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How does Buonaiuti describe the plague and its ferocity? What details does he report to support that description?

While Buonaiuti may not directly assert an explanation for the causes of the plague, what are some indirect indicators for what those experiencing the plague thought were its causes?

What are the effects of the plague on family? On religion? On the economy? On the population?

 Describe the European economic situation in the latter part of the fifteenth century. 

  • Before
  • 456 CHAPTER 11 Crises and Recovery in Afro-Eurasia, 1300-1500


Crisis and Recovery in Afro-Eurasia


Copyright © 2021, W. W. Norton & Company

The spread of the Black Death and the collapse of the Mongol Empire sets off crises across Afro-Eurasia.

Continuity in religious beliefs and cultural institutions accompanies changes in political structures in Europe, the Muslim world, and China.

In central Eurasia, new rulers replace the Mongols following the Black Death, using a blend of religion, military expansion, administrative control, and cultural tolerance.

In western Christendom, new monarchies establish political order, and the Renaissance brings a cultural rebirth to societies devastated by plague.

In East Asia, the Ming dynasty replaces the Mongol Yuan dynasty, using an elaborate Confucian bureaucracy to oversee infrastructure and long-distance exchange.

Global Storyline

What were the nature and origins of the crises spanning Afro-Eurasia during the fourteenth century? What was the impact of the Black Death on China, the Islamic world, and Europe?

What role did religious belief systems play in rebuilding the Islamic world, Europe, and Ming China in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?

How similar and different were the ways in which regional rulers in post-plague Afro-Eurasia attempted to construct unified states? What were the extent and nature of their successes?

How did art and architecture reflect the political realities of the Islamic world, Europe, and Ming China after the Black Death?

What were the similarities and differences between the ways that Islamic dynasties, Iberian rulers, and Ming rulers extended their territories and regional influence?

Focus Questions


Mongol invasions devastated polities, ravaged trade routes, unleashed the bubonic plague

Germs more devastating than conquest

The Black Death

Societies rebuilt by preserving cherished elements from the old order while sometimes embracing radically new ideas

China looked to long-standing dynastic institutions

Ottoman Empire  

Christian conquest of Iberian Peninsula


Crises and Recovery in Afro-Eurasia

The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries caused widespread destruction. While regimes collapsed and trade routes fragmented, the most devastating consequence of this wave of conquest was the spread of the bubonic plague.  

As the societies most damaged by plague and conquest rebuilt, they reexamined old social and political orders, preserving what was cherished, discarding what was deemed no longer useful, and sometimes embracing radically new ideas. In Ming China, rulers looked to long-established dynastic institutions for a way forward. In Muslim regions, the Ottoman Empire took shape. In Europe, Christian campaigns on the Iberian Peninsula gradually forced Muslim rulers to retreat. In southern Europe especially, a rediscovery of the Greco-Roman past prompted an outburst of cultural activity known as the Renaissance. 

Despite the appearance of new ideas, many elements of the old order remained, especially religious beliefs and institutions.


The Black Death

The Black Death was the most significant historical development of the fourteenth century.

The plague caused a staggering loss of life, with a death rate between 25 and 65 percent. 

Populations already weakened by Little Ice Age

Rodents and humans transmitted the plague, and the disease spread through Afro-Eurasia along land and sea trade routes.

Plague in China

Undermined Mongol authority

Led to outbreak of rebellion

Plague in the Islamic world

Plague caused similar devastation and political chaos

Collapse and Consolidation

The Black Death killed millions and caused political turmoil. While many began to question the legitimacy of ruling groups, elites used the chaos to consolidate the power of dynastic states.

The Black Death emerged in the 1340s from Inner Asia and caused devastating loss of life. As it moved between China, the Muslim world, and Europe, mostly bypassing the Indian subcontinent, it killed between 25 and 65 percent of the populations infected. These populations were already weakened by the effects of the Little Ice Age, which had shortened growing seasons and reduced crop yields in the decades prior to the outbreak.

Land and sea trade routes were the main conduits for the plague. Beginning in southwestern China in 1320s, from there it spread across central Asia to Crimea. Then, it followed Black Sea shipping routes to the Mediterranean and the Italian city-states.  

The Black Plague was so devastating because many of the populations it struck had no immunities to it. Carried by rodents, the disease spread to humans and caused terrifying symptoms in its victims, who often died soon after infection.

In China, the plague was devastating to its major cities, and it undermined the Mongols’ still recent claim to the mandate of heaven. This led to the emergence of dissident groups and popular religious movements, namely the Red Turban movement, which drew on China’s diverse traditions. The plague similarly tore across Southwest Asia and into the Muslim Mediterranean. 

In Europe, it traveled northward from the Iberian Peninsula, killing 50 million of Europe’s 80 million people in the four years after 1347. It would return periodically for the rest of the century, keeping the population in decline.


