History of Early Modern Europe

Introduction

Timeline

Timeline of Early Modern Europe
Reformation
ca. 1500-1650
Enlightenment
ca. 1650-1800
1 2 3 4
5 6
1 age of growing religious conflict ca. 1500-1618
2 Thirty Years' War ca. 1618-1648
3 Early Enlightenment ca. 1648-1715
4 Late Enlightenment ca. 1715-1800
5 English Revolution ca. 1640-60
6 French Revolution ca. 1789-99
Summary of Early Modern History
summary of
primary powers
Reformation: Spain, France, Austria
Enlightenment: France, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain
growing religious conflict
ca. 1500-1618
Protestant-Catholic conflict grows, between and within nations Reformation
ca. 1500-1650
Thirty Years' War
ca. 1618-48
the German states (aided by France, Denmark, and Sweden) successfully
battle Austria (aided by Spain) for political/religious autonomy
Early Enlightenment
ca. 1648-1715
France, under Louis XIV, flourishes as the mightiest European nation;
the Early Enlightenment concludes with the War of the Spanish Succession
Enlightenment
ca. 1650-1800
Late Enlightenment
ca. 1715-1800
a five-way balance of power prevails in Europe;
Britain wins the Seven Years' War, thereby becoming the global colonial superpower;
the Enlightenment concludes with the French Revolution

General Features

The Early Modern age witnessed the ascent of Western Europe to global political, economic, and technological dominance. This ascent was gradual; only toward the end of the Early Modern age did Western power clearly surpass that of rival civilizations. Europe's chief rivals were found in the Middle East (Ottoman Empire), South Asia (Mughal Empire), and East Asia (Ming/Qing China).

The Early Modern age can be divided into two periods: the Reformation (ca. 1500-1650; see Reformation) and the Enlightenment (ca. 1650-1800; see Enlightenment). The period can also be divided into two narratives: the history of the continent itself (the focus of this article), and the history of the overseas empires amassed by European powers (see European Colonialism).

The vast economic and territorial expansion of the Early Modern age was a force for both good and ill. On the negative side, the scale of war between Western powers (in terms of troops, resources, and geographic extent) grew steadily. On the positive side, the Early Modern age witnessed the rise of a large middle class (e.g. merchants, artisans, officials), which greatly bolstered the spread of literacy and scholarship (given that the middle class possessed the time and wealth to become literate and pursue scholarly activities).

Notwithstanding these dramatic changes, political power in Early Modern Europe remained concentrated in the hands of the upper class, composed primarily of nobility and clergy. A fundamental struggle emerged between the middle and upper class of each nation, often spurring attempted revolution. The old order (nobility and clergy) was finally displaced in the modern age (ca. 1800-present), when industrial manufacturing allowed capitalists to become the dominant economic class (see History of the Western Economy).

Centralization

A country, as we use the term today, is an independent, centrally-governed territory. In Western Europe, countries only began to emerge toward the end of the medieval period, as monarchs finally managed to achieve firm centralized control over large regions. During the Reformation, the power of monarchs continued to grow, while the power of local nobles continued to decline.

In other words, Early Modern Europe experienced a transition from feudalism to absolutism. Under the feudal system, monarchs ruled their lands indirectly via hierarchies of nobility (see Feudalism and Serfdom), whereas an absolutist monarch directly rules an entire state, relatively free of interference from lesser nobles. The Reformation served as the transitional period between feudalism and absolutism, while the Enlightenment featured strongly absolutist monarchs; indeed, the Enlightenment period is also known as the "Age of Absolutism".

Rise of Humanism

Humanism is "an outlook that emphasizes human capabilities and concerns" (see Humanism). It features two key assertions: that individuals should exercise critical thought, and that secular matters are important. Humanism forms the very core of Western civilization.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church exerted religious authority over the entirety of Western Europe. The Church was also a major political and economic force, with many clergy holding posts in government and education, and enormous wealth being collected from land holdings and taxation. As the medieval period drew on, however, resistance to Church authority grew, due largely to the rise of the middle class (which possessed the time and literacy to study and denounce religious oppression). Church response to criticism varied from genuine reform efforts to horrific violence.

