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From the early 15th century, medieval Europe began to morph into early modern Europe. In the later Middle ages trade had expanded, towns grew 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 centralised 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 the rise of gunpowder armies. Cannons and handguns put a final end to the military superiority of heavily armoured knights. Being expensive, they 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.
A movement which modern scholars call the Italian Renaissance moved European civilization on away from its medieval past towards modernity. Artists and architects looked back to Roman models for their inspiration, and so remade much of the physical environment of European town 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 way 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 revolutionise the West’s knowledge of the material universe.
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 more to Europeans’ knowledge 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 maritime trade routes 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 in stimulating the European economy, especially in those regions bordering the Atlantic coast.
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 China (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 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 Loyoly founded the religious order of the Jesuits, which became one of the most effective missionary organisations in world history. At the national 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.
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 scrutinised in a new way: cause and consequence rooted in the material world were sought, and traditionally accepted notions of divine providence were relegated to the margins.
This was the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. Nowhere was its effects more clear felt than 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.
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.
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 at the expense of millions of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas to work on plantations there), 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, the Caribbean, the coast of Africa and the East, 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 empire 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.