16th Century

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The 16th century began on January 1, 1501 and ended on December 31, 1600. The world population at the beginning of this century is estimated at 440 million people on average, while it is estimated to have increased to 560 million people at the end of the century. The global exchange of goods and ideas reached an intensity and quality never before known. The Iberian empires established a global trade network into which they integrated America. American goods reached Europe as well as Asia and Africa and expanded the food supply there. Conversely, numerous cultivated plants and especially livestock made their way from Europe to America. On the one hand, the indigenous population fell sharply due to the epidemics brought with them by Europeans; on the other hand, there was a strong immigration from Africa and Europe. Latin Christianity in Europe split in the course of the Reformation . The strong increase in printed works, which was closely linked to the Reformation, increased the education of broad sections of the European population.

While the Russian Empire , located on the edge of Europe, began its expansion into Siberia, the Ottoman Empire expanded around the Mediterranean and transformed into a regional power with a majority Muslim population. Further east, the Iranian Safavid Empire and the Indian Mughal Empire emerged as two other major Islamic regional powers. As in Christian Europe, for the Islamic gunpowder empires, denominational orientation became more and more important as a feature of mutual demarcation. Islam became the predominant religion on the Southeast Asian islands. China's economic boom went hand in hand with a reduction in class differences. The increase in book production met the demand of broad sections of the population. In the second half of the century Japan, which had been split up into many domains, was united by several generals. After their failed invasion of Korea , the Japanese left a devastated country.

The world in 1555


The Europe of the 16th century is assigned to the epoch of the early modern period. The continent was divided into numerous Christian territorial states, of which France, England, Spain and Poland-Lithuania were the largest. The territories were ruled by monarchs who passed their rule on to their descendants. In that century the Habsburg dynasty rose to become the most powerful dynasty in Europe. Even if they were emperors of the Central European Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, their power was limited outside the Austria they directly ruled. Located in Eastern Europe Russian Orthodox embossed Russian Tsarist Empire conquered not only neighboring European territories, but began its expansion to Siberia. Southeast Europe was ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire .

Through the Iberian empires, the involvement of Europe in global trade increased significantly, which not only increased the range of European goods, but also the knowledge of the world. Humanism and Renaissance , which previously had their focus in Italy, established themselves in the countries north of the Alps. They led to the rise of the sciences and to a stronger objectification of rule.

The Reformation not only changed the religious ideas of parts of the European population, but also led to a change in the political situation. These changes resulted in several violent conflicts.

At the beginning of the 16th century, temperatures in Europe were on average only slightly cooler than the average temperature in the 20th century. However, temperatures started to decline after 1540, the warmest and driest year of the century . During this period, in which there were fluctuations and intermediate phases, extreme cold periods increased from 1560 onwards, with the winter of 1573 being the coldest winter of the century.

Central and Southern Europe

European domain of Charles V , after his election in 1519
  • Castile (wine red)
  • Aragon's possessions (red)
  • Burgundian possessions (orange)
  • Austrian Hereditary Lands (yellow)
  • Holy Roman Empire (pale yellow)
  • Reading of the “ Confessio Augustana ” at the Augsburg Diet of 1530

    Most of Central Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire , Sacrum Imperium Romanum . This was divided into numerous dominions and imperial-free cities. The larger principalities in particular expanded their autonomous rule into quasi-sovereign empires. Most powerful were the electoral principalities , whose regents were allowed to elect the emperor. He and the imperial organs could only exercise limited power over the princes and imperial estates. With the Reformation, the majority of the empire became Protestant. The Protestant princes confiscated the properties of the church and monastic orders in their territory in their favor and thus expanded central rule in their territories. In particular, Emperor Charles V (from 1530 to 1556 Emperor ) tried to reintroduce the Catholic faith through the Schmalkaldic War and to strengthen central imperial rule after his victory. Even if he achieved intermediate successes, his concerns ultimately failed. The Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555 assured the Protestant princes their possessions, but also offered points of contact for the Counter-Reformation. The peasants were increasingly harassed by the extension of the princely rights and powers. Stimulated by the promises of freedom made by some reformers, peasant revolts broke out, which escalated into peasant wars . Many peasants lost their lives in the military crackdown on the uprisings. The princes also restricted the power of the petty aristocratic knights, who saw their economic basis and traditional way of life in danger. The revolt of the knights , like the revolt of the peasants, was crushed by the princes.

    At the national level there were institutions such as the Reichstag and the Reichsgerichtshof, but these had only a minor influence on the individual territories. Nevertheless, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina , a penal code, succeeded in reforming criminal law in the empire and making it more uniform. Emperor Charles V was both regent of the empire and of Spain. He used its resources and those of its colonies for numerous wars in Europe to such an extent that Spain, despite heavy silver imports from South America, fell into national bankruptcy several times this century. Philip II continued his father's policy, even if he no longer commanded the Austrian hereditary lands with their imperial title. He achieved a temporary victory against the Ottomans in the struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, he was able to consolidate his position of power in Italy, all of southern Italy belonged to his domain. By inheritance he also gained control of Portugal at the end of the century. On the other hand, he could not prevent the secession of part of the Netherlands and could not maintain his influence over England.

    Karl and Philip secured their internal power through an alliance with the Church. With royal backing, the Catholic inquisitors used the means of the inquisition proceedings to violently oppose any deviation from the Catholic faith in Spain. Their massive crackdown on converted Jews and Muslims encouraged their mass emigration. Furthermore, the establishment of a bureaucracy and diplomacy, which had the beginnings of a modern state, secured monarchical power. The royal financial difficulties did not prevent Spain from experiencing a golden age economically and culturally. But the crises of the following century were already heralded by inflation caused by silver imports.