Nearly two-thirds of the population died between 1346–1353

Plague returned periodically for the rest of the century


Pleasure seeking

Scapegoating of Jews

Individual forms of piety


Food shortages

Regimes collapsed

Plague in Europe

In Europe, nearly two-thirds of the population died between 1346–1353. Over the next century, the plague returned periodically.  Although it killed people from all social classes, people in cities—especially the poor—were particularly vulnerable.

People responded in numerous ways. Some sought pleasure in defiance of previous norms and taboos. Others turned their rage on the Jews, whom they blamed for the outbreak. Still others turned to individual forms of piety, believing the church had lost God’s favor. A group of devotees called the Flagellants whipped themselves publicly in atonement for human sins. 

The plague was devastating economically and politically as well. Food shortages contributed to instability and caused regimes everywhere to collapse. 


Map 11.1 | The Spread of the Black Death

MAP 11.1 | The Spread of the Black Death

The Black Death was an Afro-Eurasian pandemic of the fourteenth century.

• What was the origin point of the Black Death? How far did it travel?

• Which trade routes did the Black Death follow? Which trade routes did the Black Death appear not to have followed? What do you think accounts for the difference?

• Where was the earliest instance of the Black Death? Where did it occur latest? What hypotheses can you assert about the Black Death based on the dates on the map?


The basis for political legitimacy and power was the dynasty or the hereditary ruling family passing power from generation to generation.

Power derived from the divine: “mandate of heaven,” or “divine right”

Clear rules of succession

Consolidates or extends power through conquest, alliance, or laws and punishment

Regimes that emerged in the wake of the Black Death drew on older traditions

Rebuilding States

As the normal functioning of life broke down, one impact of the plague was to severely undermine rulers’ claims to legitimacy, which they only exacerbated by attempting to reinforce their authority. To rebuild their civil administrations, militaries, and general capacity to rule, rulers employed different tools to revive confidence in them. 

The political institution of the dynasty served this end, as it allowed rulers to claim divine authority to rule and to pass this on to their offspring for generations. This took the form of the mandate of heaven in China and divine right in Europe. In the Islamic world, the Ottoman warrior-princes claimed the mantle of Islam and expanded their power base. In addition to granting legitimacy, the clear method—at least in theory—of passing control to one’s offspring was intended to avoid conflicts of succession. Rulers then focused on extending their power through conquest, alliance, and the application of laws and punishment.

In Europe, China, and the Islamic world, regimes emerged that drew on older traditions to rebuild the social and political order, laying foundations for centuries to come.


The Black Death and Mongol invasions brought an end to the old political order for the Abbasid Empire

Three new Islamic states emerged




The Islamic Heartland

Following the Mongol invasions of the Muslim world and the destruction of the Black Death, the former Islamic center of power in the Arab world shifted to non-Arab states. After the sack of Baghdad, the Abbasid Empire’s capital, the new Islamic states controlled by the Turkish Ottomans, the Persian Safavids, and the Mughals dominated the larger region between Anatolia and India. Each of these states had its distinctive qualities. 

The Ottomans embraced Sunni Islam while adapting Byzantine modes of governance, enabling them to rule diverse groups of people. The Safavids, who promoted Shiite Islam, rooted their identity in Persian traditions, and were less successful in expanding beyond their regional base. The Mughals maintained a wealthy but decentralized domain that remained vulnerable to internal dissent.


Turk warrior nomads transformed themselves into the rulers of a highly bureaucratic empire.

Under Osman (r. 1299–1326), the Turks consolidated their power by attracting artisans, merchants, bureaucrats, and clerics.

Ottomans became champions of Sunni Islam

By the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans created a vast multiethnic, multilingual empire in the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia

Ottomans created a large bureaucracy with the sultan at the head

The Ottoman Empire

Operating between the Christian power to the west and Mongol forces expanding to the east, the Ottoman Turk warrior bands emerged on Anatolia as the leaders of a settled state. This demonstrated the success of both military conquest and a sophisticated bureaucratic system to rule this land.

Their chief, Osman, who ruled from 1299 to 1326, led the Ottomans to become the champions of Sunni Islam, which helped to integrate a vast, multiethnic and multilingual empire stretching between southeastern Europe, the southern Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia. To manage this huge and diverse territory, the sultan stood atop a complex bureaucracy that asserted control and drew tax revenue from these populations.


Map 11.2 | The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1566

Map 11.2 | The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1566

This map charts the expansion of the Ottoman state from the time of its founder, Osman, through the reign of Suleiman, the empire’s most illustrious ruler.

• Where did the Ottoman Empire originate under Osman? Into what regions did the Ottomans expand between the years 1326 and 1566?

• What were the geographic limits of the Ottoman Empire?

• What governments were able to resist Ottoman expansion?


The conquest of Constantinople

The empire’s spectacular expansion was due to its mighty military power, which also generated vast financial and administrative rewards. 

The most spectacular triumph of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451–1481) was the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, which he renamed Istanbul.

