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A Brief History of the Early Modern Era

Liberty Leading the People

Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" captured the spirit of an age when the shackles of slavery were struck off one by one around the world.

Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People" captured the spirit of an age when the shackles of slavery were struck off one by one around the world.

Early Modern Era - What was it, Why should I care?

The early modern era is said to have been between the years 1500 and 1800. It's held to have begun during the Late Renaissance period and ended about the time industrialization changed the face of the world. It was an amazing time of scientific discovery, an age of exploration and a time where the very boundaries of knowledge were expanded since the end of the Roman Empire.

One of the first things a student of the time is struck by is how similar the arguments at the dawn of this age are with the ones faced by contemporary people. Before analysing that, it may be a good idea to get an idea of what the world was like, how people thought and what the hopes and dreams of the people of the time were.

To do this, we first need to understand how that Europe came to be.

The Triumph of Death?

The Black Death had a profound effect on the art and literature of the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era.

The Black Death had a profound effect on the art and literature of the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era.

The Black Death - Was this the catalyst for the modern world?

The Black Death was the pivotal event of the High Middle Ages. In the span of a few short years the entire face of Europe changed. The plague began with the end of the Medieval Warm Period, which ran from the tenth century to the fourteenth. This shift to colder weather in Europe lead to widespread famine and years of uncertainty. Up until this time, Europe had enjoyed a rising population as well as a rising standard of living.

A later philosopher, to whom we will return, Thomas Malthus postulated that people will increase their population to the limit of their food producion. When people can no longer expand food production, then a day of reckoning will occur. Europe was almost to this point in the 1300's. Most good arable farmland was under cultivation and most of the marginal farmland was cultivated which produced much less food than the good arable farmland. The change to colder wetter weather proved devastating to the population.

This, of course, had economic effects. As food production became more erratic, malnutrition flourished. In addition there is scholarship that suggests that three field crop rotation was not as effective in Northwestern Europe as it was in the Mediterranean climate, so the effects of new farming techniques and technologies was not as pronounced in France and England as it was in Italy. Malnutrition led to less productivity. In a preindustrial society, labor is done by people, not machines, so anything that saps people's strength is deleterious to the economy.

As a result, landowners began raising rents. In had the effect of further damaging the economy. Since peasants had less cash on hand to due to higher rents and since the price of food was increasing due to poorer and poorer harvests and less productive workers, a vicious cycle emerged that dragged the economy down into what we now call a depression.

Thus was the stage set for the plague's long burn through Europe and the Middle East.

The previous centuries saw the revivial of ancient trade routes to the East through Cental Asia and the Near East. It was along these routes that the Black Death traveled. It's estimated that up to half of the population of Europe perished in this cataclysm. This had profound social and economic effects that would shape the world of a person living in the Early Modern Era.

Economic Effects of the Plague Years

Half of Europe, gone in less than a century. Even after the mass destruction, death and devastation of two World Wars in the last century, the deaths of the plague years dwarfs anything a modern person can understand. The Black Death led to the end of serfdom, rise of the Protestant Reformation and loosened the stranglehold the elites of the time had on society.

With half of it's population gone, the pressures to increase food production were gone. The serf now had a sort of economic clout as the labor of a serf was worth much more in this devastated world than it had in the previous world that had been teeming with farmers. In an effort to attract workers to their manors, one of the first laws to go were the age old laws tying the serf to the land. This created a free worker and was a prototype of the modern citizen. In addition, the value of a serf was much more now because they were so scarce after the plague years. This led to a decrease in rent and an increase in pay as landlords attempted to entice serfs to work for them.

Another little known effect of the abolition of serfdom was the rise, rebirth really, of cities. With farmers earning more cash, new services and goods were being sold to said farmers, so a new commercial class arose in the cities to meet the needs of the emancipated serfs. Even the landowners found benefit to paying more in wages and charging less for rent. Despite the ravages of the Little Ice Age, population once again began to increase and the people of the age flourished.

A Revolution in Learning

This book began a trend of literacy and learning that blazed across European society, lighting the way for future generations.

This book began a trend of literacy and learning that blazed across European society, lighting the way for future generations.

