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At the end of the Middle Ages, the world that Europeans knew of was all about the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indies, the generic name by which they referred to the Far East, that is, East Asia.
Most Europeans knew only the Far East through reports; like that of the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who left his city in 1271, accompanying his father and uncle on a trip to that region.
America and Oceania were totally unknown to Europeans.
Transition period between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age.
Even the information Europeans had about many of the known regions was inaccurate and full of fanciful elements.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European explorers, but mostly Portuguese and Spanish, they began to venture into the "unknown sea," that is, by the Atlantic Ocean and also the Pacific and Indian initiating the call Age of Navigation and Maritime Discoveries.
The first routes of the big navigations
In the fifteenth century, European countries wishing to buy spices (pepper, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices) had to resort to merchants in Venice or Genoa who had a monopoly on these products. With access to the eastern markets - India was the main - Italian bourgeois charged exorbitant prices for spices from the East. The channel of communication and transport of goods from the east was the Mediterranean Sea, dominated by the Italians. Finding a new way for the Indies was a difficult but much desired task. Portugal and Spain were very keen to have direct access to the eastern sources, so that they could also profit from this interesting trade.
Another important factor that stimulated navigations at this time was the need for Europeans to conquer new lands. They wanted it to be able to get raw materials, precious metals and products not found in Europe. Even the Catholic Church was interested in this endeavor, as it would mean new believers.
The kings were also interested, so much so that they financed much of the maritime endeavors, as with increased trade they could also increase tax revenues for their kingdoms. More money would mean more power for the absolutist kings of the time.
Portugal was the pioneer in 15th and 16th century navigations due to a series of conditions found in this Iberian country. The great experience in navigating, especially cod fishing, helped Portugal a lot. The caravels, the main means of maritime and commercial transportation of the period, were developed with superior quality than other nations. Portugal had a significant amount of capital investments coming from the bourgeoisie and also from the nobility, interested in the profits that this business could generate. In this country there was also concern with nautical studies, as the Portuguese even created a study center: The School of Sagres.