2.3.4 The early modern period

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Unit 2 Contents

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In everyday speech, ‘modern’ means ‘up to date’.  But historians use this word to refer to a long period of history, the past five centuries.

Typically, historians divide the 500 years since 1500 into two parts.  The first is the ‘early modern period’, the title I have used for this screen.  This is, roughly, 1500 to 1700.

Why do historians think it is justified to say that one long period called ‘medieval’ ended around 1500 and another called ‘modern’ began then?

This is a huge question, but here are four things that together can be seen as marking such a change:

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  • The Renaissance  From the fifteenth century there was a great revival of interest in and learning about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  This was driven in part by a view among some writers and artists that some of the qualities of Greek and Roman society had been lost in the professedly Christian society of the medieval period.
  • The discovery of the New World  A new age of European exploration of the rest of the world began in the fifteenth century.  It led to Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the American continent in 1492.  Without any doubt this was a momentous event in European and world history.  It symbolizes the beginning of what Thompson calls the Age of Conquest.
  • The Reformation  Thompson refers to the way that, by the fifteenth century, many of the Catholic Church’s leaders had become “corrupt and venal, predominantly characterized by lust for wealth and power” (p. 23).  This was one major factor behind the protests against the Catholic Church by Martin Luther and others in the early 1500s which sparked the Reformation.  This centred on some deep disagreements on issues of both theology and practice.  It left the Church in the west bitterly divided.
  • The invention of the printing press  Credited to Johannes Gutenberg in about 1450, the printing press made communication in written form among large numbers of people easily possible in a way it never had been before.  This new technology was widely available and cheap by the time of the Reformation, and some historians have thought that the Reformation could not have spread and become consolidated without it.  Certainly, the printing press changed public communication for ever.

These major developments explain why historians speak of a new period of history beginning around 1500.  With the possible exception of the Renaissance, it is obvious that all of them have continued to shape the world for most of the period ever since then.  This is why it makes sense for historians to say that they marked the birth, not only of the ‘early modern’ period, but of the modern world – the world as we have inherited it today.

But what marked the shift from the ‘early modern’ to the ‘modern’ period proper?  This is of course a huge question too.  Keep it in mind as you work through the rest of this unit.  Below are some of the main things that could be listed in an answer to it.  All of these are explained in what follows.

  • The ‘Enlightenment’ in the eighteenth century
  • The American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776
  • The French Revolution in 1789
  • The Industrial Revolution, from the late 1700s.

Thompson refers to all four of these together on p. 26.  He takes the year 1740 as marking the beginning of the modern period proper – even though any such single date is bound to be more-or-less arbitrary – and that is why the title for this part of the unit refers to ‘100-1740’.

Now read Thompson’s short section on ‘The Reformation and the Age of Conquest’ 

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Reading (3pp)

Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, pp. 23-25

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This completes our rapid run-through of western history from the birth of the Church up to the start of the modern period.

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Reflection

Thompson refers to Bartolomé de Las Casas who in the sixteenth century – that is, early in the Age of Conquest –  spoke out against the Spanish conquistadores in defence of (what we now call) the human rights of indigenous people in the Americas.  Las Casas has come to be a great inspiration for many today who are committed to working for justice in the light of Catholic Social Teaching.   One institute in Britain that focuses on CST, based at Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, is named after him.  Spend a few minutes looking at the website of the Las Casas Institute.

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We are now at the end of the third part of this unit.  The fourth and final part will build on the third by giving an outline of the historical context in modern Western society of the emergence of contemporary CST.  The narrative we consider begins with the Reformation, which you have just read about.

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End of 2.3 THE CHURCH’S SOCIAL TEACHING 100-1740 CE

Go to 2.4 THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF MODERN CST

Module B outline

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