end of the world

Teaching Strategies

Post-reading Strategies


Siege of Medieval Caste

The End of the World: Questions for Discussion

  • How would you describe everyday life in Europe and/or Spain after reading the chapter?  How does this image agree or contrast with the image you had of Columbus’s time before your reading?
  • Fifteen-century Spain had a heavy emphasis on military advancements.  How does that emphasis compare with current priorities in the United States?


Getting Inside the Minds of the Colonizers: Cartooning

Draw a cartoon which presents in “imagination bubbles” the mindsets of the merchant and ruling classes of Europe which prepared them for a “conquest” over the people they were about to encounter across the Atlantic.  Draw a contrasting cartoon which sho9ws the mind-sets of other groups of people who also sailed the Atlantic and Pacific, landed on the coasts of the Americas, and did not proceed to conquer its inhabitants.


The First to Land or the First to Conquer?:  A Role-Play

(Refer to the requerimento information in the chapter and the section on European views of the natural world.)

Divide into three groups.  The first group represents a part of the world with the following characteristics:

  • Government with a high degree of participation of the people
  • Equitable distribution o f land, goods, and benefits
  • Development of sophisticated navigation techniques
  • Widespread curiosity and interest in exploration
  • No expansionist warfare over neighboring populations

The second group represents another part of the world, which has:

  • An autocratic pattern of government, with power and goods in the hands of a few
  • Sophisticated navigation techniques and also highly advanced weapons
  • A long history of engagement in military battles for power and territory

The third group represents the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.

The first two groups take turns “landing” in the Americas, pretending to be sailors from the vessels which have sailed long distances and are now meeting natives for the first time. 

  • How do the sailors talk with the natives?
  • What are their goals?
  • What arrangements do they make, out of what worldviews and assumptions?
  • How are the two experiences different?


Charting Key Connections

Several “isms” are mentioned in this chapter as influential ideas and movements at the time of Columbus.  On a large piece of paper write these terms, spacing them all over the page.  In a discussion group draw lines which connect terms and discuss any connections you can make between those “isms.”  Write notes on each “connecting” line which summarize your thoughts on how these terms are connected.


















            Inquisition                                                                                                          Islam






Impact of the “isms”

Sketch a map of Europe and one of the Western Hemisphere.  Fill in the “isms’ listed above on the European map and draw lines to the Western Hemisphere showing transference of these notions beginning with the arrival of Columbus and the subsequent Spanish conquest.  Again write notes on each “connecting” line which summarize your thoughts on how these ideas were key factors in the conquest of the indigenous people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.


Expansionism and Militarism

Study the maps below and discuss the questions presented here:

  • What group controlled the major portion of the Iberian Peninsula in the tenth century?  How do you know?
  • By the end of the eleventh century what had happened to the political control of the Iberian Peninsula?  From y our reading of this section, explain what had transpired in the politics of Spain.
  • Identify the political powers which controlled the peninsula at the time of Columbus’s first voyage.  Describe the importance of the reconquest of Granada for Spain.

Explain why Portugal’s position was better suited for Atlantic conquest and why Columbus’s journey would be perceived by the world as one of conquest and colonization rather than exploration.


The First Crusade, 1096-1099


Iberian Peninsula, 10th century


Iberian Peninsula at the time of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella



Europe Before the Conquest

Teaching Strategies

Pre-reading Strategies


Recollections of European History

What images and memories come to mind from your previous study of Europe and Spain around the end of the Middle Ages? From recollections of art, literature, history, write down your impressions of everyday life, work, and social conditions at the time?
  • Who had power?
  • What were the main kinds of political structures?
  • How did governments work?

Recalling Images of Columbus

Write a portrait of Columbus from your study of history, from pictures and movies you have seen. Describe him and his compatriots as you recall them. Write what you think were his intentions in sailing west from Europe. 

Identifying the Source

 After doing either or both of the above tasks, identify and discuss the source of your memories and viewpoints. Where did you get these ideas? How accurate do you think your images are?


