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Outline- World History text




The study of World History has only recently reentered college curriculum in any meaningful way. Although for decades now, the history programs of American colleges have been trying to reverse the traditional Eurocentricism of the curriculum by offering a broader range of non-European history courses, it has only been in the last decade that the notion of trying to understand the history of the world in any sort of wholistic form has taken hold again. One problem with World History as a topic is, as always has been, the shear size of the subject. No one can be an expert on all the peoples, cultures and civilizations potentially to be studied, nor can anyone hope to master the all the languages necessary to do real historical research based on primary sources. Moreover, no year-long survey can possibly do justice to all the various peoples, cultures or civilizations that have inhabited the earth over the last five thousand year. Thus any world history survey has to be approached with the following caveats: 1) no professor who offers a world history survey can claim to be an “expert” on all aspects of the course, and thus will be stronger on some aspects of the course than on others; and 2) every world history survey will necessarily leave out a lot of possible topics, and will give only relatively superficial coverage to those it does contain. Given these limitations, why then has there been a rebirth in the study of world history? What could courses with such serious limitations offer students?

The simple answer to the latter question is “perspective.” Since World War II , the study of history in the United States had come increasingly to focus on narrower and narrower topics, particularly as one moved further into the modern period. As the amount of available data increased with the growth of printing, the building of libraries, the spread of literacy, the evolution of record-keeping bureaucracies, and the eventual development of other kinds of storage media, historians were increasingly becoming experts not on broad periods, such as the Renaissance, or even the nineteenth century, but on “Vienna from 1880-1890” and other such narrow specialties. This kind of immersion in the minutia of smaller places in limited time frames fed the criticisms of historical study, especially that which questions the relevance of studying history. The problem with emphasizing “micro-history” to the exclusion of  larger scale, or macro-history, is that students learn only fragmented bits of often highly specific information which they are unable to place in any larger frame of reference. History in such a form often seems to consist of disconnected facts and minutae of questionable relevance to anyone’s life. This issue grows even larger as our history curriculum has expanded to include much more non-traditional areas of study. If the study of ancient Greece, or late nineteenth century Vienna seems irrelevant to modern American students, how are they to feel about studying Tokugawa Japan or modern Africa? Our survey courses then, particularly World History, provide a framework in which we can connect the histories of the peoples of the world through time and space. This function is becoming increasingly important as our world is becoming increasingly connected. It is becoming more and more necessary that we have some understanding, not only of our own history, but of that of other peoples.

History is also the best academic way to encounter the cultures of the world. Through World History we can obtain rudimentary acquaintance with the cultural diversity of the world, and with some of the basic cultural characteristics of many of the major cultural traditions of the world. While no one can leave a survey class claiming to understand fully another culture, such a survey can make significant contributions to learning about other cultures. Of course, the other side of that coin is the issue of globalization.

While deep cultural differences still differentiate various parts of the world from one another, talk of a global culture is heard more frequently now than ever before. The business, government, finance, and manufacturing sectors of cities around the world look surprisingly similar. Technologies are similarly shared from one side of the world to the other. A second task of the world history survey is to outline the development and basic characteristics of this global culture.

This text then has three main objectives. We want to provide a kind of thematic unity that will provide a way to link the histories of Europe, Africa and Asia from 1500 A.D to the present. At the same time we will try to provide sufficient discussion of these separate histories to highlight the unique cultures of some of the world’s great civilizations in this period. Finally, this text has been constructed with the goal in mind of supplying the historical narrative needed to facilitate reading the primary sources required in this class.


For the first objective we are going to work with themes a preeminent world historian,  Leften Stavrianos. Stavrianos wrote to examine the question of how and why western civilization came to dominate much of the world by the early twentieth century. While this topic is not new, in many ways it is still a problem we struggle with. As recently as 1997 this same question was revisited by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.  His concern with this question is expressed in quasi-racial terms: Why had the white man come to own all the cargo? Diamond went to great lengths to dispel ethnic or racial explanations for the success of western Europeans and their culture. Instead, Diamond saw geographic circumstances as largely determining the “fates of human societies.” On the other hand, the issues of cultural conflict around the world- take for instance the current “culture wars” expressed in the jihad against the west by radical Islamicists, are in effect expressions of resistance to the real or perceived dominance of the West and its culture around the world. Thus this question is still very much alive. Stavrianos’s schema of cultural evolution in world history will be the backbone of the course. According to Stavrianos, human societies evolved from kinship groups (mostly hunters and gatherers) to tributary societies (Mostly monarchies ruling over societies dominated by a small elite. This was the dominant form of human social organization from circa 3000 B.C. to after 1500 A.D). The third stage in this social evolution was the development of capitalist society. This new social form evolved in Western Europe after 1500 A.D. Europe’s head-start with this new, powerful type of society, combined with capitalism’s uniquely potent capacity for both creativity and destruction propelled Europe to dominance over the rest of the world by the twentieth century. 

On this foundation we will work to fill out the rather sparse picture of cultural and historical development Stavrianos gives us. We will examine broad questions of tradition and change in human societies, as well as questions of how cultures interact with one another. Both this text and the book of primary source readings serve these ends.

European historiography has long seen the Renaissance as a clear indication of the beginnings of the emergence of a new, “modern” European civilization as distinguished from the earlier “Dark Ages” of the medieval period. Convention has often used 1500 A.D. as a convenient date to mark the movement from medieval to early modern Europe. This common convention also serves us in the study of World History in as much as for Stavrianos this new “modern” Europe being born circa 1500 was in fact the new type of human social organization, the capitalist society. Indeed, we will work with the argument that the changes underway in or around 1500 A.D. in Europe portended massive changes in the long established balance between the world’s great civilizations. Although the imbalance in Europe’s favor was not to become obvious everywhere until centuries later, with the gift of hindsight we can observe the process of change that would ultimately affect virtually every society in the world.

However, no one in 1500 could have predicted the kinds of changes that would sweep the world in the next five hundred years. In that year, Europe was still looked upon as something of a cultural backwater. It was, in relative terms, a region of  squabbling, violent, petty states. Its cities were small, dirty, and dangerous compared to the cities of China and the Islamic world, and even compared to some of the great cities of North Africa and the Pre-Columbian Native Americans. Europe was relatively poor, and its manufactures were viewed with disdain in other parts of the world. For the previous thousand years Europe had struggled to return to a level of civilization equivalent to its mighty predecessor, the Roman Empire. It  would be difficult to argue that it had reached that level by 1500 A.D.; certainly, Europe was not viewed by others at that time as possessing a civilization equal in sophistication and depth to the other great civilizations of either the past, or the contemporary worlds. Much of this course will focus on the shift in this relationship. How and why did a relatively poor, weak, and uncivilized region  such as Europe not only evolve to compete with the India, China, and others, but to surpass them in many areas by 1800? Of course, states and civilizations have always be subject to cycles of advance and retreat, rise and fall, flowering and stagnation. What has been different in the last five hundred years has been the ability of the West to dominate the entire world, and the apparent failure of any other civilization to achieve parity on its own terms. Thus when we speak of weaknesses or failures in other civilizations in this course, we are speaking primarily in terms of how these factors affected the civilization’s relationship with the West in the modern period.

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Our text will focus on the great civilizations of the Eurasian continent. China, India, the Islamic world of North Africa and the Middle East, and the civilization of western and central Europe will command most of our attention. Japan will be the only “secondary” civilization to be discussed in any detail. African societies and civilizations will receive cursory  attention throughout the text. While we will briefly survey Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, the subsequent history of the Americas is subsumed under the umbrella of Western civilization and thus will appear in the text only where developments in the “New World” reflect (of affect) the general trends under discussion here. For the sake of space and clarity of theme many parts of the world will not be discussed directly or at all in this work.  Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe can both claim independent cultural heritages, and perhaps even civilizations. However, for our purposes these regions are seen as outliers of the Western European and Chinese (and earlier, Indian) civilizations. The peoples of the South Pacific will not be covered here.  

Part I of the text will survey developments in the world between roughly 1500 and 1800 A.D. Part II will take the discussion up to World War II. The text will conclude with a brief discussion of the world since 1945.


Part I.   The World, 1500-1800 A.D.


The Islamic World, 1500-1800.


Emerging out of Arabia in the seventh century A.D., the religion of Islam swept across North Africa and the Middle East with stunning rapidity carried by victorious Arab armies which overran much of the surviving Eastern Roman empire in North Africa and the Middle East, and which destroyed the Sassanid Empire in Persia. Over the next eight hundred years, Islam not only rooted itself successfully in the lands of the early Arab conquests, but continued to expand west and southwest into North Africa, down the East coast of Africa, as well as east into India, western Asia, southeast Asia and into the East Indies. By the time of the European explorations the Islamic world stretched from the west coast of Africa to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and included the Balkans in southeast Europe. The new Arab and Islamic influences were rapidly grafted onto the existing cultures of the conquered areas. Thus over the next several centuries these new cultural elements melded with the great civilizations the Arabs conquered- the Greco-Roman culture, Persian (both of which included foundation stones from the even more ancient Middle Eastern civilizations which preceded them), and much later Indian civilizations. Even as the Arabs solidified and developed their political control over the newly conquered territories, a new civilization began to emerge.

While the Arab conquests of the seventh century seem to fit the pattern seen in western Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries where semi-“barbarian,” martially-oriented peoples conquered an ancient civilization, there was a critical difference. With the German conquests of the western portion of the Roman Empire, civilization was almost erased from the western Europe. It was to be several centuries before anything identifiable as a cohesive, independent civilization would again emerge to unite peoples in western and central Europe. The Arab conquests had no such consequences for the peoples and lands overrun by Muhammad’s successors. Indeed the new Islamic world underwent a brilliant cultural expansion very soon after the Arab invasions. Politically unified (at times), culturally vibrant, and economically strong the Islamic world came to enjoy one of the great golden ages of any civilization in the tenth through the twelfth centuries. Turkish migrations and the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century caused enormous political disruption in the Islamic world, and did enormous material damage in Iraq and parts of central Asia. However, from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries new Islamic empires emerged in Asia Minor,  Persia, and India. All three of these states would flourish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Islamic world as a whole remained militarily powerful and economically strong up to 1700. Even after that time, stagnation would be a better description of the Islamic world than decline.

Three major empires dominated the Islamic world from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The Ottoman Empire with its capital at Istanbul ruled parts of North Africa, the Balkans, the area around the Black Sea, parts of Arabia, and the Middle East into Mesopotamia and the Caucusus. The Safavid dynasty established a new empire in Persia, and contested Ottoman control over Mesopotamia and the Caucusus. The first two empires were new Muslim dynasties that ruled over a majority Muslim population. The Mughals in India were Muslim invaders from Afghanistan. Their successful military adventure made them Muslim outsiders who ruled over the majority Hindu population and the minority Muslim population that preceded them in India. All three dynasties were Turkish (or Turko-Mongol) in origin. All three were built with the successful adoption of gunpowder technology. All three states were land-based, and benefited greatly from trade on the Silk Road that linked the Mediterranean region with China. While the Safavid Empire was destroyed in the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire would survive into the nineteenth century, and the Ottoman Empire lasted until World War I.


