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What three factors led to Europe's "Age of Exploration"?

The three factors that led to Europe's "Age of Exploration" are commonly identified as God, gold, and glory. Missionaries often closely followed explorers in order to spread Christianity, and European countries hoped to acquire wealth, such as through finding a direct route to the Spice Islands of Asia, and glory, such as through finding new lands to add to an empire.

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There were many factors that led to the European Age of Exploration. Three of the major ones had to do with the advent and adoption of new technologies, a desire to improve trade by discovering new routes, and a yearning to spread their religion to new lands.


Before the fifteenth century (with the exception of the Vikings), Europeans simply did not have the technology or seafaring knowledge to make long ocean voyages. However, the Renaissance was a time of new learning and advancements in understanding the sciences.

By studying the Ancient Greeks, Europeans unlocked knowledge that had been unstudied for centuries. For instance, Ptolemy had written a guide to cartography in the second century CE. Italian scholars translated this work and used it to help sailors explore new shores. European mapmaking only got more sophisticated from there. German cartographer Gerardus Mercator added lines of latitude and longitude to his famous map, making it easier for navigators to explore.

Ship design also improved. Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back designs that the Arabs used for their vessels which greatly improved European ones. This included the triangular sail, which allows ships to sail much closer to the direction of the wind and greatly improved their ability to sail to new lands.

New weapons technology also helped the European explorers. Advances in gunpowder technology and steel made it possible for European explorers to intimidate and subdue the peoples that they encountered.


The primary motive for exploration at the beginning of this period was a desire for better trade routes. For centuries, Europeans had been trading with East Asia by indirect overland routes, such as the famed Silk Road. These routes brought in such luxury items as silk, spices, and fine ceramics. However, due to the many middlemen involved, this method of commerce was very expensive. If a nation could control a direct sea route to the East, then they could better reap a bigger profit. Furthermore, during times of conflict, such as the Crusades, Muslims along these routes would shut off trade with Europeans altogether.


The desire to spread Christianity was also a major motive for European explorers. This period of exploration coincided with the Reformation. This great clash between the Catholic establishment and new Protestant sects led to missionaries following close behind explorers, eagerly spreading their faith to new populations.

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The first enabling factor was technological. Better ship building and navigation enabled Europeans to embark on long "blue water" voyages instead of hugging coasts. The astrolabe, compass, and sextant enabled mariners to navigate using the positions of the sun and stars and compass readings rather than relying on landmarks. 

Much of the impetus behind exploration was the desire to make money and to gain access to the fabled wealth of the Orient: especially silk, gold, and spices. Explorers were attempting to seek faster and safer routes than the overland "silk road"; sea routes were especially attractive as one could carry more goods by sea than by land....

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A shift in the policy of the Roman Catholic Church about usury led to the development of vast banking empires such as that of the Medicis, which made more capital available for investment in exploration. Nations also began subsidizing exploration.

Finally, Christianity is an evangelical religion, and Christians are tasked with spreading the "good news" of the Bible. Christian missionaries were responsible for substantial amounts of exploration; the Jesuits were a particularly active order in missionary work. 

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One factor that was critical in bringing about the Age of Exploration was technology. Prince Henry of Portugal established a navigation school, and he brought cartographers to his court who developed more sophisticated maps. These developments, along with the invention of new forms of technology such as better ships, the magnetic compass, and the astrolabe (for determining altitude), helped bring about overseas exploration.

Another factor that helped bring about the Age of Exploration included financing. Monarchs had to have the funds to sponsor expeditions and to construct seafaring ships. Finally, the desire to gain glory out of a sense of nationalism led to exploration. For example, in 1492, Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the Reconquista, conquering Spain for Christians and expelling the Moors and Jews. Columbus saw the collapse of the last Moorish leader before embarking on his transatlantic journey in 1492. Spain developed a sense of nationalism built on its identity as a cohesive Christian country, and it wanted to spread its glory to the New World. Later, England developed a sense of nationalism as a Protestant nation. Nationalism was built on both ethnic and religious grounds and was a factor in motivating nations to seek overseas conquests.

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The three factors that led Europeans to want to explore during the Age of Exploration are typically listed as “god, gold, and glory.”  It is said that some mixture of these three factors influenced Europeans to go exploring.

Most people today would say that gold was the most important factor.  The term “gold” refers not just to gold itself but to wealth in general.  The Europeans wanted to explore because they felt it would make them wealthy.  They thought, for example, that it would allow them to trade directly with the Spice Islands of Asia, which was the source of valuable spices that the Europeans could only buy through Muslim middlemen.  Thus, exploration was driven by a desire for greater profit.

Exploration was also driven by a desire for both personal and national glory.  Individual explorers wanted to be the ones who got the glory of finding new sailing routes or, later, new lands.  (They also wanted the wealth from those lands.)  European monarchs wanted the glory of ruling countries that had large overseas empires.  Thus, exploration was partly about status and about gaining bragging rights.

Finally, exploration was driven by religion.  Europeans of the time were generally Christian and they believed that only Christians could go to Heaven.  They felt that it was their duty to go out and spread the word of God to people who were not Christian.  By converting these people, the Europeans could increase the glory of God and could also save the souls of the people they converted.  Thus, religious motives also played a role in encouraging exploration.

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