Modern times

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The Waldseemüller map from 1507 is the first map to show the New World named “America” and the first to show North and South America separately from Asia.

The modern age is the fourth major historical epoch in the European historical schema of early history , antiquity and the Middle Ages . Its beginning is often given in a simplified way with the year 1500, it extends to the present day .



The turn of the 15th to the 16th century is usually assumed to be the beginning of the modern era . With a certain temporal bandwidth, this corresponds to contemporary perception.

As epochal turning points are cited as the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 (even at Philipp Melanchthon ), the invention of printing in 1450, the discovery of America in 1492 , which in 1517 by Martin Luther placed on the path Reformation and with Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 incipient Copernican turn , in which the geocentric worldview was replaced by the heliocentric one. From the humanities point of view, the Renaissance and Humanism are to be seen as turning points in Europe.

In terms of the history of ideas, some historically working philosophers such as Wilhelm Kamlah and Jürgen Mittelstraß determined the beginning of the modern era much later, around 1600. Their starting point is the up to then established training of modern science in the sense of modern, prototypical in physics trained scientific research as methodical Clarified connection between mathematical theory and technical empiricism (Kamlah), which was developed in the northern Italian workshop tradition and became the basis of modern scientism .


In Europe, an era of wars of faith, the era of the Thirty Years' War and the era of the Enlightenment followed an introductory Age of Discovery . At the global level, the era of the industrial revolution , the “long” 19th and the “short” 20th centuries , with which the contemporary historical level is reached, follow .

The early modern era extends to the French Revolution from 1789 .

This is followed by the (modern and) recent history. It extends to the present. The terms “recent modern times” and rarely “late modern times” are also used synonymously. In the context of the history of ideas, this epoch is often called “ modernity ”.

As contemporary history the recent history is referred to it nor witnesses are.

Title page of Galileo's Dialogue: Aristotle , Ptolemy and Copernicus discuss


The division into ancient, medieval and modern times is deeply rooted in the study of history. Nevertheless, it has also been repeatedly criticized and has therefore lost its absolute separating effect. In general it is questionable to what extent it is important outside of European history. Many developments drag on for a long time and overlap with those that were located sooner or later.

In medieval studies has drawn attention to the turnaround in 1300, after the phase of the founding cities was over for the time being in Europe. This was accompanied by an expansion of the written form, technical innovations and the beginning of modern administration. The cultural historian Egon Friedell , for example, saw the plague pandemic since 1348 as the " incubation period of the modern age". The economist and sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies judged that the roots of modern times go back much further into the Middle Ages; For him, the beginning of long-distance trade in Lombardy was early modern (cf. the invention of double-entry bookkeeping at that time ).


Characteristic for the beginning of the modern age is the marked growth in world trade to America (discovered in 1492), as well as to India and East Asia ( discovery of the sea route in 1498 ). This also began the overseas colonialism that began in Europe and which increasingly became a dominance of Western Europe and is seen as a transition to a new era.

In intellectual history, the Copernican turn not only signifies the end of the geocentric worldview according to Claudius Ptolemy (approx. 150 AD) in astronomy , but also the end of its philosophical end, which essentially goes back to Aristotle (4th century BC) -theological justification, which the Catholic Church had largely adopted in the late Middle Ages. This represented a revolution in the geographical-astronomical worldview, which heralded the end of that ideological monopoly that the Church had had in the Middle Ages. The monopoly of interpretation gradually passed from the church to the natural sciences. The flight of many Greek scholars to the West after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire can also be seen in this context.

The economic and social upheavals (crisis of the feudal system ) allowed the beginning of the Reformation, which also separated the two epochs from one another.

The strong social change in modern times meant that disasters became a significant moment in religious and opinion struggles . The Enlightenment had to defend itself against new religious criticism. Some examples:

  • From 1348 the plague raged (cf. Friedell above ). The high mortality had a strong impact on the social condition of many societies (see also flagellants ). Also after the discovery of the New World, presumably from 1493, syphilis began its devastating spread through Europe and changed sex life considerably.
  • Furthermore, the " Little Ice Age " fell in the early modern period. So there were many years of famine and corresponding migrations , most recently after the famine of 1845-49 from Ireland .
  • The great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 became an argument of the Jesuit Counter-Reformation : God punished Pombal's reform policy .


