The Modern Era

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  • Topic: Early modern Europe, Modern history, Early modern period
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02. 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).

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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...
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