Transformations in Europe, 1500-1750

Culture and Ideas

Theological controversy broke the religious unity of the Latin Church and contributed to violent wars.

Observations of conflict and continuity during this time:

  1. Witch Scares
  2. Classical ideas from Greco-Roman antiquity grow
  3. Challenges to traditional social and political systems

Printing Press: In the mid-1400s, the German Johannes Gutenberg cast the letters of the alphabet into metal plates and locked those plates into a wooden press.  The moveable type, which had its roots in China and Korea, resulted in one of the most dramatic upheavals the world has ever known. With moveable type, text could be quickly printed on both sides of a sheet of paper.  Until this time, the only way to reproduced writing was by hand.  Moveable type made producing books and other printed material faster and cheaper, making them available to more people.  Printed books provided more rapid access to new ideas.  With easier access to books, more people learned to read and more book were printed.  The explosion of printed material quickly spread religious and Renaissance ideas.


Protestant Reformation

In 1500 the papacy (authority of the pope) was the central government of Latin Christianity and was gaining in importance as well as suffering from corruption and disagreement. 

Popes were funding ambitious construction projects in Rome through large donations and tax receipts (example: St. Peter's Basilica)

St. Peter's Basilica Virtual Tour

Indulgence: Forgiveness of punishment due for past sins, granted by church authorities as a reward for a pious act such as making a pilgrimage, saying a particular prayer, or making a donation to a religious cause.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther: German monk and professor of sacred scripture who protests against the Catholic Church in 1517 (95 Theses) led to calls for reform and to the movement known as the Reformation.  Also is credited for translating the Bible into German allowing many people to read the Bible without the aide of the clergy.

95 Theses: To Luther the selling of indulgences was sinful.  In his theses, Luther flatly denied that indulgences had any power to remit sin.  He also criticized the power of the pope and the wealth of the church. The theses were not intended for the common people but for church leaders.  Nailing them to the church door was a common practice for the time. The theses simulated discussion and with the use of the printing press the ideas quickly spread.

Luther's Message: Contradicted basic Catholic beliefs when he insisted that God's grace cannot be won by good works.  Faith alone was needed.  In Leipzig in 1519, Luther declared that the only head of the Christian Church was Jesus himself, not the pope.  He also insisted that individual Christians should make their own interpretations of scripture and that Christian practices should come only from the Bible. Advocated Christian marriage for all adults, including clergy.

Reactions to Luther: In 1520 Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther.  In 1521 Luther was summoned to appear before the newly crowed Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, and the German Diet (assembly) at the city of Worms.  Luther refused to change his opinion.  Charles V handed down the Edict of Worms (decree) that declared Martin Luther to be an outlaw and condemned his writings.  However, the decree did not stop the spread of Luther's ideas.  Luther did not intend to begin new religion, by 1530, Lutheranism was a formally recognized branch of Christianity.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

John Calvin: Well-educated Frenchman who turned from the study of law to theology after experiencing a religious conversion, became a highly influential protestant reformer.  Calvin published The Institutes of the Christian Religion (synthesis of Christian teachings) in 1535. 

Calvin's Teachings: While agreeing with Luther's emphasis on faith over works, Calvin denied that even human faith could merit salvation.  Salvation was a gift of God gave to those He "predestined" for salvation.  Calvin curtailed the power of the clerical hierarchy and simplified religious rituals.  Calvinist congregations elected their own governing committees and in time created regional and national synods (councils) to regulate doctrinal issues.  

*Predestination- God knows who will be saved, even before people are born, and therefore guides the lives of the destined for salvation.  Thus, nothing humans can do, either good or bad, will change their predestinated end.

Calvinism: Took root in Geneva, Switzerland.  Calvinists viewed people as sinful by nature, and strict laws were enacted that regulated people's behavior.  Displayed simplicity in dress (black clothes), life, and worship.  Strictness was at the heart of Calvinism's appeal.  It gave followers a sense of mission and discipline.  They felt like they were setting an example and making the world fit for the "elect", those who had been chosen for salvation.  Advocated Christian marriage for all adults, including clergy.


