Europe – A Brief History for the Indian traveler – Part 2

Read Part-1 of this article here.

Milan Cathedral
Milan Cathedral
Image Source: Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

The history of Europe becomes interesting with its own share of highs and lows. A period of a thousand years from 5th century AD to 15th century AD, is called the Medieval period, or more popularly, the Dark Ages. Though, in modern thinking, this era can hardly be called dark, the absence of the Roman empire, and as a result, the absence of patronage for art, music, architecture and cultural symbols during this time, caused the 16th century historians describe these 1000 years as dark. All art during this period had something to do with the church, or pleasing the church. Outside religion, people had little life, and there was little progress in science and exploration.

Comparatively, to provide a parallel view, India saw tremendous changes and growth in this period, under the rule of myriad dynasties and able emperors. The Guptas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas, and all the who is who of Indian history ruled over and flourished in India during the European medieval ages. The Muslim conquest of India, and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and a number of Sultanates in Southern India happened during these times.

Coming back to the European medieval times, religious art flourished during these times. Tall and towering Gothic churches, with fantastic stained glass artwork, pointed archways, and flying buttress support structures were constructed during the medieval times. Though the Roman empire collapsed, the eastern Roman empire, or more popularly called the Byzantine empire remained and flourished. Art and architecture during this time, was a blend of the Christian styles of the Roman period, and the Islamic styles from the east. Cities like Istanbul and Venice bear splendid examples of artwork and architectural wonders done during this period.

Tower of London
Tower of London

England, as we know today, rose to prominence during the medieval era. To trace the history, present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark were the home to an aggressive group of explorers-trader-pirate tribe called the Vikings. They usually traveled out of their homelands, and conquered and settled in larger parts of Europe. The Vikings were a constant source of trouble to the ruling kings of the established empires and also to other smaller tribal rulers. And, William I was a descendant of the Vikings, who ruled Normandy, a region on Northern France, during the 1000 AD period. Much around the same time, Britannia, as England was known during the Roman times, was ruled by a group of different tribes – the Britons, the Angles, and the Saxons. They fought among themselves, but had continued to rule different parts of England among themselves. In 1066 AD, an important year for the English, William I invaded England, and established the Norman rule in the British isles. With this, England, which was an obscure little state at the edge of the Roman empire, was brought into the mainstream European political scene, and later would rule a vast part of the whole world. William I went on to build forts all over the island, and came to be known as William, the conqueror. The Tower of London is a remarkable example of the number of forts built by William the conqueror. The English monarchy, which was owned by the Anglo-Saxon kings after the fall of the Roman empire, passed on the William and his descendants after the Norman conquest of England.

Among other parts of Europe, the region of France, Germany and central Europe came under the rule of Franks, and Charlemagne, the Frank king established the Holy Roman Empire. This later led to the rise of France as an independent kingdom, and much later, Germany.

When in Europe, you would unavoidably be bombarded with art, architecture, and symbolism from an era called the Renaissance. This was more of a cultural phenomenon during which the revival of the lost glory and success of the ancient Roman empire was the aim. Roughly around the end of 1400s, people started feeling the pressure of political and economic stagnation all around Europe, and started finding ways to get innovative. A number of events that happened around Europe during the late 15th century paved way for the revival of art and architecture, and sowed the seeds for the modern world in Europe. People started thinking beyond God and religion, and science and technology, art and literature, all of these were approved and appreciated.

Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
Image Source: forestpurnell on Flickr

Florence in Italy, and to a lesser extant, Rome, were the seats of Renaissance. Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and France soon caught up. Explorers set out to conquer new worlds; Artists tuned the two dimensional religious view of life to a multi-dimensional space for art experiments; Sculptors brought out proud and confident real-life sculptors; the Printing Press was invented, and literature flourished; Scientific discoveries became the norm of the day; the Church saw a breakaway and reformation in the form of Protestants; and the early sprouts of Industrial revolution were already getting underway. Every aspect of modern life has its roots in the period of Italian, and the greater European Renaissance.