Residents of Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi in the mid-seventeenth century might well have felt that they lived in one of the world’s great empires and in one of the history’s great civilizations. The Muslim world and the empires at its center were wealthy, powerful, and culturally vital. Muslim armies kept the peace and waged war against enemies from the Atlantic Ocean to the East Indies. Muslim traders and missionaries permeated the Eurasian steppes from the Black Sea to China, and were still helping to initiate the conversion of parts of Southeast Asia and the Indies to Islam. Nonetheless, the Islamic world did have weaknesses, even if their importance could not have been understood at the time.

The first weakness was the continuing struggle with Christian Europe. From its first expansion out of Arabia, Islamic armies had threatened southern Europe. Throughout the European Middle Ages Christian Europe from Spain to Constantinople had been engaged in conflict with its Muslim neighbors to the south and east. Religious competition increased the emotional component of what were otherwise fairly normal competitions for land and resources. In the fifteenth century the conflict heated up again after something of a lull in the fourteenth century. The Spanish Christians had been slowly rolling back Islamic rule in Spain for centuries. The intensity of the Spanish “Reconquista” picked up in the 1400’s as Spain actually seized Muslim territory in North Africa across the Straits of Gibralter. The conquest of Grenada in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabelle marked the end of seven hundred years of Muslim rule in Spain. At the same time, the recent explorations by the Portuguese and Spanish were motivated in part by a desire to seek allies and otherwise outflank their Muslim foes. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, emerging in Asia Minor was slowly expanding into Europe. In 1453, the Ottomans overran Constantinople. One of the great cities in world history and the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople had withstood Islamic pressure for almost eight centuries, and thus had arguably blocked Islamic expansion into eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. With its fall, the Ottomans were able to cement their hold on prior conquests in the Balkans. Indeed the Balkans would remain in Turkish hands until the nineteenth century and the Turks would pressure central and eastern Europe for centuries.  In the early sixteenth century Ottoman forces slaughtered a major European army at Mohacs in Hungary. They eventually got as far as Vienna in central Europe. Although they failed to take the Habsburg capital, the Turkish threat to central Europe remained very real through the end of the seventeenth century. While certainly not evident to anyone before 1800, this prolonged renewal of active hostilities with Europe was to take a heavy toll on the Ottomans, and the Islamic world in general.

Perhaps more important though than the struggle with the west, was a weakness right at the foundation of the Islamic world. While Muslims of many languages and ethnicities shared a common culture in many ways and even acknowledged a strong element of brotherhood within the house of Islam, the truth was that the Islamic world had been divided almost from the beginning. The disputed Caliphate of Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, touched off a virtual civil war. While Ali and his heirs were all dead within a few years, his followers survived to form a permanent dissenting group within the Islamic world. The followers of Ali and his line, the Shi’ites, never accepted the legitimacy of the Caliphs. This schism remained unresolved in the fifteenth century. Towards the end of the fifteenth century a young Turkish sheikh in Persia converted to a fundamentalist form of Shi’a Islam. Driven by extraordinary religious fervor, Isma’il, led his tribesmen to the conquest of Persia. His state, Safavid Persia, was the first major Shi’ite state. From the beginning, the Ottoman Sultans, who had inherited much of the traditional role of the former Caliphs, and the Safavids were mortal enemies. Two centuries of often vicious war between them, together with the active persecution of religious minorities within each state consumed enormous resources in both states and weakened the communal bonds within each state. This internecine struggle drove both sides to a more fundamentalist, less intellectually tolerant and less culturally-open mentality.

Finally, even though Muhammad himself had been a merchant, mercantile and financial occupations carried low social status in the Islamic world. Nor did government in the Islamic world see any role for itself in business or trade outside of levying taxes and duties. In and of itself this stance was not unusual. Contemporary China and medieval Europe both saw merchants and bankers in similar ways. However, in Europe, the importance and status of mercantile and financial professions were to change rather dramatically in the early modern period. The continued low status of trade in the Islamic world was to be a significant handicap in the commercial competition with the West.

For all the ethnic and linguistic variety found within the Islamic world, and despite serious political and sectarian tensions, the common bond of Islam did in fact create a self-consciously unified world view that gave the Islamic world its distinctive identity. The revelations of the Muhammad in the early seventh century launched a new religion, but one with strong similarities to the pre-existing monotheisms in the area. The religion of Muhammad was strictly monotheistic. It recognized neither divinity in its prophet, nor any kind of supernatural sanctity in its later holy men. The God of Muhammad was the same God worshipped by both Jews and Christians. Muslims recognized much of the prophetic history of the Jews as well as the prophetic stature of Jesus. Muhammad was simply the last of a long series of prophets sent to the world. His revelations were intended to correct the central problem of human life, namely the failure of humans to submit to their Creator, Allah. The name of the religion itself (Islam) simply means submission; the believer- a Muslim, is one who submits.

The religion began with the revelations from Allah received over twenty years by the Arab merchant, Muhammad beginning in 610. It appears that from the very beginning Muhammad shared his revelations with those close to him. Gradually, he attracted more and more followers. By the time of his death in 632 A.D., much of the population of the Arabian Peninsula had been converted to Islam.

At the heart of the religion are the Muhammad’s revelations. Collected by his followers soon after his death, these revelations became the holy book of Islam- the Qur’an. The words therein are taken by Muslims to be literally the words of Allah, since the revelations came to Muhammad in Arabic. With this final set of revelations given to Muhammad, “the seal of the Prophets,” God (Allah) provided a final, and in many ways quite specific blueprint for how to follow the Divine Will. Those who accepted this guidance (Muslims) would enjoy an eternity in paradise; those who refused to submit to Allah (especially non-believers) would ultimately be consigned to suffer in Hell.

The Muslim view of human nature is a relatively positive one. There is no original sin. Human nature is basically good. Moreover, the failure of humans to submit to God was most often the result not of willful disobedience so much as of distraction. Fortunately, Allah provided a variety of aides to humans to help them learn how to lose the proper path in the myriad distractions that whirled around them. The Qur’an was the most immediate and most powerful light for mankind to fix on to guide them through the distractions of life. But the life of the prophets itself was another lifeline. Muhammad provided a “perfect” model of how to give oneself completely to Allah. Accounts of Muhammad’s life and thoughts provided Muslims with a second source of Truth. If not strictly comparable to the literal word of God in the Qur’an, the words and deeds of the prophet still carried enormous weight. Who better, after all, to understand how to implement Allah’s wishes for humankind than man to whom Allah entrusted his revelations for all men.  Even the study of the natural world could help take man to God. As the world was created by God, it contained signs of the Creator. By using the faculties given humans by Allah (namely, reason), humans could detect these signs and use them to come closer to God.  To that extent anyway, there was an early acceptance of science in the culture of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages.

Islam may be an eschatological religion, but it is not a religion with its focus solely on the afterlife. Muhammad understood his revelations to be prescriptions for life in this world. Using these prescriptions, the prophet himself built and governed the first functioning Islamic community (umma). The Islamic community then, was not only a community of the spirit, but was a concrete social and political organization whose whole way of life was directed by the revelations from Allah, and the inspirations of Allah’s prophet. Muhammad rendered justice, waged war, carried on economic business, and lived the family life of a normal man. There was no separation between church and state in the Islamic world, and no clear distinction such as secular versus religious. Islam was a way of life- not just a faith. Religious law (the shari’a) , that is law based on the Qur’an and the Hadith (the traditions and examples of Muhammad) was the basis of community or social law. Of course, neither the Qur’an nor Muhammad in his own life addressed all the possible issues Muslims would face around the world over the next several centuries. Schools of legal interpretation developed quickly in the Islamic world. The religious scholars trained in these schools served as legal judges and advisors in so far as they would apply principles from the shari’a to concrete cases or issue facing Islamic society.  

These religious scholars enjoyed enormous influence and prestige in the Islamic world. They were not, however, priests. Islam has no priesthood. Religious life has a communal context, but the relationship between the believer and Allah has no intermediaries. Neither does Islam have a complicated theology or a complex system of rituals and rites. There are in fact really only five things absolutely necessary for a good Muslim: 1) recite the creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet;” 2) pray five times daily at the prescribed hours in the prescribed ways; 3) almsgiving; 4) fast at prescribed times; 5) try to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) at least once during one’s life.



The Ottoman Empire (1451-1922)



1453-     Conquered Constantinople


1516-1517-  The Ottomans occupied Syria, Egypt and western Arabia.


1520-1566   -  Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent


1521-      Suleiman seized Belgrade.


1520’s  - The Ottomans established an outpost in Algiers.


1529-      First siege of Vienna.


1550’s-   The Ottomans established an outpost in Tripoli.


1571-      Battle of Lepanto marked the growing dominance of Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean.


1574  -    Established an outpost in Tunis.


1683  -    The last siege of Vienna by the Ottomans.


1699-      Treaty of Carlowitz.  Hungary lost.


1703-       Rebellion of the army linked to many dissatisfied high officials led to the removal of the leading religious figure in the Empire and even the Sultan from office.


1718-1730  -  “Tulip Age”  The first serious attempts at westernizing reforms.


1760-        Wahhabi movement began.


1774-       The Ottomans lost Crimea to the Russians.




Most of our discussion of the Islamic world will focus on the Ottoman Empire. It was the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful of the great Islamic states. In fact, some believe in might have been the most powerful state in the world in the middle of the sixteenth century.  It was also the Islamic state in closest contact with the West. Finally, it contained many of the key holy cities and shrines of the Islamic (and especially, Sunni Islam) world, and thus was in contact with Muslims across the entire Islamic world.

The Ottomans were a small Turkish tribe that had settled in Anatolia, and served as vassals of the Seljuk rulers of the twelfth century. With the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, the Ottomans gained their autonomy. Circa 1300 A.D. they began to create their own independent state. In the mid- to late fourteenth century, the Ottomans spread their control from northern and western Anatolia into Greece and the Balkans. This occupation of southeastern Europe was the first significant occupation of European soil by an Islamic state since the conquest of Spain the early eighth century. In 1453, the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople, marking the end of the old Byzantine Empire.  The early sixteenth century saw the expansion of Ottoman rule into Syria, Egypt and Arabia thereby absorbing several key holy sites, including Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.  The Ottomans continued to expansionist, though less dramatically successful until the end of the seventeenth century. At its peak, the Empire stretched from North Africa to Mesopotamia, and from Hungary to Arabia.  After 1689, however, Europeans became the aggressors in the relationship, and began to chip away at Ottoman  holdings in Europe and the Black Sea region in the eighteenth century. Hungary was lost in 1689, Belgrade fell to European armies in 1717, and Moldavia and Crimea were ceded to Russia in 1774. These, however, were still relatively minor losses. The Ottoman Empire still looked like one of the great states in the world at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Ottoman state was originally a Turkish state governed in accordance with tribal law and custom. As the empire grew and the Ottoman Sultan became the political ruler of millions of Muslims from a variety of backgrounds, the role of the Sultan, the hereditary ruler of the Ottomans, grew as well. The rule of the Ottoman Sultan assumed of the features of the earlier Caliphs.  Their rule was theoretically absolute, and they became the primary protectors the faithful, and of many of the most important sites in the Islamic world. Thus the Sultans were part Turkish military and political leaders, and part universal leaders of the Islamic world with claims back to the successors of Muhammad. They protected their state from external foes like the Christian Europeans or the schismatic Shi’ite state of Safavid Persia. They maintained and patronized the great cities, shrines, and mosques of the Sunni Islamic world- Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem were all within the boundaries of the empire. As protector of Mecca, the Ottoman Sultan was also responsible for organizing the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. In this way at least, the Sultan was a recognized authority throughout the Islamic world, not just within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, the Sultan was responsible for enforcing Islamic law (shari’a) within the state.