The sociology leads the debate on an analysis of these processes mostly with the concept of " modernity ", or "reflexive modernity", etc. (instead of "Modern Times"), often with varying meaning (even z. B. in the work of Max Weber ). Sociologists consider events rather than social processes, with the exception of crucial documents such as the onset of modernity in the writings of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789.

Ferdinand Tönnies, on the other hand, used "modern times" exactly in the sense of his theoretical work community and society as the exact opposite of "Middle Ages": In the latter, people were inclined to understand all social collectives as " communities ", quite differently than in modern times, where they all perceive them more as “ societies ”. In the Middle Ages, a large long-distance trading and banking group such as the Templar Order was seen more as a religious “community”, and in modern times even marriage as a purely “social” creature of a contract .

The change from the Middle Ages to the modern age


Belonging to a nation-state and living within its borders are not the central criteria for differentiating between people in the early modern period . The legal and social framework for interpretation is the order of estates that existed up to the French Revolution . She divided people into three groups with different functions. These are the clergy , the nobility and the peasants . This idea that the basic principle of constitutional and legal relationships is a God-willed tripartite division of human beings developed in the course of the Middle Ages. However, in the transition period from the Middle Ages to the modern age, up to the 18th century, a number of changes occurred. At the beginning of the early modern period, the term “ status ” meant an often overlapping and in the course of life changing affiliation to different groups (age group, way of life, minorities , etc.).

Life in the country also changed fundamentally. While in the Middle Ages the landlord still played the central role in the country, towards the end of the Middle Ages this role was increasingly taken over by the village community . The complex system of dependencies between master and servant was replaced by families and households, which largely regulated their affairs independently.

The power structures also slowly shifted. While in the Middle Ages the courts were the centers for the administrative activities of the numerous noble lords, in the early modern period power shifted to a few, mostly urban places. New bureaucratic institutions emerged . A typical phenomenon of modern times is the sharp increase in the wage-earning urban population. Favored by the expanding trade with the New World, large economic metropolises developed in the coastal regions, which attracted people in large numbers. This trend also resulted in many new branches of industry, most of which arose from the specialization of existing trades. So z. B. in addition to the traditional baker of bread , also baker of cakes , confectionery , wafers or pies . Not all residents of the cities, however, met the conditions for citizen status, which for the most part can be described as a typical phenomenon for the modern era. Typical of the modern city is also a tiered order of residents with different legal claims and obligations. The majority of city dwellers only had limited participation in citizenship status. Another phenomenon associated with population growth is the social gradient within cities. The larger the city, the greater the social differences.


During the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age, decisive steps were taken from the medieval association of persons to a modern territorial and nation state . The separate legal relationships of the late Middle Ages were standardized and bundled. The power centralized in the residences. The monarchical beginnings, which were relatively tightly tied around a single person, were expanded. Thus there was a condensation of rule . While rule was previously intended to be more spiritual , in modern times a clearly defined “territory” has emerged, which has been upgraded to the concrete basis of rule. This process was promoted primarily by the split in the church in the course of the Reformation. The rulers thus had the central decision-making power on both secular and religious questions and were above the most personal needs of their subjects . In the course of these changes, rulers decided e.g. B. about the denomination of their subjects.

Another associated, modern process was the development of plural worlds of states. States with a uniform language , religion and culture emerged. Even in the Middle Ages there were nations with fixed national borders , which demarcated national territories from one another, but the boundaries were more or less fluid and there was less demarcation to the outside world. The states in modern times, however, separated themselves more and more, which led to increased armed conflicts. The states of the modern age were thus constantly busy with the redefinition of their area of ​​rule and with demarcations from neighbors. This process also had numerous consequences on internal life, such as: B. Tax increases or the formation of standing armies.


