1494: How A Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

Written by Stephen R. Bown
Review by Juliet Waldron

“How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half” is the subtitle but could also have possibly been the “elevator pitch.” Pope Alexander VI is to settle a dynastic row between Portugal and Spain, dividing the world (known and unknown!) between these two nations, unintentionally setting off a chain reaction of discovery, exploitation, and genocide that would lead to five centuries of unintentional outcomes as various and extreme as the Protestant Reformation and European colonialism.

Since I received an Anglo-centric historical education, the affairs of Spain and Portugal during the 15th century were, prior to this book, mostly a blank for me. This readable popular history helped me not only to fill the gaps in my understanding of the European past, but also plugged in key connections to another personal terra incognita – the Middle East. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks closed the traditional spice routes to European merchants, which led to a flood of out-of-work, highly skilled cartographers and mariners from Italy seeking employment and a new route to the east. These men and their proto-capitalist backers formed the kernel of the first great merchant navies of the western world – those of Portugal and her closest rival, Spain – and thus, the connections illuminated by Bown’s work were made for me. Highly recommended.