Humanism was nearly extinguished during the medieval period: critical thought was supplanted with blind acceptance of Church doctrine, and secular scholarship was largely abandoned. Since Church power depended on being perceived as unquestionable, it opposed both science (which could undermine theology) and liberalism (which would give people freedom to denounce the Church). Progress in these areas was frustrated until the overarching authority of the Church was shattered by the Reformation (see Reformation).

The success of the Reformation led to the Enlightenment, during which humanism reached its fully-developed form (see Enlightenment). The full spectrum of secular subjects were eagerly explored, and all fields of knowledge were, at last, constantly tested with critical thought. The Enlightenment thus gave rise to the modern Western world, including modern science and liberal democracy.

The Habsburgs

One of the key royal houses of Europe was the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled the Austrian Empire for the whole of its existence (ca. 1500-WWI). Up until ca. 1800, the Austrian Empire is also known as the Holy Roman Empire.

Summary of the Holy Roman Empire > Austrian Empire
ca. 950-1300 Holy Roman Empire initial flourishing
ca. 1300-1500 decline
ca. 1500-WWI Austrian Empire Habsburg rule

Habsburg power peaked when, via strategic marriage, a single Habsburg came to be (simultaneously) the Spanish king and Holy Roman emperor. This man is known as Charles V (Holy Roman emperor) or Charles I (king of Spain). Charles' dual reign spanned roughly four decades, near the beginning of the Reformation period.

Domain of Charles I of Spain (aka Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire)

After Charles, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were once again ruled separately, each by a line of the Habsburg family. The Austrian Habsburgs ruled the Austrian Empire for the remainder of its history (until WWI), while the Spanish Habsburgs ruled Spain until ca. 1700 (when the line went extinct, precipitating the War of the Spanish Succession).

Main Article

Reformation Europe

ca. 1500-1650
Summary of the Reformation
primary powers Spain, France, Austria
growing religious conflict
ca. 1500-1618
Protestant-Catholic conflict grows, between and within nations
Thirty Years' War
ca. 1618-48
the German states (aided by France, Denmark, and Sweden) successfully
battle Austria (aided by Spain) for political/religious autonomy

The Reformation featured constant religion-based conflict (namely Catholic-Protestant conflict) within and between the nations of Western Europe. Religious fervour was, of course, often entangled with political interests.

The most powerful nations of Reformation Europe were Spain (the mightiest), France, and Austria. Alliances of the Reformation generally coincided with religion: Protestant regions on one side (Germany, Netherlands, England, Scandinavia), Catholic regions on the other (Spain, Holy Roman Empire). The chief exception was France, which despite being Catholic was determined to break the power of the Habsburgs.

Reformation Europe

The Reformation can be divided into two parts: a period of escalating conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics (ca. 1500-1618) and the Thirty Years' War (ca. 1618-48).

The primary struggles of the "escalating conflict" period were the Italian Wars and the Dutch Revolt, both of which lasted decades. The Italian Wars, fought between Spain and France over Italian territory, ended in Spanish victory. In the Dutch Revolt (aka the Eighty Years' War), the Netherlands won independence from Spanish rule. (The final three decades of the the Dutch Revolt overlap with the Thirty Years' War.)

The region of "the Netherlands" comprises the northern half of the Low Countries. While the Low Countries were largely independent during the Middle Ages, they became a firm Habsburg possession ca. 1500. The Netherlands broke free during the Reformation, while the southern Low Countries (now Belgium) would not achieve independence until the nineteenth century.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), fought mainly in Germany, centred on the struggle of the German states against Austria for political and religious autonomy. (While Germany officially belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, the region was actually a patchwork of small, semi-independent states.) Austria was aided by Spain, while the German states were supported chiefly by Denmark, Sweden, and France. Over seven million were killed in the Thirty Years' War, making it the bloodiest conflict in Europe prior to the First World War.K262-263,8

The Thirty Years' War initially erupted in Bohemia (part of Austrian territory), when enraged Protestants (a strong minority group in that region) burst into the king's palace and hurled several officials through a window: an event referred to as the Defenestration of Prague. War subsequently raged in Bohemia (for the first few years of the war), then primarily Germany (for the remainder). Austria was ultimately defeated, with the treaty that ended the war (the Peace of Westphalia) granting religious and political autonomy to the German states. (In Bohemia, however, the Protestant rebellion was quelled, and Austrian control of the region remained firm.)8,9

Reformation England

Monarchs of Reformation England
ca. 1500-1600 ca. 1600-48
Tudors James I > Charles I