    The north of the Italian peninsula was a place of constant conflict between the Austrian Habsburgs, France, the small Italian states and the Papal States . In the course of the century, the Habsburgs were largely able to oust France from Italy. The various small states held their positions.

    Western Europe

    The Armada Portrait let Elizabeth I in response to the defeat of the Spanish Armada paint.

    England was ruled by the Tudor dynasty in the 16th century . Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and founded the Anglican Church , headed by the monarch. After separating from Rome, he dissolved the monasteries of his empire, confiscated their property and sold it to the petty aristocracy and rich farmers at very reasonable prices. These beneficiaries of the English Reformation were an important power base on which the crown based the implementation of the Reformation. But only Elizabeth I implemented the Anglican Confession in England with massive repression measures across the board. In contrast, the Irish population, whose kings the Tudors were in personal union, remained Catholic. In the second half of the century, numerous English people of the Anglican faith settled on the Irish island. The piracy against Spain supported by Elisabeth and the religious conflict led to several sea wars in both countries, which the English won.

    The Reformation, in this case the Calvinist interpretation, found great support in the Spanish Netherlands . However, their followers were suppressed by the ruling Spanish Habsburgs. With the iconoclasm of 1566, the Dutch struggle for freedom began , which as a significant early bourgeois revolution of the 16th century marked an important step from the transition from feudalism to early capitalism in Western Europe. After numerous disputes, the northern part declared itself independent as the Republic of the Seven United Provinces in 1581.

    Paris during St. Bartholomew's Night . Contemporary painting by François Dubois

    Before the conflict with Spain, England and the Spanish Netherlands were part of a trade network that was connected to Iberian world trade via the port city of Antwerp. Through this network they exported their goods, both of which had significant textile production, all over the world. In the course of the conflict with Spain, this trade network broke up and both countries began their rise to become world trading powers, which strongly pushed back Iberian world trade in the following century.

    France recovered after the setbacks of the Hundred Years War . The kings at the head of the state tried to expand their power over the nobility and bourgeoisie. The Concordat , with which they could fill the offices of the influential Church, helped them with this. The small but influential group of aristocrats and citizens who converted to the Calvinist denomination in the middle of the century saw the monarchs as a threat to their power. The religious contradictions were fought out in a series of civil wars, the Huguenot Wars , in the second half of the century . These ended with the Edict of Nantes , which granted the Calvinists extensive religious rights. In terms of foreign policy, the kings tried to assert their power against the Habsburgs, for which they concluded alliances across religious borders with the German Protestant princes, the Ottomans and Anglican England. They managed not only to hold the borders of France, but to expand them.

    Northern and Eastern Europe

    Poland after the Union of Lublin

    To the east of the Holy Roman Empire lay the Jagiellonian- ruled Polish-Lithuanian Union . It united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania under one crown. The Union of Lublin in 1569 combined the two countries into a single empire. As in both sub-kingdoms before, a noble assembly, the Reichstag, could elect the king. Since the Jagiellonian dynasty was the guarantor of the Union until 1569, only kings from this dynasty were elected until then. After the last king of the dynasty died without a male heir, the nobles went over to the free election of a king. Since the nobility was the only estate with sovereign rights under the king, it is referred to as an aristocratic republic.

    In Poland, too, Luther and Calvin found supporters, especially among the German-speaking bourgeoisie and the nobility. The Catholic Church quickly implemented the resolutions of the Council of Trent and contrasted the other denominations with a large church unit under the Pope in Poland. Violent conflicts between the denominations were avoided by the religious tolerance sworn by the king from 1573 onwards. In this century , the areas of the Teutonic Order north of Poland submitted to the feudal sovereignty of the Polish king. The master of the order changed to the Protestant denomination and founded the Duchy of Prussia as a secularly governed area under Polish feudal sovereignty. Livonia , which corresponded to today's Estonia and Latvia, was an area with a German upper class and a Baltic peasantry. Poland ended the temporary occupation of large parts of Livonia by the Russian tsarist empire and in turn became the feudal lord of the area. In 1600 they came into conflict with Sweden over Livonia, which culminated in decades of war.

    Sweden had previously broken out of the Kalmar Union with Denmark in a civil war . It became Lutheran under the first Wasa king . The Swedish king used the change of denomination to secularize the goods of the monasteries in favor of the crown. With this, the monarch, to whom 70% of the tax revenue now belonged directly, expanded his power over the nobility.

    In the 16th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the later Russian tsarist empire expanded many times its original size through constant campaigns of conquest. Especially with the expansion to the west, the empire got into constant wars with Poland-Lithuania and later Sweden. The hoped-for breakthrough to the Baltic Sea did not succeed. In the south and east, Russian troops and the Cossacks acting on their behalf conquered the successor empires of the Golden Horde . The most far-reaching was the conquest of the Sibir Khanate , which lay east of the Urals. With her the Russian conquest of Siberia began .

    The Grand Duchy of Moscow was ruled by the autocratic rulers of the Rurikid dynasty, who called themselves since Ivan the Terrible Tsar. With this title the rulers saw themselves as protectors of the Orthodox Church, which legitimized and supported their rule. Like their predecessors, the tsars implemented measures to centralize the empire, such as the unification of laws and currency. The importance of the hereditary nobility was reduced by the establishment of a service nobility. Through the oprichnina policy, in which Ivan the Terrible had hundreds of actual or supposed opponents murdered by his bodyguards, he downsized the hereditary nobility and strengthened his authoritarian power. Due to the lost Livonian War and the repressive measures, the empire was in very bad economic and political shape by the end of the century.

