Friday, March 21, 2014

The rise of Europe; Common features of the Early Modern Period

Early Modern Period Commonalities

            The Early Modern period, from about 1450 to the 1790’s was a time of immense change in every facet of Western life. In 1450, the Western world, and particularly Western Europe was less than a desirable place; plague was still a reality, causing a culture obsessed with death; ethnic and social tensions were high, and political organization from the church to the king was in flux. (Levack pg. 354-363) Culturally, 1450 Europe paled compared to places like China and the middle east; though this was starting to change. By 1800, Europe was the undisputed center of the civilized world, it’s nations had the best weapons and tactics, held massive overseas territories, and collectively managed the world economy through control of trade routes. (James pg. 165-167) How did such a transformation take place? Three common factors of the Early modern period led to this great surge in economic and military power among western nations: European exploratory efforts, European economic expansion due to control of international trade, and the balance of power wars that dominated European political life in the period.
            European efforts towards exploration started in the mid 1450’s, right at the beginning of the early modern period, and continued on until the early 20th century with several well-documented voyages to the North Pole and Antarctica. Through these efforts the world was explored quite thoroughly. Exploration started through the efforts of Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. (Levack pg. 399) One of the main goals of early European explorers was to find a way to the commodities of the East, especially the various spices found in Southeast Asia. This was certainly the driving force behind Vascoe De Gama’s voyage to India. While sailing to India, the expedition stopped regularly to try and assess whether they had reached a land that held the goods they desired:

 The captain-major landed and showed them a variety of merchandise, with the view of finding out whether such things were to be found in their country. This merchandise included cinnamon, cloves, seed-pearls, gold, and many other things, but it was evident that they had no knowledge whatever of such articles, and they were consequently given round bells and tin rings.” (De Gama)

            When they found they had not, they moved on and eventually did reach India. The desire to go directly to the goods themselves was sparked by Christian conflict with the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans fought with Christian powers in the Mediterranean and Balkans and this meant that trade slowed to a trickle and prices of eastern goods like spices, silk, and porcelain skyrocketed. (Levack pg. 398) Thus was born an economic motivation to sail a ship across the world. Two theories dominated; the first was that you could simply sail around the world to China and India, and the second that it made more sense to sail around Africa. These immense voyages were very profitable despite their enormous cost and the danger involved, for example: nutmeg could have a markup as high as 60,000%! (Levack pg. 416) Voyages of exploration lasted throughout the entire early modern period, routes to Asia and the America’s were discovered in the late 1400’s and throughout the 1550’s and 1600’s. The Interior of the Americas was explored in the 17-and-1800’s as Australia was discovered then as well. The journeys to find new lands for trade and colonization lasted the entire period, and these voyages were an integral part of European economic success. Because the voyages were private-led but public-funded[1], the explorers had the income they needed for the trip as well as the private, economic motivation to take risks in order to achieve success. This meant that those actually doing the exploring were constantly seeking new profit, which led them to eventually travel the entire world and establish trade, colonies, and protectorates wherever they could, but in the name of their monarch. This exploration characterized the entire period, and set the stage for another major characteristic of the Early Modern world: Western European domination of international trade.
            World trade was not monopolized by Europe in a day, to be sure. Rather it was a gradual process which started with European incursions into Africa and the Americas and culminated in the mid 1800’s with European economic domination being hefted onto even mighty China. In the Americas and Western Africa the Europeans came quickly to dominate trade. This was largely because blue-ocean trade was simply non-existent in these places. West Africans stuck to the interior of the continent, and the civilizations of the Americas lacked the sophisticated ship building technology to venture far out to sea. The American natives were also, like the Africans, more inward looking[2] and had little economic imperative to venture out into the dangerous ocean. So when the Europeans arrived in their ships, they simply controlled the means of transport and thus had a ready-made monopoly. In the Indian and Pacific Oceans Europeans had competition from Islamic and East Asian (especially Chinese) traders. They built trade posts and effectively worked themselves into the system that existed in Asia. They were still able to make enormous profits though because, as mentioned above, the goods available in Asia brought extremely high prices. Even though they faced competition in Asia itself, Europeans knew the route back to Europe well, since they had come from there, while Chinese traders would not have been able to sail themselves to Europe to sell directly to Europeans. So in this way, Europeans merchants took over for Islamic merchants as the middlemen to Europe. (Levack pg. 415) They still were only there as traders however, rather than conquerors as they were in the Americas.
            This was not just a haphazard strategy. Many Europeans, particularly those in government had a rudimentary understanding that control of trade would enrich them. Consider the word’s of one of the directors of the East India Company, and British company assigned by the crown to handle trade in India:
“Although a Kingdom may be enriched by gifts received, or by purchase taken from some other Nations, yet these are things uncertain and of small consideration when they happen. The ordinary means therefore to increase our wealth and treasure is by Foreign Trade, wherein wee must ever observe this rule; to sell more to strangers yearly than wee consume of theirs in value.” (Mun)