Emigrés fleeing Constantinople brought cultural and intellectual enrichment to western Europe

The Conquest of Constantinople

Military power and conquest were primary features of this expansion. It allowed the Ottomans to recruit new subjects by promising wealth, and then to offer the conquered privileged administrative positions within the sprawling bureaucracy.

The most famous of these sultans was Mehmed the Conqueror, who ruled for three decades between 1451 and 1481. In 1453, he accomplished a goal that had eluded Muslim leaders for centuries: the defeat of the strategically and symbolically important Byzantine capital in Constantinople, which he renamed Istanbul. From there, Ottoman military expansion continued westward with the conquest of European cities in southeastern and eastern Europe.

Christians fleeing the defeated Constantinople sought refuge in western Europe, where they introduced forgotten or unknown classical and Arabic manuscripts, helping to revive interest in classical antiquity.  


Incorporated Byzantine elite families and administrative practices

Gained control of Eastern Mediterranean sea-lanes

Under Suleiman (r. 1520–1566), Ottomans reached the height of their territorial expansion with 20–30 million subjects. 

Ottoman dynastic power fused the secular with the sacred.

Sultans called themselves the “shadow of God” on earth.

Sultans became defenders and protectors of the faith, constructing mosques and supporting Islamic schools.

The Tools of Empire Building

The Ottomans incorporated the administrative practices of the Byzantines and many of their leading families. In the following century, they expanded and sought to consolidate rule. Ottoman navies gained a footing in the sea-lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean, inserting themselves between European traders and the lucrative caravan trade. 

Under Suleiman, who ruled from 1520 to 1566, their empire reached its territorial peak, ruling over 20–30 million subjects. Under his and others’ rule, this dynasty fused secular and sacred power, its sultans styling themselves as the “shadow of God” on earth. They took on the role of protecting the faith, which included defending its holy cities and patronizing the construction of mosques and Islamic schools throughout their territories.


Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace reflected the splendor, power, and wealth of the Ottoman Empire.

Topkapi Palace was the command post of empire and a place where sultans could retreat into mystery.

Bureaucratic offices and training school

Thousands of women in the sultan’s harem

Sultan’s mother and favorite consorts at the top; the bottom were enslaved people

Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was intended to incarnate the splendor, power, and wealth of this empire. Its architectural majesty housed the imperial household at its center. As the sultan increasingly retreated from the battlefield and behind these walls, it was also the command post of the empire. The grand vizier, the empire’s head administrator, worked there, and bureaucrats also received their training at the palace.  

Thousands of women lived in the Sultan’s harem, where they were organized into a hierarchy of rank and prestige. As the empire consolidated, the political influence of these women grew. 


The Ottoman ability to control diverse populations allowed it to endure into the twentieth century.

Although Turkish was the official language of the administration, the Ottomans promoted a flexible and tolerant language policy.

Regional autonomy allowed, where local appointees could keep a portion of taxes for Istanbul and for themselves

In order to limit local autonomy, Ottomans created a corps of infantry soldiers and bureaucrats with direct allegiance to the sultan, called janissaries.

Christian boys between the ages of eight and eighteen were conscripted from Europe, called devshirme.

Recipients of the best Islamic education in the world in Ottoman military, religious, and administrative techniques

Diversity and Control

To manage the diversity of this empire, the Ottomans allowed local identities to persist. For instance, although Turkish was the official language of administration, Arabic remained the language of Arab provinces and European languages in Europe. In politics and administration, newly conquered lands were administered by local appointees, who kept some tax revenues for themselves before sending the rest to Istanbul.

However, to keep these local power bases in check, the Ottoman rulers developed loyal and highly trained corps of janissaries, who were infantry soldiers who owed allegiance directly to the sultan. This group was conscripted mainly from Christian European youths in Ottoman territories, in a process called the devshirme. Each village would give a number of boys between ages eight and eighteen based on their physique and looks, who would then be converted to Islam, learn Turkish, and receive physical and military training. This led to a highly trained and loyal group with no local allegiance who could then serve the sultan.


Emerged from the dissolution of the Chagatai khanate

Sufi brotherhood led by Safi al-Din (1252–1334) gained support

Successors, called Safavids, embraced Shiism

The Safavid Empire in Iran

The Safavid emerged in the wake of the Mongol conquests. Unlike the Ottomans, who championed Sunni Islam, the Safavids promoted Shiism.  

When the Chagatai khanate declined in the thirteenth century, numerous parties in central Asia competed for power. At the same time, populist Islamic movements gained a hold on the population. Safi al-Din, the leader of a Sufi brotherhood, gained broad support and rose to preeminence. However, his successors, called the Safavids, embraced Shiism. 


Safavids emerged from Turkic Sufi groups pushed eastward by Ottoman conquests

Eventually gave up Sufism for Shiism

Safavid empire became devoted to Shiism

Did not tolerate diversity

Ismail (r. 1501–1424) made Shiism official state religion

Threatened Sunnis who refused to convert with death

Revived Persian idea that rulers were ordained by God

Did not have as expansive an empire as the Ottomans

A Religious Shiite State

The Safavids emerged from Turkic Sufi tribes pushed westward by the Ottoman conquests. On the Iranian plateau, these peoples gained political authority, but also adopted Persian ways and embraced Shiism.  

