The Early Modern Period

Humanism, Exploration, The New World, Reformation, Mercantilism
The Silk Road might have been dead, along with half of the world’s population, but thanks to the resurrection of the old European-wide Roman trade routes, there was a renewed interest in the classical world.
The likes of Aristotle, Lucretius, Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Cicero—thinkers who placed humanity at the centre of the universe, not a deity. This fostered a new spirit of creativity in Europe, particularly Italy, and led to something remarkable happening. The individual became the protagonist of humanity’s story—not God.

Image: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: Wiki Commons
There was a sprawling international network of artists and scholars, so interconnected that a Polish student like Copernicus could study in Italy, or a Dutch philosopher like Erasmus could live in England.
Inspired by classical writers, these new thinkers challenged contemporary preconceptions, made beautiful, innovative art, and constructed fabulous new buildings.
The painting Virtue Triumphant over Vice by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506 CE). Source: Wiki Commons
Here’s the rub:
artists and thinkers need patrons, and the increasingly wealthy merchants and bankers who dominated the Italian city-states were only too happy to oblige. Rulers like Cosimo I de Medici of Florence were great scholars of antiquity, building up huge personal libraries of classical works, and setting a fashion trend for the rest of Europe.
And to show off their munificence, power and good taste, they commissioned painters, poets, sculptors and architects to create great works of art and beautify their cities.

Giorgio Vasari: Apotheosis of Cosimo I de Medici. Source: Wiki Commons

This was also a time of significant scientific development. The first mechanical clock was invented, and the first optical lens. There were advances in astronomy and sailing technology too. Copernicus, developing Ptolemy’s astronomical theories, found that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Vesalius published his groundbreaking work on the circulation of blood.

The Route East
In 1453, Constantinople—the last bastion of the Byzantine Empire—fell to the Ottomans. Now the Islamic Turks controlled the trade routes to the Far East, including the Silk Road network.

As such, a new gulf sprang up between the European West and the Islamic East.

The trouble was that wealthy Europeans had developed a taste for rare, exotic goods—they needed to find a new way East.

Image: The siege of Constantinople (1453), French miniature by Jean Le Tavernier after 1455.Source: Wiki Commons
In centuries past, they had been stumped. But now they had the resources to match their ambition.
The renewed interest in the ancient writers led to a discovery of a previously lost treatise on geography. There were advances in astronomy, and sailing technology, allowing sailors to travel further than ever before.
The Portuguese dominated the Spice Trade, conquering Goa, Bombay, and Sri Lanka in quick succession, having opened up contact with India in 1498.
Arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498. Source: Wiki Commons
The Portuguese and Spanish enjoyed a monopoly on the spice trade until the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when the Dutch drove out the Portuguese from India and the ‘Spice Islands’, specifically to acquire the trade in cloves and nutmeg.
During the 17th century, the Dutch ordered the cutting down of clove trees—destroying all on the Spice Islands, except two islands—to keep prices high.
The New World
By 1462, the Portuguese had discovered Cape Verde island. Thirty years later, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope.
All in the name of finding a way East.
Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas by chance—in an attempt to find a route east. Quickly, Europeans began establishing settlements in the New World.
Sebastian Münster's map of the New World, first published in 1540. Source: Wiki Commons
The New World’s promises of silver and gold, culminating in legends like Eldorado and the Silver Mountain, made it highly valued—the mercantilist policy at the time laid an emphasis on finding sources of bullion.
Boasting the largest empire in the Americas, Spain enriched itself by mining the silver and gold there. They also sent Catholic missionaries to convert the pagan indigenous tribes to Christianity and introduced viticulture to New Mexico in 1629. 
Portugal had a huge presence in Brazil, exporting its cash craps to Europe, relying on untold numbers of slave labour. Indeed, it’s estimated that over 50% of all slaves brought to the Americas were brought by the Portuguese. 
England settled on the east coast of North America.
In 1455, a fire started that would soon engulf all of Europe—Gutenberg’s invention of the first European printing press.

He wasn’t the first inventor of a printing press—the oldest known printed book originated in China in the 9th century CE—but the advent of a European printing press radically altered the face of society.

Image: Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour. Source: Wiki Commons
Did you know?
Long before Gutenberg’s printing press, Nung Shu, a manual on agriculture, had been printed in China using a form of movable woodblock type. Exported to Europe, it documented many inventions that Europeans claim as their own—including the printing press.
Through its vast army of monastic scribes, the Catholic Church had been the fountain of truth. Knowledge was democratised. Philosophers, theologians, satirists and historians began manically printing and distributing pamphlets and books all over Europe.
People began translating the Bible from Latin into German, English, Dutch and French, challenging long-held institutions like purgatory, miracles, and the veneration of saints, ripping Europe in half.
Ferdinand Pauwels - Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door. Source: Wiki Commons
The increasingly affluent middle classes, including the merchants and burghers, were attracted to the ideas of reformation, which said that salvation could only be achieved through the soul of the individual.

Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Source: Wiki Commons
Inspired by the teachings of the vehement German monk Martin Luther, different protestant sects began breaking from the Catholic Church, taking over cities, and sometimes whole countries.

The austere, iconoclastic followers of Savonarola took over Florence. The stern, republican, puritan Calvinists took over Geneva. The followers of John Knox took over Scotland.
All of Christendom was consumed by bitter ideological factionalism. In 1588, the King of Spain launched an invasion of protestant England, culminating in the disastrous defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Trade wasn’t free during this time—it was controlled by the state. The emphasis was on competition between opposing nations, as opposed to competing businesses—so the modus vivendi of mercantilist practice was to fill the state treasury with bullion (gold and silver) and required exports to exceed imports.
Trade was a form of economic warfare, and so merchants had to receive approval from the state to trade in certain regions.

Ivan IV of Russia Shows His Treasury to Jerome Horsey (Alexander Litovchenko, 1875). Source: Wiki Commons
The Muscovy Company was the first of its kind—a chartered joint-stock company that could issue tradable shares on the open market. It was founded in 1555 to find a route east, via the Baltic.

More famous was the East India Company
Founded in 1600, they were granted a full monopoly of trading rights in the East. Their representative, William Hawkin, arrived in India in 1608 to work against the intrigues of the Portuguese. The Mughal emperor liked him so much that he gave him a wife as a token of friendship.
Things moved quickly. By 1612, the East India Company had defeated the Dutch and won trading rights from the Mughal emperor—which meant the company could import silk, cotton, and indigo.
The East offering its riches to Britannia - Roma Spiridone, 1778 - BL Foster 245
Source: Wiki Commons
There was also the Hudson Bay Company, founded by Charles II in 1670, who grew rich on the fur trade, and ended up becoming the largest landowner in the world—owning 15% of North America.
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