    Rule and society

    Europe's society was a class society , which in very limited cases made promotion or descent possible. The social climate in England allowed greater permeability between the nobility and the wealthy middle class. The state in which one was born, with the exception of the clergy, determined the rights and duties of people. The leading class was the aristocratic class, which enjoyed sovereign rights, tax and legal privileges. Typical tasks of this class were the exercise of rule, administration of land and warfare. The clergy class in Roman Catholic countries was the only class chosen. Here, too, there were great differences between the village pastors, who mostly came from simple backgrounds, and the bishops and abbots , who mostly came from the nobility . The overwhelming part of the population belonged to the third estate, which is often subdivided into the urban bourgeoisie and the peasant class. Numerous differentiations within these classes affected rights and obligations. In general, the status determined a spouse's career choices and choices. Property ownership also played a role. He qualified for the occupation of public offices. The social order was accepted by the people in the 16th century as god given and necessary for the functioning of society.

    The government and administrative apparatus as well as warfare, which in this century was characterized by ever larger mercenary armies and increased investment in firearms, became more and more expensive. On the other hand, the regents' power to raise these funds was limited. Although the collection of funds was no longer limited to regalia and their own goods, as was the case in the Middle Ages, the collection of taxes was often dependent on local classes. Although most rulers organized their administration in a more rational manner, only the princes of relatively small principalities, such as the individual principalities of the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia, were able to extend their power to the lower levels. In larger empires, as in England, France and Poland-Lithuania, stood estate assemblies, such as the British Parliament and the French Estates General , the monarch over. These assemblies of the estates were able to gain more rights for themselves in the negotiations with the monarchs. In the empires on the southern Baltic Sea beaches, however, the aristocrats greatly expanded their power over the peasants.

    Even if the population grew overall in this century, growth was limited by the high child mortality rate, a relatively high marriage age compared to the Middle Ages, and restrictive marriage laws. After surviving childhood, the adults had a life expectancy of 55 to 72 years.


    Agriculture was the strongest industry, in which 90% of the people worked. Their economy was strongly influenced by the subsistence economy, so that only part of the products came into the trade. Continuing the development of the previous century, local and long-distance trade and with it the importance of the money economy continued to grow. The change in the intra-European trade networks tied increasingly to the overseas trade of Western Europe. The heavily urbanized handicrafts were predominantly organized in guilds , which regulated market access, quality and prices. Outside the guilds, proto-capitalist structures developed in the textile industry as well as in the mining industry. Publishing was established in the textile industry . Wealthy traders from the cities provided the do-it-yourselfers in the country with the raw materials, which they further processed for them in small labor-sharing steps and then sold again to them. Wealthy long-distance traders like the Fuggers increasingly took up banking on a large scale. They financed the Habsburg monarchy, from which they received capital in the form of land and lucrative mining rights. In the flourishing mining industry, investors who no longer carried out their actual business became more and more important.

    In the course of the 16th century the ban on interest was increasingly lifted by secular authorities. This led to an expansion of the banking system.

    Church and religion

    Martin Luther (from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder , 1529)

    At the beginning of the century, the majority of Europeans were supporters of the Roman Catholic Church , which distinguished itself from the Russian Orthodox Christians and the Christian majority of the Muslim-ruled Balkans. For the very religious population, concern for the salvation of soul after death played an important role in their lives. The only mediator was the church, which satisfied the increasing demand for salable healing products from the faithful with an increasingly differentiated offer. Corruption and the purchase of ecclesiastical offices were particularly widespread in countries where monarchs had little influence over the appointment of offices. The ecclesiastical indulgence trade , which popes, prelates and regents used as a source of income, took on ever greater proportions .

    The criticism of the church's grievances grew with the commercialization of religion. Martin Luther's demands for reform achieved a great impact across Europe through the expansion of book printing. His reform ideas had broad support from the estates of the Holy Roman Empire, on which the emperor was dependent. The clashes between proponents and opponents of reform escalated and ultimately resulted in a split in the church. Other reformers, such as John Calvin , had different views from Luther, so that the Reformation movement split again. The reaction of the Roman Catholic Church was the Council of Trent , which reformed the church in some areas, but also clearly delimited it from the other denominations. A new Catholic male order, the Jesuits , supported the Counter Reformation . Through the arguments of the Jesuits and political pressure, some areas returned to the Catholic faith. In the following confessionalization, the respective confessions were sharpened. The behavior of the population was geared towards the respective creed through social discipline.

    The Reformation movements became more and more numerous in the course of the century, but could only survive if they were supported by the authorities. Independent groups, such as the Anabaptists and the Puritans , have been suppressed or broken up. Because of the great importance of religion in people's lives, their cultural ideas were strongly influenced by their denomination. In contrast to the Catholics, the Evangelicals refrained from decorating their churches. In the course of the Reformation, numerous works of art in churches were destroyed.

    Waves of witch hunts ran through Europe at the beginning and end of the century in both Catholic and Protestant regions . Over the course of the century, the persecution increasingly came from government agencies, some of which responded to demands from the people. Due to the unfair procedural rules, even by the standards of the time, the defendants, who were mostly women, were very rarely able to escape sentencing to death. Under torture, the accused were forced to name alleged accomplices, so that entire groups of the population fell victim to the trials.

    Art, culture, science and technology

    Waldseemüller map from 1507

    In this century, humanism and renaissance also established themselves north of the Alps. Whereas science previously concentrated on the interpretation of recognized authorities, experiment and intuition have become increasingly important for science in many parts of Europe. The widespread use of printing enabled an exchange of ideas between European scholars and universities that was unprecedented in intensity and speed. This particularly promoted further developments in medicine, cartography, astronomy and metallurgy. With the proclamation of a heliocentric worldview, Nicolaus Copernicus laid the foundations for a turning point in astronomy.

    As early as the 15th century, maps and sea maps were becoming more realistic. This increased in this century to the provisional high point, the Mercator world map from 1569 with the Mercator projection he developed . Before that, Waldseemüller and Ringmann first depicted the “New World” on a world map in 1507 and named it America after the discoverer Amerigo Vespucci . The first circumnavigation of the world by Juan Sebastián Elcano on a journey started with Ferdinand Magellan brought even more knowledge, especially about the Pacific Ocean . Among the other circumnavigators of this century was the English pirate Francis Drake .