The Safavid Empire soon became a devout promoter of Shiism. Unlike the Ottomans, the Safavids did not tolerate religious diversity. The shah Ismail established Shiism as the official state religion in the early sixteenth century and threatened to kill Sunnis who refused to convert.  

At the same time, the Safavids revived the Persian idea that kings were ordained by God, claiming that the shahs were divinely chosen.

Because the Safavid empire did not tolerate diversity, it was never able expand like the Ottomans. Safavids tended to rule directly, rather than granting local autonomy. However it did succeed in transforming Iran into a Shiite stronghold. 


The Mughal empire emerged in South Asia.

Built on the foundations of the Delhi Sultanate

Invasions of Timur paved way for the Mughals

Rivalries, religious revival, and the first Mughal emperor

Timur led the Barlas tribe from Central Asia to defeat the Delhi Sultanate.

Religious revival followed in the wake of political disintegration.

Sufism, new forms of Hinduism, Sikhism

Babur (Timur’s great grandson) completed the conquest of the Delhi Sultanate and consolidated power in South Asia

Three Islamic empires

Sunni Ottomans

Shiite Safavids

Relatively tolerant Mughals

The Delhi Sultanate and the Early Mughal Empire

Soon after the Safavids consolidated power in Persia, the Mughal Empire emerged in South Asia. Built on the foundations of the Delhi Sultanate, the centuries of Mughal rule would leave a lasting imprint. 

Although South Asia was spared from the Black Death and Mongol conquests, nomadic invasions led by Timur paved the way for the Mughal regime.

Timur was the head of Barlas tribe from central Asia, which waged wars of conquest from the Caspian Sea to India. The Delhi Sultanate, already weakened by infighting, mounted a defense but ultimately collapsed. This political disintegration was followed by a wave of religious revival which saw communities in South Asia embrace Sufis and new brands of Hinduism, as well as the rise of a new religion, called Sikhism, which criticized the caste system and preached a doctrine of equality. 

Following Timur’s victory, the Delhi Sultanate was badly weakened, and its influence ceded to a number of competing regional powers. Timur’s great-grandson Babur amassed power in northern India and finally destroyed the Delhi Sultanate.

In the sixteenth century, three new empires emerged in Islamic world: the Sunni Ottomans, their rivals the Shiite Safavids, and the Mughals, whose brand of Islam was generally more tolerant and open to the traditions of South Asia. All three empires, however, consolidated power through military conquest, religious backing, and loyal bureaucracy. 


High Middle Ages (1100–1300) experienced growth in prosperity, population, and cultural achievements

The plague in Europe

Created lasting psychological, social, economic, and political changes

The Catholic Church, reactions, and revolts

Struggled to reclaim its power as it faced challenges from the top and from below

Increased persecution of heretics, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, prostitutes, and “witches”

Also expanded its charity, giving alms to the poor

Began selling indulgences to raise funds

Peasant revolts challenge the existing order

Western Christendom

Following the great increases in population, economic growth, and technological and intellectual achievements in the High Middle Ages in Europe, from 1100 to 1300, the Black Death was a devastating setback. The plague caused lasting psychological, social, economic, and political changes.

The devastation of the Black Death prompted people to raise questions about the Catholic Church. The church’s response to dissident groups and dissatisfaction was to persecute various out-groups and those deemed heretics: Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, prostitutes, and “witches.” Meanwhile, the clergy also sought to expand its charity work to the beleaguered and to improve its bureaucratic functions, such as recording births and deaths. They also sought to align themselves secular powers in order to bolster themselves, such as by endorsing kings’ claims to rule by divine right. The church also began selling indulgences to raise funds, a practice which would have momentous consequences in later centuries. 

While the church was finding new sources of revenue, people at the lower end of society resisted the impositions of kings and clergy.  Revolts in France and England challenged the prevailing order as peasants demanded an end to serfdom. Although these challenges were ruthlessly suppressed, gradually a free peasantry emerged. 


Map 11.3 | Western Christendom, 1400–1500

Map 11.3 | Western Christendom, 1400–1500

Europe was a region divided by dynastic rivalries during the fifteenth century. Locate the most powerful regional dynasties on the map: Portugal, Castile, Aragon, France, Burgundy, England, and the Holy Roman Empire.

• Using the scale, contrast the sizes of political units in this map with those in Maps 11.2 (Ottoman Empire) and 11.4 (Ming China). Explain the significance of the differences.

• Where did popular uprisings take place? Based on your reading, why did those regions experience popular unrest?

• Based on the map, why might the Venetian Republic have been particularly engaged, both in trade and intermittent warfare, with the Ottomans?


