THE historic life of the ancient world was grouped about the Mediterranean Sea, and that body of water invited the early spirit of adventure and exploration. Its broad bosom was the highway of arms and of commerce, and the channel by which the elements of culture were transmitted from one people to another. As the world of ancient civilization expanded, its activities radiated from this centre; and during the Middle Ages the life of Europe and western Asia was still grouped about the Mediterranean. Consequently, of all the changes which mark the transition from ancient and mediæval to modern history, none is so profound as that which has regrouped human life about the Atlantic as a new and grander central sea.
The initial steps in this great change must be indicated briefly before the main story is taken up. Prior to the invention of the mariner's compass, geographical discovery did not advance beyond the range of land travel and of coasting voyages. The nearest approach to the unlocking of the secrets of the sea of darkness that was made without the guiding needle was accomplished by the fearless sailors of the North, who found Iceland in 867, colonized Greenland in 985, and reached the shores later to be known as America, at a time when western Europe had hardly begun to recover what had been lost by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the decay of ancient knowledge.
Yet the distance was so great, the voyage so precarious, and the returns so slight that these ventures were discontinued; and northern enterprise remained content with the establishment of scattered settlements on the western shores of Greenland, which for three centuries were the remote outposts of Christendom in the west, obscure precursors of the future expansion of Europe and of Christianity...