For Your Enlightenment, Prologue: Intro to the Early Modern Era

Merry Christmas, worldbuilders!

A few people have asked for info on the early modern period. While the premodern era has many lessons worldbuilders can draw from, the rest of history definitely has its share of inspiration. This is the introduction to a series collecting what I consider to be some of the more interesting features.

I think that in order for this series to be useful, we have to lay down a foundation of what I mean when I say “early modern.” Looking at this can help put the other articles into context. Be warned: this post is more opinionated than most others.

The sections today are the definition, Great Divergence, early modern Europe, and elsewhere in the era.


  • In general, the early modern era followed the Middle Ages and stops at the Age of Revolutions—a very Eurocentric definition, but one that works well enough. This time saw the world transform into a global system with gunpowder militaries and scientific inventions.
  • First, let’s set some start and end dates. The traditional start date of the early modern era is the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Losing Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire forced Christian Europe to look for alternate ways to access the Silk Road (Venice still had decent access, but that wasn’t enough for most powers), spurring the Age of Discovery. You could argue for 1444 (Gutenberg’s printing press) or 1492 (Columbus’ arrival in North America), but I believe that Constantinople is the best demarcation.
  • For an end date, let’s use 1789, the start of the French Revolution. This event kicked off a massive chain of European wars that resulted in mostly-modern borders and the end of most absolute monarchies. Again, you could easily argue for 1776 (start of the American Revolution) or 1799 (the coup that put Napoleon in power).
  • You may notice that there’s a lot that happens in this time. Even though this only covers about 350 years, this period has a massive amount of social, technological, political, and military change. It’s almost easier for me to treat the premodern era as a single entity than the early modern period. Even though there’s several thousand years of premodern history, various constraints meant that many elements stayed largely the same throughout. Instead, the world looks almost unrecognizable at the end of the early modern period compared to the beginning.
  • For this reason, it’ll be next to impossible for me to describe features that were common across time and space. I’ll have to talk about developments rather than constants. With luck, this will allow readers to make the same sort of informed worldbuilding decisions that the For Your Enjoyment series did.
  • Another thing that you might notice is that this time period does not include the Industrial Revolution. Factories, railroads, and everything else that’s associated with industrialism isn’t covered.

Great Divergence

  • There’s something very important about this time that has to be addressed. At the start of the early modern era, Europe was essentially a mediocre backwater. The most powerful nation was probably Ming China, though they did relatively little to project that power. However, by the end of the period, European nations were by far the strongest in the world, spreading their influence through colonies, conquest, and trade to almost all continents and regions. This development makes any serious analysis of this time period relatively Eurocentric almost by necessity.
  • I want to be clear here. I do not like being forced to look at history like this. One of the reasons I like premodern history is that most of the time, everyone is at the same level of power. Empires are unusual, and they occur across plenty of different regions—the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South or East Asia, etc. Modern thinkers are already too prone to looking at Europe and America while ignoring the rest of the world. However, it’s inescapable: by the end of this era, almost every region in the world was defined by its relationship with Europe (to varying degrees). We need to acknowledge this and move on.
  • This phenomenon—where Europe went from obscurity to global power over the course of a few hundred years, roaring past plenty of other, stronger powers—is called the Great Divergence. Trying to uncover the causes behind it has stumped historians and analysts for a long time.
  • Time for another thing to be very clear about. While we’re not sure exactly what was behind the Great Divergence, we are very sure that it wasn’t because of any special qualities of European people. Europeans, Christians, or white people (“whiteness” being a modern concept that would have been alien and bizarre for most of history) are not more intelligent, hardworking, cultured, etc. than other people. Even if this weren’t a morally repugnant theory that flies against common sense, it has been thoroughly disproven using modern experiments and historical analysis. This another thing that we need to acknowledge and move on from.
  • There are a few plausible theories for what led to the Great Divergence. The most likely rely on two factors: fragmentation and firearms.
  • In this context, “fragmentation” refers to when a region is split up between many governments instead of one unified one. Europe’s geography is unique in a couple key ways. While travel of individuals and small groups is easy, movement of large groups like armies can be difficult. This means that widespread domination is hard, while cultural diffusion is encouraged. Another key factor is that Europe has fairly fertile agriculture, leading to decent population growth.
  • This fragmented geography created an immensely competitive political environment. Local powers were always looking for more resources to support their growing populace, but had a hard time securing regional dominance because of the geography. At the same time, the fast cultural transmission meant that whenever a state achieved a key advantage, other nations would have access to it and copy it relatively quickly. This forced the governments to be constantly innovating in order to survive, and if any group made a breakthrough, the others had to adopt it quickly or risk falling behind. Because of this, important philosophical and social developments—like experimental science, for example—spread very quickly and were rapidly improved on.
  • These factors forcing competition and innovation came to a head throughout the early modern era. After a long period of obscurity, rising population levels meant that states couldn’t afford to be ineffective anymore.
  • This leads into the second factor leading to the great divergence: firearms. Gunpowder was not a European invention; it was a Chinese one. While it led to modest military gains in China, it wasn’t seriously invested in for a couple reasons. For one, Chinese military architecture was naturally resistant to cannonfire. For another, China was enjoying a period of stability under the Ming Dynasty. Military innovation wasn’t necessary or encouraged.
  • These factors were precisely reversed for the Europeans. Castles and other common fortifications were very vulnerable to cannons. In addition, like we said, European nations were forced to be constantly experimenting and innovating. They latched onto gunpowder and made effective artillery, eventually leading to portable hand-held firearms. These proved to be a massive game-changer, providing a weapon with which Europe could gain dominance over cultures the world over and extract resources to fuel their ravenous citizens.
  • Together, fragmentation forced Europe to evolve and firearms provided a tool to conquer. Over the course of 350 years, these gave the region the advantages needed to loom over large portions of the globe.

