‘If we would study with profit the history of our ancestors, we… must never forget that the country of which we read was a very different country from that in which we live.’ Lord Macaulay's dictum is certainly true of Europe on the eve of the Great Discoveries. Could the landscapes of that time be set before our eyes, we should find them very different from those of today. The countryside, although tamed by the pioneering activity of the Middle Ages, would still look wild to our eyes—or much of it would. If the great forests had been reduced, much of the marsh and heath still remained untouched. The medieval city had risen to prominence, yet most of the towns and cities would appear small to us, and their industrial and commercial activities limited.
But although much has changed, the bold facts of physical geography have remained much the same. Europe is a peninsula of peninsulas; and on either side of the great peninsula itself lie, and lay, the two maritime worlds of the Mediterranean and of northern and western Europe, with their contrasting histories and climates and commodities. Towards the broad base of the peninsula, where it is attached to Asia, Europe loses its identity. Vast plains replace the variety of mountain and lowland, and the temperatures on these plains fall below freezing point for most of the winter.
But the human geography of Europe in the fifteenth century must be considered not only against the variety of its physical setting, but also in the framework of its time. One of the most notable achievements of the Middle Ages was the clearing and reclamation and draining by which the countryside was tamed and transformed. But this great expansive movement did not continue uninterruptedly right up to the dawn of modern times. In places it slowed down; in some places it ceased; in yet other places the frontiers of cultivation even retreated.