Gutenberg's Bible

In 1444, Johannes Gutenberg created the first European printing press. Interestingly enough, he crafted it to try to alleviate the problems bookmakers had with a lack of scribes due to the plague. It is this contrast between abundance and scarcity, as we will see, that Adam Smith saw when he spoke of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace.

The Gutenberg press had several interesting consequences. The first was that book, which were up to that time laborious to create, were now available in large quantities. It's estimated that within the first few years of the adoption of the printing press, more books had been written and printed in Europe than the preceding 3,500 years. Not only that, once the books were typeset, exact copies could be made in an infinite number. Literacy skyrocketed. Also books like the Bible were translated into the vernacular for the first time. This had a profound effect on the Church and society.

Up to that time, the Church taught Scripture according to story and parable. Think Easter Plays, which are still done within the Church. Most parish priests couldn't read and were educated little more than their parishoners. True learing was the province of bishops and prelates of the Church as well as a few secular rulers and nobles. This increase in literacy and knoledge broke the back of the Church's previous monopoly of learning.

Brandenburg Concerto

The Protestant Reformation

On October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittemburg, Germany. This act, much like the later "shot heard round the world", had implications that echo down the centuries to us. Up to that time people had criticized the practices of the Church, notably simony, purgatory, indulgences, celibacy and others; but the heresy was either put down or ignored by most people due to their ignorance of Scripture and Church Doctrine.

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This was not the same environment as previous centuries, however. The population was wealthier, more literate and with the dawn of the Age of Exploration, much more ready to question authority. Some unknown person or persons, took the Theses and printed them. Soon they had been distributed all over Europe and the great debate was on. This was the begining of the Protestant Reformation.

Wars of Religion

This was probably the defining event of the Early Modern Era. While this war began as a war over religion, it ended as a war of nations. Many modern European nations were formed in this crucible of war. It ended feudal notions of society and paved the way for absolute monarchs.

It was at this time that the Church finally lost all control over Northern Europe, England and the Northeast of Germany. France and England consolidated their hold over territory in their possession and began a series of wars contesting overseas colonies. The failure to stamp out Protestantism also led to the establishment of more universities to meet the new churches needs for trained theologians and further increased the educational opportunities of people living in Protestant lands.

This time period also saw the rise of the Jesuit religious order. Founded by Inigo Lopez de Loyola, an ex-conquistador, the Jesit's had a fourth oath besides the ones of poverty, chastity and obediance; the fouth being answerable to the Pontiff of Rome alone. One of the first things the Jesuits did was found a school in the areas they preached in. This, too, is profound because many of the philosophers of this time were taught in Jesuit schools. It's one of the quirks of history that Jesuit schools, established to promote the Church, had the effect of promoting what would come to be known as rational humanism.

Poles vs Cossacks - An 17th century army in action.

The Age of Reason

So now we finally come to the beginnings of modern scholarship and philosophical thought. History is a tapestry so interwoven with cause and effect that it makes the finest lace look like the coarsest cloth. So after the Age of Famine, Plague Years and the Great Dying, Europe began to rebuild and reorganize. The labor shortages led to what might be termed an early industrial era as people sought ways to utilize mechanical contrivances to make up for lost labor. Gutenberg's bible heralded a new age of literacy and destroyed the Church's monopoly of learning. The Wars of Religion began with religion and ended with nations. The Protestant Reformation survived and began a new age of scholarship.

Early Modern Philosophers can be associated in loosely defined groups. The first group, rationalists, included luminaries like Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfired Leibniz. The second group, empiricists, included scholars like Francis Bacon (although he predated most early modern philosophers, he was an empiricist), Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and George Berkeley. The rationalists believed that reason alone was sufficient to understand the world, empiricists believed that you could only learn about the world through the senses, or by how you experience the world. This dichotomy has gone back and forth down the decades straight through to today.

