Early Modern World Research Paper

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Historians sometimes refer to the era between the premodern (or medieval) and late modern eras as the “early modern world.” The world during this time was increasingly united by the projection of European power abroad, especially in the Americas. Although early modern Europeans still had little knowledge of, let alone influence over, the inland regions of Africa and Asia, the links engineered and dominated by Europeans made all the world a stage for fundamental historical processes.

Historians debate, or pass over in silence, the problem of determining the precise starting and ending dates of the early modern world and have produced only the vaguest consensus. Roughly, the era of the early modern world began during the fifteenth century with the Timurid (relating to the Turkic conqueror Timur) and Italian cultural renaissances. The year 1405 serves as a convenient starting date because it marks not only the death of Timur, the last great Central Asian conqueror to join farmers and nomads into a single empire, but also the first of the naval expeditions to the “Western oceans” by the Chinese admiral Zheng He (c. 1371–1435). The era might be taken to end in the late eighteenth century with the French and industrial revolutions, both European events of global consequence in the late modern world. The uncertainty of this periodization derives in part from the concept of an early modern Europe, with its own uncertain chronological boundaries, and in part from the unconsidered way in which both phrases entered historical scholarship.

Origins of the Concept

Although conceptually the phrase early modern world is an extension of early modern Europe, the initial histories of both phrases have some surprises. The earliest known appearance of early modern world occurs in Willard Fisher’s “Money and Credit Paper in the Modern Market” from The Journal of Political Economy (1895). Although Fisher writes, “We all know that the system of bank credits and bank money, which was introduced into the great commercial centers of the early modern world, has now attained a quite marvelous development” (1895, 391), the geographical sense of his statement is strictly, if implicitly, European. On the other hand, the phrase early modern Europe first shows up twenty years later, in Dixon Ryan Fox’s “Foundations of West India Policy” in Political Science Quarterly (1915). Fox remarks, “It was now realized by students of colonial history that in the Caribbean [the “West India” of the article’s title] might best be traced the application of those principles which formed the working basis for the old empires of early modern Europe” (1915, 663). Ironically, the phrase early modern Europe first appeared in the Caribbean, in the global context of colonialism, in an article advocating trans-Atlantic history. In their debuts each phrase bore something of the other’s sense.

Fox’s usage was an anomaly, and when the phrase early modern Europe arrived in Europe, it had come to stay. The phrase early modern world, however, for decades would imply world to mean, in an indefi- nite way, immediate rather than global surroundings; because this historical scholarship dealt with European subjects, the “early modern world” was in fact “early modern Europe.” The early modern world became global only with C. F. Strong’s grammarschool textbook The Early Modern World (1955) and S. Harrison Thomson’s 1964 review of J. H. Parry’s The Age of Reconnaissance, in which Thomson uses the phrase to describe the “story of the successive expansion of European venture, from Africa to the reaches of the Indian Ocean by Arabs and Portuguese by sea, the movement westward to the Americas and the early transition from discovery to fishing, trading, and exploitation” (1964, 188).

The first considered analysis of the early modern world came after the posthumous publication of Joseph Fletcher’s article “Integrative History” in 1985. Subsequent analysis has tended to adopt either a deductive or an inductive approach.

Deductive Approach

A deductive approach to the early modern world compares premodernity and late modernity, imagines the characteristics necessary to bridge the two stages, and only then seeks confirmation of them in the historical record. This approach assumes the existence of a modernizing trajectory, which the early modern world shared with (and perhaps inherited from) early modern Europe.

Informed by a Marxist perspective, the essentials of the early modern world would highlight transitions from feudal to bourgeois, from serfdom to wage-earning proletariat, and from local subsistence to regional market economies. A functionalist understanding of modernity, of the sort theorized by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), the U.S. sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), or the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), explains social phenomena in terms of their ability to fulfill social needs and broadens this base beyond the mode of production. Here the critical shifts would be from belief in miracles to belief in science, from household-based craft production powered by muscle, dung, water, and wood to factory-based mass production powered by electricity and fossil fuels, and from government justified by tradition to government consciously invented.