Early Modern Europe

  • Because of the Great Divergence, getting a very general, overall view of the early modern era is easiest if we break it up into “Europe” and “everywhere else.” (Still makes me grumpy.) Let’s have a brief look at some of the key developments. To make things easier, I’ll stick to familiar names and events, though readers should understand that there are a lot of very interesting people to learn about. “Most famous” doesn’t necessarily mean “most important.”
  • Let’s look at religion, politics, philosophy, science, economics, military, and imperialism.
  • Religion was one of the most influential areas. The printing of the Gutenberg Bible (1444) contributed to widespread spiritual literacy, challenging traditional Catholic doctrine. This led to Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Church (1517), which led to the Protestant Reformation splitting European Christianity in two. There were a long series of incredibly violent religious wars, culminating in the catastrophic Thirty Years War. The Peace of Westphalia at the war’s end (1648) firmly broke the Catholic Church’s political hold over Europe, led to a period of relative religious tolerance, and established the nation-state as the fundamental unit of political power (no longer answering to the Church). Here, we can see that religious developments led directly to geopolitical adaptation.
  • This leads into another important field: politics. Contrary to popular thought, premodern European royalty was largely dependent on the consent of the nobility. Following Westphalia, monarchs rapidly consolidated power to secure control over the new nation-states. This led to a phenomenon called absolutism, where the king or queen effectively held all governmental power (much more like what we imagine monarchs were). The greatest example was the French king Louis XIV, the Sun King, who famously said, “L’Etat, c’est moi”—“I am the state.”
  • Political philosophy also blossomed during this period, a time called the Age of Enlightenment. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan (1651) that a government was a “social contract” where the governed agreed to cede some freedoms to a ruling authority in exchange for services. In his view, the only practical government was an absolutist monarchy. Other philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire expanded these ideas to religious tolerance and anti-slavery rhetoric. Some absolutist monarchs became “enlightened despots,” using their power to enact enlightenment policies. By the end of the period, the growing power of absolutists conflicted with enlightenment thinkers, leading to calls for democratic rule. These inspired the American Revolution, which then inspired the French Revolution.
  • Science flourished here as well. The early-early modern era contained the Renaissance, a period of renewed interest in Greco-Roman arts and sciences. Classic figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were influential. This contributed to an interest in experimental and data-based science, spurred on by Copernicus’ works (1543) and Isaac Newton’s research (1687).
  • Finally, the early modern period saw extreme advancement in economics. The commercial revolution at the start of the era came about due to increased trade. Mercantilism, a faulty economic theory that stressed maximizing exports, became popular as imperialism began to dominate European foreign policy. At the end, the foundations of capitalism were laid as Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations (1776).
  • Many of these developments happened behind the scenes as far as the rest of the world was concerned. The military and imperialist elements of European policy were what everyone else experienced.
  • The European rush for exploration and colonization started with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. As mentioned, Christian Europe didn’t like the Muslim Ottoman Empire in charge of trade through the Silk Road. Governments started to look for a way around the Ottomans to get to India and China. Once the Portuguese invented the caravel and carrack, the first large ships that were really suited for long-distance ocean travel, the Age of Discovery began. Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Magellan, and others hit important milestones for global exploration. With exploration came colonization, which leads us into military advancements.
  • The military revolution came about almost exclusively due to gunpowder. At the start of the early modern era, warfare had an advanced medieval feel—full plate armor for knights and horses, great pike formations, massive sieges, etc. The first sign of change came with portable artillery, which could tear through castle walls as well as soldiers. By the end of the period, castles were replaced with massive, complex “bastion forts” that could withstand sieges for a very long time. Portable firearms made plate armor (mostly) irrelevant. While cavalry persisted for a while, resulting in infantry “pike and shot” squares to ward them off, it was eventually phased out. Infantry formations mostly became simple lines that fired in volleys. Sailing ships were equipped with artillery, creating the first real combat navies (before then, ships were mostly troop transports, with naval engagements more accident than anything). All these changes came at the same time as increasing state bureaucracy and resources allowed for massive professional armies, making war even more deadly.
  • Europeans’ growing access to the world, increased military ability, and desperation for resources led to a new, global imperialism. At the start, relations with locals were mostly equitable, with exchanges of firearms for goods. The Europeans started setting up small “port and fort” outposts in key coastal areas. Eventually, large-scale conquests of native inhabitants commenced, sometimes leading to the complete destabilization of regional powers. For most of the world, this is what the early modern era looked like: foreigners arriving and irrevocably changing the life you’ve lived, often for the worse.

