(You can click on the map to enlarge it.)
The ‘early modern’ period is usually dated from the 1450s, the decade that saw the invention of printing with moveable type and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The ‘long sixteenth century’, from c.1450 to c.1600 witnessed major changes: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of capitalism, the voyages of discovery, and the growth of the nation state. All these changes are problematic and disputed.
Many demographers set the population of Europe at about 80 million in 1300. Over the next century the population was dramatically reduced by the Black Death, but by 1500 it had climbed back to pre-1300 levels ,and over the 16th century it reached about 100 million.
This had profound consequences for prices and the food supply
The political map
The map of Europe in the late fifteenth century looks in some respects similar to the present-day map and in other respects very different. In fact, the similarities are misleading.
The British Isles: England and Wales became a single state in 1536; in 1540 the English monarch was also king of Ireland. Scotland was a separate and independent nation. The dynastic marriages arranged by Henry VII were to prove very significant. His daughter Margaret married James IV of Scotland. Catherine of Aragon, the third daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella was married first to his son Arthur and then, on his death, to his second son, Henry.
The Iberian peninsula: The two largest kingdoms in Spain were Castile and Aragon. (Aragon was made up of a group of separate principalities and its territories included Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics.) Portugal was an independent kingdom. In 1469 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, but the two kingdoms retained completely separate domestic governments and were only united in foreign policy. Ferdinand and Isabella’s most outstanding achievement was the conquest of Granada from the Moors in 1492. Their heir was their grandson (the son of their daughter, Juana) who became Carlos I of Spain in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.
France had expanded towards its present borders under the Valois king Louis XI (1461-83) but its border regions were far from settled. During the sixteenth-century France aimed at great power status and the Habsburg-Valois conflict is the great geo-political constant of the period.
Italy was a mosaic of small states. In the south there was the Kingdom of Naples, whose crown was contested by Aragon and France; in the centre the Papal States; to the north were the great city states of Florence, Milan and Venice. The peninsula was beset by dynastic disputes, which gave other powers the excuse to invade. In 1494 the French invaded, and then the Spanish, with dire results for Italy.
The Holy Roman Empire included modern Germany, the Czech Republic (Bohemia) and Switzerland, though Switzerland had established its independence. In practice, the Empire was almost synonymous with Germany and though there was no nation state called Germany there was a strong sense of the existence of a ‘German nation’. Germany was fragmented into about 300 states. The Emperor was elected by a body of Electors (three leading German archbishops and four secular princes). The Imperial Diet was the parliament of the Empire.
Austria was the main base of the Habsburg dynasty and from 1438 with the election of Albert II to its abolition in 1806 a Habsburg was always elected Holy Roman Emperor.
The Netherlands had been at the core of the Duchy of Burgundy, which had been a great power in its own right. In 1477 the last duke, Charles the Bold, died fighting the Swiss at Nancy and his duchy was dismembered. France took the province of duke of Burgundy (capital Dijon) to the south. The wealthy northern territories (present-day Holland and Belgium) passed to Charles’s daughter, Mary, who married Maximilian of Habsburg. Their grandson Charles was elected Emperor Charles V in 1519.
The Ottoman Empire was growing. In 1453 it had captured Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. The Turks ruled south-east Europe. In September 1525 the Turkish Sultan Süleyman I defeated the Hungarians at Mohács. Hungary never recovered from this defeat. A prolonged civil war ultimately resulted in the incorporation of the central and southern two-thirds of Hungary into the Ottoman Empire (1547) and in the establishment of Transylvania and the eastern Hungarian provinces as an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman navy also dominated the eastern Mediterranean and their power was carried into the western Mediterranean by their support of the Barbary pirates.
With the notable exception of Venice, government was increasingly in the hands of ‘princes’ – a general term used to describe monarchs, both male and female. Ruling dynasties included the Tudors, the Valois, the Habsburgs and the Florentine Medici. There were various constraints on the powers of princes. They were accountable to God; they were expected to rule under the law; and they were confronted with the forces of localism. Sixteenth-century communications made it inevitable that a considerable amount of monarchical power had to be delegated to local elites.
In order to counter localism, princes were always on the move and as a result the concept of a capital city had not fully developed. Charles V in particular moved between Madrid, Brussels, Naples, Vienna and Prague. The court was where the prince happened to be. It was also the locus of power. A politician’s power depended less on his job description than on his access to the king, who disposed lucrative government jobs to those he favoured. This could lead to the creation of the ‘over-mighty subject’, such as Cardinal Wolsey who was untouchable as long as he had the king’s confidence. Losing his favour could lead to a catastrophic fall from power.
The monarch’s relationship with the Church was crucial. The Concordat of Bologna, signed in 1516 between Pope Leo I and François I of France gave the French king considerable power over the ‘Gallican’ church. Henry VIII fell foul of the papacy because Clement VII was more afraid of the Emperor than of him.
The demands of war had profound consequences for the running of the state. Taxes had to be raised and in many realms they could only be raised with the consent of representative bodies: Parliament, the Estates (France), the Cortes (Spain), the Diet (Germany). With their increase in bargaining powers, these bodies could grow more assertive in demanding what they argued were their ancient rights.
‘A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline’.The main duty of the prince was to be a war leader, and in this period warfare grew in scale and expense. Glory in battle was seen as the highest fulfilment of the princely role. This was why Henry VIII invaded France early in his reign.
Technology was changing the nature of warfare. Few inventions have had an impact on human affairs as dramatic and decisive as that of gunpowder. The development of a means of harnessing the energy released by a chemical reaction in order to drive a projectile against a target marked a watershed in the harnessing of energy to human needs. Before gunpowder, weapons were designed around the limits of their users' muscular strength; after gunpowder, they were designed more in response to tactical demand. The new battlefield weapon was the arquebus (see right), the primitive gun held to the shoulder, shortly to develop into the musket. The arquebus was used defensively in conjunction with the pike. The arquebusiers aimed to prevent enemy cavalry or infantry getting close enough to break up the pikemen’s formation. These formations of pikemen and arquebusiers dominated the battlefields of Europe for most of the sixteenth century and led to the decline of the cavalry charge.
Wars were rarely run by decisive battles and more soldiers died of disease of infection than on the battle ground. The new technology enhanced the importance of siege warfare. Cities were built with more complex fortifications with outlying bastions in which they placed cannons. Ships, too, were increasingly fitted with cannon. In the Mediterranean and the Baltic specialized gun-carrying galleys were the most important type of warship. These were the types of ships that fought against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.
The new military technology required longer training and larger armies. The first European rulers to build a standing army were the Ottoman sultans – the Janissary Corps was a group of professional soldiers recruited primarily from the Empire’s Christian subjects. By 1500 the western European nations also had their armies.
The greater size of armies and the growing sophistication of military technology made it more difficult for nobles to maintain private armies.