    The education of the population increased sharply. Reading and writing skills continued to spread with the high availability of printed texts. The translation of the Bible by Martin Luther contributed to the greater standardization of the German language, with a time lag also in the Catholic parts of the country. Freelance teachers spread arithmetic with Arabic numbers, the most famous of whom was Adam Ries .

    The opening and re-establishment of postal routes for private postal traffic enabled a faster exchange. Organized equestrian relays transported the post quickly on set routes. With the advances in timekeeping, the pocket watch was invented in 1510, the life of urban people was increasingly determined by the precise use of time. The year has been recalculated due to the newly introduced Gregorian calendar.

    Renaissance art reached its peak in Italy and also established itself north of the Alps. Following on from the previous century, numerous buildings in the Renaissance style were built in Italy. The largest Renaissance building was St. Peter's Basilica , which, as the largest church in the world, was not completed until the 17th century. In this century, buildings in the Renaissance style were erected north of the Alps for the first time, where it was partially mixed with elements of the late Gothic . The castles of the Loire , the Munich residence and the El Escorial castle and monastery complex in Spain are examples of the new architecture. Just like the buildings, Renaissance sculpture was shaped by its ancient models and the view of people as individuals. After the beginnings in the 15th century, more and more sculptures were created that stood in the room independently of a building and depicted the often naked body of people in great detail. Drawing on the techniques of the previous century, painters created unique images such as the Mona Lisa and the painting of the Sistine Chapel . In contrast to the Middle Ages, the artist was recognized as an individual by society, celebrated and well paid by rulers and the wealthy for their self-expression.

    People's clothing was determined by their class and income. Noble and wealthy men wore Italian Renaissance fashions, a scarf and a doublet over it . Her wives wore a scarf as long as a foot and a dress with slit sleeves. In the second half of the century, the upper class in some parts of Europe oriented itself towards Spanish fashion . Men and women wore high ruffs and a corset . The courtly woman wore a hoop skirt.


    The North African empires on the coast of the Mediterranean, with the exception of the western Maghreb , were conquered by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of this century . The conquest included many Spanish bases on the coast. In principle, the Ottomans incorporated the areas into their central state structures. However, individual local rulers were able to retain their freedom. In Egypt, the previously ruling Mamluks lost their ruling power, which was replaced by an Ottoman viceroy. The Levant , which they had ruled up to now, as well as Cyrenaica , administratively separated the Ottomans, so that the area of ​​the Ottoman province of Egypt roughly corresponded to that of today's Arab Republic of Egypt . Egypt was given the Ottoman administrative structure at the highest level and Ottoman law was introduced. Some Mamluks saved part of their power by becoming Ottoman provincial governors. Likewise, the heads of the Bedouin tribes of Upper Egypt retained their self-determination.

    The Maghreb was the theater of war between the Mediterranean powers Ottoman Empire, Spain and Portugal. It was the base of numerous Muslim pirates, corsairs who actively interfered in the maritime disputes on the part of the Ottomans, enslaving numerous Christians and dragging them to North Africa. In the struggle of the powers, only Morocco was able to maintain its independence, even if it had to tolerate several Portuguese and Spanish bases on its coasts. Strengthened by the ransom payments for the members of a failed Portuguese expeditionary army, the ruling Saadian dynasty attempted expansion to the arch of the Niger. The local regional power, the Songhaire Empire, was destroyed by the successful military operation. However, the war led to sharp declines in the Trans-Saharan trade with Morocco, so that the campaign ultimately damaged Morocco and its armies withdrew. Before that, the Songhairian Empire expanded to its greatest extent. The great trading cities in the Niger Arc, such as Timbuktu , became the most important places of Islamic learning in Africa. With the fall of the Songha Empire, these trading cities lost their scientific and economic importance.

    The West African empires were linked by an extensive, centuries-old trade network. The Portuguese tied to this trade network with their African ports and connected it to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. The intra-African trade was increasingly oriented towards the Atlantic coast. While gold, salt and slaves were exported, textiles were imported. Plants such as cassava, bananas and maize that were imported into Africa from other parts of the world became part of African agriculture and changed the diet of Africans.

    In western central Africa, the Kingdom of the Congo entered into an alliance with Portugal. The nobility adopted the Christian faith in the previous century, but retained elements of their traditional beliefs. At the beginning of the century, King Afonso I expanded his kingdom considerably. The leadership titles and correspondence language were Portuguese. The king organized his empire centrally through the capital São Salvador. Even if agriculture was the central branch of the economy, slaves dominated exports and the Portuguese were the exclusive buyers. The king satisfied the Portuguese demand with regular slave hunts in neighboring territories. Portuguese traders regularly tried to bypass the capital, which led to tensions between the Congolese and Portuguese. The Jaga invasion from 1568 to 1570 could only be repulsed with Portuguese help. The invasion and the subsequent concessions to the Portuguese weakened the kingdom. In 1575 the Portuguese founded the Luanda base south of the Congo. From this they operated on their own slave hunts in the neighboring areas in order to satisfy their increasing demand for slaves. In West Africa, on the other hand, the Portuguese used existing African networks of enslavement and slave trade. In total, only a quarter of the African slaves were shipped to South America; the other slaves were used in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé or sold within Africa and the Middle East.

    On the shipping route to India, the Portuguese also set up branches on the east coast of Africa and pushed back the Muslim city-states that had traded with Asia from there for centuries. The focus of the Portuguese engagement in East Africa was the area of ​​today's Mozambique.