Europe Before the Conquest


Life in Fifteenth Century Europe
Not many children lived even to maturity. About half, and not just the poor, died in their first year. If you lived longer, poor diet, disease, and violence threatened to cut life short.
Food supplies were scanty. The usual meal was bread dipped in a thin vegetable soup. To eat fresh meat more than a dozen times a year was very uncommon. Milk, butter, and cheese were too expensive. The family pig was not eaten at home but sold for much-needed cash. The landowners savagely punished poaching for game or fish. If you didn’t starve to death, malnutrition was almost sure to keep you so weak you fell prey to disease.
If disease didn’t get you, violence might. The frequent wars of this period organized violence on a large scale. On their way to and from battle, armies ravaged the countryside. Bandits attacked travelers and held whole villages for ransom. Violence was a poison running through the bloodstream at all levels of society. People were killed casually in quarrels, for cheating in gambling, over malicious gossip, in drinking bouts, and in urban riots.
Milton Meltzer, Columbia and the World around Him, 31

End of the World

15th Century Nativity 
Fifteenth Century Painting of the Nativity
To understand the invasion of the lands known to us as the Americas, it is necessary to know something about Europe at the end of the fifteenth century. In many ways it was a place under siege.
Most Europeans were far from rich, and their lives were marked by violence, disease, and famine. The belief that the world would end soon was taken quite seriously. In fact, preoccupation with morbid subjects was so great that it was given a name, “the culture of death.”
Christopher Columbus concluded, from his extensive study of the Bible and theologians of the time, that Armageddon had a date: it would occur in 1650. There were good reasons for such melancholy.



      The general devastation was so great that a famous demonic preacher, Savonarola, could say, in 1496:

There will not be enough men left to bury the dead; nor means to dig enough graves.  So many will lie dead in the houses that men will go through the streets crying, “Send forth your dead.”  And the dead will be heaped in carts and on horses; they will be piled up and burnt.  Men will pass through the streets crying aloud, “Are there any dead?  Are there any dead?”

Quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 34





Execution of Savonarola

Execution of Savonarola
Common folk routinely suffered acts of violence from each other in the form of robberies and murders. Revenge was sweet, especially if it came in the form of a public spectacle. Crowds got perverse enjoyment from watching criminals being tortured and then executed on scaffolds in public squares.

The many different units of society

contending for domination also constantly fought with each other: earldoms, republics, duchies, noble families, and all kinds of factions engaged in “kidnapping, torture, mutilation, fratricide, patricide, assassination, and fomented rebellion” (Sale, 33).

In addition to these battles among themselves, those who had any power at all didn’t hesitate to use it against their disobedient subjects or fellow citizens who had the misfortune of being out of favor. Wars on a large scale were common-place as newly organized nation-states vied for power.


   Black Death
Depiction of the Black Death

Disease and Famine

For centuries the Black Death had ravaged the countryside of Europe.  By 1450 the population was just beginning to grow back to its pre-plague levels.  Other epidemic diseases also scourged humanity as a direct result of unsanitary and crowded living conditions, general uncleanliness and ignorance, and the constant waging of wars.

Hundreds of thousands also died every year of hunger during recurrent famines when the main crops of wheat and barley failed.  The landscape was riddled with pestilence, war, and death.  No wonder people whose daily experience was chaotic and dangerous had a preoccupation with death.




Constant Warfare, Holy and Otherwise

Crusade at Council of Claremont
 Crusade at the Council of Clermont

Latin Christendom had waged war against Islam for eight hundred years, and portions of Europe, including parts of Spain was still under Islamic control.  The Moors, or Moslems, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 from North Africa and conquered it in only seven years.  The next seven centuries saw almost constant fighting in what came to be known as the “reconquest.”  The goal of Christians was to expel from their territory not only the Moors but also others who challenged the prevailing version of Catholicism.


The Crusades, the series of campaigns fought from 1096 to 1291 to recover the Holy Land from the Moslems, were unsuccessful in their main goal but nevertheless had a powerful impact in that they opened the way to a larger world.  The many nobles, knights, servants, and churchmen who participated returned from their quest with fantastic tales of great cities and lavish stores of consumer goods.



…And Despair

Always and everywhere in the literature of the age, we find a confessed pessimism.  As soon as the soul of these men has passed from childlike mirth and unreasoning enjoyment to reflection, deep dejection about an earthly misery takes their place and they see only the woe of life.

Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 138 quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 31



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