The Reformation with its consequences for Europe was a constituent element for the modern age. In the course of the Reformation movement, Christianity was split into different denominations . While in the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches had a monopoly on the meaning of human beings, in the 15th century there was a differentiation of the religious milieu . The universal cosmos of faith, which was formative in the Middle Ages, was broken into pieces by the Reformation. Anti-clerical hostilities also existed before the Reformation in the Middle Ages and especially at the beginning of the religious division; they were directed against the Pope , the wealthy bishops and religious, but were not critical of religion in a way that affected the entire religious building questioned. Thus the foundations of the Reformation were laid in the Middle Ages.

Death for faith: painting of the night of St. Bartholomew , the 23./24. August 1572 triggered numerous flows of refugees in Paris.

These early modern religious changes created many problems. Early modern society was not built on tolerance , so that religious otherness was met with incomprehension, persecution and violence. Many early modern wars were religiously motivated. This attitude corresponded to that of the Middle Ages. It was only with the Enlightenment that the idea of ​​tolerance, especially religious tolerance, developed and became a guiding principle of this mindset and a yardstick for the penetration of Enlightenment ideas in the individual states.

Another significant religious group, alongside Christianity, was Judaism , whose fate was marked by rejection and persecution. In the Middle Ages as well as in modern times there were phases of relative tolerance that led to the development and flowering of Jewish culture (e.g. southern Spain in the early and high Middle Ages). These phases alternated with periods of displacement and persecution, such as B. At the beginning of modern times, when Jews were expelled from Spain and England , but also from Central Europe . To a full emancipation of the Jews came in the wake of the French Revolution in 1791, this legal basis has been through the Civil Code under Napoleon used in Europe.

The Islam was another religious group of the early modern era section. Islam played a central role in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. The first epoch of the expansion of Islam falls in the early and high Middle Ages, when states of the Arabs existed in the south of the Iberian Peninsula . These culturally flourishing societies, whose cultural transfer to Western Europe should not be underestimated, were pushed back and destroyed by the Reconquista . The end of this reconquest, the capture of Granada in 1492, can be seen as an epoch year at the beginning of the modern age, because the commission to Christopher Columbus is directly related to it. The forced conversion, expulsion and extermination of the Muslims and their culture were a result of this Reconquista. In the course of the later Middle Ages, another Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire , penetrated southeastern Europe . In the course of this expansion, Islam was identified with the Ottoman Empire in modern times, and Turk and Muslim were to a certain extent synonymous . The image of Islam was therefore frightening, shaped by fanaticism on both sides, the dispute between the emperor , Italy and Spain on the one hand and the Ottoman Empire on the other was ideologically inflated, one fought not only the secular opponent but also the Unbelievers ”, the“ false religion ”of the other side.



In phase by 1500 one took place individualization process on the basis of wider educational opportunities and higher literacy rates . You go to the science of history assume that in the Renaissance, referring back to the ancient times , the individuality was "invented". In a way that will determine the future of Europe, a world-oriented perception of the individual and his or her special intrinsic value has overcome the medieval tradition of collective and beyond-oriented patterns of the self. The beginning of such an attitude is presumed to be in the early modern period; it is seen as a demarcation from the past. In the Middle Ages, for example, excessive self-reference was not considered a virtue . Rather, the person defined himself primarily through his membership in different communities. A godly person was expected to live a life of humility and modesty, and a willingness to submit to his destiny. Thus the newly developing individuality of the modern age represented a contrast to the medieval attitude towards one's own personality.

