Chapter 18 Summary
The core areas of Western civilization changed dramatically between 1450 and 1750. While remaining an agricultural society, the West became unusually active commercially and developed a strong manufacturing sector. Governments increased their powers. In intellectual life, science became the centerpiece for the first time in the history of any society. Ideas of the family and personality also altered. The changes were stimulated by overseas expansion and growing international commercial dominance. The internal changes, as the Renaissance and Enlightenment, were marked by considerable conflict, with focal points centered on the state, culture, and commerce, with support from technology.
The First Big Changes: Culture and Commerce. During the 15th century, Europe took on a new role in world trade. At the same time, the developments of the Renaissance continued, to be followed in the 16th century by the Protestant and Catholic reformations. A new commercial and social structure grew.
The Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries as individuals challenged medieval intellectual values and styles. Italy’s urban, commercial economy and competitive state politics stimulated the new movement. Petrarch and Boccaccio challenged established literary canons, writing in Italian instead of Latin. They emphasized secular topics such as love and pride. New realism appeared in painting, and religion declined as a central focus. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Renaissance blossomed further. In a great age of artistic accomplishment, da Vinci and Michelangelo changed styles in art and sculpture. In political theory, Machiavelli advocated pragmatic politics. All used examples drawn from Greece and Rome. Humanism, a focus on humanity as the center of endeavor, was a central focus. Renaissance ideas influenced politics and commerce. Merchants and bankers embraced profit-seeking capitalist practices. Rulers of city-states focused on glorifying their cities, and on the welfare of citizens. New attention went to making war and diplomacy.
The Renaissance Moves Northward. By the 16th century, Italy declined as the center of the Renaissance. French and Spanish invasion cut political independence, while new Atlantic trade routes hurt the Mediterranean economy. The northern Renaissance emerged in France, the Low Countries, Germany, and England and spread to eastern Europe. Northern Humanists tended to be more concerned with religious matters. Writers such as Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Cervantes mixed classical themes with elements of medieval popular culture and established a new set of classic works. Northern rulers became patrons of the arts, tried to control the church, and sponsored trading companies and colonial ventures. Classical Greece and Rome provided models in architecture, literature, and political forms. A spirit of individual excellence and defiance of tradition was widespread. Renaissance influence can be overstated. Feudal political forms remained strong. Ordinary people were little touched by the new values, and general economic life was not much altered.
Changes in Technology and Family. By 1500, fundamental changes were underway in Western society. Contacts with Asia led to improvements in technology. Printing helped to expand religious and technological thinking. A European-style family emerged. Ordinary people married at a later age, and a primary emphasis on the nuclear family developed. The changes influenced husband-wife relations and intensified links between families and individual property holdings. Later marriage was a form of birth control and helped to control population expansion.
The Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The Catholic church faced serious challenges. In 1517, Luther stressed that only faith could win salvation and challenged many Catholic beliefs, including papal authority, monasticism, the roles of priests, and priestly celibacy. He said that the Bible should be translated into vernacular languages, and read by individuals. Luther resisted papal pressure and gained support in Germany where papal authority and taxes were resented. Princes saw an opportunity to secure power at the expense of the Catholic Holy Roman emperor. They seized church lands and became Lutherans. Peasants interpreted Luther’s actions as a sanction for rebellion against landlords, although this had not been his intent. Urban people thought Luther’s views sanctioned moneymaking and other secular pursuits. Other Protestant groups appeared. In England, Henry VIII established the Anglican church. Frenchman Jean Calvin, based in Geneva, insisted on the principle that individuals were predestined to be saved and were not capable of winning salvation. Calvinists sought the participation of all believers in church affairs and thus influenced attitudes to government. They also stressed education to enable believers to read the Bible. The Catholic church was unable to restore unity, but much of Europe remained under its authority. The Catholic Reformation worked against Protestant ideas, revived doctrine, and attacked popular beliefs. A new order, the Jesuits, spearheaded educational and missionary activity, including work in Asia and the Americas.