            So Europeans understood that by taking control of major trade routes, they were going to be making a lot of money for themselves and for their Kingdom. The above quote also outlines well the European strategy, which was to sell manufactured goods to people around the world, while buying raw materials to make those goods in those same places and for relatively cheap. This strategy was not limited to the early stages of the Early Modern period either, but was common policy in regards even to settler colonies like the British Colonies in the Americas. William Pitt, when defending the American colonies against the stamp act stated the relationship between Kingdom and colony very well:
“I maintain, that the parliament has a right to bind, to restrain America. Our legaislative power over the colonies is soveriegn and supreme. When it ceases to be sovereign and supreme, I would advise every gentleman to sell his lands, if he can, and embark for that country. When two countries are connected together, like England and her colonies, without being incorporated, the one must necessarily govern; the greater must rule the less; but so rule it, as not to contradict the fundamental principles that are common to both.” (Pitt)

            He was only explaining how the colony-ruler relationship worked. It was meant to be to the benefit of the Ruler and not the ruled. This applied to colonies settled by Kingdom subjects as well as natives. This policy existed in the early 1500’s and it was still in evidence in the late 1700’s. European purposeful domination of international trade was a strategy consistently pursued during the early modern period and it helped to drive Europe towards world economic dominance.
            Foreign exploration and trade drove the European economy and created massive potential for wealth to be created, making Europe prosperous. Another major factor which dominated this time period also contributed to European military success, and this is the balance-of-power wars which were fought incessantly from the 1500’s to the First World War. There were minor wars and major ones. One early major conflict was the Italian Wars. (1494-1530) The Italian wars saw France pitted against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire[3], fighting for dominance in the Italian peninsula. This war was the first war that was truly early-modern in that it saw massive armies sent to the field by powerful Kingdoms France and Spain, often made up of hired mercenaries. This was the first major conflict to involve large armies armed with firearms and cannon, though pikemen and knights continued to play vital roles on the battlefield as well. This war set the stage for how European wars in the period tended to go: Two power blocs formed around two or more powerful Western Kingdoms and they went to war, fighting for some European territory. In this war, Spain won dominance over Italy except for Venice. This shows a trend that dominated Early modern warfare too; namely that it was initiated to gain territory. Fredrick II, King of Prussia went to war with Austria for much the same reason nearly 200 years later that Spain had gone to war in Italy. Fredrick desired the industrious Austrian province of Silesia to be included in his kingdom, just as Spain (and France) had desired to bring the rich Italian peninsula into their kingdoms. Though Prussia was small and poor, it had the same ambition that might kingdoms like France and Spain had years before.
            These Balance-of-Power wars were fought for territory and to keep potential enemies from getting too strong. They followed a basic pattern, with short periods of intense fighting, followed by periods of nothing, and finally more fighting which led to one state or another gaining a temporary advantage and gaining some relatively small territory in Europe. The important thing about these wars was that they did two things to Europeans; they became relatively habituated to large scale wars, and they were spurred to develop better weapons. For example, the use of cannon in war led to the introduction of better forts, which led to better cannon. The use of personal firearms led to knights wearing thicker armor, which led to even more powerful firearms. The matchlock musket was supplanted by the more effective Flintlock, and the pikemen were done away with by the introduction of bayonets. It was because Europeans were constantly fighting that these innovations happened. For proof, consider the stable-by-comparison Empires of Asia. The Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals, and Chinese all ruled relatively stable Empires who totally dominated their neighbors. Sir William Eaton, when surveying the Ottoman military in 1799 remarked on Ottoman military decline:
“The artillery they have, and which is chiefly brass, comprehends many find pieces of cannon; but notwithstanding the reiterated instruction of so many French engineers, they are ignorant of its management. Their musket-barrels are much esteemed but they are too heavy; nor do they possess any quality superior to common iron barrels which have been much hammered, and are very soft Swedish iron. The art of tempering their sabers is now lost, and all the blades of great value are ancient.”