Popular figures during the Renaissance period are the who is who of science, art and literature today. The artworks of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the inventions of Newton and Galileo, the literary works of Shakespeare, the explorations by Vasco da Gama and Columbus – and to top it, the rise of America – all of these date back to the era of Renaissance  Masterpieces like St.Peter’s bascillica in the Vatican, the cathedral in Florence, and the St.Paul’s cathedral in London – are all examples of fabulous Renaissance era architecture.

The 18th century saw never before changes in Europe. Industrial revolution gave rise to machines, and manufacturing industries. To get labor to work on these industries, powerful nations like England, France, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands established colonies around the world. A flow of laborers from these colonies ensures economic well being of the European countries. India, which was under the Mughal rule at this time, was also gradually colonized by the powerful British empire. Small pockets of India were also ruled by the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch.

The discovery of America by Columbus was a turning point in European history. A large numbers people, especially from Britain moved, and settled in the newer colonies of America. The Americans bought slaves from Africa to work in their plantations and industries. Eventually, the Americans resisted the control tactics of the British Empire, and finally, the British colonies in America revolted against the Crown, and established themselves as an independent nation of federal states. Slavery was abolished over time, and America started growing to face the world with renewed confidence and pride. Around the same time, the French revolution in France overthrew the monarchy, and Napoleon captured the power, making France one of the powerful forces in Europe.

La Liberté
La Liberté
Image Source: Storm Crypt on Flickr

The early 1800s saw a number of independent warring kingdoms in Europe. Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands were powerful empires, with a strong Industrial presence, and innumerable colonies around the world. Germany as a country, was not born yet, and Austria, Poland and Hungary had blurred borders, held together as an empire, and were the centers of trouble. There were uprising by people all over Europe, and the demand for democracy was on the rise. The French revolution had fanned the hopes for democracy in a number of countries in Europe, and opposing political views in these countries made the domestic situation in each of the European countries highly unstable and wobbly. England has made constitutional amendments long back to make the emperor a constitutional monarch, rather than an absolute monarch.

Germany, in the 19th century was a fledgling nation, or rather a confederation of petty kingdoms, that got together for economic reasons. Bismark was a remarkable leader who put together a formidable empire, to counter the supremacy of other super-powers in Europe. By the 20th century, Germany had fought over all of the internal problems, and skirmishes with its neighbors, and emerged as an established industrial superpower. Also, other new powers in Europe, such as Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Russia, all of which had been a little late in catching up with the Imperialistic ambitions of other countries in Europe, had now tamed all internal differences, and emerged as new economies. These countries now wanted to enjoy the fruits of Imperialism, which was already being enjoyed by Britain, France and western Europe. All these, and politics of rivalry between neighboring countries, led to the World Wars.

The world wars were not fought for idealism or defense  but rather, they were the result of capitalistic ambitions, political one upmanship, and assumed racial supremacy of some nations. Every participant in the world wars had hidden ulterior motives which they pushed ahead from time to time. The ambitions of Germany were laid to rest at the end of the two World Wars. The political coalition of Britain and its allies also had to lose most of their colonies around the world in the face of a widespread awareness in its colonies, and a rising pressure from the other first world nations. The World Wars left a lasting impact on the politics of the world.

World War II memorial, Cluny, France
World War II memorial, Cluny, France
Image Source: flitshans on Flickr

Unfortunately, a lot of cultural and artistic symbols of the world were destroyed or damaged in the two Word Wars. Vast cities and small towns in Germany were completely destroyed by air bombings during the wars. The civilized world had to repent for its mistakes at the end of the war, and newer economies were born around the world. Europe learnt the lessons of unchecked imperialistic ambitions after the war. The world wars led to the birth of Communism, and the USA emerged as a new super power, along with the communist USSR. It would take decades more for the cold war between the USA and the USSR to end, and it would result in one country dominating the world politics and economics in the near future, along with a industrial super power in Asia, called China.


Published by

Deepak Venkatesan

Deepak is an engineer from Bangalore.

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