Government in the empire was a combination of tribal tradition, feudalism, and absolutism. The Ottoman Sultans initially governed as rulers of the tribe. When they began to expand their state beyond their homeland in northeastern Anatolia, the Sultans gave out conquered lands to loyal warriors to administer, much as one finds happening in Europe in the Middle Ages. Thus the warrior class of the Ottoman tribe constituted the first military and political elite of the Ottoman Empire. This landed warrior class would remain one of the backbones of the military. In fact, through the fifteenth century, most government officials also held military responsibilities. Close ties between government and military functionaries remained characteristic of the Ottoman state. In rural areas, the landed Ghazi continued to hold both military and political power, while high ranking military officials served in the Sultan’s high council, or diwan. However, as the Ottomans expanded their rule over other Muslims, these latter groups were rapidly incorporated into the civilian bureaucracy. In this way, the government of the empire moved distinctly beyond its Turkish, tribal origins in the sixteenth century. It took on many of the institutions and ideals inherited from the grand past of the Byzantine Empire and of the Abbasid Caliphate. The government became cosmopolitan, bureaucratized, and absolutist in orientation.

Below the Sultan was a council of military, religious, and political figures (the diwan) led by the Grand Vizier, the Sultan’s chief official. The diwan served as advisors, policy makers, and a kind of high court of appeals. Secretariats oversaw the day-to-day functioning of the government. They drew up official documents, kept archives, and maintained financial accounts. The state followed the Shari’a, or religious law, but the from the sixteenth century on, the Sultans issued additional civil laws on their own authority which constituted another part of the law of the land. Ottoman government had close ties to the religious elite within the empire. On the one hand the Sultan was the “Protector of the Faith,” while on the other hand the ulema served the state as provincial judges, dispensers of charity, and the leading educators within the state. The judges (qadi) were appointed and paid by the state. Their qualifications were established by their connection to one or another school of Islamic law (usually the Hanafi school favored by the Ottomans.) Eventually most judicial official went through imperially sponsored schools. .

Two other foci of political power stood largely outside the formal structures of tribal and governmental authority. The Sultan’s household servants and harem were enormously influential at times. Similarly, a corps of slave soldiers and officials developed within the empire that answered directly to the Sultan. At various times these groups could successfully influence or resist a Sultan; they also came into conflict with other parts of the military and government, and were thus a source of internal conflict at times.

To generalize, in the sixteenth century, in many ways the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans enjoyed enormous power and prestige exercised largely through their households. In the seventeenth century, the power of the household waned while that of the Grand Vizier waxed greatly. The Ottoman Viziers operated through control over the diwan and the various viziers and secretariats in the bureaucracy. With the slow decline in the power of the Sultan came a reduction in the ability of the central government to exercise effective control over outlying provinces. By the eighteenth century, many areas within the empire were effectively autonomous in many ways even though they chose to remain formally part of the empire.

Another factor that contributed to the gradual weakening of the Sultan’s authority was the lack of a clear process of succession. The almost free-for-all character of the struggle for power following the death of a Sultan led to numerous instances of fratricide and other violence with the Sultan’s family and clan, executions, purges, and even civil wars. Over time this lack of a peaceful, systematic process of succession damaged the authority of the Sultan and made continuity within the government very difficult if not impossible. Both weaknesses took a toll on the government and the state by the end of the eighteenth century.

The earliest Ottoman conquests were carried out by the traditional Turkish warrior class (the Ghazi) of the tribe. These warriors like their ancestors fought as a light cavalry. The Ghazi remained a critical element of both military and political power within the empire. With the conquests of the Balkans in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, elements of the Christian aristocracy of the region were recruited. They brought with them heavier armor and a style of fighting more similar to the heavy cavalry of western Europe or the Byzantine Empire. Finally, by the fifteenth century the Ottomans had begun to build an infantry base for their army comprised of slaves recruited from the Balkans. Other infantry were recruited from around the empire.

Levied regularly from the Christian Balkan population as children, these slave soldiers, the Janissaries, became a counterbalance to the military power of the aristocracy, but more than that they were perhaps the best troops in the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The great expansion of the empire was built on their backs. For centuries the Janissaries struck terror into the hearts of Christians in eastern and central Europe. By the sixteenth century, older Janissaries were effectively retired into society with many privileges. Allowed to marry and have children, and integrated into the business sectors of society the Janissaries became a distinct class unto themselves with a strong interest in maintaining the status quo.

With all the states resources at hand, the Ottoman Sultans were able to maintain a standing army of about 70,000 men and a reserve force of 200,000. In times of emergency, even larger forces could be raised. Needless to say, such a force far surpassed the military capabilities of any given European state at the time. Not surprisingly, the scorecard of the wars between the Ottomans and Europeans is heavily in favor of the Ottomans well into the seventeenth century.

While early Ottoman success came through the successful use of the traditional Turkish Ghazi cavalry, their later conquests in the Balkans and elsewhere were made possible in part by the rapid adoption of gunpowder technology from Europe. However, the Ottomans failed to develop these technologies further on their own. Almost four centuries after their first use of guns and artillery, the Ottomans still relied on European trainers and engineers, as well as European materials. This was to prove a very costly failure.  

With a population of about fifty million people in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman empire was about twice the size of any European state. Population may have increased by 50% in the 16th century. Its society was diverse. Pastoralist nomads roamed the deserts and steppes of the Ottoman world, while much of the countryside in the heartlands of the empire was dotted with agricultural villages. These rural areas were dominated by local aristocracies. Touching on the Black Sea, the Mediteranean Sea, the Red Sea, and at times the Persian Gulf as it did the Empire had many towns built in fishing and trade. As the home of many of the ancient Near East’s great cities such as Istanbul, Jersusalem, Damascus, Alexandria, and Mecca the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a strong urban base. Urban elites exercised significant social and political influence, at the local level especially. The empire was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious. The majority of the population was Sunni Muslim, but there were sizeable minorities of Christians, Jews, and Shi’ite Muslims. 

For centuries, Islamic society had practiced remarkable tolerance when dealing with its religious minorities. This was still true early in the history of the Ottoman Empire. However, as the conflicts with the infidel West and the internecine conflict with the Safavids intensified, attitudes towards religious minorities hardened. Shi’ites, Christians, and Jews within the Ottoman Empire were put under increasing pressure and were viewed increasingly as potential threats to the state and the Islam. While never reaching the level of organized religious persecution seen in Western Europe at times, it is fair to say that the mind-set of the Islamic world was less tolerant and less open to outside influences than at any time in its history.

Like many other empires, there were numerous cracks in the imposing façade of political and military power. The Ottomans were remarkably successful in many ways in unifying the peoples under their rule, but we should remember that local, ethnic and religious identities always outweighed any identification with the Empire. There were long-standing issues between urban and rural areas, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and between Turks and Arabs. This lack of real social cohesion made fundamental reform very difficult, if not impossible.

If religious fervor and military ardor drove Ottoman armies to victory, economic strength and diversity provided the foundation for centuries of continued vitality. In the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman empire was virtually self-sufficient economically.  With the possible exception of China, the Ottoman Empire is thought by some to have been the wealthiest state in the world in the early to mid-sixteenth century. Traditional agriculture provided a stable food supply for the empire’s population. At the same time commercial agriculture (Maize, tobacco, and cotton) added a further dimension to the empire’s agricultural production. Manufacturing in the empire remained strong, but largely traditional in organization and technique. Ottoman merchants were active and prosperous before 1700, but of low social status among the Turks. Most trade in the empire was internal, and most was carried overland. The Ottomans did import a few products from Persia, China, and India. Even with this trade, much of it came over the Silk Road rather than via the sea.

For all its strengths though, the Ottoman economy gradually weakened through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the weaknesses in the economy was the dominance of long-distance trade by non-Muslims and/or foreigners. The Turkish political and military elite was largely disconnected from commercial interests. Moreover, even among the other Muslims, trade and financial occupations held only a very low social status. Thus the Islamic world in general, and the Ottoman Empire in particular was largely unable to recognize the enormous threat posed to its security by the aggressive expansion of European control over international trade. Unlike the supportive relationship between government and traders that was developing in Europe, the only interest the Ottoman government took in trade was in the collection of duties and taxes. In fact, the prevalence of Christians and Jews among Ottoman merchants provided willing partners within Ottoman society for Western commercial interests that sought entry into the Ottoman markets. The dominance of long-distance trade by Europeans and the rerouting of this trade from the Silk Road to the oceans deprived the Empire of a substantial source of revenue by the end of the eighteenth century.

The Ottoman economy also suffered from the world-wide inflation set off by the influx of American silver through the Europeans from the mid-sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The pressures caused by rampant inflation led to the destruction of some manufacturing and to increased social discontent within the empire. Finally, the Ottoman economy saw none of the technological innovation that accompanied the evolution of capitalism in Western Europe. The pattern of trade that developed with the West even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that of Ottoman raw materials in exchange for European (or other) manufactures, a pattern that presaged the later pattern throughout the world in the nineteenth century.


The culture of the Ottoman Empire was dominated by the great religion at its center, and by the vast cultural tradition of its past. The religion of Islam dominated culture and life in the whole Islamic world, and thus in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of its inhabitants were Sunni Muslims who traced a kind of institutional brotherhood back to the days of the Caliphate. They shared with the Shi’a Muslims a devotion to the revelations of Muhammad transcribed into the Qur’an. All Muslims also looked to the non-canonical traditions of Muhammad for prescriptions for living. All Muslims, too, lived their lives according to some interpretation of religious law. For all Muslims, Islam was not just a faith, but a total way of life. This was the great bond that united all Muslims from North Africa to Indonesia. The single greatest glue for this bond was the Qur’an itself. Not only was the Qur’an authoritative for all Muslims, but because Allah’s revelations had come to Muhammad in Arabic, it was necessary to keep them in Arabic. The Qur’an was then quite literally the words of Allah. All Muslims needed to read Arabic to access the Qur’an and Allah’s revelations contained therein. So, all Muslims, of whatever origin, could communicate (at least in theory) in Arabic.

The Empire’s high culture was primarily a blend of Islamic, Arab, and Persian traditions and learning. Art and architecture prospered in this period. The scientific, medical, and philosophical traditions of the Islamic world circa 1500 were on a par with any existing or preceding civilization. Literacy was fairly widespread.