Even in the context of early modern Europe critics challenge the effectiveness of a deductive approach by condemning its implication of an inevitable progress from premodernity to modernity. A deductive approach takes little cognizance of the possibilities of various starting points, different destinations, and particular paths. In some twentieth-century cases the transition to modernity was less a progression than a violently dramatic change. When expanded to a global context this approach becomes not only teleological (assuming a design or purpose in history), but also artificially Eurocentric.

Inductive Approach

Rather than specify theoretical factors to be sought in the time period, an inductive approach examines what happened in different places and extracts from what happened a set of common features. Although such an approach removes the theoretical obstacle of a modernizing trajectory, the historian is left with the Herculean task of specifying processes that united all, most, or many of the world’s peoples. Such an approach need not focus on Europe, nor need it measure the success of various regions in terms of their progress along Europe’s path.

How closely do the rough chronological parameters suggested here match the conventional historiographies (the writings of history) of the various regions outside Europe? Traditional periodizations in African and American history are directly linked to European expansion. Marked by a European presence that could not yet dominate the continent, an early modern Africa might last from the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, a port on the Moroccan side of the Strait of Gibraltar (1415), until the development of quinine and steamships in the nineteenth century. The first Niger steamship expedition returned without casualties in 1854. An early modern America might stretch from the encounters of 1492 until the period of independence movements, from 1776 to the independence of Brazil in 1822.

An early modern India could begin with the fifth-generation descendant of Timur, Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, whose ancestry inspired him to conquer northern India. The Mughal Empire (1526–1857) he founded would rule effectively for two centuries; the British would take charge of its Delhi nucleus in 1803. An early modern Japan stretches from the unification efforts of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) to the end of the Tokugawa shogunate (the dictatorship of a Japanese military governor) in 1868. Other regional historiographies fit less naturally. Although the Ottomans’ 1453 conquest of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) was timely, the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644) began too early and ended inconveniently in the middle of our early modern period. Worse, key modernizing revolutions came late relative to the western European timetable—the Chinese revolution in 1911/12, the Russian Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and the Kemalist (relating to the Turkish soldier and statesman Kemal Ataturk) revolution in Turkey in 1923.

The actual use of the phrase early modern in the periodization of regional histories varies. Outside of Europe, it is most commonly used in Asia, especially in works on China, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, India. Historians of China sometimes extend the period into the twentieth century. Far fewer historians write of an early modern Africa or an early modern Brazil. This fact is due in part to the power of the word colonial to identify these time periods. Latin American periodization is so consistently divided into pre-Columbian, colonial, and national periods that there is no need for the phrase early modern, which should correspond to the middle, colonial period. In fact, the early modern Mexico sometimes refers to the period immediately after independence.

The divergence of these traditional periodizations of regional histories, so often linked to high-level political history, should not surprise. The global historian in search of an early modern world can look beyond these periodizations to seek processes that enveloped wide swaths of the planet.

Development of Global Sea Passages

Nothing is more characteristic of the early modern world than the creation of truly global sea passages. Before 1492 the Americas remained essentially isolated from Eurasia. In 1788 the last key sea passage was completed by the first permanent settlement of Europeans in Australia. This passage also concluded the integration of the Pacific Ocean as a geographical concept, a process that began when the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific from America in 1513.

During the early fifteenth century the Europeans were unlikely candidates to fill the key role in this process of exploration. Portuguese exploration of the African coast was declining, and mariners were reluctant to sail out of sight of land. Even the overland excursions undertaken by Europeans had become more modest. Muslims still controlled southern Iberia, and in 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Smart money would have looked rather at the Chinese admiral Zheng He, whose seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 reached even the shores of eastern Africa. A change in Chinese imperial policy halted these expeditions, and the voyages that finally connected the world were directed by Europeans. In 1522 the survivors of the expedition of the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, or perhaps that distinction goes to his Malay slave Panglima Awang, who may have reached his original home halfway through the voyage. During the following centuries a skilled captain and crew could navigate a ship from any port to any port and reasonably expect to arrive. In 1570 the Flemish cartographer Ortelius published what has been described as the first modern atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theater of the World); this comprehensive yet handy and inexpensive work enjoyed immediate success. By the end of the period the best-mapped region of the world would be China.

Global Demographic Interconnections

The world’s population doubled during the early modern period, from approximately 374 million (1400) to 968 million people (1800). Although demographic data are limited, some patterns emerge. Rapid growth was punctuated by a seventeenth-century decline in Europe, Russia, Iran, Central Asia, China, and Korea—and recovery from this decline occurred globally, even in the Americas. The more populous regions tended to grow more rapidly.

