How useful is the term ‘early modern’ to describe the period c.1500-c.1789?

In tackling this question it should first be asserted that these dates are commonly known to be the end of the Middles Ages (1500) and the beginning of the French Revolution (1789.) To determine whether this period characterises the term ‘early modern’, it must be more substantial than a set of dates, factors of a imperial, cultural, religious, political and economic nature must be investigated. This will discern if Europe underwent a period of “modernisation.” Moreover they must be assessed in a broader context to conclude how much change happened different to the Middle Ages and how much they shaped the future.

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Firstly it should be examined to what extent an ‘early modern’ Europe as a whole continent was affecting the world on a global scale. At this time that ‘early modern’ Europe was ambitious, Kamen indicates that explorers had ‘immeasurably extended the horizons of Europeans’1, a statement supported with evidence from the ambitious trader and adventurer Vasco Da Gama whose objective upon arriving in Malabar was seeking ‘Christians and spices’2, this bold statement of intent gives an insight to an “early modern” European ambition to make themselves financially stronger by extracting resources. A view supported by Kamen as he states that ‘pepper and ginger, became the chief source of wealth of the Portuguese crown.’3 The flipside of this ‘early modern’ ambition can be highlighted by Saint Francis Xavier whose work as a missionary, in areas such as Goa, left such a mark of Portuguese Catholic influence, that even today it remains a Catholic state in which he is the revered patron saint, indicating the beginning of a new initiative by Europe not only to extract resources but also instil their religious influence effectively across the globe.

However explorers did make important discoveries before this “early modern” period, American philosopher John Fiske tackles Kamen by insisting that ‘We shall be inclined to pronounce the voyage that led to the way to this New World as the most epoch-making event of all that have occurred since the birth of Christ.’4 When talking of Columbus voyage of 1492, and in support of Fiske he is correct in the sense that the discovery of the Americas is arguably the most famous expedition and was a crucial antecedent for ‘early modern’ Europe to spread its own influence. However there is clear progression from Columbus’ early and brief interactions upon discovery with these new continents, to an ‘early modern’ attitude of direct contact where an opportunities to exploit these places for wealth and spread European influence was maximised.

As Europe was expanded around the globe, it is important to examine the cultural developments that occurred within Europe at this time, 19th century historian Jules Michelet in his work Histoire de France, argues the ‘early modern’ period underwent a cultural ‘rebirth’, more commonly known as the renaissance, this is strongly agreed by Randolf Starn, who argues that ‘The concept of the Renaissance is itself a prime candidate for genealogical history.’5 This indicates that he believes alongside the earlier anticipation of Petrarch’s idea of revival of antiquity that there was a movement towards looking back towards classical history and influences in the form of humanism, art, religion and self awareness, this highlights a shift in the ‘early modern’ era’s intellect. That rather than a few scholars such as 14th century historian Petrarch studying Cicero and learning the art of debate, a more “fashionable” movement surfaced which involved a large proportion of ‘early modern’ society whose intellectual endeavours were shaped by the attitudes of the past classical era.

But what appears to be more significant is the sense of individualism that was created in the early modern renaissance period, Jacob Burckhardt comments ‘in the middle ages man was conscious of himself as a member of a race, people, party’6 but claims the Renaissance gentlemen had become ‘a spiritual individual’7, which coincides with the Italian Renaissance contemporary Michel de Montaigne who in The Complete Essays states ‘The greatest thing in the world is to belong to oneself’8; clearly Burckhardt is indicating that there was a total shift in attitude from one of “sheep like” conformity during the middle ages where people were more comfortable in the communities they were in, but the Renaissance brought about an ‘early modern’ self determination, as evidenced amongst men like Montaigne at the time to become more autonomous, naturally wanting to move away from their groups, “taking power into their own hands.”

This emerging sense of individualism, which arguably characterises the early modern period is evident in the religious controversies that mark this period. As evidenced in 1517 by Luther in the ninety-five theses he states ‘for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached’9 and rebukes what he sees as corruption within the Catholic Church; protests like this culminated in the Reformation, where a large section of Europe split away to have their own strand of Protestant faith. Benedict concurs stating the ‘religious divisions born from Luther profoundly destabilized Europe.’10 Repeating the idea of the individual. Luther stood his ground for his beliefs against the most powerful establishment that was the Catholic Church. Moreover the seismic effect this religious upheaval had on the ‘early modern’ period and the sensitivity of religion to split a continent like had never happened before.

