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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.