The Modern Era Essay
The Modern Era
Early Modern World
Historians sometimes refer to the era between the premodern (or medieval) and late modern eras as the “early modern world.” The world during this era 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 hegemony (influence) over, the inland regions of Africa and Asia, the links created and dominated by Europeans made the entire 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 Chinese admiral Zheng He’s (c. 1371–1435) naval expeditions to the “Western Oceans.”
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 the phrase early modern Europe, the initial histories of both phrases have some surprises. The earliest known appearance of the phrase 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 indefinite 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 grammar school 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. Such analysis has tended to adopt either a deductive or an inductive approach.
A deductive approach to the early modern world compares premodernity and late modernity, devises the characteristics necessary to bridge the two stages, and only then seeks confirmation 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, the U.S. sociologist Talcott Parsons, or the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, 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.
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 might begin with the fifth generation descendant of Timur, Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, whose ancestry inspired him to conquer northern India. The Mughal dynasty he founded (1526) 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 1867. Other regional historiographies fit less naturally. Although the Ottomans’ 1453 conquest of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) was timely, the Chinese Ming dynasty began too early (1368) and ended inconveniently in the middle of our early modern period (1644). Worse, key modernizing revolutions came late relative to the western European timetable – the Chinese Revolution in 1911, 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 phrase 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 Nuñez 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. 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 seventeenthcentury 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 Road 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 permanent 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 twentyfive.
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 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 Mauryan empire (c. 321–185 BCE). Unification was also an overture to expansion.
In addition to an increasing European presence worldwide, Qing China (1644–1912) 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.
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. Sufi brotherhoods 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 Quranic 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 led the Aztec sovereign Montezuma II to regard the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés 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. 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). 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.
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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The Modern Era
The modern era is the briefest and most turbulent of the three main eras of human history. Whereas the era of foragers lasted more than 200,000 years and the agrarian era about 10,000 years, the modern era has lasted just 250 years. Yet, during this brief era change has been more rapid and more fundamental than ever before; indeed, populations have grown so fast that 20 percent of all humans may have lived during these two and a half centuries.
The modern era is also the most interconnected of the three eras. Whereas new ideas and technologies once took thousands of years to circle the globe, today people from different continents can converse as easily as if they lived in a single global village. History has become world history in the most literal sense. For our purposes the modern era is assumed to begin about 1750.Yet, its roots lay deep in the agrarian era, and we could make a good case for a starting date of 1500 or even earlier.
Determining the end date of the modern era is even trickier. Some scholars have argued that it ended during the twentieth century and that we now live in a postmodern era. Yet, many features of the modern era persist today and will persist for some time into the future; thus, it makes more sense to see our contemporary period as part of the modern era. This fact means that we do not know when the modern era will end, nor can we see its overall shape as clearly as we might wish. The fact that we cannot see the modern era as a whole makes it difficult to specify its main features, and justifies using the deliberately vague label “modern.” At present the diagnostic feature of the modern era seems to be a sharp increase in rates of innovation.
New technologies enhanced human control over natural resources and stimulated rapid population growth. In their turn, technological and demographic changes transformed lifeways, cultural and religious traditions, patterns of health and aging, and social and political relationships. For world historians the modern era poses distinctive challenges. We are too close to see it clearly and objectively; we have so much information that we have difficulty distinguishing trends from details; and change has occurred faster than ever before and embraced all parts of the world. What follows is one attempt to construct a coherent overview, based on generalizations that have achieved broad acceptance among world historians.
Major Features and Trends of the Modern Era
The modern era is the first to have generated a large body of statistical evidence; thus, it is also the first in which we can quantify many of the larger changes.