Summary and conclusions

I am at this point going to stop and rest a bit. Like any activity that requires heavy lifting, activities of the mind can leave one drained. This really has gone on longer than I thought it would and has lead me down several avenues I never thought I travel. Still I thought I'd share what I've written so far and solicit feedback from my readers. I'm not done by a long shot, but I tend to like the sound of my own voice, so to speak, and fear that I'm running a bit afield from my original intent. So let me know what you all think and stay tuned for more.  I've had quite a bit of fun writing this and have made several connections in going over this material that I missed the first time I studied it.  That's why I love history, every time you go over it you learn something new.


Ofor Chigozie on February 28, 2011:

This is a well written article. Thumbs up man and keep the flag flying. All the way from Nigeria

Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on July 08, 2010:

This is a really good article. I used the 'suggest link' tool. And I kept getting yours when I was looking up suggestions to link to my witchcraft hubs (witchcraft in early modern europe). After viewing your hub, I figured it was a good one to link to, so pretty much everytime it says "early modern europe," there is a link here. Great job on this informative hub!

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 23, 2009:

Nice rejoiner. Bruegel, of course. I had forgotten about him. Shoulders of giants to be sure. Looking back is . . . well, 20-20 might be a stretch but I agree with your intent. A lot of great minds back there. Now, it's up to you! :D

I look forward to your next Hub.

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 22, 2009:

Thanks for the praise James, The picture is named The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. One has to wonder if it inspired Bosch. I think my next historical endeavor will look at the Enlightenment. Hopefully I can shed some light on how the philosophical debates of yesterday are still very much alive and kicking today.

Yeah, Malthus had a bit quite wrong, as did Hobbes and even Decartes and Locke. Still I'm looking back with 20/20 vision and two centuries of history in which their philosophies were wrangled and debated. We truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. They both did very well in their respective spheres, but with them it was an either/or proposition. Either we think because the rationalists are right or we think because the empiricists were right. Truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

Someone, we've always been able to live in peace with one another. The main problem seems to be that some people lust for control or power over others. Should we ever construct a society in which those concentrations of power cannot arise, I believe we will be able to find peace and prosperity again.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on June 22, 2009:

The title is appropriate ,since what is left of the modern era seems to be on the decline.We will either destroy our planet fighting over energy ,food and water or we will find ways to live with less ,while producing the best ,and instead of finding fault with our neighbor finally learn to truly love one another as we were intended.

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 22, 2009:

Is that Black Death painting a Bosch?

I have not read Malthus in depth, but his philosophical (or sociological, if you prefer) heirs were wrong in their predictions made in the 1960s. 

I must add that the invention of the Printing Press may have been the key catalyst of the Reformation (not to mention a Church that had gone way out of bounds by selling salvation for cash). 

Oh . . . I see you do go on to this later. 

I love history.  This is a fabulous essay.  A wonderful recap of how the modern world came to be.  Well done.  Very solid factually and succinct commentary. I knew when I joined your fan club you would hit me with something impressive.  You Being from Cape Girardeau didn't hurt either :D

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 20, 2009:

It is most def part of Gibson's Neuromancer universe. One thing that always confused me about the genre though it how corporations could force people to buy their stuff. What's the mechanism. What would keep people from just walking away? As a collary, what kept people from walking away from serfdom? Why did it take a plague to change that form of society? Answer those and I think you'll get a stronger feel for "looking back on tomorrow".

lxxy from Beneath, Between, Beyond on June 20, 2009:

Cool, I'll check this out. =)

I do the same thing, which is why I'm not good at "direct" debating; I tell stories, to prove points. Not to force you to view, but here's a couple of things I'm working on:

Currently, the plot is in overhaul although these chapters will remain. As my political understanding unfolds, the story is changing by the day. I'll be getting back to writing it more hardcore soon, though.

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 20, 2009:

"The Last Centurion" talks about this somewhat in the plot of the book.  It piqued my interest so I'm off to investigate more.  It's a pretty good yarn, there's some of it I have a problem with but hey, it's a story.

lxxy from Beneath, Between, Beyond on June 20, 2009:

So could we be in for a big chill? Quite possibly.

We definitely are not in for a big melt, because the more CO2 the more plankton, which eat C02. Nature has a balance, but don't let them know that...we need to keep talking about how "green" our products are. ;)

lxxy from Beneath, Between, Beyond on June 20, 2009:

If we are to recognize the signs of the coming Monger Minimum, you will begin to see a slight global warming and then a swift cooling.

