How modern was the early modern?

Jon Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe linked a few weeks ago to an article discussing industrialisation and modernity and asked what it meant for medievalists if the key changes which made the West what it is today only happened in the eighteenth century. The article he linked to wasn’t actually saying anything particularly new or remarkable in the debate (although in keeping with it being published by the Cato Institute, it had its own libertarian spin on the issue). There’s been a big debate within the field of world history on the causes of the ‘rise of the west’ ever since there’s been world history, and indeed before. (For an interesting overview of approaches, see this review of a lot of recent books on world history by Raymond Grew in Journal of Modern History 78 (Dec 2006).

Jon asked what it meant to medievalists and the study of medieval history if the roots of modernity weren’t there. I have to say that I don’t see it making much difference to me as an early medievalist. Even the view that sees the Rise of the West as coming from medieval factors always really means the late medieval (13th century onwards): banks and capitalism, clock-making, spectacles etc. I don’t hold out any hopes of being able to rebrand myself as an ultra-early modernist. What I want to ask here is what does relocating the Rise of the West to around 1750 mean for early modernists? How ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ is their period now?

There are several important caveats to make here. One is that modernity is always a concept relative to our own historical period, and so constantly changing. Jonas of Orleans in the ninth century complained about behaviour in modern times (as compared to an apostolic golden age). And it seems to me quite clear that the West now lives in a postmodern world. The second is that I’m not saying that the early modern period didn’t exist or isn’t worthy of study – I’m saying that its interest and significance now has to be demonstrated rather than assumed. There are some very long-term continuities that can be found between 1500 (or before) and modern life, but they are less obvious than they were.

My third point is that it’s not all the early modern period that is really in danger of de-modernization. If you take the early modern period to be 1500-1750 AD/CE (in round figures), 1650-1750 will still get included in many versions of modernity: the one big change in even the standard English Whig model of why the West won is that there’s now more emphasis on the influence of the Dutch Republic. And 1650-1750 can also get counted as modern for its role in the Scientific Revolution. It is 1500-1650 AD/CE that is now looking less and less ‘modern’ and rather more ‘medieval’ and I want to briefly consider why.

One is that the Reformation looks a lot less like the road to modernity now that Protestantism no longer looks modern. At least in the UK, all religious belief is now considered old-fashioned, if not positively primitive: the view that Roman Catholics are uniquely backward has been greatly tempered by seeing (some) US Protestants look equally pre-Enlightenment. And early modern religious wars look especially barbaric to modern eyes.

A second issue is that the Renaissance means a lot less to people than it once did. Much of the art and the architecture of the Renaissance are now as foreign to a modern viewer as that of the Middle Ages. With the end of classical education and the rise of modernism in art, is the Wilton Diptych any more alien to us than, say Titian’s Diana and Actaeon? And I’m not sure that tourists approach the Sistine Chapel in a different spirit than Chartres Cathedral. The Mona Lisa and Michaelangelo’s David are still icons, but I don’t think they are still part of our cultural world in the way that ‘The Scream’ or Monet’s water lilies’ paintings are. It’s mainly Leonardo’s notebooks that thrill now. I also can’t think of many authors from 1500-1650 who are now well-known to non-specialists, apart from Machiavelli and Shakespeare, and even Shakespeare doesn’t have the central cultural importance he had in the UK sixty years ago.

If their religion and culture no longer make the early modern world seem modern to us, what about technological and economic factors? If gunpowder and printing created modernity, where does that leave China? It’s not that you can’t make an argument that modernity started with European use of these inventions, but that it’s far less obvious now that these are the key factors. Similarly, if you’re looking at the rise of capitalism, it’s not easy to see why 1500 is the key date rather than the thirteenth century (given there is research on banking crises back to the 1250s). The effect of the ‘Age of Discovery’ and the beginning of colonial empires remains more plausible as a motor for Western growth, but not much of this effect comes before 1700: the Spanish and Portuguese empires had a terrific impact on South America, but a fairly transitory one on European history, for example. The slave trade and its commercial effects (now often seen as a key reason for Europe’s advance relative to China or India) is more a phenomenon of the eighteenth than the seventeenth century.

In many ways the label of ‘modernity’ is arbitrary, as exemplified best in the many years when Oxford University’s Modern History course started in 476 AD. If part or all of early modern history became seen as no longer modern, that wouldn’t stop people being fascinated by the Tudors. There are already lots of ‘Medieval and Renaissance’ centres and courses and journals. Even museums now seem to be getting into the act. But I think some early modernists may find it hard if they are expelled from the circle of ‘modernity’: it may smack to them of a loss of status: who wants to be ‘non-modern’ and possibly irrelevant? Medievalists have many years of experience in showing that the non-modern is still vital – perhaps the early modernists will have to learn the same methods to show their continued importance.


3 thoughts on “How modern was the early modern?

  1. Back in 1895 when Lord Acton lectured on Modern History, it started with 1500 and ended with the French Revolution. IOW, it was what lots of people now call the Early Modern Period.

    When I taught Early Modern, it started with 1350 and ended with the rise of Napoleon. The late 14th c. sure feels like the 16th c. to me.


  2. Steve — the 14th C feels like the 16th to me, too! Magistra, I think you are spot on for much of this, and I think the World History curricula tend to reflect some of this. The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Discovery take greater precedence and the Renaissance is in some ways seen as a backdrop for them, as is the Reformation. Having said that, I think it’s important to remember that people in the Early Modern period often *did* claim that they were living in a world that had broken from its medieval (and dark) past. To that extent, I think it’s hard not to keep the Early Modern moniker, if only to designate a transitional period that made the Enlightenment possible.

    My only objection to this is that it does to some extent reinforce the godsawful idea that history is a history of progress a la Hegel, and I really hate that. A lot. Especially as the obvious results of our modern progress seem more fit to a medieval eschatology …


  3. I’ve noticed that a growing number of more recent works covering the period from roughly 1300 to roughly the 1600s avoid the labels ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ altogether and instead go for ‘pre-modern’. I don’t know if that solves the problem of where ‘modernity’ starts so much as it creates new questions about the Western values implicit in standard schemes of periodisation. It seems that the more we know about the past and the more we move beyond the traditional Anglo/Eurocentric view of the world, the more uncertain these geo-temporal distinctions become.


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