Lecture: Week 3, Part II: Territory and Conceptual Differences

A) Europeans and Land Ownership

1) The Pope and the division of the world/spoils of conquest

Portrait, Manuel I of Portugal: ‘King of Portugal and the Algarves of either side of the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India, etc.’ Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week I mentioned that João [Joad] Fernandes, was authorized by King Manuel of Portugal to explore the Portuguese ‘sphere of influence’ in 1499.

The right to imagine there was a legitimate Portuguese ‘sphere of influence’ was first sanctioned in a papal bull in 1455 which authorized the Portuguese to ‘reduce to servitude all infidel peoples’. [definition, papal bull: a formal proclamation issued by the pope].

Then, in 1493 [nb: year after Columbus’ voyage], Pope Alexander VI, in another series of bulls announced Christian dominion over the ‘New World’ by dividing lands discovered, or about to be discovered, between Spain and Portugal.

Portrait, Alexander VI — born Rodrigo Borgia — who was a very secular guy: he was not asked to profess a ‘calling’, he was one of the wealthiest men of his time, and although he was described by some as very competent in his office, wise and compassionate [he would not persecute the Jews], he was reputed by others [including Pope Pius II] to have been a murderer at age 12, a renowned womanizer (one of his children was the infamous Lucrezia Borgia], and guilty of buying his office. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The next year, 1494, Spain and Portugal agreed on a dividing line, drawn north-south, visible on the 1502 Cantino Map. The line, known as the ‘Iberian Axis’, was 370 leagues (1800 kilometres) west of the Cape Verde Islands. [The Cantino Map is the one reputed to have been drawn by survivors of the Corte-Real voyages — land to the west would be Spanish, to the east Portuguese.] Given the uncertain geography of the day, this seemed to give Newfoundland — and Brazil — to Portugal.

Neither the papal bulls nor the agreement between Spain and Portugal was intended as binding on other European powers, but those other powers protested anyway. And they sent out ships — like Cabot’s — to demonstrate their ability to compete for authority.

Portrait, Francis I of France, who commented: “The sun shines on me as for others, I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share in the world.”Source: Wikimedia Commons.

England, France, and Holland began to challenge the Iberian Axis and claim their place as world powers.

2) Non-Christian Princes

Actually, the papal bulls were designed to make the point that new found lands could be taken away from non-Christian princes without fear of reprisal from God or defenders of Christendom — which was not the case with lands governed by Christian princes. [this was a non-aggression pact of sorts, already arrived at in light of the Crusades (waged from approx. 1095 into the 15th century, and based on having designated Muslim powers, which followed Islam, as a collective common enemy).] Thus any Europeans who sought to expand territory by occupying new land stood to benefit from furnishing evidence of their commitment to ensuring the Christian character of their territory .

Hence the impetus to convince people already inhabiting territory into which Europeans might expand to

a) agree to hand over title to the land

b) become Christian

One of the things that made ‘Task a)’ [taking over land] relatively easy to achieve with respect to America, was the decimation of native populations by disease.  Another was the absence of an Aboriginal concept of land ownership that corresponded with European conceptions. Thus, Europeans could ‘claim’ territory [post a proclamation on a tree, plant a flag] without Aboriginal peoples necessarily knowing what exactly Europeans though they had accomplished.

B) Aboriginal Peoples and communal lands

Among the people of an Aboriginal collectivity, ownership of land was communal — individual ownership was not practical: they were seasonally nomadic — following food — so, not really possible.

Likewise with ‘stuff’: it was not practical to accumulate possessions (think furniture, massive wardrobes, knickknacks, wine barrels, collections of large art pieces), because these were hard to transport.

So private property was just not a big issue. Distinctions of status based on how much stuff you owned, or how much land you kept for yourself, were completely alien.

IV Ownership and consumption

A) Aboriginal reciprocity

In their non-hierarchically arranged, egalitarian societies, the way to survive with any degree of comfort was to share [reciprocity — you give to others to get from others (sort of an instant karma concept)]. The ability to share was admired. It was the measure of success (including how large a family you could support, hence one explanation for multiple wives, or readily adopting extra children).

B) Europeans and competition for commodities and control of consumption

This North American idea of reciprocity was not understood by Europeans who came from a very different social system where the ownership and accumulation of stuff by the individual defined everything.

— land-holding was organized so as to bring the benefits of good farming to individuals owning their own land, or to tenants with secure leases — land came to be treated as a commodity almost like any other.

— And in Europe belief in what economists call the ‘zero sum game’ was common — a belief which leads to competitive behavior:

The reasoning was that resources are finite, therefore, if one person has something, someone else must go without it.

— As well, in their hierarchically arranged societies, social status determined by ownership, and made visible by conspicuous display of ownership, was extremely important.

C) Reciprocity vs. Competition

The North American motive in exchanging goods — trade — was to establish a reciprocal relationship in which displays of generosity would be the norm.

But the North Americans encountered the European motive, which was to exploit a resource — to trade it — for profit, so as to become more powerful than all other competitors (meaning pretty much everybody else).

The principal articles of trade that drew Europeans to the Atlantic region were furs and fish.

