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The Origins of the Early Modern
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The Origins of the Early Modern

The Modern History course at the University of Oxford notoriously starts with the fall of Rome. History is divided into two: the Classics faculty is responsible for ancient history, and everything that is not ancient is modern. It is a useful reminder, both that modernity is in the eye of the beholder and that periodization is arbitrary. The dividing of time is always something imposed from outside; rigid historical divisions rarely or never exist, or only locally, and period taxonomies are always misleading. The problem is that, as the experience of numerous victims of brain damage shows, our brains are hard-wired to categorize. That is how we make sense of the world, whether the categories we select have any objective definition (as a mammal is definably different from a fish), or whether we invent them as an aid to our own understanding (literary genres, historical periods, and every other abstract construct that in practice may be better understood as a spectrum).

So, we need the “ancient,” the “medieval,” and the “modern” to orient us in relation to historical time and historical culture—and time and culture are not the same, as the briefest glance beyond the Western world will indicate. The modern, however, has the problem that it gets longer every year, and it is now too big and too various to handle as a single concept. “Early modern” was invented as a category to describe a certain stage of European development to help with that quandary; though, as this forum demonstrates, just what that stage encompasses depends very much on what is being looked at and who is doing the looking. The issue is commonly thought of as being most problematic at the late end: when does the early modern give way to the modern? Here, I want to argue that the beginning of the early modern is at least as problematic, not least because of the widespread assumption that there was such a dividing line. There was indeed a growing sense in the early seventeenth century that [End Page 133] things were different: Francis Bacon located the changes in the inventions of the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, and Karl Marx adopted those as marking the origin of bourgeois society. All three, however, had originated in China some centuries earlier; a fourth item, the invention of paper, was added to the list there, and it was just as important for Europe too (not only for the transmission of texts, but also for the growth of bureaucracy). With the exception of the printing press, however, all had come to be known and used in Europe in the course of the Middle Ages, starting in the twelfth century. Printing was revolutionized in the mid-fifteenth century by the Western invention of movable type, but that is the only one of these four inventions, or arrivals, that falls within customary definitions of the early modern. Their full implications, of course, not least the possibility for global exploration, hit home most fully after 1490, but paper, gunpowder, and the compass had already been working a slower transformation on the world for a couple of centuries. The printing press itself was initially used extensively to print medieval texts, and for a long time co-existed with a vibrant manuscript culture.

Other attempts to define a point of rupture are likewise insufficient or misleading, not least because the belief in such a moment of origin has itself led to the terms for the early modern and the periods that embrace it functioning in very different ways. “Early modern” is largely an academic term, to describe certain historically limited phenomena, whatever dates or events are selected as its boundaries; but “medieval” and “modern” function in the first instance, in everyday speech outside the academy, as value terms. Aristotle recognized another feature of the human brain when he divided the world into binaries: good, evil; light, dark; male, female. And one could add to the list “modern, medieval.” It is extraordinarily difficult to get beyond that association of value, the idea that “medieval” is pejorative. The Middle Ages are perceived not only as being...