Council of Trent (1545-1563)

Shaken by the intensity of the Protestant Reformers' appeal, the Catholic Church undertook its own reforms.

Council of Trent: A council (church leaders) met at the city of Trent, in northern Italy, in three sessions between 1545 and 1563 whose purpose was to clearly define Catholic doctrines.  Its delegates examined the criticisms made by Protestants about Catholic practices.  The council reaffirmed the supremacy of the pope and called for a number of reforms, including requiring each bishop to reside in his diocese and each diocese to have a theological seminary to train priests.  The sale of indulgences was abolished. Above all, the Council of Trent rejected the Protestants' emphasis on self-discipline and individual faith. The council argued that the church could help believers achieve salvation through ceremonies to inspire faith.

The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, that Ignatius of Loyola (Spanish nobleman) were a new religious order founded in 1540 that were important to the Catholic Reformation.  Well-education Jesuits helped stem the Protestant tide and win back some adherents by their teaching and preaching.  Other Jesuits became important missionaries overseas.

Traditional Thinking and Witch-Hunts

Witch Hunts 1600s

Religious differences between Protestants and Catholics continued for many generations, but from a global perspective European Christians still had much in common both in their theology and in the local folk customs and pre-Christian beliefs. 

Widespread witch-hunts that Protestant and Catholics undertook in early modern Europe are a illustration of those common beliefs and cultural heritage.

Prevailing European ideas about the natural world blended two distinct traditions:

  1. Folklore about magic and forest spirits passed down orally from pre-Christian times
  2. Biblical teachings of the Christian and Jewish scriptures

* For most people, Christian teachings about miracles, saints, and devils mixed with folklore.

Most early modern Europeans believed that natural events could have supernatural causes. Successes and failures were attributed to supernatural causes.

The extraordinary fear of the power of witches that swept across northern Europe in the late 16th and 17th centuries was powerful testimony to belief in the spiritual causes of natural events.

Secular and church authorities tried 100,000+ (3/4 of the accused were women) for practicing witchcraft and more than half were executed.

The Reformation's focus on the Devil as the source of evil that made such malevolence so serious a crime and may have helped revive older fears of witch craft.

Widows and independent-minded women drew on the widespread belief that women not directly under the control of fathers or husbands were likely to turn to evilWomen's social roles (tending to animals, childbirth, tending to the sick, etc.) made them more suspect because of occurrences of death.

Scientific Revolution

Scientific Revolution demonstrated that the workings of the universe could be explained by natural cause.

Among the educated, the writings of Greco-Roman antiquity and the Bible were more trusted guides to the natural world than was folklore.

Important Figures of Influence:

  1. Aristotle
  2. Pythagoras

Pioneers of the Scientific Revolution:

  1. Nicholas Copernicus
  2. Tycho Brahe
  3. Johannes Kepler
  4. Galileo Galilei
  5. Isaac Newton

Most religious and intellectual leaders viewed the new science with suspicion or outright hostility because of the unwanted challenge its posed to established ways of thought.  Yet all the principal pioneers of the Scientific Revolution were convinced that scientific discoveries and religion were not in conflict. These pioneers opened the door to others who used reason to challenge a broader range of unquestioned traditions and superstitions.

Early Enlightenment

The belief that human reason could discover the laws that governed social behavior and were just as scientific as the laws that governed physics energized a movement know as the Enlightenment.

Influences of Enlightenment:

  1. Scientific Revolution- inspired a few brave individuals to question the reasonableness of everything
  2. Reformation- doubt the superiority of any theological position
  3. Witch Hunts- killing of suspected witches
  4. Other cultures- led some European thinkers to question assumptions about superiority of European political institutions, moral standards, and religious beliefs

The Enlightenment was more a frame of mind than a coherent movement.  Individuals were inspired by different sources and promoted different agendas.

