Early modern Europe: an introduction

The fall of Constantinople and the discovery of America are considered the two seminal events that serve to mark the beginning of the Early modern in Europe.
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| 18/12/2020 | Last update:


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The fall of Constantinople (1453) and the discovery of America (1492) are two of the major events that serve classical historiography to delimit the beginning of Modern History in Europe. In turn, the French Revolution of 1789 was the event that put an end to this period. Among these important events, three centuries followed one another, where the old political, social and economic structure of the medieval period was evolving towards a more open and dynamic model of society. A growing society that carried out extraordinary goals for humanity. These were the centuries of Humanism, the Renaissance, rationalism and the Baroque, the scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, modern wars and the consolidation of absolute monarchies.

The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern World

Early modern history represents a relatively short period in comparison with other historical eras. It comprises chiefly the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was a time of relative stability for the immense part of the population, despite the major changes in politics, economics or science that followed. The peasant population continued to have a short life expectancy as well as major problems with food supply.

The Marxist school of history and the Annales showed that throughout the Modern Age the feudal mode of production was not questioned, although there were differences between the various territories of Europe, particularly between the West and the East.

Nevertheless, it is true that there were significant differences between the Europe of 1300 and 1500. A slow transition from medieval feudalism to early capitalism was underway. Not to mention the huge European colonial expansion to practically all the corners of the world. In terms of culture and its diffusion, the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printed word marked a considerable milestone.

The concept of the “modern world”

During the 16th century, humanist and pro-reform intellectuals defended the idea of “change” as regard the medieval European past. It was they who invented the concept of the “modern world”. But it was not until the 19th century, at the height of Romanticism, that the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt created the classic formulation of what the Renaissance was in the work The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). His theses on the Renaissance as a cultural and renewal movement stand out from the period:

Mapamundi de época moderna
Early Modern Age World Map

Yet these theses of Jacob Burckhardt have been widely disputed by historiography. Some historians claim that the humanists were not modern because they attacked the new literary styles in the vulgar language and sought to recover the political and military structures of the classical era, among other aspects.

In reality, during the Renaissance, instead of innovation, we should speak of the restoration of an ancient mythical age. The reformers did not want a new man but rather to recover the prophecies of the Old Testament. The revolutionaries of the time invoked the deeds of the past and the monarchs sought the restoration of order.

The Modern Age is characterized by the Eurocentric notion of the world. Everything turned around Europe.

The antecedents: the crisis of the lower Middle Ages

The Black Death, which struck Europe between 1348 and 1350, caused a first-order demographic disaster. It became the main driver of a major historical demographic divide. European population indices did not recover until the 16th century:

Regarding the economic aspects, the crisis caused by the transition from feudalism to a new economic system yet very poorly defined and developed, that is, capitalism, characterized the beginning of the Modern Age. In Europe, resource crises, which led to episodes of hunger, were very frequent during the whole period. Agricultural production suffered a setback, and the drop in consumption led to a fall in prices that affected farmers in particular.

The fighting between the nobility (cavalry) and the monarchy (army) marked the transition from medieval to modern Europe. And also the fighting between the peasants and the lords. In France, there were the “jacqueries” against misery and war.

Los flagenlantes
The Flagellants

During the final medieval period there were movements of great spiritual intensity, such as the flagellants, which took place in 1349. The upheaval caused by the Black Death provoked feelings of temporariness among the population that led to a relaxation of customs. All over Europe there were irrational outbreaks such as the assaults on Jewish communities.

The religious upheaval led to movements which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation, such as the Flemish mystics, and the collapse of the prestige of the papacy: the Avignon Schism (1378-1417).

Population trends

During the modern period there was a sustained growth in the population:

Some say the “old demographic regime” still existed in Europe before 1800, which is characterized by:

What factors conditioned population growth during the early modern period? There was a lack of resources to ensure the basic survival of the population. Agricultural resources were limited, and they lacked the minimum sanitary conditions.

There are two historical moments during which there was a demographic expansion:

The data from the 16th century are relatively reliable and claim that there were about 100 million Europeans. Between 1500 and 1600 the population increased by 25-30%. But there were significant inequalities between territories: Flanders and England were the territories that increased their population the most.

