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Early Modern Europe

This article deals with the history of Europe between c. 1450 CE – the time of the Italian Renaissance – to 1789, the outbreak of the French Revolution.

This is traditionally regarded as the early modern phase of European history, and was certainly a critical period for world history.

The next phase of European history is dealt with in the article on Western Civilization.


From the early 15th century, Medieval Europe began to morph into early modern Europe. In the later Middle Ages trade had expanded, towns had grown in number and size, and a new, more sophisticated society had emerged. In large parts of western Europe feudalism, with its fragmented power-structures, had begun to give way to centralized monarchies, with their concentration of power in the hands of the king (or queen) and the officials who did the royal bidding.

This process had been enabled by – and in turn stimulated – the rise of gunpowder armies. Cannons and handguns put a final end to the military superiority of heavily armored knights and the invincibility of castles. Being expensive, cannons placed enhanced military power in the hands of those best able to afford them, the monarchs. With the rise of central power came an expansion in royal bureaucracies.

While these developments in politics and society had been going on, the Medieval mindset, with its near-complete subordination to the dominance of the Catholic Church, was being undermined by blatant corruption within the Church’s hierarchy. The rise of popular religious movements – the Hussites in central Europe, the Lollards in England – calling for a return to the simpler Christianity of the Gospels had been preparing the ground for a more critical approach to belief.

The Italian Renaissance

A movement which modern scholars call the Italian Renaissance moved European civilization on away from its medieval past towards modernity. This was primarily the result of internal developments within Italy, in particular the rise of wealthy trading cities in northern Italy, such as Milan, Venice and above all Genoa. These competed fiercely with one another, not just in politics and war, but as patrons of culture as well. The intensity of their rivalry made for a fertile field for artistic endeavor.

Another cause was the fall of the great Christian city of Constantinople to the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This had been the historic capital of the Byzantine empire, itself a continuation of the Roman empire, for more than a thousand years, and its fall shocked all Europe. It also led to an exodus of scholars from the city who brought with much Greek and Roman learning that had been long lost to western Europe.

Artists and architects looked back to Roman models for their inspiration, and so remade much of the physical environment of European towns and countryside. Writers and thinkers also looked back to Greek and Roman philosophers, and this prompted them to rethink not only much of their understanding about the world, but, more importantly, the ways they sought this understanding.

From this would arise the experimental techniques of modern scientific enquiry; over the next few centuries the work of Vesalius, Copernicus, Kepler, Harvey, Galileo, Newton and many others would revolutionize the West’s knowledge of the material universe.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/ToruÅ„ – 1580)

The Age of Discovery

In the meantime, the West’s knowledge of the geography of the world expanded enormously with the voyages of discovery which began in the 15th century.  The iconic moment in this was the accidental discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, but there was a long series of voyages and overland expeditions which each contributed to Europeans’ understanding of the world.

Over the next couple of centuries, the Americas were opened up to European conquest and colonization, and trade routes were pioneered linking the Atlantic with the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Western sailors and merchants developed a system of maritime commerce which, for the first time in world history, spanned the globe, and directed much of the world’s trade towards Europe. This had a multiplier effect on European economic growth, especially in those regions bordering the Atlantic ocean.


Within Europe itself, one invention of the mid-15th century helped above any other to move Europe towards the modern world. This was moveable-type printing. To what extent this was an original development to Europe, or had spread to Europe from East Asia (where it had been invented several centuries before) is a hotly debated topic. It certainly seems that Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith and goldsmith, introduced some major innovations of his own to the technology.

What is also beyond doubt is that its impact on Europe was far more profound than it had been on China.  The ability to print books, leaflets and posters brought down their cost dramatically. New knowledge and ideas could spread around the continent much more swiftly – and widely – than before, so that a discovery made by a Portuguese explorer or a German astronomer could soon be being read about by ordinary shopkeepers in Paris or London. This greatly increased the stock of knowledge, and stimulated a thirst for more.

The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The impact printing had on the religious life of Europeans was even more profound. In the early 16th century, long-term unease about what was widely seen as the corrupt state of the Catholic Church led to the outbreak of a movement called the Reformation. Religious leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin called for root and branch reform of the Catholic Church, and when these calls were rejected, broke away to form the Protestant movement (which soon splintered into a bewildering number of churches and sects).

This split the Christian world of Europe into two hostile camps, the Protestant nations to the north and the Roman Catholic nations to the south.

The Reformation led to a strong response from the Roman Catholic side. This was known as the Counter-Reformation. At the “hearts and minds” level, Ignatius Loyola founded the religious order of the Jesuits, which became one of the most effective missionary organizations in world history. At the national and political level, Spain, at that time the leading power in Europe under its King Philip II, saw itself as the champion of the Roman Catholic Church, and strenuously fought to put down Protestantism wherever he could. This led the country into ultimately futile wars in the Netherlands and with England (including the launching of the impressive but ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588), and to over-extending itself economically.

These and other wars of religion culminating in the terrible Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48).

These wars affected all aspects of European life. The western Christian world was no longer united, and the papacy, which had hitherto claimed spiritual leadership over all western Europe (eastern Europe was home to the Orthodox Church), was now a divisive office, utterly rejected by the Protestants of England, Scotland, Holland, north Germany, Scandinavia and other areas.