    Ottoman Empire

    Ottoman conquest of Rhodes in 1522

    In the previous centuries the Ottoman Empire was predominantly a European Empire with a very high proportion of Christians, but at the beginning of this century it is expanding into the Middle East and North Africa. The sultans present themselves to the now predominantly Muslim population of the great power on the Mediterranean as caliphs and protectors of the holy Muslim sites in Mecca and Medina .

    For the areas in the Middle East, the Ottomans competed with the expansive Safavids , against whom they waged numerous wars over the course of the century. After conquering Egypt from the Mamluks , they extended their rule on the North African coast to the borders of Morocco. Their expansion led to a war with the Habsburgs and Venice for supremacy in the Mediterranean. In this dispute they supported corsairs , Muslim pirates who enslaved numerous Christian Europeans on their raids and sold them to North Africa. The fact that the sheriff of Mecca placed himself under their protection gave the Ottomans a high level of prestige. Shortly after the conquest of Egypt, the Ottoman Empire expanded in the Balkans and conquered large parts of Hungary, but failed in the attempt to conquer Vienna .

    The Ottoman Empire was fundamentally a centralized empire, headed by the sultans with their unrestricted power. As caliphs, they were also the supreme religious authority of the empire. The sultans all came from the Ottoman family, and after the death of a sultan there were often bloody succession battles between his sons. The sultans delegated their power to various incumbents, with the grand viziers headed the government. These stood before the highest advisory body, the Dīwān . In the provinces of the empire, pashas ruled relatively independently on behalf of the sultan. When filling the non-hereditary positions, the expected productivity played a much more important role than the origin. The empire's elite, the Askeri , enjoyed extensive legal privileges. At the local level there were numerous self-government units whose members had religious-ethnic or professional similarities. These units had extensive freedom to organize themselves and the rule of the sultan seldom reached directly to the local level.

    The military unit of the Janissaries , a standing military unit that was personally assigned to the Sultan, was of great importance . They not only functioned as an elite force in wars, but also as a force for order within the empire. The members of this troop were taken away from their mostly Christian parents when they were boys, had to convert to Islam and were barracked through strict training. This infantry, which was paid for by the Sultan, gained more and more power over the course of the century and pushed the cavalry units back. Their leaders were owners of non-hereditary fiefdoms who had to finance their units from their income.

    In addition to the Sharia, there was a uniform right of the sultan in the empire , whose compliance with the Sharia was confirmed before the decree. Subordinate to this, local law was applied in the various parts of the empire. Tax collection was also organized centrally. Turkish was introduced as the official language in the middle of the century.

    Agriculture, which made up most of the economy, as well as crafts and trade flourished in the 16th century. Except for the big cities, the central power regulated the economy little. After the conquest of Egypt's established with the coffee trade coffee as a new place for socializing and entertainment. The elites promoted science, poetry, music and painting, which increasingly portrayed scenes from court life and everyday life. The court architect Sinans created numerous structures, including famous mosque complexes such as Shehzade, Süleymaniye and Selimiye .

    West and Central Asia

    Persia under the Safavids

    In the previous centuries, the Safavids , the leading family of the Safawiyya suffi order , had built a power base in Anatolia. At the beginning of the century, the family head conquered Ismail I. using Turkmen nomadic Kizilbash strains large areas of Iraq, Iran and Khorasan . Constant clashes with the rival Ottomans led to the loss of Anatolia and Iraq under his successor, which at the end of the century was defeated by Shah Abbas I. was recaptured. Throughout the century, the Safavids continued military conflicts with the Ottomans in the west and the Uzbeks in the east, which were only interrupted by brief periods of peace.

    Ismail I converted to Twelve Shia Islam . He and his successors enforced this denomination as the state religion in their territory. The Sunni creed and various forms of Islamic popular belief were pushed back with coercive measures. Shiite scholars from southern Iraq and southern Lebanon taught the Orthodox Shia, which is still the state religion in Iran today.

    As a Shah, Ismail and his successors were both political and religious leaders. Initially, the nomadic Kizilbash tribes had great political weight as provincial governors. They had the right to the provincial tax revenues, from which they had to meet the military expenditures. The administrative tasks were carried out by the indigenous, sedentary Iranian population. In the second half of the century, the Shahs built up an army of military slaves who, unlike the Kizilbash, were heavily dependent on them. Shah Abbas I was able to push back the influence of the Kizilbasch in his favor. He also converted large areas into crown property and donated other parts to the foundations of religious Shiite shrines. The religious leadership of the Shahs was increasingly questioned by Shiite religious scholars over the course of the century. A Shiite clergy developed which, secured by its own income, became increasingly independent of secular rulers. Sponsored by the Shahs, the sham cult became increasingly popular in Iran.

    At the beginning of the century the nomads had the Kazakh River Syrdarya under the Schaibaniden Muhammad Shaybani together and Transoxania conquered the hitherto from the disintegrating empires of the Timurid dominated. The Uzbek khanate they founded remained Sunni as opposed to Iran. Although the Shaibanids were the chief khans, the area was divided among the leading clans who exercised the main political power. In the middle of the century there was a civil war between the clans over the division of the territories, from which Abdallah emerged as the new Khan.

    Like the Shaibanids, the nomads living in Mogolistan were of Mongol origin. They conquered the Tarim Basin and controlled trade on the Silk Road that ran through it. Altan Khan ruled in the heart of the Mongols. Under him, the Mongols carried out numerous raids in China, which then reinforced its wall. Only when the Chinese agreed to a trade agreement with the Mongols did the raids stop. Altan Khan formed an alliance with the followers of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug school . He helped the school prevail over its opponents in Tibet and bestowed the title Dalai Lama on its head . This evangelized the Mongols to Tibetan Buddhism.