The new global sea passages set the stage for a transatlantic “Columbian exchange” (the biological and cultural exchange between the New World and the Old World that began with the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus) and for a transpacific “Magellan exchange” of crops and disease pathogens that put the peoples of the world in a more direct demographic relationship than ever before. The arrival of American maize and potatoes in Eurasia, and later in Africa, facilitated an intensive agricultural, and thus demographic, growth, and the appearance of tomatoes in Italy and chili peppers in India had important dietary and culinary consequences.

Disease also became a global phenomenon. First appearing in Europe in 1494, venereal syphilis reached India four years later, and by 1505 it had outraced the Portuguese to China. The New World’s isolation and limited biodiversity (biological diversity as indicated by numbers of species of plants and animals) did not afford its indigenous peoples the same immunities enjoyed by Europeans, who as children were exposed to a multiplicity of infections. Measles, smallpox, and other diseases brought by Europeans triggered a long-term demographic catastrophe. The indigenous population of central Mexico declined from 30 million in 1518 to 1.6 million in 1620—a genocide unintended, misunderstood, and undesired by the Spanish who sought souls for salvation and laborers for their mines. Contact with the wider world wrought similar demographic calamities on other isolated peoples, including Pacific Islanders, Siberian tribes, and the Khoikhoi of southern Africa. Increased contacts distributed pathogens more evenly throughout the world and generally reduced susceptibility to epidemic disease.

Development of a Global Economy

The development of global sea passages integrated America into a truly global economy. Rapidly growing long-distance commerce linked expanding economies on every continent. Dutch merchants in Amsterdam could purchase commodities anywhere in the world, bring them to Amsterdam, store them safely, add value through processing and packaging, and sell them for profit. Intensive production fueled by the commercialism of an increasingly global market gave new importance to cash crops and sparked an unprecedented expansion in the slave trade.

The movement of manufactured goods from eastern Asia toward Europe and America created a chain of balance-of-trade deficits, which funneled silver from American mines to China. Regular transpacific trade developed during the decades after the founding of Manila in the Philippines in 1571 and followed the same pattern: exports of porcelain and silks from China created a trade imbalance that sucked silver from the Americas and from Japan. Through military-commercial giants such as the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602), European merchants disrupted traditional trading conditions in Africa and Asia to muscle into regional “country trade.” The expansion of settled populations, as well as the new ocean trade route alternatives to the Silk Roads that linked China to the West, contributed to the decline of nomadism. The agriculture of settled peoples supported large populations and tax bases that an efficient state could translate into continuing military strength.

Development of Large and Efficient States

The global trade in firearms and similar weapons contributed to the growth of large and efficient states, known as “gunpowder empires.” Expensive and complex, the most advanced weapons became a monopoly of centralized states, which employed them to weaken local opposition. During the mid-fifteenth century the king of France used artillery to reduce some sixty castles annually. Administrative procedures also became increasingly routinized and efficient. Ever more abstract notions of state authority accompanied the evolution of new sources of legitimacy. From the Irrawaddy River in Asia to the Seine River in Europe, religious uniformity served to reinforce and confirm centralized rule. The ideal of universal empire was native to America, Africa, and Eurasia.

The early modern unification of England with Scotland and Ireland was paralleled throughout Europe. If in 1450 Europe contained six hundred independent political units (or more, depending on the criteria), in the nineteenth century it contained around twenty-five. About thirty independent city-states, khanates (state governed by a ruler with the Mongol title “khan”), and princedoms were absorbed into the Russian Empire. By 1600/1603 the Tokugawa shogunate had unified Japan. Fourteenth-century southeastern Asia had two dozen independent states that evolved into Vietnam, Siam (Thailand), and Burma (Myanmar) by 1825. The Mughals unified India north of the Deccan Plateau for the first time since the Maurya Empire (c. 324– c. 200 BCE). Unification was also an overture to expansion. In addition to an increasing European presence worldwide, Qing China (1644–1911/12) invaded Xinjiang, Mongolia, Nepal, Burma, and Formosa, and during the seventeenth century Romanov Russia stretched out to the Pacific.

