Early modern age

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The terms Early modern , early modern , early modern and modern history described in the history of Europe usually the era between the late Middle Ages (mid- 13th century until the end of the 15th century ) and the transition from the 18th century to the 19th century .

As with all periodizations in historical studies , no precisely datable epoch boundaries can be drawn. In terms of humanities , the changed conception of man by humanism and the time of the Renaissance (rebirth of antiquity ) as well as the development of book printing by Johannes Gutenberg are considered to be the beginning of the turning point between the Middle Ages and modern times . Historically and politically significant turning points were the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 , the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the end of the Reconquista in the same year, the beginning of the Italian Wars in 1494 and the reform of the Empire in 1495 and the beginning of the Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire 1517.

The end of the early modern period is largely in line with the French Revolution (1789–1799), which at the same time closes the Age of Enlightenment . The Ancien Régime collapsed after 1789, first in France and, as a result of the Revolutionary Wars, in almost all of Europe. In the German-speaking world, the early modern era ended in 1806 with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire under pressure from Napoleon . The early modern period is followed as part of the modern period by modernity , which continues to the present day.

The siege and conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and is considered a historic turning point

The problem of epochs

The invention of printing with movable letters by Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized communication
Martin Luther as the driving force of the Reformation
The reconquest of Granada ended the Reconquista history painting by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz in 1882

Every periodization in historical studies is a setting based on certain criteria with the aim of systematizing the research field and limiting and classifying a research object. As a result, only an approximation to historical reality is possible or a historical reality in the scientific sense is constituted in the first place. The transitions from the Middle Ages to the early modern period on the one hand and from this to the modern age on the other cannot therefore be tied to individual dates. Years and certain events are only markings for orientation. The epoch boundaries are fluid and vary depending on whether, for example, political or socio-historical issues are in the foreground and which regions and countries are in focus. Moreover, many historical lines of development are of long duration and can also contradict a certain periodization.

Beginning of the early modern period

The spiritual and cultural awakening of the Renaissance and humanism, the voyages of discovery by the Portuguese and Spaniards since the beginning of the 15th century, which forever changed the image of the earth, and the Reformation , which after 1517 the medieval unity of the (Western) Church destroyed - these three interrelated developments usually mark the beginning of the early modern period in European history.

In general, the Renaissance (rediscovery of antiquity) and humanism are seen as the beginning of a turning point. With it a new image of man spread throughout Europe, the focus of which was on the self-determined individual and his abilities. In philosophy, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and all other cultural areas, people orientated themselves again to the forms and contents of antiquity.

This development can be identified earliest in Italy, where it began as early as the 14th century, reached its first cultural heyday in Florence in the 15th century and from where it spread throughout Europe until the beginning of the 16th century. Italy owes its pioneering role not least to the admission of a large number of Greek scholars from Constantinople , which had been conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 . These scholars brought ancient culture, which had long since been lost, with them to the West. At the same time, the spread of knowledge was tremendously accelerated by Johannes Gutenberg's invention of printing with movable type. This made it possible to accumulate knowledge, which developed particularly in the cities. In the cities, especially in the large imperial and Hanseatic cities, differentiated legal and organizational forms had been developed that had a great civilizing effect.

The invention of the printing press, in turn, brought about a breakthrough in an event that, particularly in Germany, is equated with the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era: the Reformation. Martin Luther based his 95 theses , which he published in 1517, on a precise study of the sources of the Holy Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew , i.e. on knowledge that was based on the preparatory work of the humanists of the previous century.

Luther defended his theses in 1521 at the Worms Reichstag before Emperor Charles V , who ruled an empire "in which the sun did not set". This kingdom also included the Spanish possessions in the New World , which Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492, the same year in which the Reconquista came to an end with the conquest of Granada . The first impetus for the Age of Discovery came from Portugal: on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator , expeditions had been sent out since 1415 to find a sea route to India ( India trade ). Vasco da Gama succeeded in doing this in 1498. The discoveries of the Portuguese and the Spaniards not only broadened the worldview of medieval man, but also resulted in European expansion over the entire known world.

End of the early modern period

The end of the epoch and the beginning of the modern age are largely in line with the French Revolution from 1789. The French Revolution was a consequence of the Enlightenment that had supported the American Revolution of 1776. Due to the events of 1789, the Ancien Régime collapsed first in France and as a result of the Revolutionary Wars almost all of Europe. In Germany, this was expressed primarily through the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Despite the restoration of the old regime after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814/15, Europe had fundamentally changed politically. The historian Reinhart Koselleck assumes that further processes of change took place from around 1750 to 1850/70. For this transition period from the early modern period to the modern age, he coined the term saddle time .