Increases in Population and Productivity
Human populations have increased faster than ever before during the modern era, although growth rates slowed during the late twentieth century. Between 1750 and 2000 the number of men and women in the world rose from approximately 770 million to almost 6 billion, close to an eightfold increase in just 250 years. This increase is the equivalent of a growth rate of about 0.8 percent per annum and represents a doubling time of about eighty-five years. (Compare this with estimated doubling times of fourteen hundred years during the agrarian era and eight thousand to nine thousand years during the era of foragers.) An eightfold increase in human numbers was possible only because productivity rose even faster. The estimates of the economist Angus Maddison suggest that global gross domestic product rose more than ninety fold during three hundred years, whereas production per person rose nine fold.
These astonishing increases in productivity lie behind all the most significant changes of the modern era. Productivity rose in part because new technologies were introduced. In agriculture, for example, food production kept pace with population growth because of improved crop rotations, increased use of irrigation, widespread application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of genetically modified crops. However, productivity also rose because humans learned to exploit new sources of energy.
During the agrarian era each human controlled, on average, 12,000 kilocalories a day (about four times the energy needed to sustain a human body), and the most powerful prime movers available were domestic animals or wind-driven ships. During the modern era humans have learned to harvest the huge reserves of energy stored in fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas and even to exploit the power lurking within atomic nuclei. Today each person controls, on average, 230,000 kilocalories a day—twenty times as much as during the agrarian era. A world of planes, rockets, and nuclear power has replaced a world of horses, oxen, and wood fires.
As populations have increased, so has the average size of human communities. In 1500 about fifty cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants, and none had more than a million. By 2000 several thousand cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants, about 411 had more than a million, and 41 had more than 5 million. During the agrarian era most people lived and worked in villages; by the end of the twentieth century almost 50 percent of the world’s population lived in communities of at least five thousand people. The rapid decline of villages marked a fundamental transformation in the lives of most people on Earth. As during the agrarian era, the increasing size of communities transformed lifeways, beginning with patterns of employment: Whereas most people during the agrarian world were small farmers, today most people support themselves by wage work in a huge variety of occupations.
Innovations in transportation and communications have transformed relations between communities and regions. Before the nineteenth century no one traveled faster than the pace of a horse (or a fast sailing ship), and the fastest way to transmit written messages was by state-sponsored courier systems that used relays of horses. Today messages can cross the world instantaneously, and even perishable goods can be transported from one end of the world to another in just a few hours or days.
Increasingly Complex and Powerful Governments
As populations have grown and people’s lives have become more intertwined, more complex forms of regulation have become necessary, which is why the business of government has been revolutionized. Most premodern governments were content to manage war and taxes, leaving their subjects to get on with their livelihoods more or less unhindered, but the managerial tasks facing modern states are much more complex, and they have to spend more effort in mobilizing and regulating the lives of those they rule.
The huge bureaucracies of modern states are one of the most important byproducts of the modern revolution. So, too, are the structures of democracy, which allow governments to align their policies more closely with the needs and capabilities of the large and varied populations they rule. Nationalism—the close emotional and intellectual identification of citizens with their governments—is another by-product of these new relationships between governments and those they rule.
The presence of democracy and nationalism may suggest that modern governments are more reluctant to impose their will by force, but, in fact, they have much more administrative and coercive power than did rulers of the agrarian era. No government of the agrarian era tried to track the births, deaths, and incomes of all the people it ruled or to impose compulsory schooling; yet, many modern governments handle these colossal tasks routinely. Modern states can also inflict violence more effectively and on a larger scale than even the greatest empires of the agrarian era.
Whereas an eighteenth century cannon could destroy a house or kill a closely packed group of soldiers, modern nuclear weapons can destroy entire cities and millions of people, and the concerted launch of many nuclear weapons could end human history within just a few hours.
A subtler change in the nature of power is the increased dependence of modern states on commercial success rather than raw coercion. Their power depends so much on the economic productivity of the societies they rule that modern governments have to be effective economic managers. The creation of more democratic systems of government, the declining importance of slavery, the ending of European imperial power during the twentieth century, the collapse of the Soviet command economy in 1991, and the ending of apartheid (racial segregation) in South Africa in 1990 and 1991 all reflected a growing awareness that successful economic management is more effective than crudely coercive forms of rule.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 30 September 2016
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