“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—if you’re like me, that rhyme is forever stuck in your head. If I opened a textbook from the 1800s, or even most of the 1900s, you’d see that scholars assumed this was natural, normal, and inevitable—of course it was the Europeans who discovered America. Of course they brought “civilization” to the Americas, where the people there had no sophisticated knowledge or culture to speak of.
That was then, and this is now. One task historians constantly face is to look at prior understandings of our world and update them. So that’s what we’re going to do here. I want you to think about this question: If you were on the eve of 1492 and that famous sailing, would you have guessed it was a European crew sailing to the Americas? And when the Europeans hit the shores of the Americas, would the civilization they found have been “inferior” to them as suggested?
Here’s how you’re going to tackle this question. In this essay, you will:
1.) Compare the civilizations of Asia, Europe (western Europe and eastern Europe/Byzantine), and the Islamic caliphates between 600-1500 CE (past our midterm, in other words). In other words, as you look at the storyline for each of these in that period of time, was Western Europe really the most dynamic (think: politically unified, culturally vibrant, innovative, cosmopolitan, wealthy) civilization of these? Pro tip: Be sure to give a sense of change over time—that is, give a sense of what’s been happening between those years for the societies we’re discussing.
2.) In addition, you should discuss how the Americas compared to the others in terms of cultural dynamism (as described above).