that would cross the Atlantic, ships had been continually evolving. In the three or four centuries that mark the close of the Middle Ages, constant collaboration between the experience and imagination of shipbuilders and sailors led to the construction of safer and faster boats that could better cope with bad weather or unfavorable winds, carry heavier loads, and adapt more easily to the various cargoes that might be available in different ports. Ships were asserting their dominance as by far the best means of transport for heavy goods such as wheat, wine, salt, alum, timber, or raw wool.
Some ships were still rowed. These were principally the light galleys still used, in time of war, by the maritime powers to lead their expeditions and, at all times, to protect their merchant ships from threats such as the