The End of Christian Unity in the West. The Protestant and Catholic quarrels caused a series of religious wars during the 16th and 17th centuries. In France, conflict between Calvinists and Catholics raged until the edict of Nantes in 1598 promised toleration for Protestants. The Thirty Years War (1618–1648) added religious affiliation as a cause for hostility. German power and prosperity did not recover for a century. The peace settlement allowed rulers and cities to choose an official religion. It also gave the Protestant Netherlands independence from Spain. During the 17th century, religion was an important issue in English civil strife; most Protestants, but not Catholics, gained toleration. The religious wars led to limited religious pluralism. The wars also affected the European power balance and political structure. France gained power; the Netherlands and England developed international trade; and Spain lost dominance. Some rulers benefited from the decline of papal authority, but in some states, Protestant theory encouraged parliamentary power. Popular mentalities changed, and God was seen to take less of a part in people’s lives. Religion and daily life were regarded as separate. Religious change also gave greater emphasis to family life; love between spouses was encouraged. Unmarried women, however, had fewer alternatives when Protestants abolished convents. Finally, literacy became more widespread.
The Commercial Revolution. Western economic structure underwent fundamental redefinition. Greater commercialization was spurred by substantial price inflation during the 16th century. New World gold and silver forced prices up, demand surpassed availability. Great trading companies formed to take advantage of colonial markets; the increasing commerce stimulated manufacturing. Specialized agricultural regions emerged. The prosperity benefited peasants as well as merchants.
Social Protest. Nevertheless, some suffered from the changes. Commercialization created a proletariat. Population growth and increased food prices hit the poor. A lasting unfavorable attitude toward the poor developed. The many changes stimulated important popular protest among urban and rural people from the close of the 16th century. Protestors called for a political voice or suppression of landlords and taxes. Witchcraft hysteria reflected economic and religious uncertainties; women were the most common targets.
A Balance Sheet. Change in Europe between 1450 and 1650 was untidy, and the confusion of change helps explain sharp reactions like witchcraft trials. Europe was becoming more commercial. The role of the family was changing. Religion, while still strong, found its place in European life increasingly contested.
Science and Politics: The Next Phase of Change. A revolution in science, peaking in the 17th century, sealed the cultural reorientation of the West. At the same time, more decisive forms of government arose, centering upon the many varieties of the nation-state.
Did Copernicus Copy? A key development was the rise of science in intellectual life. The Polish monk Copernicus, through astronomical observation and mathematics, disproved the belief that the earth was the center of the universe and set other advances in motion. Did Copernicus know of similar findings that had been made earlier by Arab scientists, al-Urdi and al-Tusi? Other societies had already realized the central position of the sun.
Science: The New Authority. In the 16th century, scientific research built on late medieval patterns. The appearance of new instruments allowed advances in biology and astronomy. Galileo publicized Copernicus’s findings, and Kepler provided more accurate reaffirmation of his work. Galileo’s condemnation by the Catholic church demonstrated the difficulty traditional religion had in dealing with the new scientific attitude. William Harvey explained the circulatory system of animals. The advances were accompanied by improved scientific methodology. Bacon urged the value of empirical research, and Descartes established the importance of a skeptical review of all received wisdom. The capstone to the 17th-century Scientific Revolution came with Newton’s argument for a framework of natural laws. He established the principles of motion, defined the forces of gravity, and refined the principles of scientific methodology. The revolution in science spread quickly among the educated. Witchcraft hysteria declined, and a belief grew that people could control their environment. New attitudes toward religion resulted. Deism argued that God did not regulate natural laws. Locke stated that people could learn all that was necessary through their senses and reason. Wider assumptions about the possibility of human progress emerged. In all, science had become central to Western intellectual life, distinguishing the West from other civilizations.