Under the Tudor dynasty (ca. 1500-1600), England bloomed into a major power. The conversion of England to Protestantism was initiated by Henry VIII (the second Tudor), who proclaimed himself head of Catholicism in England (instead of the pope) in response to the pope's refusal to grant him a divorce. Over the Tudor period, England came to abandon Catholicism altogether, with Protestantism being permanently established as the state religion of England by Elizabeth I (the last Tudor).67

The Tudors were succeeded by the Stuart dynasty. Its first two members were James I and Charles I, both of whom provoked civil unrest via brutal anti-Catholicism, heavy taxation, and contempt for Parliament. Under James' reign, this unrest culminated in the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic attempt to blow up Parliament. Under Charles' reign, unrest finally erupted into the English Revolution.68

The period known as the English Revolution (ca. 1640-60) had two phases. The first half of this period was spanned by the English Civil War, which ultimately deposed Charles I. The second half was spanned by the Commonwealth (a dictatorship ruled by Oliver Cromwell), during which civil conflict continued. In 1660, the Stuart monarchy was restored.

The English Civil War was fought between the Royalists (supporters of the king, composed primarily of high-ranking nobles) and the Parliamentarians (supporters of Parliament, composed primarily of lesser nobles and the middle class). The war ended in Parliamentarian victory and Charles' execution.70

Parliament was the representative assembly of England. (A representative assembly is a body of representatives from across a country, who gather to participate in the governance of that country.) While representative assemblies emerged in various Western European states during the Middle Ages, most remained mere advisory bodies; only Parliament achieved real political power, such that it could significantly limit the actions of the monarch (see History of Democracy).

While Parliament was initially dominated by the nobility, throughout the Reformation it increasingly became the political voice of the middle class.70 Members of Parliament were elected, albeit only by a fraction of the population (due to property requirements for suffrage). Nonetheless, this was the starting-point of modern democracy, and Parliament is the ancestor of all modern democratic governments.

For most of Europe, the Enlightenment was the age of absolutism, during which monarchs achieved an unprecedented degree of absolute rule over their nations. Thanks to Parliament, England was the chief exception to this rule. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came with strong conditions, namely that monarchs would recognize the legal authority Parliament had obtained up to that point, as well as some additional power. Thus does the English Revolution mark the decisive, permanent end of absolutism in England. (This was reaffirmed a few decades later by the brief Glorious Revolution, in which another Stuart king with absolutist ambitions was deposed by Parliamentary forces.)A296-97,79

England thus became the first major power to feature representative government (i.e. government in which significant political power is held by a representative assembly). This did not go unnoticed: from the English Revolution onward, demand for representative government was constant throughout the Western world.78 Representative government (and British culture generally) also spread via exportation from Britain to its colonies, including the United States (which, some two centuries after the English Revolution, would become the world's first true democracy).

Enlightenment Europe

ca. 1650-1800
Summary of the Enlightenment
Early Enlightenment
ca. 1648-1715
France, under Louis XIV, flourishes as the mightiest European nation;
the Early Enlightenment concludes with the War of the Spanish Succession
Late Enlightenment
ca. 1715-1800
a five-way balance of power prevails in Europe;
Britain wins the Seven Years' War, thereby becoming the global colonial superpower;
the Enlightenment concludes with the French Revolution

During the period from the Enlightenment to World War I (ca. 1650-WWI), the primary powers of Europe were France, England, Austria, Prussia (later Germany), and Russia. During the Early Enlightenment (ca. 1648-1715), France waxed as the most powerful nation of the five (under Louis XIV). During the Late Enlightenment (ca. 1715-1800), the five nations were more evenly matched, comprising a five-way "balance of power".2

Enlightenment Europe

Note that the Ottoman Empire was also a major force in European politics for the whole of its existence (ca. 1300-WWI).

The reign of the French king Louis XIV (aka the "Sun King") spanned the entire Early Enlightenment. Louis' reign was characterized by extensive patronage of the arts, ruthless persecution of the Huguenots (which virtually ended Protestantism in France), and constant wars of attempted expansion.51 These attempts compelled other European powers to unite into an anti-French coalition, whose membership fluctuated throughout the decades (but was consistently led by England and Austria).