Europe’s rulers attempted to rebuild and consolidate their power.

Europe’s political reorganization took the form of centralized national monarchies and wealthy city-states.

The most powerful ruling dynasty, the Habsburgs, provided emperors for the Holy Roman Empire from 1438 to 1806.

Never restored western Europe to an integrated empire

Europe had no unifying language, as Latin lost ground to regional dialects.

Rulers faced obstacles from rival private armies, the clergy, and critics with the printing press.

Economic recovery flourished in the midst of political fragmentation

State Building and Economic Recovery

The main political form that emerged from the turmoil in Europe was the centralized dynastic monarchy, in which one individual held supreme power and could pass it on to their kin. The Habsburg royal family was especially successful in this. It set up a long-lasting dynasty that would provide emperors for the confederation of states that formed the Holy Roman Empire from 1440 to 1806, even though they never restored an integrated western Europe on the Roman model.

Alongside these larger territorial states, more compact and wealthy city-states emerged as a counter-power, in which powerful individuals selected their leaders

Any attempt to rebuild and consolidate power encountered various obstacles. The private armies of rival rulers stood in their way; the clergy claimed special privileges in the form of land and tax relief, and the church remained a wealthy and powerful institution. The printing press also created an elusive challenge, as easily printed pamphlets could criticize rulers.

A century after the plague first struck, despite its shared religious tradition, western Christendom was not unified by a central government or an official language (Latin having lost its status to regional dialects). The old feudal or manorial system had led to a fragmentation of power among local elites, which made political consolidation especially difficult.

In the midst of this political fragmentation, Europe’s economy began to recover as new initiatives in manufacturing took shape and European towns became more integrated into world trade.


The Portuguese were devoted to fighting North African Muslim Moors.

Seized the North African fortress at Ceuta, Morocco, allowing them access to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic without interference

Also defeated Castile (modern Spain)

Henry the Navigator directed the conquest of Atlantic islands off of the north and west African coast.

Monarchs granted land to hereditary nobility to colonize, and the nobility supported the monarchs in return.

Colonizers established lucrative sugar plantations on the islands.

Political Consolidation and Trade in Portugal

Portugal was the first major example of monarchy’s success. Having fought to expel Muslim Moors from Iberia, it seized the North African fortress at Ceuta, Morocco. This won them access to the passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic without Muslim interference, and it allowed them to begin lucrative trading expeditions down the Atlantic coast of Africa. Henry the Navigator, son of João I (who ruled from 1385 to 1433), was the major force behind this overseas exploration and trade. This enabled them to compete against their neighbor, Castile, which the Portuguese perceived as their primary enemy.

Then, the Portuguese monarchs granted these conquered lands to nobles, who were responsible for colonizing them, which they swiftly did with lucrative sugar plantations, the first in the Atlantic world. In turn, they supported the monarchs’ claim to power.


Spain faced an arduous journey to state building because of rivalry among kingdoms and the lack of religious uniformity.

The union of Castile and Aragon

Cemented by the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469.

Wealthy and populated Castile united with Aragon’s Mediterranean trading networks

They married their children to other European royal families, especially the most powerful, the Habsburgs.

Pushed Muslim forces almost completely out of Iberia; last strategic and symbolic victory was Granada

Dynasty Building and Reconquest in Spain

State building was more challenging in Spain, which had a number of internal rival kingdoms and religious diversity in its populations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. But alliances among the major Spanish houses culminated in the union of Castile and Aragon in the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469. This union connected the wealth and prosperity of Castile with the lucrative trading networks of Aragon in the Mediterranean. Building on this base, they then married their children to European royals, including the Habsburgs in central Europe. With the seizure of Granada from Muslims in 1492, which overlooked the straits between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Spain could declare a major Christian and strategic victory.


Isabella and Ferdinand attempted to drive out all non-Catholics from Spain.

In 1481, the Inquisition was launched, targeting conversos, or Christian-converted Jews and Muslims.

After the fall of Granada, the monarchs ordered all Jews out of Spain.

The monarchs gave their royal support to a Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus, who promised them unimaginable wealth.

The Inquisition and Westward Exploration

In these years, Isabella and Ferdinand aimed to consolidate Christianity as the only religion in their realm, and they drove out non-Catholics from Spain through the Inquisition in 1481. This targeted conversos, who were Christian-converted Jews and Muslims they perceived as inauthentic. After 1492, they ordered all Jews and some Moors to leave Spain, which amounted to half a million people departing.

As part of this larger effort to consolidate Christianity within Spain as a countermeasure to Ottoman expansion in the east, the monarchs supported the expedition of Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator, who promised them unimaginable wealth for their campaigns.


France and England consolidated through warfare

Hundred Years War (1337–1453) between France and England

War of the Roses between English houses of Lancaster and York

Tudors seize throne in 1485

States in Europe were relatively small

Made consolidation a less complex affair

Small city-states developed sophisticated economic and financial institutions

The Struggle of France and England and the Success of Small States

France and England faced a slower path to consolidation marked by conflict. In the Hundred Years War, France sought to throw off English rule. In this conflict, Joan of Arc illustrated the role exceptional women could play in the male-dominated political world.