Political Change. A tradition of strong monarchy developed in France and elsewhere, adding to the functions of the central government. In Britain and Holland, monarchial power was checked by legislative bodies. More effective central governments helped Europe to catch up to political forms developed earlier in countries like China. The development of the nation-state provided a new element in politics.
Absolute Monarchies. The medieval balance between monarchs and nobles came undone in the 17th century. Monarchs gained new powers in warfare, administration, and tax collection. France became the West’s most important nation. Its rulers centralized authority and formed a professional bureaucracy and military. The system was called absolute monarchy; Louis XIV was its outstanding example. His nobles, kept busy with social functions at court, could not interfere in state affairs. Following the economic theory of mercantilism, Louis XIV supported measures improving internal and international trade, manufacturing, and colonial development. Similar policies occurred in Spain, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. Absolute monarchs pushed territorial expansion; Louis XIV did so from the 1680s, and Prussia during the 18th century.
Parliamentary Monarchies. Britain and the Netherlands formed parliamentary regimes. A final English political settlement occurred in 1688 and 1689, by which parliament won basic sovereignty over the king. A developing political theory built on this process; it was argued that power came from the people, not from a royal, divine right, and that the people had the right to revolt against unjust rule.
The Nation-State. As nation-states, both absolute monarchies and parliamentary monarchies shared important characteristics. They ruled peoples mostly sharing a common language and culture. Ordinary people did not have a role in government, but they did feel that it should act for their interests. The many competing nation-states kept the West politically divided and at war.
The West by 1750. The great currents of change—commercialization, cultural reorientation, the rise of the nation-state—continued after 1750, producing new waves of change, further transforming of the West.
Political Patterns. Political changes were the least significant, especially in England and France, where earlier patterns persisted. Developments were livelier in central European states under the rule of enlightened despots. Frederick the Great of Prussia introduced greater religious freedom, expanded state economic functions, encouraged agricultural methods, promoted greater commercial coordination and greater equity, and cut back harsh traditional punishments. The major Western states continually fought each other. France and Britain fought for colonial empire; Prussia and Austria fought over territory.
Enlightenment Thought and Popular Culture. The aftermath of the Scientific Revolution was a new movement, the Enlightenment, centered in France. Thinkers continued scientific research and applied scientific methods to the study of human society. They believed that rational laws could describe both physical and social behavior. New schools of thought emerged in criminology and political science. In economics, Adam Smith maintained that governments should stand back and let individual effort and market forces operate for economic advance. More generally, the Enlightenment produced a basic set of principles concerning human affairs: humans are naturally good, reason was the key to truth, intolerant or blind religion was wrong. If people were free, progress was likely. A few Enlightenment thinkers argued for more specific goals, for economic equality and the abolition of private property, and for women’s rights. New ideas in all fields spread through reading clubs and coffeehouses. New attitudes toward children favored less harsh discipline, a sign of a general new affection between family members.
Ongoing Change in Commerce and Manufacturing. The general economic changes brought the beginnings of mass consumerism to Western society. Paid, professional entertainment as part of popular leisure reflected the change. In agriculture, medieval methods were supplanted by new methods of swamp drainage, use of nitrogen-fixing crops, improved stockbreeding, and many new cultivation techniques. New World crops, like the potato, increased the food supply. The agricultural advances, along with the growth of internal and international commerce, spurred manufacturing. Capitalism spread from trading ventures to production of commodities and altered relationships between workers and employers. The domestic system of household production gave farmers additional work. Important technological innovations, like the flying shuttle in weaving, improved efficiency. After 1730, the changes in economic activity caused a rapidly growing population. Many landless individuals found jobs in manufacturing. More people lived longer, resulting in earlier marriages.
Innovation and Instability. Western society had become increasingly accustomed to change in commercial, cultural, and political affairs. New currents affected family structure and roused political challenges. A new version of an agricultural civilization had appeared and was ready for more change.