Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New 1492-1650.  Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1970.

The Uncertain Impact

Elliot believes that the impact of America on Europe has not been as well considered as the subject deserves.  Eighteenth-century history of America focused on the nature of man and his relationship to society. Nineteenth-century historians told the epic journey of Europe outward rather than outside influences radiating back to Europe.
But indeed the myth of America in European thought had intellectual, economic and political repercussions. Were Europeans excited, interested, changed by America?  Columbus's letter was published 9 times in 1493 and had gone through 20 editions by 1500.  (9) That kind of demand indicates excitement and interest; however, it does not demonstrate change.

Humanists, historians and church fathers found America of interest because it was the first the first "fact" outside of the classics and the Bible.  But Columbus as a character, a life, was uninteresting to a larger audience.  New sources of gold and new opportunities for religious conversion were more engaging than "How did Columbus do it? What kind of man was he?"  Despite deep interest, America moved on to maps and into social philosophy slowly.  The impulse, first of all, was that of Hernan Perez de Oliva, to "give to those strange lands the form of our own." (15)

Indeed, Elliott asks, how could the first explorers explain new colors and new forms to those who had never seen them?  How were they to be spoken of, understood?  So America was cast in familiar terms: America stood for the end of the world, or for the lost prelapsarian world.  Even as it was being assimilated as a new fact, America was being set into current modes of thought and belief.


After 1650, evidence collection via questionnaire became a new method of governing  for Spain. These facts were grouped in a Christian framework.  Elliott argues that "that all knowledge was subordinated to a higher purpose and fitted into a providential design, was crucial for the assimilation of the New World of America by sixteenth-century Christendom." (31)  The assimilation and exploitation of natural products forced a new taxonomy of thinking but unpublished works, early forms of enthnography, prevented some change in ideas.  Elliott mentions explorers and writes like Sahagun and Duran (35), who created manuscripts of uncollected data, and Tovar's history of Mexico which remained unpublished.

Exotica were those facts outside the pale, not able to be assimilated.  For instance,  American Indians were neither Christian nor heathen, but barbarian and savage and wild.  How to account for them?  Later they were determined to be rational and fit for conversion.  "This process of reappraisal was supremely important, because it gradually forced Europeans to move away from a narrow and primarily political definition of 'civility'  towards the broader concept of "civilization,' which was not necessarily equated with Christianity.... The implications of this, as spelt out by Vitoria, were so far-reaching that they were bound to affect Christendom's conception of its relationship with the outer world. " (44-45)  However, a secular Europe lay far in the future.   "By the end of the sixteenth century, then, the experience of American had provided Europe with at least the faint outlines of a theory of social development.  But this theory was set into a general framework of historical thought which was European in its points of reference, and Christian and providentialist in its interpretation of the historical process." (50)


The New World re-arranged the economics of  Europe, including capital formation, bullion influx and trade.  Many explanations of economic change focus on the new supply of gold and silver, the primary windfall of the New World.  Most of the bullion flow, West to East, occurred between 1500-1650 and Elliott argues, brought luxuries to European elite, but he is more reticent about the relationship between newly available precious metals and the price revolution.  Certainly prices rose in Spain, but what happened to American silver once it reached Seville is less certain.   Some of it went to international fairs, and some went into artwork;  some went to armies, embassies, and allies, and much was smuggled elsewhere.  The proportion -- how much went to Asia, how much stayed home, and how much was frozen into art -- is unclear; the money with stayed in Spain eventually spread among the elite, tradesmen and middle-class merchants.  Elliott agrees with M. and Mme. Chaunu that American trade stimulated (or depressed) the European economy as much as American  silver did.  America was a dumping ground and a proving ground, the space for new opportunities and a drain on the Old World, a shaper of colonial systems as Africa and Asia could not be.

Atlantic World

If one surveys European political history and asks "would or could these events have happened without the discovery of America?"  one is in for a long night.  Anyway, Elliott answers with a qualified yes.  Old enemies simply added new venues for the struggle.  The authoritarianism of the Spanish government seemed to flourish in the soil of colonial opportunity. As power tilted across the century toward Castile and the Italian states, Islam slowly ceased to be a threat.  Spanish power was made up of technology, armies, confidence, reputation; but Elliott reminds his readers that " it was the silver of the Indies which gave cohesion and movement to the mighty machine." (90)  Christianity and the power of the West were being made firm, and the Americas -- physically and spiritually -- were drawn into that empire.