Elsewhere in the Era

  • Finally, let’s look at what was going on in the rest of the world. Just so I’m completely clear, I want to say again that we can’t ignore what the vast majority of humanity experienced. While events in Europe had a disproportionate amount of impact on world events, they were still brought about by a small minority of people. It’s important to study and learn about what things were like on the receiving end of imperialistic expansion. I regret that this article has to be divided in this way to give a fair overview of the period.
  • (I’m definitely overstating the degree to which most of the world was confined by European imperialism. That’s intentional; many sources focus on how the era looked from the perspective of Europe itself. Pushing things in the other direction can provide a fresh perspective.)
  • I should say that many historians consider Russia and the Ottoman Empire to be effectively European. During this era, Russia established a Tsardom and expanded outwards from its base in Eastern Europe, conquering Siberia. Its control would be much more complete with the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (though that won’t come until after the Industrial Revolution).
  • The Ottoman Empire is one of three “gunpowder empires” through the Middle East and South Asia. Like other European powers, the Ottomans’ power expanded throughout the period, widening its influence until it eclipses most others in the region by the era’s end.
  • The Ming Dynasty of China was arguably the world’s strongest power at the start of this period. Over time, it weakened until it was overthrown by peasants (something that, despite the stories, is very rare). The Qing Dynasty that took over after the peasants were ousted tried to remain isolationist, but Europe began undermining their sovereignty by encouraging widespread opium addiction among their citizens. This came to a head shortly after the end of the early modern period in the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, in which European powers were victorious.
  • Japan was arguably the only area that effectively resisted European influence. At the start of the era, a shogunate emerged with a governmental structure that was similar to Middle Ages European feudalism. After some initial interactions with Europeans, Japan also became isolationist, remaining so until 1853, when America—a non-European, but still Western nation—forced them to open their borders to trade.
  • India’s strongest force of the time was the Mughal Empire. Unfortunately, it dissolved just in time for the Europeans to arrive. The British and Dutch East India Companies forced coastal powers to submit to European rule. Eventually, the British would conquer the subcontinent, though that wouldn’t be completed until after the early modern period ended.
  • Africa was the home of several empires during the era, some of them Islamic. The most notable interaction with the Europeans involved their holdings in West Africa. The Europeans offered firearms in exchange for slaves (which West African nations often captured in their wars). The increased military strength and desire for more slaves these transactions created resulted in violent wars across the region. Africa’s interior was mostly free from European influence until the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (a phenomenon some more provocatively call the Rape of Africa).
  • I would argue that the greatest disaster in the early modern era occurred on the American continents. Prior to European arrival, the Americas had several developed societies, including the formidable Aztec Empire. The Europeans swept across the area with guns and swords, but brought something even worse than their military might: smallpox. The disease completely ravaged American peoples, killing as much as 90% of the population. No epidemic in history was this deadly. In the newly-emptied lands, the Portuguese, Spanish, British, and French set up large colonies.
  • These are the real stories of the early modern period. We’re often enamored with what things looked like within Europe, but we can’t ignore that these advancements came about at the expense of a massive amount of people. Worldbuilders may understandably focus on the more palatable elements of the time, but we can’t forget the way things really were.

There you have it! Perhaps a bit more depressing than some of my other articles, but that has to be addressed. Let me know if you have any requests!


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