IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > B. Early Modern Europe, 1479–1815
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
B. Early Modern Europe, 1479–1815
The early modern period in Europe can be said to begin around 1648. Between 1500 and 1648 dominant trends reflected intense religious conflict and colonial expansion. After 1648 the emphasis shifted to the activities of national monarchies and their mutual wars as well as the rise of science. Popular unrest receded somewhat, but profound changes in beliefs and in economic activities took shape beneath the surface.  1
Many trends in eastern Europe differed from those in the West. Eastern Europe saw a tightening of serfdom, rather than the rise of wage labor and the growth of commercial cities. Soon after 1648, however, eastern Europe began to share in many of the intellectual and political trends of the West, and a more European-wide diplomatic framework emerged.  2
1. Europe, 1479–1675
a. Overview
The reformation of the Christian Church, launched in 1517 by the Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483–1546), had profound political, social, and economic as well as religious consequences that redounded throughout the entire period. Religious beliefs became conflated with national sentiment and political ambitions, with economic goals and perceived social injustices; and religious schism, civil and international wars, and domestic revolts ensued. The Roman Catholic Church responded to calls for reform with the establishment of new religious orders (notably the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits); with the Holy Office, which investigated heresy; and with the Council of Trent (1545–63), which defined doctrine (notably on the issue of marriage) for the next four centuries.  3
Meantime, the centuries-old European expansion accelerated. Overseas expansion broadened the geographical horizons of Europeans and brought them into confrontations with ancient civilizations in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. These conflicts led first to conquest, then to exploitations, and eventually to economic changes in both Europe and overseas territories. For example, gold and silver from Mexico and Peru which began to flow into Europe in 1503 caused a continent-wide inflation between 1550 and 1565 (though the peak period of Spanish bullion imports was 1580–1620). American potatoes, tomatoes, and maize (Indian corn) began to revolutionize Europeans' diet. By 1575 Europe participated in the first truly global economy, paying for Asian silks, spices, and porcelain, Persian carpets, and Ottoman Turkish kilims with South American silver.  4
Furniture and house decor testified to rising bourgeois wealth, to economic and cultural change: chairs; cupboards, dressers, and sideboards that supported gold, silver, and pewterware and held supplies of table and bed linens, laces, and brocades; canopied four-poster beds; and mirrors and paintings. Ceramic tile floors were common by the 17th century, as were, in wealthy homes, oak parquet floors often covered by Ottoman Turkish or Persian rugs. Such luxuries were depicted in the paintings of Ghirlandaio, Jan van Eyck, Holbein, and the Venetians Carpaccio and Crivelli, reflecting the close commercial ties between Venice and the Ottoman world. In the 16th century, transparent glass windowpanes spread so rapidly that by the 1560s prosperous peasant homes had them, although in eastern Europe, even the grandest houses continued to cover windows with oiled paper. The indoor water closet (toilet), invented by the Englishman Sir John Harrington in 1596, was a luxury everywhere before the 18th century. By the mid-17th century, the houses of wealthy Dutch merchants displayed a conspicuous consumption.  5
The expansion of the Ottoman Turks into southeastern Europe provoked great fears and preoccupied Europeans far more than did “discoveries” and developments in Asia and the Americas.  6
The 17th century opened with agricultural and commercial crises that had serious social and political consequences. Colder, wetter weather meant shorter farming seasons, which in turn meant smaller harvests, food shortages, and widespread starvation. The output of textiles also declined. The Thirty Years' War (1618–48) in Germany, which at some point involved most of the states of Europe, proved the greatest economic disaster for Germany before the 20th century. The widespread use of gunpowder increased the costs and destructiveness of war while reducing its glamour. To finance the larger armies that warfare required, governments resorted to heavier taxation mainly on overburdened peasantry, sparking revolts. To free themselves from the restrictions of competing institutions (such as the churches) or social groups (such as the nobilities), governments claimed to possess sovereignty, the right to make law for all people, a monopoly over the instruments of justice (the courts), and the use of force (police and state armies). In the process two patterns of government began to emerge in the early 17th century: absolutism and constitutionalism.  7
Peasant and urban workers' revolts erupted frequently between 1550 and 1650, cresting around 1648, because of bad harvests that led to widespread starvation, extraordinary royal and seigneurial taxation, and rampant pillaging by soldiers during the Thirty Years' War. A new class structure was taking shape with a growing group of landless wage laborers at the bottom, and this process mobilized many groups in its early phases. Radical outbursts in London, Lyons, Bordeaux, Naples, Salerno, Palermo, Granada, Cordoba (where women led the rebellion), Salzburg, parts of the Swiss cantons, Lithuania, and Moscow often had an egalitarian flavor and, in urban centers, reflected the growth of class consciousness among wage laborers. These revolts, in the towns in western Europe and in the countryside in eastern Europe, constituted the most widespread movements of social protest before 1848.  8
Cultural Changes
Although skepticism, sexism, and racism originated in ancient times, during the age of religious wars these attitudes took on distinctively modern forms. New religious conflicts spurred changes in popular beliefs, while segments of the European elite (including Catholic as well as Protestant leaders) tried to discipline many traditional values and behaviors.  9
Skepticism, which is based on the doubt that certainty, especially religious certainty, is ever attainable, rejected dogmatism and increased secularism. The French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) is perhaps the best representative of early modern skepticism, which was ultimately linked to, though modified by, the rise of science.  10
Witchcraft was an integral part of the mental climate of the age. Educated as well as illiterate people (the French political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–96) and the English jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) are just two examples of the former) believed in the existence of witches. They were popularly described as old women (but sometimes children and young women) who convened for sabbath (midnight assemblies), worshiped, engaged in sexual orgies, and made pacts with the devil (thus renouncing Christian baptism), in return for which they acquired powers to control natural forces such as storms, destroy crops, harm cattle, or incapacitate human genitals. Almost all witches seemed to come from the lower levels of society and were female: the poor, the aged, the senile, and those least able to defend themselves. In the period 1470–1700, 5,417 women were executed (by burning or hanging) in the Swiss Confederation; in 1559–1736, 1,000 women were executed in England; and in 1561–1670, 3,229 women were executed in southeastern Germany. Some possible explanations for these persecutions: pervasive misogyny; treatment of the poor as scapegoats in times of economic and social distress, when outbursts of hysteria toward witches most often occurred; identification of these women with heresy; a desire to control, or to have the appearance of controlling, the scientifically inexplicable and uncontrollable; and a means of eliminating the social nonconformist.  11
Racism. Europeans carried to the Americas racial stereotypes derived from Christian theological speculation and from Muslim theories: that the color white represented light and godliness and that black stood for the hostile forces of the underworld; that sub-Saharan Africans' morals were heathen, their languages barbarous; that Blacks possessed an especially potent sexuality; and, according to the Muslim traveler Ibn Khaldun, that Blacks readily accepted slavery “owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage.” Such absurd hypotheses provided justification for and rationalization of slavery.
Estimates of Population Growth, 1500–1648
France:12 to 15 million
Spain:6.5 to 7.5 million rise (in addition to heavy emigration to the Americas)
Holy Roman Empire:steady at 8 million (the Thirty Years' War took about 8 million lives)
Italy:10 to 12 million
Low Countries:2.5 to 3.5 million rise
British Isles:5 to 7.5 million rise
Scandinavia:2 to 2.5 million rise
(See Europe, 1648–1814)
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.