Enlightened thinkers held the belief that progress and this belief would help foster political and social revolutions after 1750

Enlightenment ideas were unpopular with many absolutist rulers and with most clergymen

Social and Economic Life

16th Century Europe

To look at the social hierarchy from a distance it is very simple:

  • Pope/Church
  • Monarchy
  • Nobles
  • Merchants and Professionals
  • Rural Peasants and Landless Laborers

Women continue to be subordinate to men

Some social mobility did occur, particular in the middle.  The main way of social mobility was through the economy and it occurred most in cities.  A second means of social change came through education.

The Bourgeoisie

Europe's grow cities were the products of a changing economy. 

The wealth of cities came from manufacturing and finance, but especially from trade, both within Europe and overseas.

The Netherlands provided many good examples of bourgeois enterprise in the 17th century.

Dutch textile industry concentrated on the profitable weaving, finishing, and printing of cloth.  Other factories in Holland refined West Indian sugar, brewed beer, cut Virginia tobacco, and made imitation Chinese ceramics.

Holland's printers (free from censorship) published books in many language, including manuals with the latest advances in machinery, metallurgy, agriculture, and other technical areas.


  • Europe's major port
  • Developed huge commercial fleets that dominated sea trade in Europe and overseas
  • Europe's financial center

Dutch Banks: Reputation of security thus wealthy individuals as well as western European governments entrusted them with their money.  The banks in turn invested in real estate, loaned money to factory owners and governments, and provided capital for big business operations overseas.

The expansion of maritime trade led to new design for merchant ships

  • The fluit, or "flyboat", a large-capacity cargo ship was very successful.  It was inexpensive to build and required only a small crew. 
  • "East Indiaman" was heavily armed merchant ship
East Indiaman

The Jewish communities expanded out of eastern Europe into German states as well as Amsterdam.  Armenian merchants from Iran moved into Russia during the 17th century.

The Bourgeoisie sought mutually beneficial alliances with European monarchs! Monarchs desired economic growth as means of increasing state revenue.

Joint-Stock Companies: Gave the Dutch East and West India Companies monopolies over trade to the East and West Indies.  France and England chartered companies of their own.  The companies sold shares to individuals to raise large sums for overseas enterprises while spreading the risks (and profits) among many investors.

Stock Exchange: Investors could buy and sell shares in specialized financial markets.  This was an Italian innovation that spread to northwestern Europe in the 16th century.  Amsterdam had the largest stock exchange in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Large Insurance Companies: Emerge during this period and insured long voyages against loss.

Governments undertook large projects to improve water transport.  Many new canals were constructed.  The most important was the Canal du Midi in France linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean

COMPETITION: The Dutch faced growing competition from the English. English merchant fleets doubled, foreign trade rose by 50%, and state revenue from customs tripled. In a series of wars (1654-1678) the English government used its naval power to break Dutch dominance in overseas trade and extend England's colonial empire.

Gentry: Some successful members of the bourgeoisie in England and France used their wealth to raise their social status.  By retiring from their businesses and buying country estates, they could become members of the gentry.  These landowners affected the lifestyle of the old aristocracy.  The gentry loaned money to impoverished peasants and to members of the nobility and in time increased their ownership of land.

17th century English Gentry

Peasants and Labors

Serfdom is on the decline since the great plague of the mid-14th century and did not return to western Europe as the population recovered.  However, competition for work caused a pressure on wages.  In eastern Europe there was a rise in serfdom due to growing large estates.

Slavery was declining in Europe.  However, after 1600, Europeans shipped nearly all African slave to the Americas

Average Living Conditions: Legal freedom did little to make a peasant's life safer and more secure.  The condition of the average person in western Europe may have worsened between 1500 and 1750 as the result of prolonged warfare, environmental problems, and adverse economic conditions. By 1700 new crops from Americas were helping the rural people avoid starvation.  Potatoes and maize became staple foods.  Although the major export was wheat most people could not afford to eat it ironically.  Besides farming rural men made a living as miners, lumberjacks, and charcoal makers.