The War of the Roses in England pitted two noble houses against each other in a fight for succession, but ultimately a different house—the Tudors—seized the throne in 1485.

In comparison to the Ottoman and Ming Empires, states in Europe were relatively small. However, this offered advantages of its own. For example, consolidating authority was less complex. Small city-states in southern Europe were also able to develop sophisticated financial institutions and maintain a flourishing trade. It was in these states that the Renaissance began. 


Europe’s political and economic revival included the Renaissance, or the cultural achievements in the Italian city-states, France, the Netherlands, England, and the Holy Roman Empire in the period between 1430 and 1550.

The Renaissance broke the church monopoly on knowledge and opened the way for secular forms of learning.

The Italian Renaissance

Rediscovery of Greek and Roman texts

Humanism: aspiration to know more about human experience than Christian doctrine could offer

Women humanists defended equality of male and female intellects

Medici family major patrons of the arts in Florence and Rome

The Renaissance

Emerging from the dislocations of the fourteenth century, Europeans resembled other regions hit by the Black Death in their use of older traditions to reestablish themselves. Europeans, starting in Italian city-states and then to the north in France, the Netherlands, England, and the Holy Roman Empire, looked to the ancient Greek and Roman models for inspiration. The Renaissance refers to this cultural flourishing between 1430 and 1550, in which wealthy bankers, nobles, the church, and kings financed the arts and intellectual life. Because it invested authority in secular forms of learning and expression, it broke the church’s monopoly on knowledge and focused more attention on human-centered explanations of the cosmos.

Renaissance artists and thinkers reexamined Greek and Roman texts, made more available by the printing press. These were special because they captured human reflection on geography, astronomy, government, and human nature that did not need to conform to church doctrine. This return to Greek and Roman sources to understand the human condition is known as humanism. Humanism became a powerful tool to challenge prevailing social orders. Women humanists, for example, used their learning to defend the equality of male and female intellects. 

The patrons of the Renaissance were primarily wealthy families, rulers, and the church. The Medici family, who had amassed wealth and influence through banking, were major patrons of the arts. Under such patronage, artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo revived classical principles in painting, sculpture, and architecture. 


Crises in Italy and prosperity elsewhere helped spread Renaissance culture

Spain, France, the Low Countries

Elites supported humanistic education

The republic of letters

Political fragmentation allowed artists and scholars to play patrons off one another

Cosmopolitan network of intellectuals known as the “republic of letters”

The printing press

Increased the spread of knowledge

Enabled the circulation of propaganda

The Renaissance Spreads

In the sixteenth century, a series of crises in Italy and prosperity elsewhere in Europe helped spread Renaissance culture. Monarchs in Spain and France purchased thousands of paintings and new buildings to house them. Merchants in the Low Countries, Germany, and France also patronized the arts. Elites everywhere supported humanistic education. 

As power was fragmented in Europe, artists could look to different patrons, and even play them against each other. Though artists challenged church authorities’ sensibilities, most patronage came from clergymen or devout believers.

In this moment, Renaissance intellectual life generated competing ideas of how the state should be governed, which was especially relevant at a time of competing power bases. A network of educated men and women arose in this context who did not depend uniquely on the church, a given state, or a single patron. The Renaissance revolutionized European culture by creating a culture of cosmopolitan critics who sought classical ideas to address the challenges of an expanding world. Such people became a network of correspondents known as the “republic of letters,” more interested in learning than in status or political power.   

A key technological advance that increased the spread of knowledge was the printing press. Although advances in printing had been made much earlier in China, the European discovery of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century allowed enormous increases in the speed at which texts could be printed. Coupled with the availability of cheap paper and rising literacy rates, the printing press spurred a revolution in communication. However, although artists and intellectuals benefited from this new technology, so did rulers who used the press to spread propaganda and promote standardized national languages. 


Renaissance enabled the study of worldly power

New forms of governance were invented, old forms were supported

Niccolò Machiavelli

The Prince (1513)

The Art of War

Wars spurred the development of military technology

Standing armies

Power and the Renaissance Theorizing About War

The Renaissance also inspired people to rethink worldly power. Drawing on classical texts, Renaissance thinkers invented new forms of governance, and found new support for old forms. In this context, Niccolò Machiavelli, produced his well-known reflection on political leadership, The Prince, in 1513 in Florence. There, he emphasized that a ruler must master and exercise the rules of statecraft and accumulate power, even if this meant rejecting morality and civic virtue. In The Art of War, Machiavelli argued that armies formed from a loyal citizenry were more effective than those composed of mercenaries. 

Increasing conflict, combined with the renewed Renaissance interest in science, spurred improvements in military technology like artillery, ballistics, and fortifications. By the sixteenth century, many European powers had formed standing armies and had begun to invest in improved defenses for their residences and cities. 