The new unities led relentlessly to new fragmentations and hierarchies, and resistance to such centralizing political forces was equally universal. During the century between 1575 and 1675, for example, uprisings occurred in China, Japan, India, Armenia, Georgia, Kurdistan, Ukraine, the Balkans, the German lands, Switzerland, France, Catalonia, Portugal, England, Ireland, and Mexico. At the end of the period, the French Revolution (1789) would enjoy global influence as the first revolution modern in its progressive, absolute, and sudden nature.

Intensification of Land Use

The concurrence of population growth, global markets, and aggressive states led to wider and more intensive use of land. Displacing or subordinating indigenous peoples, pioneers backed by aggressive states drained wetlands and cleared forests to create new lands for intensive commercial, agricultural, and pastoral regimes. (Similarly, commercial hunters pursued various species of flora and fauna to extinction for sale on a global market.) Oblivious to any land claims held by indigenous peoples, states would offer pioneers low taxes in exchange for settlement and land rights. For example, the Mughal Empire provided land grants, Hindu merchants provided capital, and Sufi(Muslim mystic) brotherhoods provided leadership for the communities of Muslim pioneers who transformed the Bengal wetlands into a key rice-producing region. These efforts compensated for the extended disobliging weather patterns that plagued temperate zones throughout the Northern Hemisphere—a “little ice age” affecting climate throughout the early modern world.

Religious Revival

The most distinctive religious characteristic of this era was the global expansion of Christianity. Indeed, the impetus driving the creation of global sea passages was religious as well as commercial. The efforts of Catholic religious orders predominated—the great Protestant missionary societies would be founded only in the 1790s. Sufibrotherhoods such as the Naqshibandiyah expanded Islam in Africa, India, China, and southeastern Asia. Tibetan Buddhism pushed into northwestern China, Manchuria, Mongolia, Buryatia, and to Kalmikya, on the shore of the Caspian Sea, which remains today the only Buddhist republic in Europe.

The increased emphasis on orthodox and textual conventions of Latin Christendom’s Reformation had a parallel in the Raskol schism of the Russian Orthodox Church during the 1650s. Elsewhere, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703–1792) founded the Wahabbi movement to reform Sunni Islam under strict Qur’anic interpretation.

Many people believed that the era that historians call “early modern” would be the last. Franciscan apocalyptic thought inspired Columbus, and the belief that the god Quetzalcoatl would return from the East in a One Reed year may have led the Aztec sovereign Montezuma II to regard the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes and his comrades as divine envoys. A Jesuit at the court of Akbar in 1581 found the Mughal ruler open to the idea of the imminent end because that year was eleven years from the thousandth anniversary of the Hijra, which was the journey the Prophet Muhammad took from Mecca to Medina in 622 ce. The Jewish Sabbatian movement expected the end of the world in 1666 and influenced apocalyptic thought even in Christian England. In late eighteenth-century central China the White Lotus Society awaited the return of the Buddha to put an end to suffering. All these developments might best be understood in the context of notions of history in which significant change was either absent—or sudden and awesome.


Neither a deductive nor an inductive approach to the early modern world is entirely satisfactory. A deductive approach expects to see the entire world following a Eurocentric roadmap to modernization (one that Europe itself might not have followed). Indeed, renaming the period the late traditional world, the exact inversion of early modern, avoids both the teleology and the Eurocentrism. On the other hand, an inductive approach respects the diversity of historical experience, but this diversity itself can frustrate attempts to delineate a discrete list of unifying features.

If historians can tolerate the inconveniences of regional exceptions to every “global” process, the idea of an early modern world has its attractions. Although a perspective that twists the world around a European center is unproductive, the regions of the early modern world were increasingly named (in America) and mapped (as in China) by Europeans, even as they exploited, served, or collaborated with local peoples. Nevertheless, in its application beyond Europe the idea of an early modern world redresses the distortions of the Orientalist assumption of parochial, timeless, and conservative inertias unaltered by European expansion. It recognizes that peoples of the early modern era in some ways had more in common with each other than with their own ancestors and descendents—that time unites just as powerfully as place. It facilitates comparative analysis and abets inquiry that trespasses across national boundaries. It sees the entire world as a stage, not only for comparative study, but also for the broadest possible analysis for a historian’s scrutiny.


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