Expanding Iron Industry: Provided work for rural men.  The consumption of wood led to serious deforestation.  Eventually England had to import timber and charcoal due to shortages.  Eventually, the high price of wood and charcoal encouraged smelters to use coal as an alternative fuel.  England's coal mining increased twelvefold.  From 1709 coke (coal refined to remove impurities) gradually replaced charcoal.  New laws in France and England designed to protect the forests were largely inspired by fears of shortages for naval vessels.  Rural poor felt the depletion of the forests most strongly because they depended on woodlands for wild berries and nuts, firewood and building material, and wild game.

Migration to Cities: Many rural poor migrated to the towns and cities in hopes of better jobs, but only some were successful.  About half of the population lived in poverty.  The urban poor were divided into two classes, the "deserving poor" and "unworthy poor".  Many young women were forced into prostitution to survive.  There were also many criminals, usually organized in gangs. 

Misery provoked many rebellions in early modern Europe.  Rebellions multiplied as rural conditions worsened.  Set off by food shortages and tax increases. The exemption of the wealthy from taxation was a frequent source of complaint.

Women and the Family

Women's status and work were closely tied to their husband's and families.  Class and wealth defined a woman's position in life more than her sex.  There were lands in which women could inherit the throne.


  • Common People: Young men and women most often chose their own spouses.
  • Privileged Families: Good marriage was of great importance to further the family status. Bourgeois parents were less likely arrange marriages for their children but they promoted marriages that furthered their business alliances.

Europeans married later than people in other lands. The common people waited until they could afford to live on their own.  Many young men had to finish their apprenticeship or education (Bourgeois) and young women had to work to save up for their dowry (money and household goods). Men were typically in their late 20's and women early to mid 20's. Later marriage decreased birthrate and family size but increased the number of public brothels.

                                                         Occupational Training

Bourgeois parents were very concern that their children have the education and training necessary for success.  Legal training was seen as being highly beneficial for young men.  Daughters were less likely to be groomed for business careers, but wives often helped their husbands as bookkeepers and sometimes inherited businesses.  Only women in wealthier families might have a good education.

Political Innovations

Monarchs in early modern Europe held the highest social position, were the officials of the intellectual and religious conflicts, and had economic influence.

Monarchs achieved political centralization within their separate kingdoms but failed to have a unified European empire.

Leadership and success passed from Spain to the Netherlands and then to England and France.

State Development

Europe 1648

                                      Political diversity characterized Europe

In western Europe the strong monarchies began to establish national identities

Charles V: Holy Roman emperor (1519-1556) from the Habsburg family of Austria. Charles hoped to centralize his imperial power and lead a Christian coalition to stop the advancement of the Ottoman Empire into southeastern Europe. Charles and his Christian allies were successful in halting the Ottomans but his efforts to create a strong unified Europe failed. The princes of the Holy Roman Empire's many member states were able to use Luther's religious Reformation to frustrate Charles's efforts to reduce autonomy. German princes opposed Charles's defense of Catholic doctrine.  Charles V finally gave up his efforts at unification, gave up his ruling power in some areas to different heirs, and retired to a monastery about the German Wars of Religion began in 1546.

Peace of Augsburg (1552): Charles V recognized the princes' right to choose whether Catholicism or Lutheranism would prevail in their particular states, and he allowed them to keep the church lands they had seized before 1552.

MEANWHILE... rulers in Spain, France, and England were building a more successful program of political unification based on political centralization and religious unity.  Monarchs created a unified national structure where they were at the top (even over the church!)

Charles V

Religious Policies

17th century engraving of leading Reform theologians

Rulers of Spain and France successfully defended the Catholic tradition against Protestant challenges.