Epochs within the early modern period

Christoph Cellarius (1638–1707) was the first to use the term “modern times” as a historiographer to classify universal history. Gerhard Oestreich is considered to be one of the co-creators of the “early modern era” as a separate specialist discipline within historical studies. In general, the term epoch is associated with the appearance of humanism on the one hand and the end of the Ancien Régime .

Depending on how you look at it, the early modern period can in turn be divided into the following periods:

In Anglo-Saxon scientific terminology, on the other hand, one speaks of “Early Modern History” or, in relation to Europe, of “Early modern Europe” and thus mostly describes a period from the 15th century to the late 18th century. This concept of periodization is based on the idea that the period "between the Reformation and the French Revolution" can be understood as an epoch of cultural transformation which, due to specific structures and processes, can be distinguished from both the Middle Ages and the modern age .



From a political point of view, the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism shaped the early modern period, which ended in the Thirty Years War . The confessionalization leads to a profound change in all walks of life, who is also a modernization process can be understood. The struggles that arise here bring about a new order in Europe, which recognizes Old Believers and Protestants as religious communities with equal rights. The absolute supremacy of Catholic Spain is gradually being pushed back.

At least in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a new type of state is emerging. The territorial state with a territorial lord differs from the medieval formations in that the landlord saw himself exclusively as a feudal lord or vassal of the monarch , while the territorial lord appears as a sovereign of his country.

The formative form of government in the early modern period is absolutism . With it comes a new form of economy, mercantilism . The monarch's self-image towards his subjects changes. The "Sun King" Louis XIV of France takes the view: " L'État, c'est moi ", in English: "I am the state". King Friedrich II. Of Prussia as a representative of the "enlightened absolutism" sees himself as the "highest servant of the state".

The great witch hunt also took place in the early modern period (and not in the Middle Ages) . According to research by Heide Wunder , from which the concept of the “working couple” emerges, in the early modern period the working worlds of women and men in marriage were on an equal footing and complement each other. Only with the emergence of the bourgeois world began the devaluation of domestic and women's work.

At the end of this epoch, processes of the democratization of society break through. This is most evident in the North American War of Independence and, initially, in the French Revolution, both of which initially lead to republican reorganizations of society. While the nobility in France is losing its social privileges, a democratic constitution becomes the written foundation of the legal order in the United States.

Economic development

From an economic perspective, the age of the revolution marked the end of feudalism , a form of economy that was based on landed property , or rather on the manorial rule of the landlord as feudal lord or vassal of the monarch and the property of serf peasants. It also means the end of the previous guild and class system in medieval cities. The expansion through increased seafaring and the discoveries connected with it led to new economic structures in world trade (see also India trade and China trade ). It was replaced by a burgeoning colonialism and overseas trade by the great powers Spain , Portugal , the Netherlands , England and France and the development of the manufacture . These developments laid the foundation for industrialization and capitalism . Even the silver mining had undergone a profound change. The discoveries of silver deposits in the "New World" led to the decline in traditional tin and silver mining in the Saxon and Bohemian Ore Mountains until this mining was finally stopped. Absolutism brought with it a new form of economy, that of mercantilism . The capital gain based on trade gives this system its name because the absolutist state proceeded in its external relations according to commercial aspects. There is also the term early capitalism for this .

The invention of the first fully functional steam engine by James Watt in the 18th century brought about a significant change in terms of industrialization . This was preceded by the steam engine designs, which were far less efficient than those of Thomas Newcomen, for example . This not only led to a revolution in almost all production conditions, especially in the iron industry , but also in the transport infrastructure through the introduction of the railroad by George Stephenson , which began in England in 1825. However, this was preceded by attempts to construct a steam locomotive by Richard Trevithick in 1804, which failed, however, not because of defects in the locomotive technology, but because of the rail material. In a way, the invention of the railroad heralds the end of the early modern era.


The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus is considered to be one of the most influential events in the transition between the Middle Ages and modern times.

In addition to these developments in general politics, the advances in science undoubtedly mark an essential difference from the previous epochs and thus give the epoch its characteristic profile.

