Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION

EUAN CAMERON

Historians use the term 'early modern', without thinking and without ambiguity, to describe the period which falls roughly between the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the nineteenth century. Yet to those who are not historians, the term may seem paradoxical or even contradictory. 'Early modern' is a description born of hindsight. It assumes that European culture was travelling towards something called 'modernity', but had not yet reached its goal: that the journey was begun, but not finished. One does not need to be a historian to see the dangers in reading events from their outcome back to their source in this way. The people of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries did not think that they were living in an 'early modern' period. The more optimistic intellectuals among them at times thought that they were living in an age of restored culture, an 'age of gold', or an 'age of reason'. The more dourly religious feared that they were living in the last age of the world, the era of Antichrist, under the shadow of the coming Last Judgement. Some believed, or claimed to believe, that all history went round in perpetually repeating cycles. Those who stood nearest to our own ways of thought considered themselves to be simply 'modern', as opposed to the 'ancients' or the people of the 'Middle Ages'.


Some 'modern' assumptions

'Early modern' is, then, a quite artificial term. Nevertheless, historians use it for valid reasons. Certain features of 'modern' European culture are so much a part of the furniture of our lives that they largely pass unnoticed. Yet all of these originated at specific periods in the past. In the economic sphere, we live in a developed system. Most Europeans work in fairly specialized activities in which they trade their skills in the community, rather than labouring for their own immediate household needs. Average incomes provide significantly more than is needed for a life of basic subsistence; the latter is classed as 'poverty' and a social evil. The land, and the economy in general, have surplus capacity beyond what is required to feed, clothe, and house the population. In consequence, much economic activity is devoted to producing luxuries, and to the providing of services. A rela-

-xvii-

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