The only shadow on the cultural life of the Ottoman Empire in before 1700 A.D. was the pronounced movement towards more extremist critiques of earlier rationalist philosophy and science. In effect, theology and religious law pushed science, philosophy, and technology into the margins of intellectual life. Islamic science froze. Islamic thought in general constricted just at the time when European thought was expanding at a heretofore unprecedented rate.

During the 18th century the Ottoman Empire fought a continuous series of wars with it neighbors Persia, Austria, Russia and Poland. The Ottomans gradually lost ground to their European opponents. Indeed, it was the competition between the European states that allowed the Turks to hold on to any of their European territories. In 1774, the Ottomans were forced to give up the Crimea, to grant autonomy to its Danubian provinces, to allow Russian ships passage through the Dardanelles, and to grant the Russians rights of protection over Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.

In 1798, The French seized Egypt. Russian and English opposition to the French forced them out again in 1801, but marked the first time an Islamic core region had been conquered by Europeans, at least since the Crusades. Moreover, the French occupation brought with it direct exposure to new European technologies, military organization, and thought.  Following the withdrawal of the French, the Ottomans were unable to reassert effective control over Egypt. In 1805 the nominal governor of Egypt became the de facto ruler of an independent state, although he continued to pay lip-service to the Ottoman Sultan.

European states continued to pressure the Ottoman Empire throughout the early nineteenth century. The Sultan’s inability to deal effectively with European aggression, the nationalist up-swellings of people within the Empire led it to called “the sick man of Europe” by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in 1833. Caught especially between French and Russian aggression in the early 19th century, the Ottomans came to rely on the British to intervene on their behalf.







Safavid Empire


The Safavids were another Turkish dynasty that established a major state in the Middle East in the early modern period. Led by the charismatic and fervent (?) boy Shah Isma’il, the Safavids emerged out of northwest Persia (?) in the early 16th century. They dynasty established its rule over the rest of Persia by 1524. (?) Fervent Shi’ite Muslims, the Safavids were the major political and military rivals of the Ottomans through the seventeenth century.

They resembled the Ottomans in their Turkish origins, their Islamic faith, their successful exploitation of gunpowder technology, and in their establishment of a powerful new state on the foundations of the ancient states of the Middle East. Their differences from the Ottomans were primarily two. First, the Safavids were Shi’ites. Their state was the first major state in which Shi’a Islam was predominant. Secondly, they maintained and reinforced the essential Persian character of the empire.

Shah Isma’il founded the empire in 1524 with its capital at Isfahan. From the beginning the Safavids were in conflict with the Ottoman Empire. War between the two states continued periodically for centuries. The Safavid state reached its economic and political peak a century later under Shah Abbas (1587-1629 A.D.) The quality of leadership in the empire declined after Abbas and with it the fortunes of the empire. By 1700 Afghan tribes were pressuring the eastern borders. In 1722 Afghans captured Isfahan, and in 1747 the last Safavid shah was assassinated. A half century of political chaos followed in Persia.

Savafid government was largely feudal in nature with regional governors given land, titles and authority in exchange for performing administrative tasks and providing military protection for the region. The civilian bureaucracy expanded with the reign of Abba. The central government itself employed large numbers of slaves, mostly from central Asia, who converted to Islam and often acquired powerful positions at court. A final power block was the Shi’a clergy- the mullahs (sp?). As in the Ottoman Empire, the shari’a  was the basis of state and local law. The clerical elite served both as spiritual leaders and as legal officials. In the absence of an efficient bureaucracy, the mullahs were extremely powerful in rural areas. As royal leadership weakened in the seventeenth century, the power of the mullahs grew. Similar, too, to the Ottomans, the Safavids lacked a clearly defined system of succession. The Safavid dynasty suffered the same kind of conflicts and intrigues that afflicted the Ottomans. Shah Abbas himself killed or blinded three of his five sons during his reign. His eventual successor was

Safavid society was almost exclusively Muslim, and possessed no sizeable religious minority of Christians or Jews which might have provided a conduit for contact with the West. The Safavid state was more predominantly rural than was the Ottoman Empire. It possessed, therefore, only a small urban class engaged in trade and industry.

The economy was based on agriculture with only small mercantile and manufacturing sectors. Shah Abbas established a vital industry in silk production and manufacturing.  Traffic along the Silk Road provided significant revenues through the seventeenth century. Isfahan itself became a significant trade center. Trade with Europeans increased dramatically in the early seventeenth century when the English East India Company sought trade relations. Eventually, the diversion of trade from the overland Silk Road to European-dominated sea routes hurt the empire’s economy and led to the steady erosion of revenues the Safavids derived from international trade.

Safavid society maintained the tradition of higher learning it inherited from the past, but the fundamentalist character of Safavid Shi’a Islam meant that the range of non-religious intellectual activities grew ever more restricted.




Mughal Empire (1524-1857)




1498-   The Portuguese first reached India.


1524-   Babur began his conquests in northern India.


1556-1605-  Reign of Akbar.


c. 1600- India had a population of about 100 million people.


1608-    First English factory built in India.


c. 1700-   The Mughal Emperors ruled almost the whole subcontinent by this point.


1739-    The Mughal capital at Delhi looted by Afghans.


1757-    The British defeated the ruler of Bengal.


1760-    Another Afghan invasion marked the end of any effective control by the Mughal emperors.


1761-    The British defeated the French in India.


1818-   The East India Company became the de facto police force for the continent.


1857-   Sepoy Mutiny.  The last Mughal emperor removed in the next year.



The Mughals were a Turkish-Mongol dynasty from Afghanistan that moved into northern India in the early sixteenth century after being pushed out of it small khanate near Kabul. The empire was founded by Babur in 1524. At that time northern India was in a state of relative chaos with a myriad of small independent states of mixed Muslim and Hindu populations. From Babur’s Empire in northern India, the Mughal Empire gradually spread south until all but the southern tip of India was under Mughal rule in 1690. Almost as soon as Aurungzeb died in 1707, the empire began to crumble; subject areas fell away rapidly. In 1739 Persian sacked Delhi itself. The rapidly receding power of the Mughals left many parts of India in a political vacuum which the British and French gladly stepped into. The year 1757 was decisive. In that year, Delhi was sacked again, this time by the Afghans. In the same year, the British defeated the ruler of Bengal and put part of India under its rule for the first time. After this Mughal rulers became virtual figure heads. Government devolved into the hands of hundreds of small state.

It was in the context of this political decentralization that European influence in India developed. English and French influence grew rapidly after 1739.  From the beginning, the two European states were competing with one another for control of Indian trade. By 1760 the English had pushed the French out of India thereby leaving no major obstacles, either Indian or European, to the expansion of English influence on the subcontinent. For several decades the British presence in India was largely private. It was in fact the British East India Company which had conquered and then ruled Bengal. Only after flagrant misrule by the company did the government of England step in. From 1818 onwards, India was divided into two categories of states: British India (those states ruled directly from London) and Indian India (local dynasties under British supervision). This dual rule was in place until the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. After that the British crown took direct control of all of India.

From their origins as tribal sheikhs, the Mughals evolved into the rulers of a multi-cultural, centralized state with a highly bureaucratized government. Upon their initial conquests, the Mughal’s gave out land to key followers to administer, much as was done in medieval Europe and the Ottoman Empire. However the Mughals quickly realized the problems inherent in this kind of feudal system. In order to build an effective central government the Mughal government turned to existing Persian administrative models and practices.  Indeed Persian even served as the official language of government for some time. Largely made up of foreigners at first, the imperial bureaucracy came to include Afghans, Persians, Indian Muslims, and even Hindus. Civil and military authority was linked. In fact, civil officials were paid and ranked according to the number of troops they commanded. Over time, fewer and fewer officials now were given lands, instead they were paid through non-heritable revenues thus making this new warrior elite dependent on the Great Mughal.

 Land within the empire was of two types: 1) that ruled directly by the Emperor; and 2)  that

governed by subject rulers who owed the Mughals financial and military support. The central government of the Mughals was itself was still mobile, it followed the Emperor.  Ministers ran various secretariats and oversaw the bureaucracy.   In broadest terms the government was designed to collect taxes, maintain order, enforce law, build and maintain roads and bridges and encourage cultural life.

 The government was financed through taxes- primarily a land tax which hit primarily

peasant farmers. There were also custom duties, import and transit taxes. The Mughals also collected tribute from conquered territories and dependent states. Most taxes went into the imperial treasury where they supplied the means to build public and government buildings, roads, and the military. Much also went into the lavish lifestyles of the emperors, the bureaucracy and the aristocratic elites.  Very little was put into public works, irrigation systems, or disaster relief. With the end of conquests and the failure to innovate economically, government revenues declined dramatically by the end of the seventeenth century. The government was not actively involved in developing commerce, nor did it rely heavily on commerce for revenue.

Mughal government did have a number of weaknesses which came to the forefront over time. The more or less traditional lack of a principle of orderly succession among Turkish-Mongol tribes led to the same kinds of instability and discontinuity in India that we mentioned in the Ottoman Empire.

The Mughals, like the Ottomans and Safavids, owed part of their rise to power to their successful adoption of gunpowder technology, especially artillery. They did develop a musket-carrying infantry in the seventeenth century, but continued to rely on foreign advisors and imported weapons. Nonetheless, the Mughals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrated significant military power. They were able to field armies of thirty thousand men or more. The heart of their army was the heavy cavalry. Their soldiers were drawn in part from feudal levies on the part of their subject states and vassal states, and in part from conscription from territories ruled directly by the Great Mughal.  

The Mughal failure to learn to use and innovate on western technology was a problem, but given the rapid disintegration of their authority even before European pressures mounted, it may not have been truly critical in this instance.

India was an enormously populated land in the early modern period with a population estimated at 100 million in the early seventeenth century.  Akbar the Great’s capital city of Agra had a population of 200,000 in the early seventeenth century, about twice the size of contemporary London. The great majority of the population was Hindu, with a strong admixture of Muslims in the north and on the west coast of India.  The basic Muslim/Hindu split in society was manifested in quite concrete ways when it came to how the different peoples saw religious and social order. Hindu society was rigidly ordered into myriad castes. The caste one was born into determined virtually all the basic conditions, duties and opportunities of one’s life. Muslim society was more egalitarian and social mobility was easier than among the Hindus. On the other hand, Islam (like Christianity and Judaism) is an exclusive religion. It claims to have an absolute and total Truth. All other religions were seen as idolatrous lies. Hinduism itself was somewhat eclectic and amorphous. What was more, the Hindus tended to be very tolerant of other religions. Thus the followers of the two religions were at loggerheads on the fundamental questions of social organization and religion. 

The task of creating a sense of unity was a monumental one in early modern India.  The native Hindus were made up of the many ethnic and linguistic groups who had inhabited the subcontinent for millennia. The Muslims were Afghans, Persians, and native converts to Islam. A few Europeans lived in ports. While life in rural India was largely unchanged, urban life was quite cosmopolitan.  Society was dominated by Muslim and Hindu aristocracies, while the masses were Hindu peasants. Members of the government and the Muslim elite enjoyed a lavish lifestyle.  Mughal rulers and the Muslim elite were famous for their love of hunting, alcohol, opium, and sports. India did have a small, but active artisan and merchant class. The great majority of people in these professions were Hindus. Ultimately, India was unable to unify successfully the same way European countries were.

