Early modern Europe

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Abraham Ortelius: Map of Europe, 1595.

Early modern Europe is the period in the history of Europe which spanned the centuries between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roughly the late 15th century to the late 18th century. The early modern period is often considered to have begun with such events as the beginning of the High Renaissance in Italy; the invention of moveable type printing in the 1450s; the Fall of Constantinople in 1453; the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487; the Voyages of Christopher Columbus and the completion of the Reconquista in 1492 or the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Its end point is often linked with the outset of the French Revolution in 1789, or with the more nebulous origins of industrialism in late 18th century Britain. As with most periodizations of history, however, the precise dates chosen vary.

Some of the more notable trends and events of the early modern period included the Reformation and the religious conflicts it provoked (including the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years' War), the rise of capitalism and modern nation states, and the European colonization of the Americas.


The early modern period was characterized by profound changes in many realms of human endeavor. Among the most important include the development of science as a formalized practice, increasingly rapid technological progress, and the establishment of secularized civic politics, law courts and the nation state. Capitalist economies began to develop in a nascent form, first in the northern Italian republics such as Genoa and Venice and in the cities of the Low Countries, later in France, Germany and England. The early modern period also saw the rise and dominance of the economic theory of mercantilism. As such, the early modern period is often associated with the decline and eventual disappearance (at least in Europe) of feudalism and serfdom. The Protestant Reformation greatly altered the religious balance of Christendom, creating a formidable new opposition to the dominance of the Catholic Church, especially in Northern Europe. The early modern period also witnessed the circumnavigation of the earth and the establishment of regular European contact with the Americas, India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. The ensuing rise of global systems of international economic, cultural and intellectual exchange played an important role in the development of capitalism and represents the earliest phase of globalization.


Regardless of the precise dates used to define its beginning and end points, the early modern period is generally agreed to have comprised the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. As such, historians have attributed a number of fundamental changes to the period, notably the increasingly rapid progress of science and technology, the secularization of politics, and the diminution of the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the lessening of the influence of all faiths upon national governments. Many historians have identified the early modern period as the epoch in which individuals began to think of themselves as belonging to a national polity—a notable break from medieval modes of self-identification, which had been largely based upon religion (belonging to a universal Christendom), language, or feudal allegiance (belonging to the manor or extended household of a particular magnate or lord).

The beginning of the early modern period is not clear-cut, but is generally accepted to be in the late 15th century or early 16th century. Significant dates in this transitional phase from medieval to early modern Europe can be noted:

  • 1450
The invention of the first European movable type printing process by Johannes Gutenberg, a device that fundamentally changed the circulation of information. Movable type, which allowed individual characters to be arranged to form words and which is an invention separate from the printing press, had been invented earlier in China.
  • 1453
The conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans signalled the end of the Byzantine empire; the Battle of Castillon concluded the Hundred Years' War.
  • 1485
The last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III, was killed at Bosworth and the medieval civil wars of aristocratic factions gave way to early modern Tudor monarchy, in the person of Henry VII.
  • 1492
The first documented European voyage to the Americas by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus; the end of the Reconquista, with the final expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula; the Spanish government expels the Jews.
  • 1494
French king Charles VIII invaded Italy, drastically altering the status quo and beginning a series of wars which would punctuate the Italian Renaissance.
  • 1513
First formulation of modern politics with the publication of Machiavelli's The Prince.
  • 1517
The Reformation begins with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.
  • 1526
Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor gains the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary.
  • 1545
The Council of Trent marks the end of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

The end date of the early modern period is variously associated with the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in about 1750, or the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, which drastically transformed the state of European politics and ushered in the Napoleonic Era and modern Europe.

The role of nobles in the Feudal System had yielded to the notion of the Divine Right of Kings during the Middle Ages (in fact, this consolidation of power from the land-owning nobles to the titular monarchs was one of the most prominent themes of the Middle Ages). Among the most notable political changes included the abolition of serfdom and the crystallization of kingdoms into nation-states. Perhaps even more significantly, with the advent of the Reformation, the notion of Christendom as a unified political entity was destroyed. Many kings and rulers used this radical shift in the understanding of the world to further consolidate their sovereignty over their territories. For instance, many of the Germanic states (as well as English Reformation) converted to Protestantism in an attempt to slip out of the grasp of the Pope.

The intellectual developments of the period included the creation of the economic theory of mercantilism and the publication of enduringly influential works of political and social philosophy, such as Machiavelli's The Prince (1513) and Thomas More's Utopia (1515).