    The Indian subcontinent

    Attack by the Mughal Army

    The Indian subcontinent of the 16th century can be divided into three zones. In the north there were Muslim empires, most of which had their origins in the Delhi Sultanate . These empires were conquered by the Mughal Empire over the course of the century . In the middle were the Dekkan Sultanates , the successor realms of the Bahmani Sultanate . The kingdom of Vijayanagar extended to the south .

    Driven by the Uzbeks, Babur , a Muslim descendant of Timur , conquered the Indian northern lowlands from the Hindu Kush. Since his rule was only inadequately anchored, the Pashtun military leader Sher Khan Suri was able to conquer the north of the Indian subcontinent. In the military and administrative structure, he laid the foundations on which the Mughal Empire, which the grandson of Babur, Akbar I , was able to establish in the second century, fell back on. Akbar conquered all of northern India from Gujarat to Bengal , but Kabul was also part of his empire.

    The success of the Mughal army was the harmonious combination of firearms, archers and cavalry against which opponents found no means. But diplomacy and marriage alliances were also part of Akbar's policy. His religious tolerance towards the Hindu majority of his subjects was evident in the abolition of the special poll tax for non-Muslims. He also did not force his wives to convert to Islam. Hindus rose to the highest administrative positions, while many military leadership positions were held by Muslims. Overall, all ethnic groups were considered equally.

    As the absolute ruler, Akbar was at the head of the military and administration. Each office holder had a rank in a highly differentiated ranking system. Depending on their rank, important officials, all of whom were personally appointed by the ruler, were given land grants that they used to finance their tasks. Rotation rules prevented the formation of a house power. The taxes were levied on the basis of statistical analyzes of the efficiency of the provinces. Through various measures, the ruler succeeded in integrating local princes into the centralized administrative structures of the state, so that the structures were also relatively firmly anchored in the provinces. Akbar established a ruler cult with him as ruler by the grace of God, which differed greatly from the traditional interpretation of Islam. He staged his claim to power with magnificent festivals and buildings. With his cult of rulers Akbar aroused violent opposition from Muslim clergy, from which an Islamic renewal movement emerged in the following century.

    The real estate tax introduced in this century served as a very important source of financing for the centralized Mughal Empire. In northern India, which is dominated by agriculture, the monetary economy was essentially limited to the trade necessary to earn property tax. The market orientation of agriculture was significantly less than in Europe and China. Nevertheless, the monetary economy of the Mughal Empire required an increasing amount of gold and silver, which Akbar mainly acquired from the Portuguese. In the course of the century, they achieved supremacy at sea through the use of their heavily armed fleet and built a "colonial empire" of fortresses and trading posts on the Indian coasts. They were able to achieve these successes because the great Indian land powers showed no inclination to build up their own navy.

    The Kingdom of Vijayanagar , located in the south of the subcontinent, was the second largest land power alongside the Mughals . The kingdom was ruled by the Hindu royal dynasty of the Tuluva. King Krishna Deva Raya conquered several neighboring empires and led the empire to its final heyday. His successors provoked an amalgamation of the Dekkan sultanates in the north and lost to them in the Battle of Talikota in 1565. The kingdom, which formally existed until the 17th century, did not recover from the subsequent destruction by the victors. The provincial military governors took over and established the Nayak dynasties .


    China in 1580

    In the 16th century, China was the largest empire in the world, even if at four million km² it was much smaller than today's People 's Republic of China . In East Asia it occupied a leading economic and cultural position. At the head of the empire stood the emperors of the Ming Dynasty , who based their rule on an apparatus of officials. Since the emperors often limited themselves to their ritual tasks, the empire was ruled by the eunuchs of the court and the top officials. Both groups were often in competition with each other. The officers were selected through a tiered examination system that checked the neo-Confucian scriptures. At the lowest level, civil servants' resources were limited, relying on the local gentry, a class of wealthy merchants and large landowners, for governance. They granted them special privileges for their services, which the gentry families used to expand their power.

    The Chinese economy grew rapidly and changed its structure in this century. One of the engines of the economic boom was the continuation of the rapid population growth that had begun in the previous century, so that around the year 1600 there were 150 to 160 million people in China. Furthermore, the structural changes in the Chinese economy continued. Since the local upper classes were freed from the increasing labor obligations of the farmers on the one hand, and also organized tax collection on the other, they used their power and squeezed more and more land from the smallholders. Many of the now dependent peasants migrated to the cities. This was the breeding ground for an increasingly labor-based economy, ever greater market orientation and the increase in domestic trade. An equally important factor for the economic upturn was the increasing foreign trade, which was based on a great demand for Chinese products from East Asia and, in the second half of the century, from Europe.

    In the first half of the century, China was part of the (East) Asian trade network that had developed over the previous centuries. The Chinese leadership has never been able to enforce a ban on sea and foreign trade. Rather, their attempts led to an increase in piracy as local traders collaborated with pirates in their black market. Chinese goods were very often paid for in silver, which in the first half of the century mainly came from Japan. In the second half of the century, the Chinese authorities lifted the ban on sea and foreign trade. At the same time, Europeans became increasingly involved in trade. With the establishment of the Spanish colony of Manila , the East Asian triangular trade with Latin America began. The Spaniards imported South American silver to China via Manila. In return, they received Chinese textiles and porcelain, which they either shipped directly to Europe or exchanged for spices in Asia. The silver was used as a currency for the growing Chinese economy because the state paper money was not trusted. The state was in constant financial distress as taxes and labor were distributed among fewer and fewer people and spending rose at the same time. Furthermore, the services provided by work commitment were of poor quality. Reforms that resulted in more and more taxes being paid in cash accelerated the market orientation of agriculture. The military support of Korea in the Imjin war against Japan at the end of the century, which is seen as one of the reasons for the downfall of the Ming in the following century, proved to be a particularly heavy burden on the national budget .

