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also available: eBook
category: History
published: July 2011
publisher: Douglas & McIntyre


How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

by Stephen R. Bown

tagged: spain & portugal, expeditions & discoveries

The true story involving a corrupt pope -- the patriarch of the family fictionalized in the hit Showtime series The Borgias -- in an explosive feud between monarchs and the Church that divided the world in half.

When Columbus triumphantly returned from America to Spain in 1493, his discoveries inflamed an already-smouldering conflict between Spain's renowned monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal's Joao II. Which nation was to control the world's oceans? To quell the argument, Pope Alexander VI -- the notorious Rodrigo Borgia -- issued a proclamation laying the foundation for the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, an edict that created an imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean dividing the entire known (and unknown) world between Spain and Portugal. The edict was to have a profound influence on world history: it propelled Spain and Portugal to superpower status, steered many other European nations on a collision course and became the central grievance in two centuries of international espionage, piracy and warfare.

The treaty also began the fight for "the freedom of the seas," a distinctly modern notion, championed in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius, whose arguments became the foundation of international law.

At the heart of one of the greatest international diplomatic and political agreements of the last five centuries were the strained relationships and passions of a handful of powerful individuals. They were linked by a shared history of quarrels, rivalries and hatreds that dated back decades. Yet the struggle ultimately stemmed from Isabella's determination to defy tradition and the king and to choose Ferdinad as her husband.

About the Author

Stephen R. Bown is the author of many critically acclaimed, award winning titles including most recently, Last Viking (D&M, 2012) which was named amongst the Globe and Mail Best 100 Books of the Year. Born in Ottawa, he now lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two children.

Editorial Reviews

"Bown incorporates a sprawling cast of characters, including Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus, Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and members of the ostentatious Borgia clan, into what is both a judicious synthesis of the surrounding scholarship and an entertaining look at the evolution of international law on the high seas. In lieu of earth-shattering revelations, Bown provides general readers and fans of the period with a work meant for pure enjoyment."


— Booklist

"Historian Stephen R. Bown has unpacked this rich and colourful history in a splendid work, 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half, an entertaining and elegantly written voyage into the treacherous seas of religious fanatics, greedy slavers, depraved autocrats, doomed indigenous peoples and desperately brave adventurers in search of fortune."

— Globe & Mail

"This is a starry love story, a tale of seething jealousies and subterfuge, a political imbroglio, and religious cruelties...The impact of the final papal decree, the Treaty of Tordesillas, affects world politics, language and religion today and is the focus of a book by Canadian writer Stephen Bown: 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half...There is no longer the ability to obtain a papal bull nor do United Nations sanctions always work. But the world continues to debate the same issues."

— Toronto Star

"The purpose of Bown's book...is to insist that the three papal bulls comprising the decree by Pope Alexander VI, and the subsequent 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal based on that decree, are still important historical realities."

— National Post

"A well-delineated, exciting history of a particularly contentious period of international trade."

— Kirkus Reviews

"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...Highly recommended."

— Historical Novel Society

"Historian Bown offers an entertaining...chronicle of intrigue, deception, and power struggles in the early modern world...Bown's captivating study presents a fresh glimpse into the origins of the age of exploration and conquest as other nations challenged the primacy of Spain and Portugal."

— Publishers Weekly

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