That they operated in extending the progress of discovery and commerce is evident. We have already remarked that from the earliest periods, the commodities of the east attracted the desires of the western nations: the Arabians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans of the ancient world; the Italian and Hanseatic states of the middle ages, all endeavoured to enrich themselves by trading in commodities so eagerly and universally desired. As industry and skill increased, and as the means as well as the desire of purchase and enjoyment spread, by the rise of a middle class in Europe, the demand for these commodities extended. The productions and manufactures of the north, as well as of the south of Europe, having been increased and improved, enabled the inhabitants of these countries to participate in those articles from India, which, among the ancients, had been confined exclusively to the rich and powerful.
On the other hand, even at the very time that this enlarged demand for Indian commodities was taking place in Europe, and was accompanied by enlarged means as well as extended skill and expedience in discovery and commerce,—at this very time obstacles arose which threatened the almost entire exclusion of Europeans from the luxuries of Asia. It may well be doubted, whether, if the enemies of the Christian faith had not gained entire possession of all the routes to India, and moreover, if these routes had been rendered more easy of access and passage, they could have long supplied the increased demands of improving Europe. But that Europe should, on the one hand, improve and feel enlarged desires as well as means of purchasing the luxuries of the east, while on the other hand, the practicability of acquiring these luxuries should diminish, formed a coincidence of circumstances, which was sure to produce important results.
As access to India by land, or even by the Arabian Gulf by sea, was rendered extremely difficult and hazardous by the enmity of the Mahometans, or productive of little commercial benefit by their exactions, the attention and hopes of European navigators were directed to a passage to India along the western coast of Africa. As, however, the length and difficulties of such a voyage were extremely formidable, it would probably have been either not attempted at all, or have required much longer time to accomplish than it actually did, if, in addition and aid of increased desires and an enlarged commercial spirit, the means of navigating distant, extensive, and unknown seas, had not likewise been, about this period, greatly improved.
We allude, principally, to the discovery of the mariners’ compass. The first clear notice of it appears in a Provencal poet of the end of the twelfth century. In the thirteenth century it was used by the Norwegians in their voyages to and from Iceland, who made it the device of an order of knighthood of the highest rank; and from a passage in Barber’s Bruce, it must have been known in Scotland, if not used there in 1375, the period when he wrote. It is said to have been used in the Mediterranean voyages at the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century.