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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

51. Navigation and Commercial Exchanges

Texte intégral

1In his History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769i), which was widely translated and read throughout Europe, William Robertson (1721–1793), a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, presents a wide panorama of the ‘progress of society in Europe, from the subversion of the Roman Empire, to the beginning of the sixteenth century’. At several points, he stresses the virtues of commercial and cultural cooperation.

2The progress of commerce had considerable influence in polishing the manners of the European nations, and in establishing among them order, equal laws and humanity. The wants of men, in the original and most simple state of society, are so few, and their desires so limited, that they rest contented with the natural productions of their climate and soil, or with what they can add to these by their own rude industry. They have no superfluities to dispose of, and few necessities that demand a supply. Every little community subsisting on its own domestic flock, and satisfied with it, is either little acquainted with the states around it, or at variance with them. Society and manners must be considerably improved, and many provisions must be made for public order and personal security, before a liberal intercourse can take place between different nations. We find accordingly, that the first effect of the settlement of the barbarians in the Empire, was to divide those nations which the Roman power had united. Europe was broken into many separate communities. The intercourse between these divided States, ceased almost entirely during several centuries. Navigation was dangerous in seas infested by pirates; nor could strangers trust to a friendly reception in the ports of uncivilised nations. Even between distant parts of the same kingdom, the communication was rare and difficult. The lawless rapine of banditti, together with the avowed exactions of the nobles, scarcely less formidable than oppressive, rendered a journey of any length a perilous enterprise. Fixed to the spot in which they resided, the greater part of the inhabitants of Europe lost, in a great measure, the knowledge of remote regions, and were unacquainted with their names, their situations, their climates, and their commodities.

3Various causes, however, contributed to revive the spirit of commerce, and to renew, in some degree, the intercourse between different nations. The Italians, by their connection with Constantinople, and other cities of the Greek empire, had preserved in their own country considerable relish for the precious commodities and curious manufactures of the East. They communicated some knowledge of these to the countries contiguous to Italy. But this commerce being extremely limited, the intercourse between different nations was not considerable. The Crusades, by leading multitudes from every corner of Europe into Asia, opened a more extensive communication between the East and West, which subsisted for two centuries; and though the object of these expeditions was conquest and not commerce; though the issue of them proved as unfortunate, as the motives for undertaking them were wild and enthusiastic; their commercial effects, as hath been shown, were both beneficial and permanent. During the continuance of the Crusades, the great cities in Italy, and in other countries of Europe, acquired liberty, and together with it such privileges as rendered them respectable and independent communities. Thus, in every State, there was formed a new order of citizens, to whom commerce presented itself as their proper object, and opened to them a certain path to wealth and consideration. Soon after the close of the Holy War, the mariner’s compass was invented, which, by rendering navigation more secure, encouraged it to become more adventurous, facilitated the communication between remote nations, and brought them nearer to each other.

4William Robertson,
The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769).

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