Commercial Expansion Of The 16th Century

The Commercial Expansion Of The Sixteenth Century

The great secular depression of the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth century began to give way to economic recovery in the second half of the fifteenth. The overland trade from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, cut off by the French king's depredations against the fairs of Champagne, was increasingly replaced by sea trade off the Atlantic coast. Vessels now went through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the coast, increasingly sailing to Antwerp and making that city the big trading centre in northern Europe during the sixteenth century. Commerce moved away from the restrictions and high taxation of Flemish Bruges, and shifted to and expanded in free market Antwerp, where business and trade could flourish free of hampering legislation, privileges, and high taxes. In addition, Atlantic ships headed south and west, and the famous explorations and discoveries of the late fifteenth century changed the face of world history by making European countries world powers, and began to integrate Africa and the New World into the European economy. Spain and Portugal, the leading explorers of the new continents, became the dominant nation-states and empires of the six­teenth century. Slowly but surely, the Italian city-states which had been in the forefront of economic advance and the spearhead of Renaissance culture, began to be left behind in the advance of economic and political power.

Along with commercial expansion came inflation, fuelled by the immense increase of gold and silver brought to Europe by the Spaniards from the newly found mines of the western hemisphere. An approximate tripling of the stock of specie in Europe resulted in a century of inflation, with prices tripling during the sixteenth century. The new money flowed first into the main Spanish port of Seville, then into the rest of Spain, and finally into other countries of Europe, and the geography of price rises followed accordingly.

As Atlantic powers, England and France grew in strength along with the other Atlantic nations of western Europe. They were greatly aided by the end of the destructive Hundred Years' War between the two nations in 1453. The doctrines of the absolute state, previously limited largely to theorists and rulers of the Italian city-states, now spread to all the nation-states of Europe. Absolutism eventually triumphed throughout Europe by the early seven­teenth century. The victory was fuelled, as we shall see below, by the rise of Protestantism and a bit later of secularism, beginning in the sixteenth century.