Millennium | 18. The Early Modern World, 1500s-1700s - Palden Jenkins

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Millennium | 18. The Early Modern World, 1500s-1700s

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"I was born to rule by the grace of God. I grew up on the throne" - Ivan the Terrible, Russian Czar, 1577.

"The interest of the State is in intimate connection with those of the rich individuals belonging to it" - Alexander Hamilton, American politician, 1781.


In 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English king and parliament - he was severely dealt with. This was unthinkable. Nearly two centuries later, in 1793, Louis XVI lost his head in the French Revolution. Times were changing, and challenging authority had suddenly become successful. Roles were reversing. This was the beginning of the age of public opinion, balance sheets and scientific enquiry. This was the early modern age.


The 1500s saw Europe rent with religious friction, with persecutions of witches and heretics - a disastrous cultural cleansing and ripping open of the European unconscious and the public domain. On the secular side, England and Holland were growing wealthy, sophisticated and powerful. Europe was in ferment - Shakespeare encapsulated it well with his complex plots and rich characters. Overseas, Spain, having conquered South America, was tragically changing Americans’ destiny.

The Catholic-Protestant divide in Europe concerned a new social configuration, not just a matter of religious issues. Catholic south Europe was dominated by rich baroque autocrats and aristocrats. Habsburg Austria had arisen as a new power amongst them. Peasants had to accept their lot. That is, until Napoleon came along and shook up the old order in the 1790s. After Napoleon's time, people had rights – well, potentially.

Power in Protestant northern Europe technically remained with monarchs. If, that is, they earned their keep. In actuality, power was determined increasingly by burghers, bankers and politicians. They pushed forward the self-extrapolating logic of a new megalopolitan system, in which kings gradually and eventually became obsolete. Protestantism meant individualism, a new realism, fighting for rights, stashing a nest-egg. Fundamentalist Puritans railed against the licentious evils of the past. The public was gearing up to assert itself.

The Thirty Years’ War across Europe (1618-48) and the English Civil War (1640s) pitched modernism (Protestants) against conservatism (Catholics). The industrious, urban Protestants eventually prevailed over the Catholics through hard work and astuteness – at least in northwest Europe, where modernity was impacting greatest. Worldwide trade brought the amassing of much new capital and the importation of new products, foods and ideas. Plagues and tribulations came too.

Elsewhere, the Ottomans and Moghuls were at their height around the mid-1600s, while in China the newly-established, modernising Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty was lifting off. These lands, still the world’s leaders, were unwittingly being overtaken on the outside by Europe. Undergoing a social and economic revolution, Europe was sailing the seas, trading goods and slaves, banging off cannon and shot, infiltrating foreign cultures, settling the Americas – and painfully sorting out its own politics.

New ideas were rampant. In the 1600s, Galileo, Bacon, Kepler, Newton, Descartes and their fellows redesigned our whole view of the universe. While Galileo fought for his ideas against the Church in Catholic Italy, colleges and thinktanks were being founded from Uppsala to Leiden to Boston, Massachussetts, all in the pursuit of Reason. Amidst cultural turmoil, a new logical order was gaining strength. Rembrandt and Vermeer left snapshots of this time.

The 1700s saw more European wars - the first world wars. Each war became more expensive and damaging. This century saw Bach, Handel and Mozart, the thinkers Voltaire, Hume and Goethe, Linnaeus the botanist, Cook the explorer and hosts of scientists, inventors and engineers.

These were the days of the Rococo and Georgian styles, of spa society and afternoon tea, of sciences and liberal ideas, of canal-building and water-driven machinery. Species were classified, archaeological remains exhumed, chemicals identified – the world was examined, dissected and mapped. Then it happened: a social mutation.

In 1776 the new white north Americans declared independence – founding a constitutional republic ruled by magnates, law and reason, with specified, written citizens’ rights. This was a break from the past – made possible by the fact that colonial Americans had already broken with their pasts. This ‘United States of America’ – what a name! – would dominate the world in 150 years’ time.

In 1792 the people of France revolted against the old order and, for once, won. The revolution lapsed into terror, then to be hijacked by a brilliant libertarian emperor-general, Napoleon, yet it was still a breakthrough. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité were on people's lips – this was humanism. Napoleon proceeded to unite Europe, creating a new, rational systeme continentale in a swathe of countries otherwise accustomed to serfdom and autocracy.

From the 1750s the English were building new industrial cities. Birmingham became the ‘workshop of the world’, London its banking capital and Liverpool its biggest port. Before long, new machines built up steam to eat up distances, produce goods in vast quantities and create works never before seen.

The modern age was here. Only gradually did it creep up on the rest of the world. These three revolutions – political, social and industrial – just happened, more or less unplanned. Yet they followed an inevitable longterm progression.

They let loose lots of energy, accelerating the world's pace. A relentless push was under way. Progress annihilated tradition with pliers, banknotes, microscopes and lawbooks. World population grew, and Europe sucked up much of the world's wealth and initiative. An unwitting rush to globalism was in gear. 1800 would actually have been a credible start to a new millennium.

NEXT: Europe's Century

The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
This material may be downloaded, printed out in single copies for personal use
and quoted in parts with proper attribution and a link to this site.
All other uses require permission of the author, Palden Jenkins.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.

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