By some estimates, India may have been the wealthiest land in the world.  Obviously then, the Mughal Empire enjoyed a sophisticated, diverse economy which was active and successful in many sectors. However, the Indian economy was based on traditional agriculture. While commercial agriculture expanded its role in the economy as the power of the central government increased in the seventeenth century, trade failed to take the central role in the economy, or in government policy that it did in Europe. Cotton, sugar, spices, indigo, and mulberry trees were among the main exports. Nor should India’s manufacturing be overlooked. Her textile industry was enormously successful at the beginning of our period. Indian cloth could be found from East Africa to China. Manufactures for domestic consumption were also highly developed. There was some expansion of roads and water transportation systems to link new commercial and manufacturing centers in the seventeenth century. A final part of the economy, especially important to the revenues of the Mughal rulers was that of loot taken from conquest together with tribute payments from defeated or cowed states within the empire. One of the explanations for the weakening of the Mughal state in the eighteenth century was the cessation of new conquests and the subsequent drying up of that part of the Empire’s revenues.

The kingdom’s finances were further stressed by waste and extravagance by the empire’s central government and elites. Enormous amounts of money were spent on government buildings and high living, but relatively little was spent on building infrastructure or on supporting the masses in times of crisis. As the seventeenth century progressed growing economic squeeze on the government led it to impose greater and greater taxes on the rural peasants. Within a short time, the peasantry were burdened with a crushing tax load, and the rural economy went into marked decline.

Life in Mughal India was dominated by religious law. Muslims organized their lives according to the revelations of Muhammad, and the laws based on his subsequent words and actions. The basic pattern of Hindu life was established in the ancient religious or philosophical texts, and in the later Laws of Manu. Religious leaders were enormously influential in both communities. 

India was the homeland of two of the world’s great religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. While they differ in significant ways, they also share a common set of concepts. Because Buddhism died out in India long before our period began though, we will discuss only Hinduism at this point. We will provide an overview of Buddhism in our discussion of China.

The traditional Indian worldview found the key to understanding the human condition in the understanding of the role of human desire. Human actions are the result of some kind of desire. It is these actions that give us much of our identity. However, this individual character we develop through our desires and actions is not real. Our attachment to this identity traps us in illusion and prevents us from seeing Reality. For Indians, nothing in the material world is truly real. It is only illusion. The human predicament is to find a way to escape the illusory world of material reality and to rejoin the ultimate Reality which lies beyond our senses and reason. In Hinduism, the individual soul is reunited with the “world soul,” Brahman. The natural world may not be “real” in some ultimate sense, but there is a kind of universal moral order to creation which constitutes the mechanism by which people can move themselves towards liberation from this world. 

The basic moral principle, karma, is similar to the notion “you reap what you sow.” That is to say, there is a kind of cause and effect relationship between one’s actions and one’s progress towards liberation. The journey to liberation is not a journey of a single lifetime. Time, in Indian cosmology, is not linear, but cyclical. The notion of being trapped in the material world is not simply a metaphor. The individual will live through a theoretically endless succession of lifetimes in this world if liberation is not achieved. One’s progress towards the ultimate release can be charted by one’s place on a kind of hierarchy of live things and of humans. A successful life in one cycle will result in being reborn in a higher order being- either a higher form of animal or plant life than in one’s last life, or as a higher caste human being. A poorly led life will move the individual back down the scale in the next life cycle.

But how does one know the proper way(s) to live in order to work effectively towards liberation. The answer lies in the Indian word dharma- perhaps most easily defined as “duty.” (It can also mean something like “work”)  The ultimate human dharma is simply to seek liberation.  The term is also used though to discuss concepts how to live religiously significant lives. Although different groups and different religions in India used the word in a variety of ways, we will work with a set of usages that apply generally in Hinduism. The term is used to describe paths one could take towards the desired goal of unification with Brahma. One avenue, one type of dharma, was the cultivation of the gods through proper rituals, sacrifices, and prayer. A second type of dharma, was the individual pursuit of escape through intensive meditation. The third major type of dharma was caste dharma- the performance of the duties of one’s caste. This third type of dharma essentially meant that the proper performance of one’s daily life had religious value. Thus in Hinduism, a good, religious life could focus on participation in  priestly-organized ceremonies, or on the individual ascetic’s solitary battle with himself, or simply in living day-to-day in the proper way. Of course, many people participated in all three forms at different times of their lives. All three types of dharma were intended to help one lessen one’s attachment to self and to this world by reducing desire.

The Mughal empire was quite cosmopolitan with an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse population. The art and architecture of the period reflects influences from Persian and Indian traditions, especially. However, it is still true that by and large the population of India shared a common culture based on the culture of early India. Even the Muslim political and military elites who entered India in waves between 1000 A.D. and c. 1500 A.D. rapidly assimilated much of traditional Indian culture.  Muslims and Hindus coexisted fairly comfortably in the early Mughal empire. Unfortunately, the Mughal rulers of the later seventeenth century moved to reverse more than a century of religious tolerance. Hindus and their temples were increasingly persecuted. This expanding chasm between the two main religious groups contributed to the rapid political disintegration of the Mughal empire in the eighteenth century.

Hindu high culture was severely damaged by  the persecutions of the late seventeenth century. Many temples were destroyed completely. The Mughal government placed controls on many aspects of traditional Hindu culture including the use of Sanskrit literature. This forced Hindus to use their vernacular languages for literary and religious purposes. With the  “official” Hinduism of the temples and clergy suppressed,  a “new” Hinduism emerged based on vernacular languages, family ceremonies, public processions, and other types of popular devotional practices. 

 Although ultimately, India’s Mughal rulers were to opt to turn decisively against the Hindu faith of the masses, there were some earlier attempts to bridge the social and religious gaps in Indian society. In the early fifteenth century, Guru Nanak preached a new faith. For the Sikhs there was one God for whom charity and goodness was most important.  Neither creed nor caste was relevant. For that matter, this new religious did not require an established priesthood.  The second attempt at overcoming religious divisions in India came with the Emperor Akbar’s attempt to model (and legislate) a sort of universal morality, and his efforts to bring together representatives of all major religious traditions in India to exchange ideas on a regular basis. In his own life he remained devoutly Muslim, but he both integrated elements of other traditions into his own practices, and tolerated other religious traditions.

By 1700 all major Islamic states were in decline.  The Safavid empire was overrun by the middle of the century and Persia lapsed into a half-century of political chaos. In India, the power of the Mughals was waning while French and English influence increased dramatically. After 1857 in fact the British began to carve out a territorial state of their own on the subcontinent. Decline in the Ottoman Empire was not as dramatically evident as in the other two states, but was serious nonetheless. By 1800 the Ottomans had fought a series of wars against their neighbors and were losing ground slowly but surely in Europe and the Caucasus.

Neither the Safavids nor the Mughals made serious efforts to respond to growing western power in their states. In truth, the disintegration of central authority in these states was so rapid that it probably precluded any chance for meaningful reform at the level of the central government. However, the Ottoman empire, while weakening, retained a political and military presence in the middle east through the nineteenth century. And there we can see the great variety of responses and attempted responses to the changing nature of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In general we can see three basic types of responses to rising Western influence. Among the conservative ulema and other conservative sectors of society, the intrusion of the west was often blamed on the failure of the Islamic world to maintain the purity of its religion. Their response then was to call for reform of the religion, and with it the culture. The basic idea was to return to the purity of religion and culture established by the Prophet and his immediate successors. This type of reform effort was the most common through the eighteenth century. The most dramatic of these calls for reform via a return to traditional Islam came in Arabia with the eighteenth century Wahhabi movement, and with the Mahdist revolt in the Sudan in the 1870’s.  Neither of these movements produced the desire results, but both are claimed as antecedents by many of those we associate with “Islamic fundamentalism” today. Thus, this type of reform effort is very much alive in the contemporary Islamic world.

A second type of response was to attempt to mimic some of those features of European culture deemed to be critical in the changing balance of power.

The end of political expansion and conquest, the rapidly growing loss of revenue from long-distance trade, and the slow insinuation of European merchants and manufacturing into the economies of the Islamic world together produced enormous economic weakness.  In effect these problems weakened the very sectors- the imperial administration, the mercantile and manufacturing sectors, needed to make many of the reforms that might have enabled these states to match changes in Europe.  The imperial administration of the great Islamic empires was losing its ability to rule effectively in the provinces. The decentralized states of the 18th century lacked then the strong central institutions that could effectively initiate, guide, and even compel the kinds of reforms necessary to match advances made in Europe. In fact, the 18th century was a period of growing political and economic instability. Entrenched hereditary elites of landed gentry, palace guards, military castes, local princes, urban craft guilds, and the ulema made meaningful reform all but impossible. At the same time, the strength of the central government was waning in all three empires.

During the 18th century the Ottoman Empire fought a continuous series of wars with it neighbors Persia, Austria, Russia and Poland. The Ottomans gradually lost ground to their European opponents. Indeed, it was the competition between the European states that allowed the Turks to hold on to any of their European territories. In 1774, the Ottomans were forced to give up the Crimea, to grant autonomy to its Danubian provinces, to allow Russian ships passage through the Dardanelles, and to grant the Russians rights of protection over Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.

In 1798, The French seized Egypt. Russian and English opposition to the French forced them out again in 1801, but marked the first time an Islamic core region had been conquered by Europeans, at least since the Crusades. Moreover, the French occupation brought with it direct exposure to new European technologies, military organization, and thought.  Following the withdrawal of the French, the Ottomans were unable to reassert effective control over Egypt. In 1805 the nominal governor of Egypt became the de facto ruler of an independent state, although he continued to pay lip-service to the Ottoman Sultan.

European states continued to pressure the Ottoman Empire throughout the early nineteenth century. The Sultan’s inability to deal effectively with European aggression, the nationalist up-swellings of people within the Empire led it to called “the sick man of Europe” by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in 1833. Caught especially between French and Russian aggression in the early 19th century, the Ottomans came to rely on the British to intervene on their behalf.



Ming and Qing China (1368-1912 A.D.)



Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.)


1368-    The leader of the successful Chinese rebellion against the Mongol rulers of

            China proclaimed the beginning of a new dynasty in China.


1402-1424-   Reign of Ch’eng-tsu who moved the capital to Peking (1421).


1405-1433      - Voyages of Cheng-Ho announced the potential of Chinese supremacy at

 sea between China and the east coast of Africa.


1408-     Under Ch’eng-tsu’s patronage a compendium of  22,877 rolls of Chinese

            literature was completed.


1460’s-1470’s-  The Great Wall was strengthened.


1514    - Portuguese reached China


1549-     St. Francis Xavier landed in China.


1551-1610   - Matteo Ricci worked in China.


1557    - The Portuguese established a base at Macao.