Elizabethan period

Elizabeth ushers in Peace and Plenty. Detail from The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, c. 1572, attributed to Lucas de Heere.

This period refers to England 1558–1603. The Elizabethan Era is the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and is often considered a golden age in English history. It was the height of the English Renaissance, and saw the flowering of English literature and poetry. This was also the time during which Elizabethan theatre grew. William Shakespeare, among others, composed plays that broke away from England's past style of plays. It was an age of expansion and exploration abroad. At home the Protestant Reformation was established and successfully defended against the Catholic powers of the Continent.


The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century movement to reform the Catholic Church in Europe. The Reformation was started on 31 October 1517 by Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses criticizing the practice of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, commonly used to post notices to the University community. In November he mailed them to various religious authorities of the day. The Reformation ended in division and the establishment of new church movements. The four most important traditions to emerge directly from the Reformation were Lutheranism, the Reformed (also called Calvinist or Presbyterian) tradition, Anglicanism, and the Anabaptists. Subsequent Protestant churches generally trace their roots back to these initial four schools of the Reformation. It also led to the Catholic or Counter Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church through a variety of new spiritual movements, reforms of religious communities, the founding of seminaries, the clarification of Catholic theology as well as structural changes in the institution of the Church.

Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment refers to the 18th century in European philosophy, and is often thought of as part of a period which includes the Age of Reason. The term also more specifically refers to a historical intellectual movement, The Enlightenment. This movement advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of aesthetics, ethics, and logic. The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as a courageous elite, and regarded their purpose as one of leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny, which they believed began during a historical period they called the Dark Ages. This movement also provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American independence movement, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Constitution of May 3, and also led to the rise of liberalism and the birth of socialism and communism.[1] It is matched by the high baroque and classical eras in music, and the neo-classical period in the arts, and receives contemporary application in the unity of science movement which includes logical positivism.

Difference between 'early modern' and the Renaissance

The expression "early modern" is sometimes used as a substitute for the term Renaissance, and vice versa. However, "Renaissance" is properly used in relation to a diverse series of cultural developments; which occurred over several hundred years in many different parts of Europe—especially central and northern Italy—and span the transition from late Medieval civilization and the opening of the early modern period.

The term early modern is most often applied to Europe, and its overseas empire. However, it has also been employed in the history of the Ottoman Empire. In the historiography of Japan, the Edo period from 1590 to 1868 is also sometimes referred to as the early modern period.

Religion in early modern Europe

The Antichrist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder – 1521, commissioned by Martin Luther

The time between 1550 and 1650 is commonly described as age of religious wars.[2] The Protestant Reformation had divided western Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. The divide between the new denominations was deep. Protestants commonly alleged that the catholic Pope was the Antichrist. Conflict between Christian factions reached its height in France with the French Wars of Religion and the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Outbreaks against Catholics also occurred in Protestant countries, leading to endemic conflicts in some areas, such as Ireland, where the British government imported Protestants and expelled Catholic landowners following a long period of conflict over control of the island.

Catholic countries

Only in Italy, Spain and Portugal did the Catholic authorities manage to suppress Protestantism completely.[3] After a "few dozen" Protestants had been executed in Spain in the 1550s, Protestantism failed to gain a foothold there[4] and the conflict between the Christian denominations did not become an issue within the country. Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition continued its work until the 19th century.

Goa Inquisition

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During the period of Colonial Conquest, Portugal also established the Inquisition in the part of India which was part of Portuguese Empire. The Goa Inquisition discriminated against Hindus who were living in the area as well as persecuting Hindus, Muslims and Jews who had converted to Catholicism but were suspected of continuing to practise their old faiths in secret.

Protestant Martyrs under Queen Mary

Many Protestant Christians were burnt at the stake or otherwise killed in the reign of Queen Mary I of England, including Thomas Cranmer and two bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, the Oxford Martyrs.[5] Historians have noted, however, that Queen Elizabeth I had dozens of Catholics put to death during her reign, despite later history's depiction of her as supporting a "via media" in church polity.

Expulsion of the Salzburgers from Austria

On October 31, 1731, the Catholic ruler of Salzburg, Austria, archbishop Leopold von Firmian, issued an edict expelling as many as 20,000 Lutherans from his principality. Many Lutherans, given only eight days to leave their homes, froze to death as they wandered throughout the winter seeking shelter. The wealthier ones who were allowed three months to dispose of their property fared better. Some of these Salzburgers reached London, whence they sailed to the Province of Georgia. Others found new homes in the Netherlands and East Prussia.