The cities

During the modern age, cities became important population centers. Seville and Antwerp were important commercial ports. Naples was the most populated city in the 16th century.

Yet in the 17th century a new century of demographic crisis began. We historians have many problems in determining reliable demographic data, as existing sources are unreliable, among other reasons because:

In Castile, there are the “topographical relations of Philip II.” And in Catalonia, we have the “fogatges de Cortes Catalanas” (fouage) which count the heads of the family. At the ecclesiastical level, at the end of the 16th century we already find books where the parishioners were controlled. After the Council of Trent, the use of these controls became widespread. It was obligatory to keep track of the parishioners in the “sacramental book”.

The variables of demographic evolution: birth rate, mortality, and natural growth rate

During the “old demographic regime” the birth rate was high at 40% (3 times higher than today). This was purely for the survival of the species. But the mortality rate was also very high, especially among children. Common control mechanisms: prolonged breastfeeding; and delaying the age of marriage

More extreme mechanisms: illegitimate children out of wedlock. Family nuclei in difficult economic situations, abandoning babies. Abortion and infanticide.

Regarding birth rates, during the Modern Age the practice of late marriage was common. Speeding up the creation of family nuclei. Women were married between the ages of 23 and 25. A marriage system which generated autonomous couples, with little difference in age between them.

At the end of this period, in 1800, the demographic predominance was European, whereas in the 12th century it was not. Which was the Western marriage system?

  1. Autonomous couple.
  2. Late marriage.
  3. Little difference in age between the spouses.

And instead, the Eastern marriage system was:

  1. Dependent couple;
  2. Early marriage;
  3. Significant age difference between the spouses.

In general, marriage in poor families was delayed in pursuit of economic security. It was common for women to marry at 24/27 and for men at 27/30, with the marriage rate fluctuating according to the economic situation.

As a result of the combination of late marriage and celibacy, the birth rate was low. In 1500, the major Eastern civilizations (in the Middle East, India and China) were ahead of Europe in terms of population, but in 1800 the picture changed completely. Why?

A society beset by death

In the depository of the population, mortality constitutes the permanent outflow in the old demographic regime, as the mortality rate was 30 per thousand in “normal” years (3 times the current one), the presence of death marked the mental universe of Europeans, the paintings of the Last Judgement and the Divine Comedy, as examples.

By the 16th century historiography fixed life expectancy at birth at about 25/35 years. Were there any social differences? The Catalan farmers of 1602 bequeathed their property and the rest of their inheritance to their eldest son on their wedding day, as they considered themselves to be old at over 40 years of age.

Philip II of Spain witnessed the death of 17 people from his immediate family. How did the omnipresence of death affect the relationship between parents and children?

Causes of elevated rates of mortality

We can go over them by taking the courses of an individual’s life, just like an obstacle course.

During birth and the first month of life

Infant mortality of enormous proportions. Indeed, during birth the risk was double. 1/10 women died in one of the phases of labor (immediate hemorrhage or postpartum fevers). During the first month of life, 50% of infant deaths occurred due to a total lack of hygiene, as asepsis was little valued until the discovery of microbial infections in the 19th century. Consequently, between 1/4 in France, and 1/5 in England of the children did not reach the first year.

From the first month to puberty

Almost half of Europeans did not reach the age of 15. For instance, improper hygiene: beliefs about caring for children are wrong. For example, the care of the Court Doctor to the Dolphin and the future King Louis XIII of France: every two months, rubbing the forehead with warm water, and after seven years, a full-body bath. Mercenary breastfeeding: an activity considered only to be proper to the poor (discomfort, aesthetic considerations, medical and theological beliefs). It causes 50% more mortality than normal.

Reaching the young age

Once they reached the age of 20, 16th century Europeans extended their life expectancy.

The lack of hygiene

We are talking about an actually dirty world, especially in the cities, with an unbearable stench, lack of sewage, and with animal excreta everywhere. The infectious diseases that could develop were: plague, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis and dysentery. These are the so-called winter diseases, people and clothes piled up and unwashed, full of fleas and lice, vectors of infection.