Mongols and the Black Death led the way for the Ming dynasty to emerge.

Restoring order

Mongol Yuan rulers faced chaos and dissidence.

Red Turban commander Zhu Yuanzhang started driving Mongols from China beginning with Nanjing in 1356.

Zhu founded the Ming (“brilliant”) dynasty in 1368.

Ming China

As the Mongol conquest, founding of the Yuan Empire, and the horrors of the Black Death undermined the stability of China, the Ming dynasty emerged to renounce rulers deemed “barbarians.”

The Red Turban movement, led by Zhu Yuanzhang, challenged Yuan rule. It drew on the religious and cultural diversity of China to blend Buddhism, Daoism, and other philosophies to form a strict code of conduct. Zhu claimed the founding of the Ming (which means “brilliant”) dynasty in 1368 and the imperial title of Hongwu (“expansive and martial”), following the seizure of Nanjing in 1356. When Beijing fell next, the Mongol emperor fled.


Ming rulers faced a formidable challenge of rebuilding cities, restoring respect for rulers, and reconstructing the bureaucracy. 

Imperial grandeur and kinship

The Yongle Emperor (“perpetual happiness”) built an even more grandiose and awe-inspiring capital in Beijing, with the Forbidden City, a walled imperial city with boulevards, courtyards, and palace.

Marriage and kinship increased Ming power; Hongwu married the daughter of a Red Turban rival, Empress Ma.

Empress Ma became the kinder, gentler face of the Zhu Hongwu regime.

Centralization Under the Ming

Given the devastation in China, it took decades to centralize power and begin to rebuild the empire’s infrastructure and the authority of this new dynasty.

Toward this end, the dynasty sponsored grand projects, such as in its new capital in Beijing. The Yongle Emperor, the dynasty’s third, employed 1 million laborers and 100,000 artisans to build up the city as a grandiose and awe-inspiring place. This included the walled Forbidden City, with its own elaborate boulevards, courtyards, and palace, which housed the imperial family.

To further concentrate unchallenged power, the Ming used strategic intermarriage to co-opt rivals and expand their authority. For instance, Zhu Hongwu, the first emperor, married the daughter of a Red Turban rival. Empress Ma became his principal wife, and her reputation for compassion served as an important counterbalance to his inclination to cruelty, which helped to assert his rule.


Hongwu first sought to rule through kinsmen, but soon established a merit- and civil service exam–based imperial bureaucracy.

The Hongwu Emperor implemented a highly centralized imperial bureaucracy and administrative network.

Installed bureaucrats to oversee the manufacture of porcelain, cotton, and silk as well as tax collection

Reestablished the Confucian civil service examination system

Created local village networks to build irrigation and reforestation projects (1 billion trees)

Bureaucratic hierarchy forced all officials to answer to emperor

The Ming established the most highly centralized government of the period.

Building a Bureaucracy

Although Hongwu initially experimented with allotting power to his kinsmen, when they accumulated too much and threatened his rule, he established a merit-based civil service bureaucracy that would be loyal strictly to him and his descendants.

Under his rule, he established a highly centralized administrative network that accomplished large tasks in the following decades. Bureaucrats were responsible for the key industries of porcelain, cotton, and tax production. They raised taxes, which supported large-scale projects. Hongwu also reestablished the Confucian civil service examination system to build his administrative class. Meanwhile, he created local village networks to build irrigation systems, which would promote agricultural growth, alongside major reforestation projects. (The trees from this would later serve the construction of a maritime fleet.) Over time, Hongwu’s system became the most highly centralized in the world, with the emperor at its center and all officials having to answer to him.


Emperors revised and strengthened elaborate rites and ceremonies, citing the mandate of heaven.

Official rituals reinforced political and social classes.

Lavish ceremonies cultivated the emperor’s image as mediator between human and spiritual worlds.

Emperor sanctioned official cults, which often conflicted with local practices

State sometimes competed with local religious practices

Religion under the Ming

The Ming rulers also used religion to undergird their rule. To demonstrate that they held the mandate of heaven, they organized various rites and ceremonies. In these official rituals, the emperor’s role as the mediator between the gods and the living was celebrated.

The emperor also sanctioned official cults and organized them into categories. However, these cults often conflicted with local practices, bringing the state into religious competition with localities. 


Ming stability and centralization was unique compared to the constant warfare in Europe.

The Hongwu Emperor appointed village chiefs, village elders, or tax captains in order to manage his empire.

The dynasty created a social hierarchy to manage people based on age, sex, and kinship.

The Ming stymied threats with outright terror and repression.

The empire remained under-governed because of the immense task for 10,000–15,000 officials to manage over 200 million people.

The Hongwu Emperor’s legacy enabled other Ming successors to balance centralizing ambitions with local sources of power. 