Persecution of Huguenots by Catholics

The slaughter of Huguenots (French Protestants) by Catholics at Sens, Burgundy, in 1562 occurred at the beginning of more than thirty years of religious strife between French Protestants and Catholics. These wars produced numerous atrocities. The worst was the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris on August 24, 1572. Thousands of Huguenots were butchered by Roman Catholic mobs. Although an accommodation between the two sides was sealed in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, religious privileges of Huguenots eroded during the seventeenth century and were extinguished in 1685 by the revocation of the edict. Perhaps as many as 400,000 French Protestants emigrated to various parts of the world, including the British North American colonies. Persecution was resumed under Louis XV, 1724–1764, gradually subsiding in the decades leading up to the triumph of laïcité in France.

Protestant countries

Execution of Mennonites in the Netherlands

The executions of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins.

In the Netherlands, David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, described variously as Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites, were executed by Catholic authorities in Ghent in 1554. Strangled and burned, van der Leyen was finally dispatched with an iron fork. Thieleman J. van Braght's Martyrs Mirror is considered by modern Mennonites as second only in importance to the Bible in perpetuating their faith.

Massacres of Civilian Populations in Germany

Throughout the Thirty Years' War, Protestant and Catholic armies took advantage of weakened civilian populations, committing numerous recorded acts of violence and atrocities. Catholic forces loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor carried out the notorious Sack of Magdeburg, while Protestant Swedish troops under Gustavus Adolphus ransacked their fellow Lutherans' villages in northern Germany. By the end of the war, Germany's population had been reduced by one third.

Persecution and Executions of Catholics in Great Britain

Jesuits like John Ogilvie (and seminary priests) were under constant surveillance and threat from the Protestant governments of England and Scotland. Ogilvie was sentenced to death by a Glasgow court and hanged on March 10, 1615.

Brian Cansfield, a Jesuit priest, was seized while at prayer by English Protestant authorities in Yorkshire. Cansfield was beaten and imprisoned under harsh conditions. He died on August 3, 1643, from the effects of his ordeal. Another Jesuit priest, Ralph Corbington, was hanged by the English government in London, September 17, 1644, for professing his faith.

Sir Thomas More was put to death by his former student, Henry VIII, for his refusal to recognize Henry as the head of the church. Saint Margaret Clitherow was put to death via crushing during the reign of Elizabeth I, along with Anne Line, who was hanged. Both women were killed for the crime of harboring Roman Catholic priests. These two, along with 38 others, are named in the Catholic Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Massacres of Catholics in Ireland

Thousands of Catholic residents were massacred by Oliver Cromwell's Protestant troops at Drogheda, Wexford, and Waterford, during the Irish campaign of autumn and winter 1649. All of the survivors of Drogheda and many from other places were sold as slaves to the West Indies. In 1652, all Catholic-owned estates east of the River Shannon were confiscated, and their residents were evicted en-masse amid plague and famine that killed an even greater number. Approximately 600,000 people, nearly half the Irish population, died during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.[6] The penal laws of 1690 caused still more destitution and emigration.

Massacres of Religious Minorities in Scotland and Civil War

As part of the broader political conflict in the British Isles brought on by religious war, The Killing Time was characterized by a Scottish civil war between Presbyterian dissenters (Covenanters) and Charles II's and James VII's episcopal Anglican church policy. Lowland Covenanters were massacred in droves by Highlanders loyal to the crown, and the most radical Covenanter Calvinists committed corporal atrocities against any non-Presbyterians. One of the most notorious examples included the nailing of tongues to doors--a punishment designed to display the non-Presbyterian's lack of good doctrine and "lies."

Political powers

See also


  1. Bax, Ernest Belfort. "Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals", 1911 [1], accessed June 12, 2011.
  2. Kaplan 2007:2
  3. Kaplan 2007:3
  4. Coffey 2000: 212
  5. Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
  6. BBC The curse of Cromwell

Referred literature

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  • John Coffey (2000), Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689, Studies in Modern History, Pearson Education
  • Benjamin J. Kaplan (2007), Divided by Faith. Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press
  • Joseph S. Freedman (1999), Philosophy and the Arts in Central Europe, 1500–1700: Teaching and Texts at Schools and Universities Aldershot: Ashgate

External links