The discoveries of the Spanish and Portuguese navigators Christopher Columbus , Amerigo Vespucci , who gave the continent America its name, Ferdinand Magellan , Vasco da Gama or Bartolomeu Diaz expanded the worldview that had existed since antiquity, that of individual, barely received discoveries such as those of the Vikings apart from America) only included Europe, Africa north of the Sahara and parts of Asia. The result was an upswing in cartography , among others by Martin Behaim , who had created the first terrestrial globe as early as 1492 (of course still without America), and Gerhard Mercator . The Mercator projection , a conformal map projection , was named after him .

The new discoveries laid the foundation stone for the building of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and, after their decline in the course of the 17th century, for the building of the English, Dutch and French colonial systems. James Cook's world trips may also be mentioned here. They also gave us essential information about the nature of the earth. To Cook's credit, it is enough to have found a way to effectively counter a seafaring disease , scurvy , which was feared at the time .

The astronomers Tycho Brahe , Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler , Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton belong to this age, which is also called the Age of Discovery . They ensured that the geocentric worldview or Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by a heliocentric worldview . This system was ultimately supported by Newton's theory of gravity .

The medicine is making great progress in that time. Among the most important representatives of their time were Paracelsus , a forerunner of pharmacy, and Bartolomeo Eustachi , one of the founders of the science of anatomy .


The most important philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries include Spinoza , Michel de Montaigne , René Descartes , John Locke , Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes . The Enlightenment falls in the 17th and 18th centuries, the process of intellectual emancipation, both individual and social, which turned against a way of thinking based solely on belief in authorities. Depending on which aspect of this process you focus on, the focus of the Enlightenment lies in the 17th century (reason) or in the 18th century ( encyclopedia , bourgeois emancipation). This period ultimately prepared the revolution in America and France. The decisive factor here is the Enlightenment-based image of man, which finds its most concise expression in the slogan of the French Revolution: freedom, equality, brotherhood . With regard to the early enlightenment, one thinks first of Denis Diderot and Voltaire , Montesquieu , Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert or Jean-Jacques Rousseau and thus more of the moralists . The doctrine of the social contract of Rousseau is a fruit of this philosophy. Even here, criticism of absolutism begins to form. One also thinks of Immanuel Kant's philosophy of reason . The first to develop a philosophy of history are the representatives of German idealism Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling . Another important representative of German idealism is Johann Gottlieb Fichte . Fichte also publishes on the doctrine of the social contract . Rousseau is unmistakably the role model for this, whose philosophy is based on popular sovereignty and natural law . Fichte and Schelling also have a natural philosophy . Not to be forgotten is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel . With its philosophy of history, this is also one of the signposts of the 19th century. In the 18th century there was also a philosophical orientation towards a rationalism , which is particularly indebted to English economics . One of these representatives is David Hume , on whom the philosophy of Immanuel Kant is based not a little. Even Adam Smith counts as the founder of economics to this group.

In the 18th century, Johann Joachim Winckelmann examined the history of ancient Greek art on a scientifically sound basis for the first time . Ultimately, the entire modern classical scholarship goes back to him . Winckelmann is also important for the concept of mankind of this time, which can also be described with the keyword “new humanism”. It is no coincidence that one thinks of the so-called Laocoon dispute between Johann Gottfried Herder and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing .

In East Asia , the early modern period was characterized by first contacts with the West, if we disregard the earlier trips of the famous Venetian Marco Polo , the authenticity of which has not yet been fully clarified, a decline of Buddhism and a resurgence of Confucianism .


The Last Judgment by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Art reflects the taste of the times, the image of man and general characteristics of a society and thus the corresponding understanding of society at a certain time.

The predominant artistic styles of this epoch, especially in Europe, are Renaissance and later Mannerism , Baroque and Rococo . These are essentially represented in all genres of art. The most important artists of the Renaissance include Sandro Botticelli , Leonardo da Vinci , who worked scientifically through close observation, Michelangelo , Titian , who portrayed Emperor Charles V several times, and Albrecht Dürer . Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt are examples of the Baroque .

In addition to the art styles of this epoch, a profit-oriented art business was increasingly shaped during this time. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder had a flourishing workshop in which around 5,000 paintings were created. There were workshops that primarily carried out commissioned work for princely courts or church institutions, and those that were dependent on private clients.

During this time, too, there was art outside of Europe. This includes the art of the Indian high cultures, which only went under with the landing of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro . Some significant remnants of it still exist. This applies particularly to the art and culture of the Inca , Maya and Aztecs .


