- The World from 1450 to 1700
A distinguished scholar of Chinese-European relations and world history, John E. Wills Jr. provides in this slim volume an engaging series of narratives highlighting the major global developments from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. The World from 1450 to 1700 is part of the New Oxford World History series, which aims to bring the fruits of the “new world history” to a wide, general audience. The editors, Bonnie G. Smith and Anand Yang, explain that the series focuses on “the separate and interrelated stories of different societies and cultures” (p. xi), especially those that highlight the experiences of ordinary men and women. Wills’s contribution to the series fulfills that objective admirably.
Wills does not offer a central thesis, though his organizing principle intersperses two features of the early modern period, parallel patterns and transcontinental interconnections, among the book’s seven chapters. The analogous movements across Eurasia have intrigued historians in recent years, so it is timely that Wills emphasizes patterns of intellectual and religious reform in chapter 3 (“Old Ways Made New, 1530–1570”), state building in chapter 4 (“New Shapes of Power, 1570–1610”), as well as economic and political crises in the mid seventeenth century in chapter 6 (“Time of Troubles, 1640–1670”). Wills also shows how world societies became more interconnected in the early modern period, another current theme in historical scholarship. In this vein, chapter 1 (“Islam and a Wider World, 1450–1490”) traces the rise of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires; chapter 2 (“Columbian Exchanges, 1490–1530”) discusses the formation of European maritime empires; and chapter 5 (“Settlers and Diasporas, 1610–1640”) follows the movement of large migration streams across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Geographic areas that fall outside of these parallel developments and global connections, such as sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia, receive little or no attention. The result is a lively yet succinct summary of recent scholarship on the early modern world for a general audience. [End Page 368]
One of the major strengths of The World from 1450 to 1700 is its elegant narrative style. Wills tells a number of fascinating stories from the point of view of contemporaries, including witnesses at the siege of Constantinople, Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj, and the philosophical wanderings of the Chinese intellectual Wang Yangming. The vivid literary quality of the work, combined with its brevity (154 pages), do not allow readers to get bogged down in tedious details or academic interpretations. While Wills’s analysis follows recent trends in world history scholarship, his interpretive framework does not intrude upon the narrative. Keeping a broad audience engaged occasionally leads Wills to give attention to more colorful events at the expense of weightier ones. For example, the machinations of Henry VIII of England garners more than two pages, but the Hapsburg drive to establish a European empire gets no mention at all. The book begins with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, which makes sense because of its wide impact across Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is not clear, however, why Wills ends his synthesis in 1700, though the back cover identifies the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the terminal point. While the revolution was certainly an important event in English and Atlantic history, its global significance seems quite limited. Nonetheless, it seems likely that a companion volume will pick up the story and carry it into the modern period.
These minor criticisms notwithstanding, The World from 1450 to 1700 is a skillfully crafted work by an accomplished historian that renders the early modern world accessible to a large audience.