King Philip II of Spain

Philip II used his ecclesiastical court, the Spanish Inquisition, to bring into line those who resisted his authority. Suspected Protestants as well as critics of the king found themselves accused of heresy (punishable by death).

France monarchs from King Henry IV through Louis XIV (revoked the Edict of Nantes) were supportive of the Catholic Church.

King Henry VIII initially defended the Catholic Church until they would not grant him a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  Henry had the archbishop of Canterbury annul the marriage in 1533. In 1534 Parliament made the English monarch head of the Church of England (very little change in practice or theology from Catholic Church).  Henry used his authority to disband monasteries and convents and seize their lands.  He gave the lands to his powerful allies and sold some to pay for his new navy.

King Henry VIII of England

Monarchies in England and France

French and Spanish monarchs went through some intense conflicts with their leading subjects over the limits of royal authorityReligion was never absent as an issue in these struggles.  King Charles I of England ruled for 11 years without summoning Parliament which the members of Parliament and when Charles summoned Parliament in 1640 (rebellion in Scotland) to approve new taxes to support an army Parliament required Charles to meet some conditions.  Parliament insisted on strict guarantees that the king would never again ignore the body's rights (must be called at least every 3 years & King could no longer dismiss Parliament).


  • House of Lords- Noblemen and churchmen
  • House of Commons- Representatives from the towns and countries

English Civil War: Royalists (loyalist) vs. Roundheads (Parliament, merchants, Puritans). Conflict continued between the King who believed in absolute monarchy and a Parliament that saw itself as independent of the king.  When a radical Puritan (strict Calvinist) in Parliament moved to abolish the appointment of bishops in the Anglican Church, the king (power connected to the church) was outraged. For this insult, Charles decided to arrest the Puritan leaders for treason. He led the troops into the House of Commons to make the arrests but those members had already fled.  This act showed that Charles had intentions to take back power granted to Parliament and members of Parliament decided to rise against him. Charles called on the support of the English people and by 1624 a civil war began.  Charles did not have power to tax so he relied on on contributions to fund his army while the Parliament could vote to acquire funds for its army.Oliver Cromwell was the leader for the Roundheads and successfully defeated Charles and his troops.  Members of Parliament put Charles on trial for treason and found him guiltyCharles was beheaded in front of his palace- the first monarch to be formally tried and sentenced to death in a court of law.

English Civil War Aftermath: For the next 11 years, England's government changed completely.  The House of Commons abolished the House of Lords and outlawed the monarchy. England became a commonwealth, republican government based on the common good of all the people.  In 1653 Cromwell was given the title Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Restoration of the English Monarchy: After Cromwell's rise to power he quickly began to assume a dictatorship role. Attitudes changed in England that many wanted the monarchy to return. When Cromwell died in 1658, his son took his place but lacked leadership and his government collapsed. Parliament reconvened (dismissed by Cromwell) and voted to bring back the monarchy. Charles II (Charles I son) was named king.  Charles II was a very cautious leader gave into Parliament.  James II, Charles II brother, took the throne after Charles II died in 1685. James was unpopular ( Catholic and strongly believed in absolute monarchy).

Glorious Revolution: In 1688 a group of nobles invited James's daughter Mary and her husband William to become king and queen of England.  William and Mary were Protestants, living in the Netherlands. James knew there was no point in fighting and fled to France. Mary and William assumed the throne as joint rulers.  William and Mary, upon taking the throne, signed the English Bill of Rights which is central to England's growth as a constitutional monarchy.

Most European rulers admired and imitated the centralized powers and absolutist claims of the French.

John Locke: English political philosopher disputed monarchical claims to absolute authority by divine right. He argued rulers derived their authority from the consent of the governed and were subject to the law.  If monarchs overstepped the law citizens had not only the right but also the duty to rebel.