Body and sexuality

A person's everyday self-perception also includes his physicality. In the Christian Middle Ages, the relationship between body and mind was characterized by a strong devaluation of the body. The body was only seen as the earthly vessel for the soul, which is immortal. In contrast to the spirit, the body was seen as a quantity to be controlled, the needs of which had to be contained, since they were considered to be sinful. The spiritual principle was represented by chastity . It was considered a Christian ideal to control the senses in order to attain a purity that relates to the thoughts. In the Renaissance, the human body was also seen as a vessel for the soul, an idea very similar to that of the Middle Ages. What differed was that in art the body was increasingly portrayed as a naked body without pretext and examined by science ( anatomy ). Sexuality is also to be seen in connection with this development . The medieval way of dealing with physical desires was at least theoretically dominated by ascetic ideas. Compared to the Middle Ages, there was a relaxation in sexuality in the early modern period. This process was facilitated by the Reformation. But the new denominational communities also demanded discipline of the sex drive, and in some cases they even tightened this ascetic attitude towards the Middle Ages. Given the Reformation challenge the Catholic Church to a new strove definition of sexuality. She clearly affirmed celibacy , e.g. B. at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Nevertheless, in the early modern period, the ascetic ideas were pushed back more and more and sexuality came to fruition.

Dying and death

Even in modern times, death was not only a basic constant of life, but, similar to the Middle Ages, it was religiously and culturally omnipresent. Another contributing factor was the high death rate, especially of children, which was a constant reminder of how near death was. In the early modern period , too , the attitude towards dying was shaped, similar to the Middle Ages, by the idea of ​​the good death (the idea that one can shape one's own death and thereby “tame” one's horrors). You knew when to die, and ran your affairs in the world and before God. This idea changed with the Reformation. Dying with confession and communion was part of the ritual of death in the Catholic area , so there was fear of sudden death, which left one with no opportunity to confess one's sins and secure eternal bliss . The Reformation brought a clear break in the concept of death and the afterlife, which meant a strong change in mentality. The medieval idea of ​​the good death was still omnipresent in the early modern period, but has declined more and more over the course of the epoch. Rather, the fear of sudden and unprepared death prevailed, which no longer gave the opportunity to repent . It was not until the late modern period that death became institutional and mentally suppressed. In connection with the increasing secularization of the world, death was no longer seen as a transition to another, better life, but as the end of existence.


Monographs, edited volumes

  • Egon Friedell : Cultural History of the Modern Age. The crisis of the European soul from the black plague to the world war . 3 volumes, Beck, Munich 1927–1931.
  • Ferdinand Tönnies : Spirit of the Modern Age . EA 1935, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1998 In: Ferdinand Tönnies Complete Edition , Volume 22; again: Profil, Munich and Vienna 2010 (edited by Rolf Fechner).
  • Wilhelm Kamlah : The Dawn of New Science. In: Utopia eschatology, history steleology. Critical studies on the origins and futuristic thinking of the modern age . Bibliographisches Institut, Mannheim 1969, (BI Htb 461), pp. 73-88.
  • Jürgen Mittelstraß : Modern Times and Enlightenment . de Gruyter, Berlin 1970.
  • S. Skalweit: The beginning of the modern age. Epoch boundary and concept of epoch . 1982.
  • Leonhard Bauer , Herbert Matis : Birth of the Modern Age. From feudal system to market society . Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 1988.
  • Jonathan Dewald et al. a. (Ed.): Europe 1450 to 1789. Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World . 6 volumes. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York a. a. 2004.
  • Friedrich Jaeger (ed.): Encyclopedia of the modern times . Metzler, Stuttgart 2005ff.
  • Bea Lundt : Europe's awakening into the modern age 1500–1800. A history of culture and mentality . Primus, Darmstadt 2009, ISBN 978-3-89678-647-0 .
  • Karl Vocelka : History of the Modern Era 1500-1918 . Böhlau Verlag, Vienna 2009, ISBN 978-3-205-78421-0 .
  • Heinrich August Winkler : History of the West . 4 volumes. Beck, Munich 2009–2015: [on political history especially from the 19th century].


Web links

Wiktionary: Modern times  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Modern times. In: Anke Braun: Bertelsmann Youth Lexicon. Wissen-Media-Verlag, Gütersloh 2008, p. 457.
  2. Modern times. In: Konrad Raab, Heribert Fuchs: dtv dictionary for history. 13th edition, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 2002.
  3. Spirit of the Modern Era 1998 (1935)