Something was stirring. It was no longer viable, neither promising, for most people except clerics and aristocrats to perpetuate the old ways. Many people now began seeking a world that worked. They sought progress, new and different things. It was an age of new architecture, thinking, art, politics, goods and economics - at least in some places. In retrospect, the centre of this movement was increasingly in Europe - initially Italy - though many other cultures were grander and richer, and changes were surreptitiously stirring worldwide.
In the Americas, the Incas and Aztecs lived through times of achievement, expansion and empire-building. The Incas were technically advanced. Had the Europeans not interfered, this might perhaps have led to modernisation, reform and extension of their urban cultures, perhaps even the founding of an indigenous pan-American civilisation for modern times.
Worldwide, renewing cultures, while drawing on their traditional historic roots, were nevertheless more mundane, materialistic, technical and acquisitive than their forbears. They were trying out new worldly possibilities.
Europeans, avidly seeking a new life, were to overtake the native Americans. In the 1400s they hit Africa, and then America in the 1500s, though it wasn’t until the 1700s and 1800s that they impacted seriously on India, China and the Islamic world.
The Muslim Moghuls, meanwhile, brought new impetus to life in India, with some healing of historic religious rifts. In the late 1500s, the Moghul emperor Akbar the Great attempted a religious Reformation, drawing on many different faiths by attracting philosophers and thinkers to his court – including Portuguese Christians. Had he succeeded, this would possibly have affected the Islamic world and Asia tremendously.
The Ottomans, now powerful imperialists, were largely tolerant of the subgroups in their imperial flock and made use of them. Many of their administrators and soldiers were Europeans, not Turks. Gradually they took over many ancient heartlands – Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Arabia. A small ruling elite, the Ottomans turned war-captives into slaves, selecting, educating and often castrating the best of them to become administrators of a large, cosmopolitan empire bridging Asia and Europe.
Meanwhile, Ming China had been modernising, opening its borders, stimulating business and developing a sophisticated, learned, culture – living through one of humanity’s peak periods.
All this reflected a new businesslike, factual, humanistic and more individualistic attitude, worldwide. In Europe, a lively, freethinking, questioning approach was taking hold, under the noses of its monarchies, aristocracies and clerics. Economies were growing. So did the merchant classes, who gained in influence, made kings into clients and debtors, sponsoring the new thinkers and creators of the age. Printing presses churned out new-found knowledge, and a spirit of bravado was in the air. New ideas were bubbling up.
Europe in the 1500s saw characters such as Raphael, Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Cervantes, Erasmus, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Luther, Paracelsus, Nostradamus, Shakespeare, Dürer and Petrarch. Such geniuses built the foundations of the modern world-view of today. Overseas exploration widened Europeans’ horizons, cultivating a spirit of discovery, bringing in new goods – sugar, spices, coffee, tea, potatoes, maize, china, tobacco.
Republicanism and revolutionary ideas were slowly germinating. Yet some of Europe’s most powerful, unrestrained monarchs were active during this time too: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, Habsburg Charles V in Austria, Ivan the Terrible in Russia and Gustav Vasa in Sweden.
Elsewhere there were towering monarchs too: Akbar the Great in India, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ming emperor Wan Li in China. Meanwhile, American civilisation crumbled cruelly at the hands of the newly-arrived Conquistador Spaniards - largely by trickery and imported disease.
In Europe, these changes were initially encouraged by some monarchs and church leaders – until they found that Renaissance ideas questioned and threatened their own positions. Their eventual opposition didn’t suppress the driving flurry of new Renaissance ideas – it sharpened them, made them more urgent, sometimes bloodily so. What once was a heresy was slowly becoming the new mainstream normality.
Politically, European monarchs suddenly had to work to earn popularity, to avoid stimulating opposition or the calling in of debts. In the 1500s, public pressure mounted for church reform: what at first was judged to be a little local trouble in Bohemia, Berne or Bristol grew into a dynamic Protestant revolution, seeking to separate from the Catholic church and stretching Europe-wide – this was called the Reformation.
The 1500s were exciting, turbulent times. In the 1600s traditional interests declared war on change by starting a Counter-Reformation and developing tendencies toward conservative autocracy. New ideas, cults and social movements were proliferating wildly. Force, money, people, ideas and religion got mixed up. Brilliance and horror took place, on all sides.
Driven by mercantilism, Holland, England, Sweden, France and Germany were now becoming the centre of the world action.
The Global Village was painfully, excitingly germinating in a wet, draughty corner of the world. Explosive and macho, Europe gathered impetus to take over the whole planet. The best and the worst of human traits were jostling, aspiring for influence.
Even in the remotest villages in Uzbekistan, Thailand or Zimbabwe, generation gaps widened. Unconsciously, the world was making a decision to unite itself by year 2000 – by fair means or foul.
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