Ming Rulership

To organize this massive and populous state, the Ming depended on a highly structured bureaucracy. As the allegiance and resources of the peasantry were crucial to the emperor’s rule, Hongwu decided to depend on a network of local leaders. In appointing village chiefs, elders, and tax captains, he used local, rather than distant central, power to rule on the ground. Throughout, the dynasty also promoted a strict social hierarchy, which organized people based on age, sex, and kinship. In particular, it celebrated women’s chastity and the devotion of women to their husbands—whether alive or dead.

In more brutal ways, the Ming also managed the empire. Hongwu slaughtered people he deemed dissidents, and from 1376 to 1393, four of these purges led to the death of perhaps 100,000 subjects. Despite the enduring concern with governing the empire, by the sixteenth century only 10,000 to 15,000 officials were responsible for a growing population of 200 million. Hongwu had nonetheless set up a system that balanced the desire for centralization with a reliance on local leaders to assert the emperor’s will.


Map 11.4 | Ming China, 1500s

Map 11.4 | Ming China, 1500s

The Ming state was one of the largest empires at this time—and the most populous. Using the scale, determine the length of its coastline and its internal borders.

• What were the two Ming capitals and the three main seaport trading cities? How far are they from one another?

• According to the map, where did the Ming rulers expect the greatest threat to their security?

• How many provinces are outlined on the map? How far is Beijing from some of the more distant provinces? What sorts of challenges might that create for the centralized style of Ming rule, and how does the chapter suggest those challenges were resolved?


Political stability in the fourteenth century allowed merchants to revive China’s preeminence in long-distance trade.

Chinese port cities flourished as entrepôts for global goods.

The Hongwu Emperor feared contact with the outside world would undermine his rule.

Hongwu banned private maritime commerce in 1371, although enforcement was lax.

Trade surged despite constant friction between government officials and maritime traders.

Trade and Exploration under the Ming

Later in the fourteenth century, political stability led to the revival of China’s commercial strength, based on the appeal of its manufactured goods throughout Afro-Eurasia.

Although major seaports emerged in this period, buoyed by the lucrative overseas trade routes, the Ming dynasty tended to view this process with suspicion. Hongwu feared that excessive contact with the outside world would undermine the stability of his rule at home. Inspired by this, he banned private maritime commerce in 1371, though it was unevenly enforced. Maritime trade increased in the following century, even as it led to conflict between official demands and merchants’ interests.


Yongle Emperor’s sponsorship of a series of spectacular expeditions in the early fifteenth century was an exception to Ming attitudes toward the outside world.

From 1405 to 1433, Admiral Zheng He led seven expeditions in the Indian Ocean to establish trade and tributary relationships.

After the death of the Yongle Emperor, expeditions declined.

While maritime trade continued without official patronage, the Ming decision to forgo overseas ventures deprived merchants and explorers of vital support.

The Expeditions of Zheng He

In contrast to Hongwu’s policies, the third emperor, Yongle, sponsored the spectacular expeditions of Admiral Zheng He between 1405 and 1433. Zheng He was a significant military leader, following his capture and castration by the Ming as a child. His massive armada—the largest in world history to that point—completed seven expeditions to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and as far west as the coast of Africa. They sought to establish commercial and tributary relations with these peoples, rather than outright conquest.

After the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424, however, interest in maritime expansion declined. This coincided with a renewed military threat from the north, which reignited fears of barbarian overthrow of Chinese power. While the state withdrew patronage of overseas activity, rivals were able to fill these maritime spaces in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.


Map 11.5 | Voyages of Zheng He, 1405–1433

Map 11.5 | Voyages of Zheng He, 1405–1433

Zheng He’s voyages are some of the most famous in world history. Many have speculated about how history might be different if the Chinese emperors had allowed the voyages to continue.

• What routes did Zheng He’s armada follow?

• Referring to other maps in this chapter and earlier chapters, with what peoples did Zheng He’s armada come into contact?

• Using the scale on the map, estimate how far Zheng He’s armada sailed. How does that distance compare with those covered by other world travelers you’ve encountered in this text?


The Black Death and its devastation transformed the societies of Afro-Eurasia, shaping and transforming new states and empires.

Each state developed distinctive traits and innovative ways of rule, often borrowed from neighbors.

States legitimized rule with dynastic marriage, state religion, administrative bureaucracies, and commercial expansion.

The turning point in world history is marked by Europe, motivated by Ottoman conquests, seeking new trade connections, just as the Chinese decided to turn away from overseas exploration.


The devastation wrought by the Black Death led to the transformation of societies and ruling regimes in much of Afro-Eurasia, giving rise to new states and empires. However, universal religions and cultural systems endured, though often in reimagined forms. Though they took on distinctive traits and means of ruling, they used similar techniques to legitimize rule and exert their authority in the face of a common set of challenges. The major turning point that took place in this period was in Europe, which, spurred by Ottoman conquests to the east and south, established trade connections and aspirations that would have major consequences in the years ahead.



This concludes the Lecture Slide Set for Chapter 11









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