1) Fur:

By 1500 in Europe ownership, and displays of ownership, were regulated.

a) for example by Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary Laws dated back to the Romans. They were laws that regulated citizens’ consumption of goods based on ‘religious’, ‘ethical’, or ‘economic’ grounds. [Nearly every government in the world has at one time or another enforced them.]

During the 1500s sumptuary laws were meant to restrict the citizen’s right to purchase goods — clothing, food, beverages, and furniture. They also restricted access to raw materials, for example by outlawing the hunting of game, or cutting of wood, or growing food, in certain areas [amounting to a virtual ban on independent hunting and gathering lifestyles].

Sumptuary laws relating to dress seem to have served several interrelated purposes:

1) to maintain class distinctions

2) to maintain a particular ‘moral code’ and ‘cultural identity’

3) to serve economic [protectionist] or political ends, for example by encouraging home industries to undermine foreign competition.

These purposes were achieved by threatening mainly the lower and middle classes with fines, property seizure, jail, and even execution. Offenders were charges with being ‘extravagant’, ‘sinful’, or ‘immoral’ — but the real crime appears to have been ‘lying about who you were.’

Europeans in general expected to be able to tell a lot about a person by what that person wore. You could tell if a woman was married or unmarried by the way she wore her hair. You could tell which country or region someone was from by their clothes. You could distinguish their rank.

So the idea was that your presentation to the world should tell the truth about your status, who you were, what rank you occupied, what you did, where you came from, and, perhaps most importantly, who you owed allegiance to. Now we carry various sorts of ID cards. Back then your clothes and possessions were expected to do that work.


Pierto Bertelli, engraving, “Cortigiana Veneza,” trans. ‘Venetian cortesan,’ c.1591.

An example of some of the laws:

— note the sumptuous clothing of the Venetian courtesan/prostitute above: In England, a statute decreed that “no known whore should weare … any hood, except … striped of divers colors, nor furre, but garments reversed or turned the wrong side outward upon paine to forfeit the same”

Nevertheless, though sumptuary laws were in effect, they were not entirely effective. Some historians argue that a good number of people flaunted regulations on a constant basis. And, by the 1500s merchants had gained enough economic strength in Europe to afford displays of wealth such as expensive clothing and jewellery. They began to resemble the aristocratic class.

Portrait, Elizabeth I of England, known as “the Armada Portrait,” at Woburn Abbey, painted by George Gower, c.1588, “to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (depicted in the background). Elizabeth I’s international power is reflected by the hand resting on the globe.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In England Queen Elizabeth reacted, in 1574, by re-enforcing previous decrees and issuing a proclamation outlining the acceptable dress of her subjects, based on their class: the ‘Statute of Apparel’. [See also http://www.elizabethan.org/sumptuary/index.html]

“None shall weare in his Apparell any Cloth of {gold, sylver, of tincele} satin, sylke, or cloth myxte with gold or sylver, nor any sables. Except Earles, and all of superior degrees, and Viscountes and Barons in theyr doblets and sleveless coates. …

[and excepting the privileged few] None shall weare in his apperal … Woolen cloth made out of the realm, but in caps only …

[or] fur wherof the kind groweth not in the Queen’s dominions, except foins, grey genets, and budge: except the degrees and persons above mentioned, and men that may dispend £100 by the year, … [or] son of a knight, or son and heir apparent of a man of 300 marks land by the year …”

Note the reference to caps: the point was to protect a realm’s manufacturing sector

— during the 16th century, velvet caps, made from material coming from Italy and France, were the stylish headgear for men.

— to compete, Elizabeth compelled all persons over six years of age, except those of high position, to wear woollen caps, made in England, on Sundays and all holy days.

Note on the “animals not found in England”:

Foin — a.k.a. Beech Marten.

— foins were weasel like critters

Genet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

— grey genets, are of the mongoose family, but look similar to a cat

— budge is lambskin from North Africa and Spain.

Not mentioned in this excerpt is the principal product of the North American fur trade — beaver pelts.

b) Fur trade value

The heyday of the North American fur trade actually falls outside of our current century of activity, but the ‘sumptuary’ idea — that special furs were for special people — is relevant.

[see images of beaver hat making, http://people.ucsc.edu/~kfeinste/felting.html]

Beaver pelts were desirable because the fine under-hairs of beaver fur — not the coarser guard hairs — made a uniquely hardy felt hat that, once fashioned into a shape, held that shape, ‘rain or shine’.

So beaver felt had especially good qualities for making impressively wide-brimmed hats — or strikingly formed hats — which meant it was particularly suited to making that most desirable of all head coverings, the fashionable and respectable signifier of accomplished masculinity — the fancy, beaver hat.

Why the emphasis on masculine and not feminine hat fashion?

Because in the period we are looking at, shifts in fashion were connected to mutations in political power and prestige. Female monarchs such as Elizabeth & Mary of England, or Isabella of Spain notwithstanding, men disproportionately enjoyed political power and acted to protect prestige. Consequently men most often initiated basic changes in style and dress.