However what appears to be more significant is what gave rise to this split, the tactic of mass scale printing by protestors including the previously mentioned ninety five theses, the Indulgence and Lubeck Bible allowed the message to get out, contemporary Gabriel Platters stated ‘The art of printing will so spread knowledge that the common people knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression.’11 Alongside Luther also creating a vernacular language reform in Germany, enabling everyone to understand mass. Platters is confirming arguably the most radical occurrence in this ‘early modern’ era, the reformation had undermined a lot of the previous influence of the Catholic Church and certain ruling classes, replacing it through a modern democratisation process which empowered even ‘the poorest he’12, allowing them freedom of thought. Overall it is often easy to miss out the study of the peasant classes, with older texts more focused on intellectuals and those in power, thus the process and consequence of the reformation is very useful in showing us how radically life changed in all levels of ‘early modern’ society.

We may agree that there are certain characteristics during 1500 to 1789 which enable us to label this era ‘early modern’. It is also important to evaluate whether viewing 1500 – 1789 as a distinct period helps us to understand it better, it should be commented that there is a school of thought that believes that this sort of progress during the ‘early modern’ era was inevitable, as exhibited by what happened right at the end of the ‘early modern’ era in 1789, the outbreak of the French Civil War, marxist George Rudé comments ‘The nationals assembly’s actions made it impossible to arrest the course of revolution’13, he is expressing a view that because that there was a class struggle between the elites and a rising middle class, which began with events like the Reformation and as this middle class began to wrestle for more and more power, the eventual consequence was civil wars, such as occurred in England and France in this period.

However events in this period must take into account the historiography and other factors such as the revisionist William Doyle who argues it was ‘oath of clergy was the biggest mistake’14 a contingent factor, as it was an individual error rather than a rising class, which made people determine whether they were for and against the crown. It is clear the ‘Early modern’ period which has various angles, which apply to many schools of thought for historians and each must be taken with caution.

However despite the improvements that were ushered in during the ‘early modern’ European period, economic progress did regress, this is evidenced by the rise in wheat prices in areas such as England where they inflated by 425% between 1500-1600, the consequences of this are highlighted by Riley stating ‘Europeans entered the era of the old regime in a state of epidemiologic equality. The rich lived better than the poor.’15 This highlights that the ‘early modern’ era, was still tough for the poorer classes, despite social progression, with such hyperinflation their real wages would not keep up with prices, meaning many would have struggled even worse than in the Middle Ages to survive.

Moreover Jean Bodin in 1578, attempts to pinpoint the cause for this economic turmoil, his strongest causes are ‘the abundance of gold and silver’ and the ‘huge population which has grown up in the realm’16, these statements can be supported by the fact that between 1503-1660 16 Million kilograms of Silver was imported to Seville alone and between 1600-1700 the populations of Venice, Milan and Seville doubled. From Bodins’ argument in conjunction with later evidence, it is clear that the great benefits that were making ‘early modern’ Europe so much stronger, such as the growing size of the continents population and its coffers, did come with the consequence of a stunt in prices due to a wealth gap and stretched resources. It can be argued that the ‘Modern Era’ did not fully understand the dynamics of economics, as evidenced by Bodin saying his notion of inflation by gold and silver ‘no one has made hitherto’ by 1578, and that the wealth divide could be managed better; however in the context of the 21st century where Britain is attempting to come out of recession and they are people still struggling to live day to day, although we have better understanding now, the ‘modern era’ European economic system would always struggle with such changes.

In conclusion, trying to determine how much change occurred during a set time frame must be taken cautiously, history is always linked like the branches of tree to events before this ‘early modern’ period which enabled certain epochs in this time to occur, and on the flipside events which occur after this period can supersede the importance of this period, making it harder to distinguish how significant an event is, especially when studying such a large and vibrant continent. Although the economic situation was bleak, this period can be described as ‘early modern.’ The term works to show how Europe had begun to acquire a modernizing mindset of ambition from all levels of society, a dawn for something that was in its initial stages and most crucially had never happened before, and was the trigger for social progress, religious change. This ambition amassed by one whole continent enabled ‘early modern’ Europe to start to stamp itself upon the World and leave it in its wake.


-Henry Kamen, ‘Early Modern European Society’, Routledge, 2000

-John Fiske, Unpublished Orations ‘Columbus Memorial’, The Bibliophile Society, 1909

– Guido Ruggiero, A Companion to the Worlds Renaissance, Wiley-Blackwell 2006, p 40

-Jacob Burckhardt, The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), 2010, Dover Publications Inc.

-Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, 1993, Penguin,

-Stephen J. Nichols, 95 Theses, P and R publishing, p.47, 2003

-Philip, Benedict Early Modern Europe: From crisis to Stability, University of Delaware Press, 2006 -George Rude, The French Revolution (phoenix giants), Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1994, -William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, OUP Oxford, 2003, -Euan Cameron, Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History, OUP Oxford, 2001, -Jean Bodin, Reply to the Paradoxes of Malestroit,

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