1550’s-1560’s-  The Ming held off renewed Mongol attacks.


1600-   China’s population reached about 150 million.



Qing (Ching, Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912)


1644-  Qing dynasty came to power in northern China.


1662-1727     - reign of K’ang-hsi


1681-   Final resistance to Qing rule eliminated. Southern China brought under

 Qing control.


1683-  Coastal pirates were brought under control with European help, and with Japan’s

self-imposed isolation.


1689- Treaty of Nerchinsk settled border problems with Russia.


1697-  K’ang-hsi led the conquest of western Mongolia.


1700-    The population of China recovered to 150 million after tumultuous

17th century.


1704-1742      -  Papal decisions issued against the Jesuit positions in the Rites Controversy.


1707-    The Chinese kicked out all European missionaries but the Jesuits.


1720-    Chinese extended influence into Tibet.


1727-    Treaty with the Russians stabilized the northern border and secured Chinese

 control over the eastern steppes.


1737-1795-  Reign of Ch’ien-lung.  Under this emperor China reached its greatest

            economic prosperity and its greatest geographic extent.


1757-    Canton declared the only port available for foreign trade and traders.


1773-    The Jesuit order was dissolved by the Pope. The remaining Jesuits in China were



1796-1804  -     The White Lotus rebellion broke out.


1800 A.D.  -   The population of China reached 300 million.




Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.)


At the time of the first European explorations, the Ming dynasty ruled China. An indigenous dynasty, the Ming had removed the Yuan, or Mongol, dynasty that had ruled in China since the thirteenth century. Government under the Ming followed traditional models. With his accession to power the first Ming emperor issued an announcement accepting the Mandate of Heaven which provided him with both the authority to rule as emperor, as well as the heavy responsibilities that came with this divine sanction. The Ming used new nationalist sentiments in China to solidify their position following the removal of the foreign Mongol dynasty. The dynasty’s patronage of neo-Confucianist scholarship further served to emphasize the traditional character of the regime. The regime’s political center remained in northern China. It was the Ming who established Beijing as the capital of the Empire- a status it would hold for the remaining centuries of imperial rule in China.

Early Ming rulers extended China’s dominance to Korea and southeast Asia. Expeditions were also undertaken versus the Mongols. The Great Wall was strengthened and extended. By 1424, China had established a kind of loose suzerainty over the Indian Ocean. Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese launched a series of sea voyages, led by the Muslim eunuch Cheng Ho, which carried Chinese fleets as far as East Africa. The first voyage included 27,800 men, 62 large ships, 255 smaller vessels. The third voyage was of a similar scale. The voyages were a means of demonstrating Ming claims to supremacy throughout the entire region.

Soon, however, political infighting became a problem. On the one side were the landed gentry who traditionally had dominated Chinese government and economy. Their interests were primarily agricultural. They favored a more traditional focus on inland affairs and inland borders. On the other side were the eunuchs employed in the government to balance the influence of the gentry. Their interests were more closely tied to the mercantile sectors of the economy. The conflicts between these two groups in the early fifteenth century expressed themselves in the debate over the importance of overseas trade and contact for China. However, the movement of the capital north to Beijing from the south was an early sign of the influence of the landed gentry. In 1434, they won a total victory. The Emperor decided that the empire’s focus needed to be on the north and on its traditional agriculture and internal trade. Moreover, it was the traditional worries about northern steppe invaders that required military attention and resources, not the shores of southern China. International contacts beyond her traditional sphere of influence were deemed to be neither of particular economic value, nor culturally beneficial. The victory of the agricultural interests of the landed gentry led to the almost complete abandonment of Chinese sea-borne mercantile and military fleets.  China literally beached its navy and it merchant fleet. With the withdrawal of the Chinese from the seas, piracy and smuggling became chronic problems.

Europeans, however, were not among China’s problems under the Ming. The Portuguese did reach China in 1513 A.D., and later were allowed to set up a trading post at Macao in 1557.  Neither these early contacts, nor later diplomatic, religious, or economic missions by Europeans posed any threat to the empire through the seventeenth century. In fact, the Europeans were often used to help the Chinese patrol their coasts after giving up their own navy.  

By the early seventeenth century, the Ming dynasty was experiencing difficulties. Decades of increasing turmoil culminated in 1644 A.D. with the accession to power of a new dynasty, the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty.  Although the Manchus were actually sinified “barbarians” from north of China, the transition from Ming to Qing dynasties took place on traditional patterns. Heavy and unequal taxation combined with court politics and intrigue provoked rebellions in provinces. The military establishment was paralyzed by the involvement of some of its leadership in court intrigue. Barbarian raids in the north, and Japanese piracy on the coasts increased in intensity. Finally, the Manchus overran northern China.

The Manchus named their dynasty the Qing.  As had the Mongols before them, the new northern conquerors chose to adopt Chinese political theory, institutions, and practices.  As had happened many times before, the accession of a new dynasty did not affect the basic institutional and philosophical continuity of government in China.  The Qing employed a two-fold administrative system- provincial governors, usually Chinese, paired with military leader, usually Manchu, well into 18th century.

Although the population grew rapidly in the 18th century, the bureaucracy did not grow at the same rate, so it became harder to obtain positions in government. Thus the traditional exam system which had been China’s chief avenue of social advancement became increasingly competitive. By 1788 eight exams were required to reach the highest levels of government. What was more, the criteria for judging papers increasingly formalistic. 

Chinese trade and mercantile sector had expanded under the Sung dynasty. International trade continued to thrive under the Mongols. As part of the backlash against foreigners that followed the overthrow of the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty in China, the Ming dynasty established firm state control over sea trade. For a brief time in the early fifteenth century the voyages of Cheng Ho seemed to promise the protrusion of China into a dominant position in the economy of the Indian Ocean.  However, the political victory of the agricultural interests of the landed gentry over more commercial interests led to the almost complete abandonment of Chinese sea-borne mercantile and military fleets.  Nonetheless, internal trade within China remained brisk, as did overland trade via the Silk Road. But as it happened, China withdrew from the world’s oceans and the trade they carried at almost precisely the moment Europe was beginning its exploration. Thus, instead of facing a vast navy and commercial fleet with the resources of the Chinese state behind it, the Europeans were confronted upon their arrival in the Indian Ocean with little more than private commercial interests, and the relatively small military and commercial fleets of the myriad states that bordered on the seas of the region.

Trade in China was to face a second impediment when faced with later European competition. Traditional Confucian ethics saw trade and merchants as essentially necessary evils. Thus the social status of merchants was very low in China.  When merchants became rich, they tended to use their money to obtain education and government positions for their children, and land for themselves in order for their families to join the landed gentry at the top of the social ladder. Ironically, the relative openness of the upper levels of society meant that the mercantile sector continually lost its richest, and perhaps most able members. Of course it also lost their wealth as well. This meant that Chinese mercantile communities had difficulty developing large-scale trade and manufacturing.

Under the Qing, agricultural advances continued in China. Superior strains of rice were developed, irrigation methods were improved,  better fertilizers were found (soybean cakes), and  American crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts were introduced.  For a while this agricultural expansion allowed tax rates to fall. Standards of living and life expectancy both seem to have risen.  Internal trade also grew greatly. China enjoyed a favorable balance of trade through the eighteenth century. 

Sea-trade with Europeans which began in the sixteenth century remained limited and tightly controlled through the eighteenth century.  European contact with the Chinese people remained very limited. As late as 1757, the Chinese emperor was able to dictate a treaty with the English declaring Canton to be the only port available for European trade. By the end of the eighteenth century though, the English began to search for ways to circumvent the strict controls placed on their trade by the Chinese government. Not surprisingly, they turned to smuggling- with significant success. The volume of foreign trade reaching China increased markedly as products such as tea, silk, and china were exported in exchange for Indian cotton and opium (later).  By the 1830’s this illicit trade was draining money from China, undercutting its merchants, and addicting its people. The government’s attempts to meet these challenges provoked the so-called Opium Wars.

By 1500 A.D., the Chinese world view was built on the foundations of several systems of thought and belief that evolved in early China prior to the birth of Christ: 1) an indigenous Chinese polytheism and belief system, 2) Confucianism, 3) Daoism, and 4) Legalism.

The earliest Chinese religion was a polytheism similar to those found around the world in early civilizations. One of the key elements of this belief was an emphasis on ancestor worship. This type of veneration was centered on the family and continues in some places today. Another key idea was the notion that nature existed in a balance of apparently opposite forces. The emphasis on the wholeness of being and on the need for harmony and balance became central components of the Chinese world view.  Finally, the emphasis on the derivation of political power from the chief deity, Heaven, unified Chinese political thought for thousands of year. According to early political thought in China, political rule was only legitimate when confirmed by Heaven. In early Imperial China, this evolved into the notion of the Mandate of Heaven by which the imperial dynasties were given divine legitimacy by Heaven as the earthly rulers reigned with Heaven’s mandate. However, the mandate not only gave authority to the Emperors, but also made them responsible for the well-being of their subjects. Poor rule could result in the withdrawal of the Mandate and its transfer to a new, more worthy, dynasty. Thus China’s remarkable  3500 year series of dynastic cycles retained a fundamental  way of looking at the world throughout its entire history.

From the earliest times, Chinese thought held a fast belief that the cosmos was unified by ordering principle of some kind.  Reality was harmonious. Life in the world could, and should, be led in accordance with this ordering principle. The problem in Chinese thought was that humans tended to lose or forget the principles that allowed us to lead lives in harmony with the rest of the cosmos. Nature consisted of combinations of five basic elements, which in turn were all alloys of the two forces that permeated all of nature- namely, yin and yang. Everything in nature was effectively made up of opposites which existed together harmoniously in a delicate balance.  The task of human religion was to help maintain this balance, and to restore it when lost. This included rites and rituals designed to maintain the proper relationship between heaven and earth, between humans and spirits or deities, and between humans.

Two great ethical/religious systems grew from these foundations in the late sixth century and early fifth century before Christ. Master Kung, better known in the west as Confucius, lived in time of political and social turmoil. He saw this societal breakdown as a symptom of disharmony in the human sphere. The problem as he saw it was that people failed to perform their proper roles in life and in society. If everyone, from the ruler down, were to adhere to the proper behavior demanded of one based on gender, social status, and occupation the chaos afflicting China at the time would be ended. Confucius saw education as the key to achieving proper behavior, or virtue as he thought of it. The education he proposed found models for behavior in past rulers and past society. His thought then was inherently conservative and rooted in tradition.  Proper behavior and the proper ordering of society was encapsulated in a set of basic human relations. According to Confucius each of these relationships- husband/wife, parents/children, and ruler/subjects, eldest sons and younger brothers, and the general relationship between elders and younger people,  was hierarchical in character and involved a set of mutual obligations. Each part of these relationships contributed to the common good while still providing individual fulfillment through the realization of the nature of these fundamental human roles. Ultimately, earthly harmony with heaven and the formation of a harmonious society would be the outcome of the recognition and performance of one’s obligations.  Essentially, when one recognized and accepted one’s role(s), one helped create universal harmony. The ideal life prescribed by Confucius was that of the Gentleman Scholar.  Through a life-long process of moral education, the Gentleman Scholar embodied the notion that the concrete expression of virtue came through family life and through public service. Ideally the Gentleman Scholar was a pious, dutiful son,  a kind and just father, a loyal, hardworking government official, a righteous husband, and a good friend. The “virtuous life” was described by Confucius as being the result of cultivating a specific set of “inner” and “outer” virtues. The inner virtues consisted of: 1) humaneness- seeking the good of others; 2) reciprocity- essentially the golden rule; and 3) self-correction- meaning the ability to reflect on one’s behavior and to self-correct. The outer virtues were: 1) propriety- that is to say, the ability to recognize the proper order or form required in any given situation. The clearest expression of propriety is found in the five basic human relationships; 2) respect for elders, especially filial piety; and 3) the rectification of names- the recognition of the importance of words and their meanings, and the consequent upholding of these terms.  Even here, balance between the two kinds of virtues was necessary.

