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Early Modern Europe: Introduction

Some time in the 15th or 16th century, depending on what part of Europe and what aspect of society one is considering, the medieval era came to an end. Some time in the 19th century, even the late 18th century for England, the industrial age began. What f alls in between truly deserves to be called a Middle Age, for it lies between the medieval and the modern. We call it Early Modern only because we don't like the old terms (Age of Absolutism, Age of the Baroque) and we can't think of anything better.

Our course stops in the middle of the Early Modern era, technically in 1648, though I do go past that a bit. So, what is a transitional era anyway, difficult to characterize, is chopped in two by the vagaries of the semester system. What I give here conce ntrates on the the period 1500 to 1648.

The religious wars dominate everything. Even when conflicts included other factors, as they nearly always did, religious issues were at the forefront of the rhetoric. The Protestant Reformation broke apart the facade of religious unity and it took over a century for Europeans to wear themselves out over the issue and to conclude at last that religious unity could be achieved only at the local level.

In the course of the conflicts, Europeans came to define at length what they believed about God and churches and their relationship with the individual and the state. They produced a remarkable body of art and literature concerned with these issues, and t he political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke were formed with religion as context and backdrop.

A second great theme of the period is economic change. Europe entered onto a world market, fueled by a fantastic supply of bullion from the New World, and the repercussions transformed European economics forever. This period is sometimes called the Age of Capitalism, and with good reason, for many of the bases of modern capitalism were created here (e.g., joint stock companies and stock markets). The economic changes forced radical change upon governments and badly upset the social order.

Intellectual change is the final element I wish to stress. The so-called Scientific Revolution is only the best known example of that change, but similar transformations can be seen in philosophy, education, and political theory. Not only were new ideas p roliferating, they were being shared by more people than ever before, thanks to the printing press, which served to increase the impact on society in general.

And through all this, the governments and ruling elite of Europe, the noble classes, sought fiercely and sometimes desperately to control and contain the forces of change. It is in this light that I view absolutism. Not, surely, that governments saw clear ly and sought to block it, but rather that the ruling classes felt the effects of change and sought to cope with them. The nobles asserted their rights and powers loudly because they knew for a certainty that their position was threatened.

It was an unsettled, trying era, but one in which much of lasting value was created. Keep your eye on religion, the economy, the arts, and government, and especially on the theme of change in these areas.

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.