Here, a new, simpler style of Christianity emerged. Its emphasis on individual spirituality led to the printing of the Bible and other religious books in the vernacular languages of the different nations. It would also open the way to greater value being given to personal choice. This would become a defining feature of Western civilization, and amongst other things would open the way to the rise of the secular society which we know today.

Eastern Europe

The squabbling kingdoms of western Europe were unable to stop the rise of two huge new states to their east. The first of these was the Ottoman empire, which, even before its conquest of Constantinople, had acquired extensive territories in the Balkans. throughout the later 15th, 16th and 17th centuries this empire expanded far up into central Europe, twice besieging the city of Vienna (1529 and 1683), the capital of the Hapsburgs.

The other state was Russia. Although practicing the Orthodox Christian faith and therefore, in religious matters, within the orbit of Constantinople, the Russians had since the 13th century been politically – and to some extent culturally – a part of the Asiatic empire of the Mongols.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, however, under the leadership of the Grand Princes of Muscovy the Russians had gradually liberated themselves from the political domination of the Mongols (by now known, in western Asia, known as the Golden Horde). Since then, the Russians had expanded westward into Europe, at the expense of the Poles, and southwards towards the Black Sea at the expense of the Ottoman Turks (for Russia’s expansion, compare the maps for eastern Europe in 1453, 1648 and 1789).

During this process the Russians had also become increasingly westernized. Under a succession of Tsars, above all Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the Russian elite had increasingly adopted European dress and culture. By the end of the early modern period they were counted as one of the great European powers, alongside Austria, France, Britain and the rising state of Prussia.

The Age of Enlightenment

Post-Reformation European thinkers thus felt more able to pursue their own individual quests for understanding. This, coupled with a strong reaction against the religious dogmatism which had caused so much bloodshed in the wars of religion, led to a new spirt of rationalism, apparent from the later 17th century onwards. Everything – religion, society, government, the material world – was scrutinized in a new way: cause and consequence rooted in the material world were sought. Traditionally accepted notions of divine providence were relegated to the margins.

This movement went by several names: the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. Its effects were felt in philosophy, economics, medicine and science, and in politics – first, in political thought, and then in the practice of government. More rational foundations for governing were sought, and, once this thinking had penetrated the courts of Europe, more rational ways of governing countries were put into practice. The reforms of such “enlightened despots” as Louis XIV in France, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in Russia, Frederick the Great in Germany, and other monarchs, were the fruits of this thinking. They created more efficient governing machines by giving more power to bureaucrats appointed on merit, instead of hereditary aristocrats, and applying rational thinking to the problems of administration.

Towards democracy

In all this, popular democracy was not high on the agenda. However, in certain Protestant countries, especially Holland and Britain, long-standing trends had been at work limiting the power of the monarch and placing more power in the hands of elected representatives of the people (albeit only a small proportion of the people were actually able to vote). By the end of the 17th century the Dutch Estates and English (later British) Parliament had become the seat of sovereignty in these two nations.

Overseas expansion and empire

It is no coincidence that these two countries had the most advanced  economies in Europe. During the 17th century their overseas trade had multiplied many times over (sadly, much of it in the Atlantic Slave Trade, in which millions of enslaved Africans were taken to the Americas to work on plantations), and both of them had acquired trading settlements and colonies in North America, the West India, the coast of Africa and the East Indies. At home, agricultural improvements had boosted their farming, and better roads and canals were constructed to lubricate the wheels of trade and industry. Innovations such as joint-stock companies (above all the great east India Companies), national banks, stock exchanges and patent protection had eased the financing of commercial expansion, and the first booms and busts were soon causing excitement –  the “tulip mania” of Holland and the South Sea Bubble in Britain. The modern world was fast approaching.

Holland, Britain and France were long-term rivals for overseas trade and empire. In North America and the Caribbean, and along the coasts of India and the East Indies, they fought each other for strategic advantage. Out of this rivalry grew a new kind of fighting force, the oceanic navy. Britain’s navy eventually emerged as the most effective of these, and through her sea power Britain would build one of the largest empires that world history has ever seen (the only possible rivals, by different measures, are the Mongol empire and Qing dynasty China).

One by-product of this global rivalry was the discovery by Europeans of the southern landmasses of Australia and New Zealand, together with many much smaller Pacific islands. Although about as far east as it is possible to travel, Australia and New Zealand (and, on a smaller scale, Hawaii) were to become integral parts of “Western” civilization.

The transition from early modern to modern Europe

The end of the early modern phase of European history is usually regarded as being the outbreak of the French Revolution. This can be seen as the most radical political expression of the Enlightenment. It sought to break with traditional forms of government, based on hereditary monarchy, aristocracy and church, which all harked back to Medieval Europe. In their place it attempted to impose a more rational regime, based on the will of the people, elected assemblies, equality between the classes, and reason. It would lead eventually to the creation of new kinds of European states in the 19th century, which on the one hand were more responsive to the will of the people than the more traditional states had been, and on the other hand had a far greater impact on the lives of their citizens.

Modern Europe was also being heralded by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This had been gathering pace in Britain since around the mid-18th century, as a direct result of the strong economic growth which that country had been experiencing. This revolution would create an entirely new kind of society, with its locus in manufacturing than in agriculture, and in towns and cities rather than the countryside.