Having a “big kid” on the block made these regions more stable and less prone to wars that each side actually had a chance to win. They were more likely to fight small skirmishes with rebel groups and raiders from central Asia, which did not necessitate technological innovation or understanding of battlefield tactics, but rather the ability to use local forces to move quickly and quash threats. In Europe, no single nation was so much stronger than all the others that it was able to dominate in this way. For this reason, the Eastern Empires didn’t need to develop weapons at the same pace as European nations did. Eastern Empires’ people weren’t used to war, hardship, and fighting in the same way that say, Germans during the Thirty Years War were used to it. Thus, Europeans developed weapons that were better to gain an edge over opponents of similar power. Eastern Empires in other parts of the world faced different challenges and didn’t have to. That is why European countries eventually came to dominate militarily; the routine fighting they did necessitated innovation. These wars were a constant throughout the period and helped make Europe militarily dominate by the mid 1800’s.
The Early Modern period saw Europe rise from backwater to world dominance. They did this by several agents. The first was their penchant for exploration during this era; they got to and mapped many places before non-Europeans had the chance or the drive to do so. There was nothing inherently superior about European navigation ability; they were simply the only ones with the proper economic motivation to make journey across the globe for profit. Arab Dhows could have made similar voyages, but they didn’t need to; Ming China certainly could have chosen to explore the entire world with it’s massive fleet, but decided it wasn’t worth it. This same economic principle meant that European nations, who knew the trade routes, naturally came to dominate them. They had the technology and knowledge, as well as the economic incentive to control international trade. Finally, European nations in this period fought a series of wars to gain advantage in the European balance of power. These wars caused them to innovate militarily in order to gain tactical advantage over their opponents. When they later encountered the armies of the Americas, Africa and eventually even India and China they were able to use their superior weapons and tactics to crush them in the field. The British conquered India, and along with the French they used military force to make the Chinese Empire trade with them during the Opium wars. (James pg. 169-175) Earlier in the Americas, disease contributed to the process as well, but the terrifying noise and horrible wounds caused by firearms; as well as the relative invincibility afforded by plate armor meant that the armies of the mighty Aztec and Incan Empires were beaten as well. These three factors were constants during the Early Modern period, and each one contributed to making Europe the dominant continent on the globe by the 1800’s.


Eaton, William. A Survey of the Turkish Empire. Ed. Jerome Arkenburg. London: n.p., 1799. Web. 4 Dec. 2013. <>.

Gama, Vascoe De. Round Africa to India. Vol. 5. Trans. Oliver j. Thatcher. Ed. J.S. Arkenberg. Milwalkee: Milwaukee University, 1907. 26-40. Print.

James, Lawrence. Rise and Fall of the British Empire. 2nd ed. London: Abacus, 1995.      Print.

Levack, Brian, Edward Muir, and Meredith Veldman. “The West: Encounters & Transformations.” 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Longman, 2011. 231-393. Print.

Mun, Thomas. "England's Treasure by Foreign Trade." Vol. II. The Western Tradition. Ed. Eugene Weber. 4th ed. Lexington, MA:, 1990. N. pag. Internet History Sourcebook. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <>.

Pitt, William. "William Pitt's speech on the Stamp Act January 14 1766." American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction. University of Groningen, 1994. Internet History Sourcebook. Web. 3 Dec. 2013. <>.

[1] Levack, pg. 415 – Most European explorers went asking the king/queen to license them, rather than being government initiated.
[2] Levack pg. 401 – These societies were very focused on internal wars and squabbling, much as Europe had been for the past few hundred years.
[3] Levack, pg. 388 – As well as an ever shifting series of alliances with against and between various Italian states.

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