The hunger, which is the difference between the wealthy and the poor. In England, a rise in the price of grain in 1549 from 84% to 24% in 1556 pushed many people to the limits of subsistence. Big landowners and hoarders made a killing. Relatively rare starvation; predisposition to disease.

Food stocks were conditioned by the weather as well as by many human factors, such:

Vast areas of Europe were in shortage, requiring imports from continental granaries: Sicily, Poland or the Ukraine.

There is a genuine, but contradictory, relationship between food level and mortality. Often poor harvests are the result of extreme climatic situations that weaken organisms: hunger and infections (parasitic, respiratory) reinforce each other. The absence of regular food leads to substitution.

War did not cause direct mortality, but rather the spread of infections in its wake that led to increased mortality and delayed fertility.

The extraordinary mortality

Major epidemics were the cause of episodes of outstanding mortality. The most important of the infectious diseases in the 16th century, was again the plague: there was no other remedy than flee, go first, go far and return last. It was only the rich nobles and bourgeoisie who could afford it, fleeing to the countryside; institutional dislocation in the cities: it was the example of the English court in 1563.

The mortality rate accentuated social contradiction, accordingly many epidemics broke out in the poorest districts of the cities. The institutional fight against the disease:

In Italy, health boards emerged during the Black Death and were institutionalized: Milan (mid-15th century), Venice (1486), and Florence (1527). Indeed, their permanent action was symbolic of the move from patch to preventive action. Many of the measures show, without any doubt, the medical portrait of the time. Today we distinguish between infectious diseases (through vectors, such as lice, fleas or mosquitoes) and contagious ones (syphilis, plague, pneumonia, flu), while at that time the role of viruses and bacteria was completely unknown.

To whom is the responsibility of wrongdoing imputed?

Corruption and infection of the air that degenerated into poisonous, as well as sticky “miasmas” that attacked through inhalation or contact. The origin of this corruption was thought to be from a nefarious astral conjunction, analogous to exhalations coming from things or bodies (association with bad smell). Ignorance of the mechanisms of contagion invalidated and made counterproductive many of the measures adopted: killing dogs and cats.

The transmission and impact of the plague

What causes bubonic plague? Infection of the bacillus Yersinia Pestis through the rat flea as a vector (once dead, it passes to humans). Pneumonic plague: can be more virulent but is still more common. Once Yersinia Pestis has reached the body, it causes the appearance of hemorrhages and pustules by penetrating the skin. After an incubation period of 6 or 7 days, it kills 50% of those affected (some authors raise it to 70-80%).

Within a few months, 30-40% died in cities. In the countryside the rate was in similar fashion, although some areas fled away.

The major epidemics

Many cities lose between 30 and 50% of their population: for example, Toulouse, Florence or Arras. Zurich dropped from 17,000 inhabitants in 1348 to 4,000 in 1468. The plague came after a long period of food shortages caused perhaps by a small cold climate change.

Since then, the plague appeared regularly, 10-15 times per century at intervals, although it lasted until the 16th century. The most notable cases are those of 1522, 1564, 1580, 1586 and 1599. It disappeared completely from Europe after what was known as the Great Plague of Marseilles from 1719 to 1720.

The plague was followed by tuberculosis and cholera: in addition, it should not be forgotten that all the other epidemic diseases (flu, typhus, typhoid and smallpox) perhaps caused as many deaths as or more during the 16th century: the English flu of 1557 and 1559, for instance, had a 10% mortality rate.

Why did the plague suddenly disappear?

Replacement of the black rat with the grey rat.
Increasing success of institutional disease control, sanitary cordons and maritime control.

This is a double process of long-term adaptation. Unquestionably, humans became more resistant to it, while a safer bacillus (Yersimia pseudotuberculosis) developed. The MacNeil theory: human groups eventually adapt to epidemic diseases (immunization). However, as soon as they come into contact with other ill-adapted humans, the contagion still remained highly virulent.


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Early modern Europe: an introduction

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