    Emperor Jiajing on his ship of state

    The 16th century marked a social and cultural upheaval. In the second half of the century in particular, social mobility increased and the class differences became increasingly blurred. A sharp rise in literacy skills created a broad market for literature. This demand has been met by an increasing supply of printed books. While the literature on offer in the past centuries was primarily aimed at a scholarly class, numerous publishers used the techniques of wood board printing and paper that had been known for centuries to meet the demand of the broader population for printed matter. This is how popular folk novels came about that are still received today in China. In contrast to previous books, which were written in a scholarly language, they were written in everyday Chinese. The teachings of Neoconfucianism, which have supported the state for centuries, were reinterpreted by the philosopher Wang Yangming . Wang, whose thinking was influenced by Buddhism , taught that man must know the truth in himself from inner intuition. Neoconfucianism was previously an elite worldview, but Wang's followers carried his interpretation to broad sections of the population.

    East asia

    Model of a
    turtle ship used in the Imjin War

    At the head of Korea were the kings of the Choson dynasty. They ruled over an impermeable class society, where the class was determined by birth. Although the positions were filled through an examination system, the class affiliation determined the access to the examinations. The restriction of freedom of movement of the lower classes, among whom the large group of slaves had the fewest rights, was reinforced by a system of identification tags. The upper class was divided first into two, then into several rival groups, which alternately won the favor of the king. If one group gained the upper hand, it carried out a deadly wave of purges among the followers of the other group. Both ideologically and structurally, the Korean administration was based on the neo-Confucian model of China.

    When Japan asked for its troops to march through to attack China at the end of the century, Korea rejected this as an ally of China. Afterwards, Japanese armies devastated Korea, whose armed forces were no match for the attackers. Only with the help of the Chinese ally and a technologically superior navy could the Japanese invaders be repulsed. When the Japanese finally put an end to their invasion efforts in 1598 after the death of their leader Toyotomo Hideyoshi , the destruction of economic resources and the decimation of the population by the Imjin War were so great that the country was set back in its development by almost a century.

    At the beginning of the century Japan was divided into the domains of numerous daimyos . They built numerous castles throughout the country to secure their rule and were constantly involved in disputes. Mass armies in which farmers played an increasingly important role met each other. These armies fought with spears, bows and, throughout the century, with firearms. Thus the samurai , mounted archers and swordsmen, lost their importance. In the middle of the century a daimyo, Oda Nobunaga , began to establish itself and ushered in the unification of Japan , which lasted over three rulers until the beginning of the following century. Through alliances and wars Nobunaga gained ever larger territory. His successor, Toyotomo Hideyoshi , continued the unification work with a greater focus on diplomacy. At the end of the century, he tried to conquer Korea, but was defeated by the Chinese army allied with Korea.

    However, the numerous military conflicts did not prevent Japanese merchants from trading actively with China, with the export of silver being very important. Economic structures developed that were the basis of the Japanese economic boom in the following centuries.

    In the middle of the century, trade with European nations, especially Portugal, was added. In addition to knowledge of firearms and nautical skills, these brought Christianity to Japan . Initially, Christianity was promoted by some Japanese daimyos as it was supposed to serve as a counterbalance to militant Buddhist sects. The Hideyoshi decree to expel Christian European missionaries marked a U-turn in the attitude of the most important Japanese ruler. Since this was not enforced, the Christian community in Japan grew to 300,000 members by the end of the century. Yet Christians in Japan remained a small minority. The majority adhered to different Buddhist beliefs, which fought strongly among themselves. The strongest direction was Zen Buddhism .

    Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia

    The Portuguese often used carracks for their trips to India .

    The Indian Ocean of the 16th century was criss-crossed by maritime trade networks. The largely peaceful trade was carried out by several groups of traders from the Middle East, India, China and Southeast Asia, with individual sections being dominated by individual groups. With the endeavor to avoid the intermediate trade for Asian luxury goods, such as spices, the Portuguese penetrated this trading network at the beginning of the century and fundamentally changed it. By conquering central trading empires such as the Indian Goa and Malacca on the Malay Peninsula , they tried at the beginning of the century to tie up large parts of the trade and to generate income through high protective tariffs. If they were initially successful, large groups of mostly Muslim traders turned to alternative routes. In the course of this structural change, many established empires on the Southeast Asian mainland went under and new sultanates emerged. The most important sultanate was Aceh in northern Sumatra. These sultanates also support the spread of Islam, to which missionaries converted most of the Southeast Asian islanders. The successes of the Christian missionaries, however, remained small except for the Philippines. These islands colonized and evangelized by the Spaniards were their most important bridgehead to Asia. Linking the Asian sea trade with America was their merit and privilege. They, and above all the Portuguese, were the first to link Asian maritime trade directly with Europe. Over the course of the century, private Portuguese traders increasingly diminished the primacy of state-organized Portuguese trade.

    The mostly Buddhist empires of the Southeast Asian mainland also benefited from maritime trade with their ports. Portugal participated in their conflicts rather indirectly, while some independent Portuguese soldiers of fortune intervened directly. From the arguments of the three Burmese power centers Upper Burma, Lower Burma and Mon went Taungoo Dynasty emerged victorious. She initially conquered large parts of what is now Myanmar and was able to conquer the capital Ayutthaya of the Thai empire of the same name in 1567 , but did not manage to hold the city for long. Due to the ongoing military campaigns, the loosely held territory of the Taungu dynasty was economically exhausted by the end of the century and the rulers had to fight with uprisings. Ayutthaya was able to recover in a few decades and now attacked Burma in turn. The Burmese Empire collapsed in the power conflicts that this triggered.


