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Early Modern Period Overview & History

Instructor: Felicity Moran

Felicity Moran received a Bachelors in history from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and a Master's in history from the University of Cincinnati, where she taught at the collegiate level for two years. Her specialties include early modern European history, gender history, and music history.

Study the Early Modern era. Learn the definition of the Early Modern period and read an overview of significant trends and events in Early Modern history. Updated: 02/22/2023

What is the Early Modern Period?

Historians have long understood the Early Modern period as the 15th through the 18th centuries, a time of transition between the medieval world and the Modern period. However, these dates are by no means strictly defined, and can change depending on the historical lens. In most instances, the terms "Early Modern era" and "Pre-Modern era" are used interchangeably, although the latter tends to demote the era to a mere preface before the modern world. Therefore, Early Modern history has received new attention from historians in recent decades to differentiate between the many events that occurred.

However, because even these distinctions have kept the focus of the era largely on Europe, scholarship has endeavored to expand the study to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania, recognizing that societies reached early modernity and modernity at different periods. This expansion of focus and cross-referencing between historians of different geographical locations have allowed a more fluid and accurate understanding of the Early Modern world to emerge, one which recognizes the varied experiences of states and civilizations.

Characteristics of the Early Modern Era

A variety of developments and changes have long since characterized the Early Modern era. Many developments, specifically in Europe, happened during the Italian Renaissance of the 16th through 17th centuries, which included the creation of elaborate musical and artistic styles. The Scientific Revolution, also in Europe, encouraged scientific experimentation and theorization, while the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation caused religious upheaval and subsequent attempts to define and revitalize religious practices.

These major events have long been the focus of the Early Modern period, but newer scholarship requires the inclusion of other geographic locations and developments. With the colonization of the Americas, Indigenous peoples throughout North and South America saw their ways of life radically changed, as European people began utilizing the pre-existing internal slave trade in Africa and expanding it across the Atlantic. Oceania and Australia also saw the arrival of European colonizers, the first newcomers to that part of the world since before recorded history.

Both the Middle East and Far East had already modernized well beyond Europe by the time of the Early Modern period through technology and globalized trade; thus, the terminology does not apply as well. However, some political changes occurred in the Middle East and Asia in relatively the same era as the Early Modern era. These include the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which utilized the existing trans-Saharan trade networks, present since before the Medieval period. Another example is the start of the Ming Dynasty in China, which upset the established Mongol Empire.

Early Modern European History

The concept of the Early Modern period began with regard to early Europe, and many of these events occurred because of European contact with the rest of the world; thus, most of the events that fit neatly into the established timeline are European in nature. Europe in the 1500s was a time of great artistic, philosophical, scientific, and political growth. The Renaissance in Italy produced a collection of polymath thinkers who created art and architectural styles untested since the days of ancient Rome. Leonardo da Vinci was one such product, combining the arts and sciences to create works more anatomically correct and thus expressive of the human body.

These efforts also charged the Scientific Revolution, when experimentation and the scientific method developed. Because early modern scientists used ancient philosophers as the starting point of their inquiries, scientific efforts continued to have a moralistic tone and a focus in controlling the natural world. However, these were the beginnings of modern observations and testing.

The scientist Galileo shows his telescope to the Venetian government. The development of technologies such as these were key to the Scientific Revolution.

The Venetian doge, seated, looks through a telescope of Galileo, standing to the right. Other officials stand nearby

Progressions with the Scientific Revolution led to the Enlightenment in the 17th century in Europe, when statesmen began to abandon long-established religious influences in favor of pure rationality. This directly affected the formation of modern nation-states and the rise of imperialism, as political thinkers insisted that rulers, rather than having a divine right, were chosen by the people and therefore should be held accountable to them. New constitutions arguing for the rights of man spread across Europe, as did the desire to increase those rights to new lands.

During the same time, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation created new tensions in every part of Europe. Protestants left the Catholic Church for a variety of reasons, with Martin Luther finding fault with Church doctrine and King Henry VIII of England wanting a different wife. However, all waves of the Reformation represented rejections of the authority of the pope in Rome. As a response, the Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a series of reforms in the education of priests and the transmission of its teachings to lay people in order to re-educate in the face of Protestantism.

Increased religiosity from Catholic and Protestant people as well as later developments in the rights of man created a two-fold desire for European nation-states to spread throughout the world. This led to the creation of European-based empires, sweeping the world into the events of the Early Modern period. However, non-European communities and civilizations cannot be understood merely with reference to Europe, as each of them had their own rich societies before the arrival of Europe.

The Early Modern Period in Asia

Societies in Asia were already modernized far beyond Europe by the 1500s, making the term "Early Modern" something of a misnomer. However, some significant political changes did occur in conjunction with the changes in the West. One of these was the ascension of the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century, begun by Zhu Yuanzhang. His established reign included a number of harsh policies toward dissenters and strict taxes. However, the uniformity of rule allowed stability and wealth to develop, and the Chinese Empire started trading with Europe, receiving an influx of new foodstuffs that increased agricultural health. The Chinese people also created their own products, including the famous blue and white china, which was popularized throughout the world.

Blue and white porcelain vase from the Ming Dynasty

Photo of blue and white Ming porcelain vase with a handle

The Japanese people also experienced a change in power at the start of the 17th century in the form of the Tokugawa shogunate, a military-led government. This period of rule was characterized by strict social classes that could not intermingle, including a farming class required to provide for the entire civilization. Although Japan produced a number of fine goods and made significant cultural contributions, the shogunate discouraged trade and outside influences, especially with Europe.

A third powerful Asian empire was that of the Mughal Empire in India, descended from the Mongolian Empire. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughal government maintained a powerful and stable empire through military and structural systems. Unlike the Japanese leadership, the Mughal Empire allowed European incursions and trade, which ultimately led to colonization of India by Britain during the 19th century.

The Early Modern Period in the Americas

The Early Modern period also included significant developments in the Atlantic world and European incursions into the Americas. Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch colonizers came to the New World, seeking new trade routes, sources of wealth, and chances to spread their religious and political ideologies. Although Indigenous populations had existed in the Americas since prehistory, the historical narrative tends to focus on later developments and tragedies, such as the conquest and destruction of societies through disease and land seizure. However, historians have increasingly focused on early cooperation of Native American peoples with European people in order to stop treating the takeover of Indigenous populations as inevitable.

European people arrived in the Americas in a disadvantaged position. They did not know the land or the best ways to farm, and they were unfamiliar with the languages and customs of the groups they encountered. Thus, the early decades of interaction with the Native peoples were marked by collaboration and an exchange of culture. The French colonizers had a longtime working relationship with the Iroquois Nation, and the two communities intermarried. Their intermingling also extended to the existing Indigenous slave trade among Native American nations.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happened in the Early Modern period?

The Early Modern period has been noted as a time when European people made contact with civilizations across the world, in addition to experiencing their own changes. However, the places that they reached already had their own existing cultures that did not stem from European involvement.

When was the Early Modern era?

The Early Modern period is traditionally classified as the 15th through the 18th centuries. However, these dates do not neatly contain the multitude of world events that occurred across the globe before the Modern era.

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