What's Modern About the Early Modern Period?


Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's latest book is 1492 (HarperOne, 2009).

Names are rarely convincingly descriptive. Ugly women are called Bella or Linda, and ugly men Beau.  I know a Nigel who is tall and fair, and a Bianca who is black.  My name literally means ‘lover of horses.’ I have nothing against them, but when I ride them they show their hatred of me. Perhaps we should not expect the ‘Early Modern’ period to match its name. It did not happen early in the history of the world. It hardly seems very modern.  If we enumerate the conspicuous features of the world we live in, few seem traceable to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Population began to grow explosively in the eighteenth. The tool kit of ideas we associate with individualism, secularism, capitalism, and constitutional guarantees of liberty only came together in the Enlightenment.  Industrialization empowered Western empires and made a genuinely global economy possible only in the nineteenth century. Much of the intellectual scaffolding of our world was new in the early twentieth century – the first era of relativity, quantum mechanics, psychoanalysis, and cultural relativism. Some of the science and technology that make the ways we live and think and fear distinctive are of even more recent origin – nuclear weapons, micro-IT, DNA, currently fashionable methods of disease control, the food production methods that now feed the world.  The USA only became the unique superpower when the ‘American century’ was nearly over. These sudden and rapid new departures are reminders that modernity – which is every age’s self-description – never starts, but is perpetually renewed. The pace of change is now so fast that every morning I feel like Rip van Winkle, awakening in a barely recognizable world.

In partial consequence, events of the Early Modern period now seem remote and disconnected from our own times by ruptures, convulsions, and chaos. Almost all the claims once made for the Renaissance and Reformation, for instance, have turned out to be wrong. The supposed consequences in our own world – deism, secularism and atheism, individualism and rationalism; the rise of capitalism and the decline of magic; the scientific revolution and the American dream; the origins of civil liberties and shifts in the global balance of power – all appear less convincingly consequential as time goes by. Revisionist scholarship and critical thinking have loosened the links in these chains of causation.  In any case, Renaissance and Reformation were, in global terms, small-scale phenomena. The Renaissance was, in part, a product of cultural cross-fertilization between Islam and the West. It was not a unique ‘classical revival’ but an accentuation of uninterrupted Western self-modeling on ancient Greece and Rome. It was not ‘scientific’: for every scientist there was a sorcerer.  It edged the West only a little way toward secularism, for most art and learning remained sacred in inspiration and clerical in control. The Reformation was not a revolution: most reformers were social and political conservatives, who formed part of a general movement among the godly to carry a more acutely felt, actively engaged form of Christianity to underevangelized reaches of society and unevangelized parts of the world. The reformers’ work did not inaugurate capitalism or subvert magic or promote science. Western imperialism, though it started in the Early Modern period, did not become a world-transforming phenomenon until the eighteenth or nineteenth century.  As we get further from the Early Modern period, it seems increasingly to have more in common with the middle ages than with us.

These reflections have driven me to search for something modern in the Early Modern period, if only to understand better what modernity is or has been. I never thought I wanted to trace the origins of modernity, or write a history book with what might sound like a presentist agenda. I have long recoiled from the fashion for writing ‘the book of the year.’  Though there are excellent examples, like John Wills’s 1688, or Frank McLynn’s 1759, or Ray Huang’s 1587, or John de Man’s Atlas of the Year 1000, there seems something contrived about treating a solar year in the Christian calendar as having any more unity, or any better claim to be the subject of a book, than any other sequence of roughly the same number of days.

Now I’ve done it.  1492 is my attempt to identify a year that really mattered and really matters, when crucial features of the modern world began or became discernible. I take readers to disparate corners of the globe with travelers of the time:  to Granada with Castilian and Aragonese invaders; to the Niger valley with the Granadine known as Leo Africanus; to Kongo and Ethiopia with Portuguese adventurers; around the Mediterranean with Jewish expulsees from Spain; to Muscovy with Ivan IV’s homebound ambassadors; across the Indian Ocean with Italian merchants; to China with a Korean shipwreck-victim;  and of course with Columbus across the Atlantic. The emerging conspectus is alive with novelty.

In 1492, with stunning suddenness, after scores – perhaps hundreds – of millions of years of divergent evolution, global ecological exchange became possible. The way life-forms could now overleap oceans, for the first time since the break-up of Pangaea, did more to mould the modern environment than any other event before industrialization. Events of that year, I argue, assured the future of Christianity and Islam as uniquely widespread world religions, and helped to fix their approximate limits. As well as events that refashioned the world, I identify others in 1492 that represent longer-term changes under way: the spread of increasingly complex webs of commerce and cultural exchange; the expansion of productivity and population in most of the world; the retreat of nomads, pastoralists, and foragers; the growing authority of states at the expense of other traditional wielders of power; the realism with which artists, mapmakers, and scientists beheld the world; the sense of a ‘small world’ every bit of which is accessible to all the rest.  I argue that the global triumph of individualism is traceable not so much to specifically Western roots as to the worldwide ascent of mysticism and personal religion, which I use events of 1492 to exemplify.

Above all, 1492 marked the start of a vast change in the balance and distribution of wealth and power across the globe, launching communities in western Europe across oceans, empowering a mighty Russian state for the first time, and prefiguring (though not of course producing) the relative decline of maritime Asia and of traditional powers around the Indian Ocean and adjacent seas. The process was long, painful, and interrupted by many reversals. It began when European navigators, following up Columbus’s adventure of 1492, cracked the Atlantic wind-code and mastered routes of access that led, ultimately, to the wind-systems of the world.  The opening of viable transatlantic routes between Europe and productive regions of the Americas ensured that in the long run the global balance of resources would tilt in favor of the West. 

From Mesoamerica to Muscovy, prophets and seers doubted whether the world would survive 1492. Optimists predicted renewal, pessimists extinction.  In a curious way, they turned out to be right.  Their world did come to an end. Ours – the modern world, the world we inhabit – began, patchily, indistinctly, to be discernible.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 11/30/2009

The books sounds intriguing. As a PhD candidate writing a history of some German orphanages in the 17th and 18th century, I'm somewhat confused by the suggestion that the 18th century only came after the early modern era. Over here in Germany, the early modern era is usually defined as the period between the end of the Thiry Years War in 1648 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 or even Napoleon's final defeat in 1815. Could you tell me what event marks the end of this era for you?

Thank you.