Here's the Ever heard of this?

Well, it's a point whereupon the earth's solar system will be alligned with the galactic core, which is a super massive black hole. The sun has been quiet lately....

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 20, 2009:

Without the Plague, I'm sure we'd still be serfs. Glad to hear about the disbelief in antropocentric global warming. What do you think about the coming increase and decrease in sunspot activity? I've always had the feeling that that big burning ball in the sky is what determines temperature, not CO2. Could we be in for a big chill?

lxxy from Beneath, Between, Beyond on June 20, 2009:

This is awesome LDT! You've hit the nail here...

....the black plague was a turning point, and without it, we would have been set back even further, I've come to believe.

There was also famine, climate change...a natural cycle, called the Monger Minimum. Today people believe in "global warming," which is a falsehood. But it makes for good sales.

The Monger Minimum is now returning to Earth, because of the sun's natural affinity to produce less sun spots and what not have you.

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 15, 2009:

Pam did I post to your End of Work hub? I looked but didnt' find it. I think I posed a link to your It was your Bad Faith hub, I think. I added a tinyurl to it so it should work properly now. Thanks for pointing that out.

You're welcome CW, there's been so much nonsense out there about housing that I feel compelled to warn people when they stumble into the clutches of mortgage brokers and real estate agents. It wasn't so long ago that they were welling us that houses only ever went up in price.

countrywomen from Washington, USA on June 14, 2009:

Finally finished reading/watching the video. That's a good idea to have a central hub. Thanks for the housing tips. :D

pgrundy on June 14, 2009:

Well-written and concise--I should think you could write popular history books if you chose to do so. The link you placed on my End of Work hub is dead--doesn't go anywhere. I am guessing this is the hub you meant to link but I can't tell. Feel free to post another if you want and check it to make sure it's live. :)

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 13, 2009:

No problem, I didn't expect to write so much, but when I got started it just started to run away from me. When it's all said and done, I think this'll be a central hub introducing events and I'll do separate hubs for all the events. Thanks for stopping by.

countrywomen from Washington, USA on June 13, 2009:

Sufi recommended this hub and it is very good. To be honest I only read till Protestant reformation and will read(watch video) later( little tired now and planning to take rest). I guess this hub could be broken into 2/3 hubs or maybe it is my tiredness doing the talking. Bye take care.

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 13, 2009:

Critisisim noted Sufi, it's very much a work in progress. For certain I'll be adding pictures, perhaps some videos that I can find in the public domain, etc. I've had quite a bit of fun doing this. I suppose it's been buiding for some time as I wrote straight for several hours and really didn't have to go back and check notes or anything. Still it's a labor of love and I'll be adding to it from time to time. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Sufidreamer from Sparti, Greece on June 13, 2009:

Great work, LDT - I finally found time to read this. I have little need for security products, so never bothered with your previous Hubs, but the wait was well worth it. Well-written, thorough and, most importantly, balanced. I look forward to the next installment.

Only one small piece of constructive criticism - maybe you could add a few more pictures, to break up the text, or even an Amazon capsule. Look at a few other history hubs and you will see what I mean.

Thanks for the good read - speaking as a European, you did our history justice!

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 13, 2009:

History tends to be written by the victors, but that doesn't mean their story holds up for all time. That's what makes things like the Nuremburg trials such a farce. All sides participated in atrocities, that's what war is one big atrocity. Yet a scholar can study history from all sides of a conflict and by understanding the views of each side can come closer to understanding what it means to be human.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on June 12, 2009:

Do you think much of what is history is written truthfully?There are those who say the winner in a conflict such as war writes their own version of the truth.

ledefensetech (author) from Cape Girardeau, MO on June 12, 2009:

Glad you like it Sufi, I'll probably be turning it into a central hub and do more in depth hubs on each topic. Kind of like chapters in a book. Who knows, by the time I'm done it might be the length of a book.

Sufidreamer from Sparti, Greece on June 12, 2009:

Looking good, LDT. It is very late here, so I only skimmed through it. I will read it properly in the morning!

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