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Foundations of European Dominance in the First Global Age

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the factors that contributed to European dominance in the First Global Age. We will identify and analyze the characteristics and components that allowed European culture to spread throughout the world.

Modern Culture and European Heritage

Those of us who live in the United States, or even those of us who are considered Westerners, sometimes take for granted our unique heritage. For example, it is easy for Americans today to forget how much they have been shaped by European culture and tradition, particularly the culture and tradition that blossomed during the First Global Age. Think about it: modern science is built upon the discoveries of Europeans like Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Our philosophy and patterns of thinking are heavily influenced by men like René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and others; and then, of course, we have the economic system of capitalism and the enormous impact of Christianity. A lot of these themes overlap to a degree, as we shall see, but let's identify some of the major factors that led to European dominance during the First Global Age.

European Dominance in the First Global Age

So when we're talking about the First Global Age, we're basically referring to the time between Columbus's discovery of the New World in 1492 to the American Revolution in the 1770s. Different textbooks and historians have different ideas about the precise dates. For example, sometimes you'll see this period as lasting until 1800; other times you'll see it as lasting only until 1770. That said, it's pretty safe to regard the First Global Age as lasting between the time of Columbus to the birth of the American Republic.

During this time, Europe emerged as the world's dominant continent and influence. European culture and power blossomed in a way that was completely unique compared to other regions of the world. European nations explored and colonized regions all over the world: from the Americas to India, and everywhere in between. Colonization spread technologies, attitudes, customs, and a general culture that was distinctively European.

Historians have often asked themselves why Asia or Africa, for example, did not rise to global dominance? Was it because of the European climate? Natural resources? Location in the world? The characteristics of Europeans as a people group? This whole question of 'why Europe?' is sometimes controversial because it acknowledges a degree of European achievement or 'superiority' over other regions. Nevertheless, regardless of one's view, the reality is that the European continent achieved a global dominance that other regions did not.

Factors Leading to European Dominance

So how did Europe come to 'master' the world during the First Global Age? The emergence of the modern nation-state system was one early factor. Between the 15th-17th century, the Middle Age system of feudalism began to break down. Feudalism was a system in which poor peasants worked the land of wealthy nobles, receiving only a meager share of the crops they harvested and a small plot of land to live on. With the breakdown of feudalism came the new idea of private property and the rights of the individual. The nation-state system provided a new level of safety and security for people groups, not to mention economic stability.

The Christian religion had an enormous impact on European dominance in the First Global Age. In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This radical act, though small, sparked the Protestant Reformation, a European anti-Catholic movement, and a social revolution. The Protestant Reformation transformed European society by advancing themes like individualism, human rights, democracy, an emphasis on education and science, capitalism, and others. A new work ethic called the 'Protestant Work Ethic' emphasized hard work as an act pleasing to God. This work ethic contributed to ever-advancing European societies.

Martin Luther, a monk, sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
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We're seeing that European dominance in the First Global Age was more than just a matter of sending ships and explorers around the world. The sending out of explorers rested on an entire way of life, built upon individualism, a thirst for knowledge, capitalism, democracy, and other themes. Nevertheless, technological advances were a huge factor. The Scientific Revolution took place throughout the 16th and 17th century and was characterized by the emergence of modern science. This is where folks like Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei come in. European societies were able to harness science and put it to good use to create technologies in a way other global societies were not. Technological advances in the form of the movable type printing press, medicine, metal-working, ship construction, and numerous other areas gave Europe an edge.

Isaac Newton was a leading figure of the Scientific Revolution.
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