What applies to art in terms of contemporary taste, the image of man, the general conditions in society and the state and a corresponding understanding of society, also applies to literature. This is especially true in the Enlightenment period, when literature is closely related to philosophy. Important representatives of the French educational literature are Voltaire and Denis Diderot . The most important representatives of German literature for the 18th and early 19th centuries include Georg Christoph Lichtenberg , Gotthold Ephraim Lessing , Johann Wolfgang Goethe , Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock , Friedrich Schiller , Christoph Martin Wieland , Heinrich von Kleist , Novalis , Johann Gottfried Herder . The early days of Goethe, Schiller and Herder are referred to as the Sturm und Drang , the later works by Goethe and Schiller are assigned to the Weimar Classic . If Lessing, Goethe and Schiller are mentioned here, it should not be forgotten that these writers also wrote a number of plays. They also took an active part in contemporary theater itself.

The time of the Reformation and the time of religious struggles also had their typical literary language. It was by no means exhausted with Luther and his translation of the Bible. Luther made an important contribution to this with other works. At this time in particular, literature was often polemical. There was Reformation and also anti-Lutheran literature. It often had a journalistic character and appeared as short pieces in pamphlets . One also speaks of so-called pamphlet literature. Important representatives of this time include Hans Sachs and Sebastian Brant . Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and his adventurous Simplicissimus belong to the time of the Thirty Years' War .

In the early modern period there are different and important literary trends. These can be roughly assigned as follows: Baroque from 1600 to 1720, Enlightenment from 1730 to 1800, Sturm und Drang from 1765 to 1785 and Weimar Classic from 1786 to 1805 (until Schiller's death ) or until 1832 (until Goethe's death ) .


Johann Sebastian Bach, painting by Elias Gottlob Haußmann , 1748

Since music is a genre of art , what has already been said about art and literature applies to the conception of the image of man and that of society.

From the Reformation are hymns , who wrote, among others, Martin Luther himself, and survived the appropriate notes. Heinrich Schütz , Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel are among the most famous composers of the Baroque era .

Music is an important part of the social culture at courts during the Enlightenment. It is known that Emperor Leopold II and King Friedrich II of Prussia made music themselves, and in some cases also composed. In this context, courtly ballroom dances should be mentioned , for which pieces of music such as the minuet were composed. Ballroom dancing as a whole has existed since the 14th century.

Well-known musical instruments of this time include harpsichord , virginal and spinet , violin and flute . The violin makers Nicola Amati and Antonio Stradivari as well as the organ builder Gottfried Silbermann are among the famous musical instrument makers of this time .


Representation of the Vitruvian Man , Leonardo da Vinci (1492)

The life of the individual in the early modern period was much stronger than in the present, embedded in a comprehensive collective that decisively determined his actions and his identity. This collective was made up of direct relatives, the house community, neighbors, the village community, friends and craft associations. The individual existed only in the context of these influencing variables; survival in difficult times was only possible through pragmatic connection with others. So solidarity or sociability is the basic principle of early modern forms of life. The important close contacts and the coexistence did not run continuously harmoniously and therefore precise rules of conduct were formed which were supposed to guarantee the extensive functioning of the community. Failure to follow these rules led to sanctions and marginalization. The notion of honor was the basis for integration into the community as well as for the reputation and position that one occupied. In hardly any other society did this play such an important role as in the early modern period. The aim of all actions was to live up to this ideal and to lead an honorable life. This request was more important than the accumulation of wealth, power, or survival alone. Honesty was a standard that was reflected in numerous facets of life and everyday life in the early modern period, but only emerged explicitly in conflict situations and created solidarity and exclusion. Anyone who behaved in violation of their honor was sanctioned and also excluded from the community.

Honor varied depending on class law and ethos . Each stand had its own honor. Social honor secured the status of the individual and protected him against attacks; outside of a class there was neither justice nor honor. In addition to this group honor, there was a personal honor. The sense of honor and the understanding of honor was particularly pronounced among the nobility and craft. Honor was a means of social security and isolation downwards and the creation of solidarity . In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, there were two cuts that questioned the legitimacy of class honor. On the one hand, the position of the nobleman at court was decisive for courtly honor, not just his status; on the other hand, the idea of ​​inner honor, virtue, came into play in the Enlightenment .