The basic principles of moral education advocated by Confucius could be found in the “Five Classics,” earlier texts reportedly edited by Confucius, and four other books including his own Analects. These books were to become the core of civil service exams in China for some two thousand year.

Confucius’s teachings focused exclusively on human life in the world. Beyond advocating the proper performance of religious rituals, he refused to speculate about further spiritual or supernatural truths. Confucianism therefore is not a religion, but a moral value system that emphasized duty, tradition and social harmony.

In contrast Taoism asserted that recovering and maintaining harmony with nature was the central task facing human beings.  The problem for humans was that the misguided assertion of our individuality was essentially an attempt to make permanent what was by nature impermanent. In some ways similar to Indian thought, early Taoists saw human desire as the force which drove from humans the ability to recognize the true pattern of reality- the Tao.  The Tao is indescribable. One thing it is not is God. But to describe it beyond negative assertions one must resort to metaphors. The Tao was often compared to a stream of water in constant motion that slowly effaced anything in its path over time. It has been called the Mother of all life. It is like a block of wood, or a deep pool. It has been described as a valley for it is the emptiness of the valley which gives the valley reality. Nature was actually the manifestation of the Tao. Within nature man could see the pattern of the Tao- birth, maturation, decay, and death (return to the Tao). Everything in nature was part of this cycle. Thus life and death were not opposites but were parts of the same reality. Everything had its own Te, its own destiny or virtue which would express itself fully in life, if not buried under desire. Whereas for Confucius, te was a kind of natural virtue within us that could be nurtured through education, te for the Taoist was a natural virtue within one that was obscured by education. For the Taoist, the goal of human life was to live a simple and natural life. When society’s leaders led such a life then society itself would harmonize with the Tao. The means to such a life for anyone was found in the principle of inaction. One was to act without asserting oneself. In other words one was to have no goals, no ambitions beyond that of being true to oneself. Even the desire to help others was a deception that blocked the expression of one’s te. Good would come from “inaction” or unattached acts. This came to mean one should accept what life brought and not challenge it- one should go with the flow. Like Buddhism or Hinduism though, the philosophical form of Taoism was difficult to translate into the daily life of the average person. A more communally oriented form evolved over time.  In this form, Taoism emphasized moral teachings and collective ceremonies. Good moral conduct was rewarded with good health and long life. Bad conduct was punished. In this form of Taoism, there were gods who administered the universe, sacred texts which came from the gods, and even priestly order to carry out rituals and ceremonies. All forms seek a harmonious, well-ordered universe. Thus, in Confucianism and Taoism, Chinese thought found a balanced foundation that provided a rational morality for social and political order, as well as a kind of complementary mystical framework for the broader understanding of the place of human existence in the cosmos which also served as a kind of self-corrective device for the inherently hierarchical and secular doctrine of Confucianism.

Shortly after the time of Christ, Buddhism had arrived in China from India. It spread rapidly until the ninth century. Although official patronage of Buddhism eroded after this, and some purges occurred, Buddhism not only survived in China, but evolved several new sects. From China, Buddhism made its way to Japan and into Southeast Asia. That part of Buddhism which believed humans failed to apprehend correctly reality,  and which saw human desire as the underlying factor found in Taoism ideas to which it could bind itself. With the development of Mahayana Buddhism which replaced individual self-discipline and the search for the “Extinguishing” with a religion which brought back ritual and ceremony, which provided guides or assistants (boddhisatvas) for those who needed help Buddhism provided a platform for a religion of personal salvation traditional Chinese could build on without having to jettison their whole traditional value system. Buddhism itself, however, had little effect on the fundamental character of Chinese civilization, either before or after the Ming.

In the pronounced anti-foreign environment surrounding their defeat of the Mongol rulers of China, the Ming dynasty’s aggressive assertion of a strictly conservative form of Neo-Confucianism must have seemed a necessary corrective to the corrupting influences of the Mongols. In and of itself, the use of the Confucian classics as the basis for the civil exam service was traditional. However, the expressed desire to prune from this doctrine any foreign influences  or other unjustified later accretions greatly accentuated the backward-looking character of official Chinese thought. Ironically, the next dynasty, the Manchurian Qing, continued Ming policies in this regard as a way of demonstrating the essential “Chinese-ness” of their rule. In other words, not only did early modern China inherit a pervasive value system that was inherently conservative in nature, but it inherited one that was becoming increasingly xenophobic, and even opposed to domestically derived innovations.  Thus China would deliberately remove as many foreign influences from their country as possible (including news of western intellectual and technological advances), while effectively freezing the kinds of intellectual and technological activities that had made China one of the world’s great civilizations in the preceding two thousand years.

This criticism is somewhat unfair though. While Chinese thought became increasingly conservative in many ways, this does not mean that all cultural life suffered in this period. Literacy rated s in China grew under the Ming.  In fact, the early modern period was a great era for Chinese literature. Short stories were a common genre, while Chinese novels of the period provide enormous insights into the state of Chinese society. Drama, too, was highly prized. Poetry, and even some history also continued to be produced in some quantity. Similarly, art in China continued to prosper.  Painting and wood-block prints were both widespread.  What proved to be lacking was new work in mathematics, science, and philosophy.




Early Modern Europe


1453-               Invention of the printing press. 

                         Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

1492-               Columbus sailed to the new world.

1498-               Da Gama reached India

1513-               Portuguese reached China

1517-               Luther posted his “95 Theses”

1519-1521       Cortez conquered the Aztecs

1542-               The Portuguese opened trade with Japan.

1543-               Publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.  

                        Andreas Vesalius published Concerning the Structure of the Human Body

1555-               Peace of Augsburg

1600-               Foundation of the English East India Company

1602-               Dutch East India Company formed.

1605-               Francis Bacon published Advancement of Learning

1607-               Jamestown

1609-               Johannes Kepler published Astronomia Nova

1610-              Galileo Galilei published Sidereal Messenger

1628-              William Harvey published On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.

1637-              Rene Descartes published Discourse on Method

1648-               End of the Thirty Years War

1651-               Hobbes' Leviathan

1662-               Royal Society of London founded.

1666-               French Academy of Science founded.

1678-               Huygens proposed the wave theory of light.

1687-               Newton published Principia Mathematica

1688-               Locke published Of Civil Government: Two Treatises.

1689-               Bill of Rights in England

1733-               Voltaire published Philosophical Letters on the English.

1735-               Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae.

1748-               Montesquieu published The Spirit of the Laws.

1757-               Battle of Plessey- England gained control of  Bengal.

1769-               James Watt’s steam engine.

1776-               American Revolution began.

                        Adam Smith published On the Wealth of Nations.

1789-               Lavoisier published his treatise on chemistry.    

                        French Revolution began.







The Transformation of Europe



The early modern centuries (sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries) mark a turning point in world history. The relative balance between civilizations that had been the hallmark of the preceding two millennia was upset with the rise and expansion of western civilization. Perhaps more important was the type of civilization that was emerging in the west. There, traditional patterns of organization, traditional institutional and intellectual authorities, traditional technologies, and traditional ways of life as well as value systems were called into question on a scale not seen since the formative periods of the great  civilizations, and perhaps not even then.

Entering the fifteenth century, Europe showed few signs of the enormous changes ahead. Although Europe experienced a number of crises in the fourteenth century that precipitated shifts from earlier medieval practices in some ways, fifteenth century Europe was still definable as medieval- that is it still shared with preceding centuries the key elements of the civilization slowly forged in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe. Most European states were still ruled by traditional limited monarchies, supported by sanctions from the Catholic Church, and integrated with vestiges of feudalism left over from the chaotic world around the turn of the millennium. The various difficulties endured by the Papacy in the fourteenth century had already signaled a clear reduction in the political influence of the Catholic Church, but there was not yet any clear notion of the separation of church and state, much less of religion and politics. The economy of Europe was still built around traditional agriculture in which traditional land use patterns still predominated. The social structure of Europe was still built around the three major estates of medieval Europe: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the peasantry. The urban middle class was growing, but only slowly. Power and wealth in the fourteenth century was predominantly hands of the ten percent of the population that belonged to either the aristocracy or the clergy (or both).  The peasantry of western and central Europe was slowly winning its freedom by 1400 A.D., but their compatriots in eastern Europe were beginning a long process of being forced into severe forms of serfdom which far surpassed medieval forms of servitude. Armored cavalry was still the core of fourteenth century armies in Europe, although the long bow, cross bow, and the nascent forms of gun powder weapons presaged the obsolescence of the medieval knight. Military power was still private in nature. The universal spiritual authority of the Catholic Church was acknowledged throughout western and central Europe. In the intellectual world, Catholic religious learning combined with an adherence to what little western Europe knew about classical science and mathematics formed the core of education in Europe. Literacy was very low and knowledge about the rest of the world was extremely limited. Indeed the Christian focus on the afterlife together with the limited survival of classical knowledge in western Europe meant that Europeans tended to see Nature as uncontrollable and to a large extent unknowable.

By the end of the eighteenth century, almost a new civilization emerged in Europe. Catholic universalism had ended. The Protestant movement had splintered into countless sects and denominations. The upshot was that the earlier religious unity of Europe was gone. Not only that, but a century of religiously inspired wars amongst Europeans following the Reformation led Europeans to separate religion and politics more and more. Indeed, the loss of a universally recognized religious Truth and the apparent tainting of religion through involvement in politics led many Europeans to unprecedented levels of skepticism about religion and religious truth of any kind. At the same time, the intellectual life of Europe in 1800 was without doubt the most vital in the world.  Europeans at this time knew more about the world than had any other people at any other time. In particular, European science and technology were progressing well beyond that of any earlier civilization. Europeans now believed not only that the world was understandable, but that progress was possible. Europe was much wealthier than it had ever been before. A new type of economy, and with it a new type of society, was in evidence with the evolving capitalist society taking form at that time. Capitalism brought new forms of economic organization, stimulated new technologies and new types of institutions, and was slowly helping to change European social order. Finally, the monarchies of the late eighteenth century ruled much more unified states and exercised far greater power than had their medieval predecessors. Perhaps most importantly, Europeans now conceived of their kingdoms as nation-states in which the ultimate power was institutional, not personal, and in which the increased authority of the monarch was justified by the great responsibilities he or she carried.