It was men’s extraordinary attentiveness to the dictates of fashion in hats that fuelled three hundred years of European trade in North America.

Why North America?

During the 1500s beaver were virtually trapped out of existence in England and most of Europe.

Rider, with G.B. Eltis, engraving, “Beaver and Muskrat,” Source: Library and Archives Canada / Bibilothèque et Archives Canada (R9266-2557) Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Getting the fur from North America was expensive, so only a relatively small amount got to Europe during the 1500s. The scarcity meant beaver hats were a prestigious luxury — only the aristocracy and wealthy merchants were allowed to wear them [though a thriving trade in 2nd-hand hats allowed some dispersion to a wider populace].

One irony:

Aboriginal people of North America wore and slept on beaver skins, thereby wearing off the outer guard hairs over time — which, back in Europe, reduced the labour involved in separating the feltable under-hairs from the useless outer-hairs (a difficult and expensive process).

Claude Joseph Sauthier with William Fadden, engraving, “(Fur trading scene).Inset of a Fur Trading Scene on “A Map of the Inhabited Part of Canada from the French Surveys…,” dated 1777. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2926912.

So, Europeans prized worn beaver skins. In effect, in return for their old, raggedy, worn-out clothing and bedding, Aboriginal people got:

— forged metal tools and implements

— new technology [shallops for example, with ropes and sails; eventually guns and powder]

— new foods [such as already manufactured flour, salt, sugar]

— and exotic beverages [tea, alcohol (including French and Italian wines and brandy that Englishmen sometimes had difficulty getting)]

So, where in you text it states “Native people were unusually eager to barter with newcomers” in the 16th century, maybe that was because the Europeans seemed to be very generous.

2) Food

a. Food laws to control consumption were also common in Europe. For example, when company came for a meal you had to serve a specified number of courses depending on their class.

A high church official, such as a cardinal, had to be served 9 courses.

Bishops, archbishops, or counts sere to be served 7 courses.

Ordinary government officials rated 6 courses.

Laws that mattered to some degree to the North Atlantic fishery are those that pertained to fish as food.

Up to 1500, long distance sea-trade existed, but Europe as a whole imported little food, except for a few luxuries, and exported virtually no food.

After 1500 there was a vigorous growth in overseas trade. In the region we are considering the single most important trade item was …

Atlantic Cod. Source Wikimedia Commons.

b) Cod: the fish that drove the ‘New World’ fishery.

1) Eating Fish

As in the coastal regions of North America, people of coastal Europe ate a great deal of fish.

First page of Taillevent’s viandier. As Head of the Royal Kitchen in France, he wrote the first French professional cook book (1375). [The full title in English is: Hereafter follows the Viandier describing the preparation of all manner of foods, as cooked by Taillevent, the cook of our noble king, and also the dressing and preparation of boiled meat, roasts, sea and freshwater fish, sauces, spices, and other suitable and necessary things described hereafter.]

Taillevent’s Recipe for Cod:

“Salt cod is eaten with mustard sauce or with fresh melted butter over it”

Cod was a popular food. One reason for the popularity was that it preserves unusually well because its white flesh is almost entirely devoid of fat. [Fat resists salt and slows the rate at which salt is absorbed into the fish, displacing the water within the cells] This is why oily fish, after salting, must be pressed tightly in barrels to be preserved, whereas cod can simply be laid in salt. Also fat in fish exposed to air in curing becomes rancid. Cod, along with its relatives, including haddock and whiting, can be air-dried after salting, an effective, long-lasting cure.

2) Faith and Fish

For the first 1000 years of Christianity, the Catholic Church was Christianity’s only church in Europe [there was no Eastern Orthodoxy of Protestantism to distinguish it (‘catholic’ simply means ‘universal’)]. This ‘universal’ church did not begin at a specific point in time like the Protestant denominations, but developed gradually. After several hundred years, there were specific beliefs, systems of organization, and practices — such as fasting days, on which there was only one meal, in the evening, at which meal in the early centuries wine was entirely forbidden.

St. Gregory [540-604] is credited with laying down the rule that “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” This decision, later enshrined in the common law of the Church forbade the eating of ‘hot’ foods [meaning meat] for almost 1/2 of the days of the year. Because fish came from water, it was deemed a ‘cold’ food (as were whales, and the tails, but not the bodies, of beaver).

Thus, throughout the Middle Ages, if you were a Christian, you belonged to the Catholic Church and fish was a major part of your diet [or you were a heretic, for which you could be punished severely].

If you were Muslim, or Jewish, fish was also part of your diet. There were dietary laws for followers of both Islam and Judaism, but basically people in both groups were permitted to eat fish that had scales without having to practice any complicated procedures.

Under English law the penalty for eating meat on Friday was hanging [until 1533, when Henry VIII broke with the Vatican. Even after the break, a Lenten meat eater was subject to penalties such as imprisonment and public humiliation. By this time the motivation was less religious than economic — the government wanted to support the fishing industry.]

A 1563 proposal to extend the lean days to twice a week, adding Wednesday, was supported by the argument that it would build up the fishing fleet. The idea was not dropped until 1585.

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