Honor had to be maintained continuously and could be lost directly or indirectly at any time. Disputes over honor formed the majority of the conflicts in urban and rural society. In this context, mention should be made of the numerous brawls in the early modern period, in which it was a matter of protecting or regaining honor. Whether one was arguing about property or rights - it was always about honor. Even those who belonged to the lower social classes paid no less attention than a nobleman to the preservation of their honor, especially since the capital of honor was possibly the only possession. In the early modern era, insults were not trivial, but were almost existential in nature. They damaged the person being abused and could have a significant negative impact on the individual's situation. Insults therefore had to be responded to in order to withstand the attack on honor and to defend one's honor. Sometimes sharp looks were perceived as an attack on honor, and snapping your fingers in front of the opponent's face could trigger a brawl.

This important role played by honor created the phenomenon of dishonesty. In this context, dishonesty is not a moral category, but a legal deferral of certain professions, combined with social distancing and contempt. Dishonorable people were not completely devoid of rights, but they had little chance of gaining citizenship and of being integrated into the class and civil honor of a city. Individual activities, professions and classes were stigmatized as dishonest, generally from the efforts of the craftsmen to keep their craft clean of supposedly dishonest, unclean and dishonest elements through honest work and impeccable behavior. Initially all people born out of wedlock were considered dishonorable . Furthermore, all those who were descended from " Wends ", Jews or " Gypsies " were excluded . In addition, the entire group of “traveling people” was viewed as dishonest: beggars, minstrels, showmen, petty traders and peddlers. These groups of people were excluded from honest craftsmanship and from joining a guild or guild . The number of "traveling people" was considerable in the 16th century. There were also people who lost their reputation and were marginalized through dishonest behavior. There were also many dishonest professions ; these included u. a. the barber , shepherd , miller , customs officer , whistler , bather , executioner and skinner , who for various reasons were denied their honesty.

Exercise and sports

As in antiquity, physical exercises were practiced and explored in the entire breadth of utilization contexts. Modern thinking showed itself in the formulation of the rules, in the application of natural sciences and mathematics (especially geometry) to sport. Physical exercises were carried out for the purpose of health, the craft of war, self-defense or simply as a competitive sport. The changing understanding of the body was also evident in dance and other body practices. The foundations of medical gymnastics were laid during this time and further developed into physiotherapy .

See also

Portal: Early Modern Times  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the topic of Early Modern Times


Translation: Women's Life: A European History. 1500-1800. Translated from the English by Holger Fliessbach. Fischer, Frankfurt 1998.

Web links


  1. ^ Walter Achilles: Agriculture in the early modern period. Vol. 10, Encyclopedia of German History, Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-486-70187-8 , p. 1
  2. Dagmar Klose, Marco Ladewig (ed.): The development of modern structures in society and the state of the early modern period. Universitätsverlag Potsdam, Potsdam 2010, ISBN 978-3-86956-013-7 [1]
  3. For the German-speaking area, see also Frédéric Hartweg, Klaus-Peter Wegera: Früheuhochdeutsch . An introduction to the German language of the late Middle Ages and early modern times. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1989 (=  Germanistic workbooks , volume 33); 2nd edition ibid 2005, ISBN 3-484-25133-6 .
  4. Werner Körbs: From the meaning of physical exercises at the time of the Italian Renaissance. 2nd Edition. Edited by Wolfgang Decker . With a foreword by Christiane Stang-Voss . - [Reprint. der Ausg.] Berlin 1938. Weidmann, Hildesheim 1988, ISBN 3-615-00037-4 .
  5. Arnd Krüger , John McClelland (ed.): The beginnings of modern sports in the Renaissance. Arena, London 1984
    John McClelland: Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance (Sport in the Global Society). Routledge, London 2007. The most extensive bibliography still with Arnd Krüger, John McClelland: Selected bibliography on physical exercise and sport in the Renaissance. In: A. Krüger, J. McClelland (eds.): The beginnings of modern sport in the Renaissance. Arena, London 1984, pp. 132-180.
  6. ^ Jean-Claude Margolin, Jean Ceard, Marie-Madeleine Fontaine (eds.): Le Corps à la Renaissance: actes du XXXe colloque de Tours 1987. Aux amateurs de livres, Paris 1990, ISBN 2-87841-022-X ; John McClelland, Brian Merrilees (Eds.): Sport and culture in early modern Europe. Le sport et la civilization de l'Europe pré-Moderne . Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Toronto 2009, ISBN 978-0-7727-2052-8 .
  7. Friedrich Boerner: De Arte Gymnastica Nova. Diss Helmstedt 1748.