The early modern period in Europe was effectively the transition period from the medieval civilization in place in Europe circa 1500 A.D. to modern western civilization, the fundamental components of which were established by the end of the eighteenth century. This transition can best be traced through the examination of a series of events and processes which posed challenges to existing tradition and authority in Europe, and led to enormous cultural innovation.

Beginning in the fourteenth century, Italian artists and scholars undertook the resurrection of classical Greek and Roman culture in Europe.  The attempted rebirth of classical civilization brought with it the rediscovery of classical learning (especially important in mathematics and science), and the determination to seek for much of this heritage that had been lost to western Europe for centuries. In order to truly access classical civilization, western Europeans had to learn to read Greek. Armed with this tool, Europeans were able to acquire new works long forgotten in the west, as well as to compare their own Latin versions of some works with the original Greek versions. European scholars became engaged then in a massive reexamination of the core of its cultural heritage. This reexamination quickly came to produce negative critiques of contemporary, religion, learning and society. From the Renaissance came the notion of a Middle Ages, that is a period of darkness and barbarity between two shining eras of civilization, namely Rome and the Renaissance. The rebirth of classical civilization was not simply a matter of adding books to libraries, or more information to the banks of knowledge available for any one subject. Classical ways of thinking and looking at the world were also reborn. In broad terms, the more secular outlook of the Greeks and the Romans inspired in late medieval Europe a slow but decisive shift towards a more positive view of life in this world, and of the pursuit of worldly aims. The adoption of this more secular world view is evident in the appearance of two attitudes that were to have important places in the formation of modern western civilization: 1) the conviction in the value of education as a means of making life better both spiritually and materially for individuals as well as for society. The corollary of this was that the best type of education was a broad-based “liberal” education; 2) the reassertion of the importance of the individual. Thus the Renaissance challenged medieval Europe’s emphasis on the afterlife with the concomitant negative view of life in this world. It also suggested that the medieval view of the usefulness of education, which say education primarily justifiable only as an aid to understanding Scripture and other religious writing, was wrong. It is important to note however, that Renaissance writers were not opposed to religion or to Christianity. Furthermore, they were not advocates of creating something new- they were in fact pointedly conservative in many respects. They were, after all, trying to resurrect a civilization that had died a thousand years before,  and not trying to create a new one. 

A second challenge to Medieval thought and institutions came in the form of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s questioning of papal authority on the question of indulgences opened a Pandora’s box for European thought. If the pope was wrong on that issue, the whole claim of papal authority on matters of doctrine and belief was called into question. In his work “Address to the German Nobility” (1521),  Luther specifically refuted the Church’s claim that clergy formed a separate (and superior) order within society and were effectively beyond the rule of secular authorities. Luther assured the German aristocracy that in fact the clergy was subject to the authority of secular rulers and not the other way around. He also attacked the Pope’s claim that only he could interpret scripture. Luther and other reformers insisted that the individual believer should be able to read Scripture directly, and thus (in theory anyway) reach his or her own understanding of it. 

What had begun as an attempt to reform the Church with regard to a single, relatively minor practice ultimately had enormous consequences for western civilization. The Reformation shattered the institutional and confessional unity of central and western Europe . It took a century of internecine warfare before Europeans would accept that they could not agree upon a single religious Truth. While virtually all Europeans remained Christian, the bond of the universal Catholic Church which was such an important part of medieval identity, was lost. The prolonged religious squabbling together with the religiously inspired violence that accompanied the dispute led many Europeans to various levels of skepticism regarding religion, religious institutions, and the possibility of knowing with certainty what was True in religious terms.  Luther’s insistence on the right of the individual to read and interpret scripture, and his denial of the superiority of the clerical estate struck a significant blow against the Catholic Church’s influence on European thought and beliefs.  Similarly, his assertion that the church should be subject to secular authorities gave enormous impetus to the growth of the power of secular government.

A third early challenge to authority and tradition came through European exploration and expansion beginning in the fifteenth century. From the late 15th through the 16th centuries Europeans embarked on a remarkable process of global exploration and expansion. In addition to enormous amounts of wealth, the European exploration brought an even greater wealth of knowledge and information into Europe. Not only did they learn more about the world they knew existed out there, for instance China and India, they also encountered plants, animals, peoples, and even continents that none of their existing sources of knowledge could account for. For the first time, European knowledge began to surpass the great classical and Biblical authorities on which had rested Europe’s intellectual life and world-view.  

The early challenges to the medieval thought and value system produced further changes.  The Scientific Revolution of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an enormous upswing in the amount and creativity of scientific and philosophical work being done in Europe. At the same time, new technologies helped to stimulate the advances in learning (and vice versa).  The re-examination of classical knowledge stimulated by the Renaissance and the realization that classical knowledge had been neither complete nor infallible led many scholars to rethink or even question accepted “truths” from sources as august at Aristotle. The decades-long battle over Copernicus’s assertion of a heliocentric solar system produced many other concrete scientific advances from improved star charts, to mathematical proofs for the courses of planetary orbits, to the use of the telescope for astronomy. Perhaps more important than any single advance in mathematics, hard science, or technology though was the rethinking of what constituted true knowledge and how one obtained such knowledge.

The biggest problem with a heliocentric universe was not its contradiction of Aristotle’s geocentric universe, but rather that it might contradict Scripture which seemed to support a geocentric universe. The Church, and many Europeans by the seventeenth century could accept the notion that papal authority was not absolute in all areas, but to suggest that Holy Scripture could be wrong was entering very dangerous waters. Galileo was careful to acknowledge Scripture’s absolute authority in matters of faith, but asserted that information about material existence in the Bible was sparse, sometimes difficult to interpret, and often written in simplistic way so as not to confuse the simple. In short the Bible was not a reliable source for scientific knowledge. With this we have a clear statement of the demarcation between spiritual and scientific knowledge that we take for granted today (see Galileo reading). A contemporary of Galileo, Francis Bacon doubted the value of all of Europe’s old science and even of its old “logic.” To reach true knowledge Europeans must build on new foundations. Bacon further recognized a key tenet of our modern attitudes towards knowledge, and particularly science. Simply put- knowledge is power.  Finally, with Isaac Newton’s “discovery” of gravity and his mathematically-based explanation of the structure of the physical universe the universe became a wound-up watch that no longer needed its creator (or any kind of divine causality) at all to continue to operate.  The rules by which it operated were immutable, eternal, and rational. As such it was open to examination and understanding by humans.

If the cosmos created by God followed immutable, rationally determinable laws, did this not suggest that the same was true for human beings and their societies? Seventeenth century Europeans very quickly applied the same critical principles to the human world that they did to the material world around them. During the Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, human nature, social organization, political theory and institutions, economic activity, and laws were all examined, criticized, and subjected to calls for rational reform. The groundwork was laid at this time for fundamental reforms of European society.  By the end of the eighteenth century, the notion was common that government existed to serve its citizens, that society was in some form a compact between its citizens, that all citizens had legal rights, that humans possessed “natural rights,” and that both the human race and its societies were improvable through the application of rational reforms based the “universal laws” that governed human existence. The democratic experiment of the American colonies and the violent social and political revolution in France that followed were expressions of these beliefs.

Thus the challenges to medieval tradition ultimately stimulated a whole new way of looking at the world. These changes in turn were to produce new ways of understanding mankind and its societies. The modern belief in progress, the conviction in the importance of the individual, the notion of natural rights, our understanding of human psychology, our faith in science, and our basic way of understanding man’s relationship to society, nature, and God are rooted in the changes that took place in Europe in this period.

But changes in European society were occurring independently of the intellectual/spiritual changes. Stavrianos talks about a “new economics” and a “new politics.”  The new economics- that is to say, the rise of capitalism- involved the development of new relationships between labor and ownership, specialization of labor and production, new financial instruments and institutions, the monetization of the economy, and the expansion of trade, and the creation of a new global dynamic in European trade.

None of these developments changed the basic conditions of life for the vast majority of Europeans. Most people still lived in small towns and villages. Their horizons were still local. Most still depended upon agriculture directly or indirectly for their living. The monetization of the economy had eroded the feudal organization of the countryside, but it had not ended it. Vestiges of feudalism would remain in Europe until the French Revolution and its aftermath. The segment of society most dramatically affected by economic development was the urban mercantile and manufacturing class. The stimulus to trade increased the size (slightly) and the prosperity of the “middle class. This gave the urban middle class a significantly greater importance in early modern politics and society than it had held in the medieval world. While Europe was still a hierarchical society wherein the aristocratic elite dominated positions of political, military, and economic power, the rise of the middle class was a clear trend of the age.

Finally, the early modern period saw a major change in the nature of kingship in Europe. Political chaos reigned in the late middle ages as powerful aristocracies sought to further limit the powers of medieval kings. Indeed, the Kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperors were often less powerful than some of their vassals. Using their wealth and private armies to seek power and political advantage in an environment of weak central government, Europe’s violent, uncontrollable aristocracies led Europe into a century of warfare and brigandage in the fourteenth century. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the common people came more and more to support royalist claims, seeing in them the only way to check the chaos and restore a semblance of order. In England, France, and Spain, new more powerful monarchies emerged at the head of new nation-states.  The trend continued in the sixteenth century as central governments developed more efficient bureaucracies and ministries, created more effective centralized judicial and financial institutions, and gained rights to new forms of revenue with which they provided public works as well as standing professional armies. In the seventeenth century many European kings exercised a kind of absolutism wherein the monarch was limited only by divine or natural law. Absolutist claims were, in fact, most often based on the claim to rule by Divine Right. These rulers monopolized political power and justice within their kingdoms. Their sovereignty was characterized by the right to make law, something which earlier monarchs had been unable to do. The new monarchs were moving away from the old feudal basis for their rule with its concept of mutual obligations and rights. Feudal rulers possessed monopolies of neither justice nor military power, both of which the “new monarchs” of the early modern period largely achieved. There were three main characteristics of the “new monarchies” 1) The new states were ruled through councils and ministers. Government bureaucracy built up in order to establish effective royal control at local levels. In many areas old representative institutions faded 2) Royal government monopolized gunpowder technologies giving it an effective monopoly of military power within the state. 3) Taxation and the Kings’ right to create taxes in order to raise money were major themes of political life in this period.  It was in this period that European states came to be defined primarily in territorial terms. Kingship became an abstract authority tied to the state, not a personal possession. The new states were more unified, better able to mobilize their resources, and possessed the permanent institutions (bureaucracies, representative institutions, courts, and standing armies) that provided greater stability and continuity over time.

Finally, we must note the failure of any state in Europe to achieve any significant advantage over its neighbors. The claims of the medieval Holy Roman Empire to a kind of primacy over other European rulers had been destroyed with the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in the thirteenth century. Early modern kings claimed no theoretical supremacy over other kings, and were largely unable to conquer other, even very small, well-organized European states. Thus European politics was a game of political balance for about three centuries where even small states could wield great economic and military power, and where shifting alliances were used to check any state which threatened to become too powerful.