    The American continent has undergone radical and rapid change in this century as never before in its history. At the beginning of the century, two great regional empires, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Inca in South America, had flourished. In the 1920s and 1930s, both realms were conquered and destroyed by adventurers operating under license from the Spanish Crown. In addition to the weak points of the two empires, the Spaniards also benefited from the superior weapon technology and the use of horses not known in America. Crucial to the conquest of America, however, was the impact of the diseases brought in by the Europeans. Smallpox, measles, and flu, to which the indigenous peoples of America were not resistant, spread via the double continent's extensive trade routes, killing up to 90% of the population, often before Europeans even got to their homes. At the same time, the fauna of the continent changed with the domestic animals brought by the Europeans. Horses and pigs poached. For some nomadic indigenous peoples, the captured wild horses became part of their culture. The released pigs mutated into wild boars. On the one hand they caused considerable damage to some agricultural crops, on the other hand they served the indigenous people as meat suppliers.

    Conquests in Central America

    Encounter between Cortés , his supporter Malinche and Moctezuma II.

    Since the 15th century, the urban community of Tenochtitlán , Texcoco and Tlacopán conquered a large Aztec empire, which, with the additional conquests in this century, encompassed large parts of Central America. Usually they did not rule the subject areas directly, but established loyal rulers and consolidated their rule through marriage alliances. They pressed high tributes from the conquered peoples, which flowed into the three capitals. At the height of the Aztecs, their largest city Tenochtitlán grew to 300,000 inhabitants. At the head of Tenochtitlán was a monarch who came from the high nobility. He had great fortune and had certain privileges. Often dependent farmers worked for him. The lowest class were the unfree slaves, whose status was not hereditary. The losers of this system were the conquered city-states and the small neighbors of the Aztec Empire. They saw in the cooperation with the Spaniard Hernán Cortés and his mercenaries the only way to escape the tyranny of the Aztecs. This used the carelessness of the Aztec king Montezuma to take him prisoner. Due to the strict hierarchical structure of the empire, he was able to destroy the empire.

    Conquest of the Inca Empire

    Expansion of the Inca Empire

    In the last century in particular, the Inca subjugated numerous peoples and thus established an empire in the South American Andes and the neighboring areas. Inca society was divided into many kinship groups, which were organized according to a hierarchical system. Conquered peoples were incorporated into this lower level hierarchy. The economy in the Inca Empire was mainly based on agriculture, which in contrast to the economies of Asia, Europe and Africa had no livestock. The craft was also less pronounced than on the other continents. The Inca had established a state-controlled trading system in which surplus goods were given to central government agencies and distributed from there. To maintain this trading system, the Inca operated a bureaucracy that included a comprehensive census of the population. To promote trade, the Inca expanded a network of trade routes, the longest of which was over 5,000 kilometers long.

    When the Inca ruler Huayna Cápac died in 1525, the dispute over the succession of his sons sparked a civil war. Atahualpa bought his victory in the dispute over the crown with a country deeply divided. When the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro reached the Inca Empire with a small army shortly after his victory in 1532 , he took advantage of the division of the country and the carelessness of the Inca king and conquered the empire by 1536 .

    Rule and Society in the European Colonies

    Spanish rule was carried out at the beginning of the century by conquistadors , Spanish adventurers under license from the crown. By contract they collected the taxes of the indigenous people on their own account and were able to dispose of their labor. In this phase in particular, there were numerous excesses of violence against the indigenous population. Over the course of the century, the Spanish crown developed centralized administrative structures, headed by two viceroys, one in South America and the other in Central America . The aim of the crown was a centralist system of rule with absolutist features. The power of disposal over the work of the Indios was increasingly made available to private individuals, indirectly through government agencies, which reduced the use of force against the indigenous people. The development of America included numerous city foundations, which were often planned according to a checkerboard pattern. An ethnically stratified society established itself. Its top stratum were the immigrant Europeans, the second tier was occupied by the indigenous ruling class and people of mixed ethnic origin, the third stratum was made up of the simple indigenous people and the bottom stratum were the African slaves. Over the century, the number of Indigenous Americans declined sharply due to disease, violence, hunger, and declining birth rates. At the same time, numerous Spaniards and other Europeans immigrated to America. The African slaves deported to America were concentrated in a few places where their labor was needed.

    During the century, a large part of the population in the Spanish sphere of influence was converted to Christianity. This was done partly by force, partly by conviction. The Christian monastic orders, some of whom acted as advocates for the indigenous population against the Spanish authorities, played a major role in the mission. Often the adoption of Christianity was only superficial and the old religious elements were integrated there. Overall, the church contributed significantly to the restructuring of America by building its own structures. In many regions of America, especially in North America and the remote regions of South America, the Europeans were present, if at all through individual adventurers. While the attempts of England and France to establish colonies in North America failed in this century, the Spaniards succeeded in establishing a settlement with St. Augustine in Florida, North America, which still exists today.

    Economy in Iberian America

    The mining town of Potosí

    The colonial rulers geared the economy to export to Europe. Portugal, which according to the Treaty of Tordesillas was awarded the east coast of South America, established sugar cane plantations there from the 1940s . They successfully exported the sugar made with imported African slaves and enslaved indigenous people to Europe. They secured their plantations with military bases.

    The Spaniards were less successful with their sugar cane plantations, so their main export items were metals, especially silver and gold. In a few mines, particularly in Potosí in Bolivia, they extracted large quantities of silver in the second half of the century and exported it to Europe under the control of the Crown. By employing European mining specialists, mining has become more and more effective. Since the compulsory labor force was insufficient, they imported numerous African slaves as labor for the mining industry. In addition to silver exports and exports from plantations, America's economy was dominated by agriculture, with a high level of self-sufficiency. The trading network was increasingly realigned to supply the mining industry. In South America it remained in indigenous hands, while in Central America the Spanish immigrants played an increasingly important role.


    • Peter Feldbauer, Jean-Paul Lehners (Ed.): The world in the 16th century . Mandelbaum Verlag, Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-85476-266-9 .

    Web links

    Commons : 16th century  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files


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