The foremost conflict of the Early Enlightenment was the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), which spanned the final years of Louis XIV's reign. This conflict resulted from the extinction of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain, which caused Louis' grandson Philip to inherit the Spanish throne; left unchecked, this would eventually have led to the union of France and Spain under a single monarch. The anti-French coalition averted this danger by attacking and defeating both nations; in the resulting peace settlement, France and Spain were forbidden from ever uniting, and both were stripped of significant territories.52,53

The foremost conflict of the Late Enlightenment (along with the American and French Revolutions) was the Seven Years' War (1756-63), which involved most of Europe. Fighting took place both in Europe itself and throughout the world, between the European empires. Indeed, the Seven Years' War is often cited as the first global conflict.

At the core of this conflict was the British-French struggle for world supremacy. The Enlightenment period witnessed a string of wars between these nations over control of India, North America, and the Caribbean. More often than not, Britain claimed victory in these wars, such that French territory was slowly eroded.

Victory in the Seven Years' War allowed the British Empire to absorb New France (French territory in North America) and ejected the French from India. The Seven Years' War thus marks the rise of the British Empire as the supreme global colonial power. By imposing new taxes on colonies (due to massive war debts), however, Britain spurred the American Revolution, which France was only too eager to support.73

Russia and Prussia

The history of Russia began ca. 1500, when Ivan the Great founded the nation by freeing his East Slavic land (known as Muscovy) from Turkic domination. Russian territory expanded steadily throughout the Early Modern period, especially eastward. Ivan the Great was succeeded by Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian ruler to be titled tsar. Soon after, the Romanov dynasty came to power, remaining there until the position of tsar was terminated during WWI.41,42

The foremost monarch of Enlightenment Russia was Peter the Great, who effected an ambitious program of "Westernization" to bring Russian government, military, and technology up to Western standards. He established Russian naval power by founding St Petersburg on the Baltic coast, which served as the nation's capital until World War I.42

The Enlightenment also witnessed the emergence of the nation of Prussia. "Prussia" was originally a state centred on modern-day northeast Poland, established by the Teutonic Knights during the later Middle Ages. Poland conquered the region soon afterward, but allowed the Knights to keep part of it as a duchy. During the Reformation, this duchy was inherited by the prince of Brandenburg (one of the small German states under the Holy Roman Empire); during the Enlightenment, Prussia broke free as an independent kingdom and expanded rapidly, joining up with Brandenburg to form a single great power.

Teutonic Prussia
Duchy of Prussia (Brandenburg in red)
Enlightenment Prussia
Nineteenth-century Prussia

French Revolution

The Enlightenment concluded with the French Revolution (1789-99), effected by the French peasantry and middle class in response to heavy regressive taxation.2 Taxes on food, for instance, were so high as to bring about famine among the lower classes. Escalating civil unrest forced Louis XVI to summon the Estates-General in a desperate bid to implement satisfactory political reforms, including an acceptable system of taxation (which was needed to manage the towering national debt).58

The Estates-General was, like England's Parliament, a representative assembly established during the Middle Ages. Unlike Parliament, the Estates-General had never attained significant political power, and so had remained chiefly advisory.

The Estates-General consisted of representatives from three groups: nobility, clergy, and commoners (known as the three "estates"). Though discussions ensued, the commoners lost patience and demanded control of the nation, dubbing themselves the National Assembly. Before long, the king reluctantly acknowledged the National Assembly as the new government of France.58

The new regime would not be established peacefully, however: in 1789, fears of a noble plot to restore the monarchy drove the commoners to storm the Bastille (a prison fortress) for weapons. This act is considered the beginning of the French Revolution.58

The Revolution featured a series of failed attempts at establishing democratic government. Meanwhile, violence raged both within France (against counter-revolutionaries and between rival revolutionary factions) and against other European nations in the French Revolutionary Wars, through which France expanded eastward. Thousands of perceived enemies of the Revolution were beheaded, including Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.58

The Revolution ended when Napoleon, a celebrated military officer of the French Revolutionary Wars, seized control of the nation in 1799. Though not declared "emperor" for some years, his rule was dictatorial from the start. War with Europe continued; the French Revolutionary Wars simply became the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).58,74

While the French Revolution did not succeed in founding democratic government, it did initiate the downfall of absolutism in France. The Revolution also bolstered a range of freedoms in French society, including freedom of speech and religion. The ideals and reforms of the French Revolution proved widely influential, especially across Continental Europe.A327

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