An Introduction to Early Modern European History
(16th & 17th Centuries)
by Jean Mason
The modern world began sometime around 1500, at least according to most of the experts. By that date, the Renaissance had been underway in Italy for about 150 years and its ideas had spread throughout Europe. It is impossible to catch the complete flavor of the Renaissance in the brief space possible here, but at its heart it consisted of a new “worldliness,” a new emphasis on human abilities. The Church, which since the fall of Rome had been the center of European culture, had lost its dominance. Now laymen (and a few women) wrote works in the vernacular languages that dealt with this world rather than the next and artists, often supported by lay patrons, composed works that concentrated on the human not the divine.]]>Support our sponsors The Church was no longer the strong and self-confident institution that had exercised so much power during the high middle ages. Although the embarassment of exile and schism were over, the papacy was a much weaker institution. Indeed, the popes in the early 16th century were more interested in expanding the church’s territories in Italy than in the spiritual needs of Christendom. The so-called Renaissance popes were magnificent patrons of the arts and we owe to them many of the greatest works of western art. As religious leaders, they were disastrous.
One reason for the relative decline in the church’s centrality was the rapid growth in lay literacy. The clergy no longer enjoyed a monopoly of learning. While the vast majority of the European population remained illiterate, the upper classes and many of the bourgeoisie now could read. And they had much more to read, because Gutenberg’s invention of movable type had begun the world’s first communication revolution.
Politically, Europe in the first decades of the 16th century saw the emergence of the first nation states and the creation of a highly competitive state system. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had united the country, had driven the Moors out of the penninsula, and had sent Christopher Columbus out to see what he could find. In France, the Valois kings had gathered under their control most of what is now that country. In England, the Tudors had ended the divisive Wars of the Roses and established their dynasty.
But European politics was based, not on national interests, but rather on dynastic rivalries. The most successful dynasts were the Hapsburgs. This family had managed to expand its territorial possessions in Germany; more importantly, they had succeeded in establishing a priority claim to the largely honorific but prestigious title, Holy Roman Empire. With this title in hand, the Hapsburgs managed to marry very, very well. First, a Hapsburg heir married the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy and thus brought to the family holdings the low countries and important territories along the Rhine. Then, their son, Philip the Fair married Juana, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who became heiress to her parents’ possessions when her only brother died. Thus, their son, Charles, inherited extensive territories in Germany, Spain and Spain’s possessions in Italy and the New World, and the economically important low countries. In 1518, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor as well. Charles V was the most powerful ruler in all Europe.
Charles’ great rival for preeminence was Francis I, the Valois king of France. Although Francis’ territories were not as extensive as those of the Hapsburgs, they were more united and more readily exploitable. The French had long looked to expand southward at the expense of a disunited but wealthy Italy. It was in Italy that the ambitions of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Valois dynasty clashed as each strove to achieve hegemony over the peninnsula. This dynastic rivalry would shape European politics throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.