John Locke

Warfare and Diplomacy

                        Warfare was almost constant in early modern Europe

Monarchs, in their pursuit of power, expended vast sums of money and caused widespread devastation and death.  The Thirty Years War was the worst of the international conflicts causing long-lasting depopulation and economic decline.  However, the wars also produced dramatic improvements in the skill and number of European armed forces and in their weaponry.

Military Improvements: Due to large armies requiring more effective command structures new techniques were developed and implemented.

  • New signaling techniques improved control of battlefield maneuvers
  • Growth of comradeship among troops
  • New fortifications... able to withstand cannon bombardments
  • Victory increasingly depended on naval superiority

Balance of Powers: In international relations the major European states formed temporary alliances to prevent any one state from becoming too powerful.  During the next two centuries the great powers of Europe- Catholic France, Anglican Britain, Catholic Austria, Lutheran Prussia, and Orthodox Russia- maintained an effective balance of power in Europe by shifting their alliances for geopolitical rather than religious reasons.  This was the first successful efforts at international peacekeeping :)

England's Navy: England's rise to sea power had begun under King Henry VIII, who spent heavily on ships and promoted a domestic iron-smelting industry to supply cannon.  The Royal Navy also copied innovative ship designs from the Dutch.  By 18th century the Royal Navy is larger than the French Navy.  

By the 18th century Great Britain is formed, England merged with Scotland, annexed Ireland and built a North American empire!

War of Spanish Succession: War fought over the Spanish throne; Louis XIV wanted it for his son and fought a war against the Dutch, English, and the Holy Roman Empire to gain the throne for France.

Paying the Piper

Paying For War: To pay the extremely heavy military costs of their wars, European rulers had to increase their revenues.  The most successful raising of funds was after 1600 that promoted mutually beneficial alliances with the rising commercial elite.  All understood that trade thrived where government taxation and regulation were not excessive, where courts enforced contracts and collected debt, and where military power stood ready to protect overseas expansion by force when necessary.

Spain's Decline: Financial drains of an aggressive military policy and the failure to promote economic development lead to decline.  Also Spanish rulers' concerns for religious uniformity and traditional aristocratic privilege further undermined the country's economy. In the name of religious uniformity Spain expelled Jewish merchants, persecuted Protestants, and forced tens of thousands of skilled farmers and artisans into exile because of their Muslim ancestry.  The privileged, 3% of population, controlled 97% of the land and was exempt from taxation while high sales taxes discouraged manufacturing.

Rise of the Netherlands: King Philip II's decision to impose Spain's heavy sales tax and enforce Catholic orthodoxy drove the Dutch to revolt in 1566 and in 1572.  Dutch fought with skill and by 1609 Spain was forced to agree to a truce that recognized the autonomy of the northern part of the Netherlands (not until 1648 did the independence of these seven United Provinces of the Free Netherlands become final) under the command of William of Orange.  The Netherlands emerged as the dominant commercial power in Europe and the world's greatest trading nation! Its economic success was owed to its decentralized government.

England's Rise to the Top: In a series of wars (1652-1678) England used its naval power to break Dutch dominance in overseas trade and to extend its own colonial empire.  The "financial revolution" (increase governments role in managing the economy) increased revenues by taxing the formerly exempt landed estates of the aristocrats and by collecting taxes directly. England also created a central bank allowing the government to get low rate loans.

Don't Call it a Come Back: France began to develop its national economy under Jean-Baptiste Colbert.  He streamlined tax collection, promoted French manufacturing and shipping by imposing taxes on foreign goods, and improved transportation within France.  However, the power of the wealthy aristocrats kept the French government from following England's lead in taxing wealthy landowners, collecting taxes directly, and securing low-cost loans.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert: French politician who served as Controller General of Finance (from 1665 to 1683) and Secretary of State for the Navy (from 1668) under King Louis XIV of France. He carried out the program of economic reconstruction that helped make France the dominant power in Europe.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

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