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The new age after the 1500s

The New Age After the 1500s

After 1500 there were many signs that a new age of world

history was beginning, for example the discovery of America and the

first European enterprises in Asia. This "new age" was dominated by

the astonishing success of one civilization among many, that of

Europe. There was more and more continuous interconnection between

events in all countries, but it is to be explained by European

efforts. Europeans eventually became "masters of the globe" and they

used their mastery to make the world one. That resulted in a unity of

world history that can be detected until today. Politics,

empire-building, and military expansion were only a tiny part of what

was going on. Besides the economic integration of the globe there was

a much more important process going on: The spreading of assumptions

and ideas. The result was to be "One World." The age of independent

civilizations has come to a close.

The history of the centuries since 1500 can be described as a

series of wars and violent struggles. Obviously men in different

countries did not like another much more than their predecessors did.

However, they were much more alike than their ancestors were, which

was an outcome of what we now call modernization. One could also say

that the world was Europeanized, for modernization was a matter of

ideas and techniques which have an European origin. It was with the

modernization of Europe that the unification of world history began. A

great change in Europe was the starting-point of modern history.

There was a continuing economic predominance of agriculture.

Agricultural progress increasingly took two main forms: Orientation

towards the market, and technical innovation. They were

interconnected. A large population in the neighborhood meant a market

and therefore an incentive. Even in the fifteenth century the

inhabitants of so called ³low countries² were already leaders in the

techniques of intensive cultivation. Better drainage opened the way to

better pasture and to a larger animal population. Agricultural

improvement favored the reorganization of land in bigger farms, the

reduction of the number of small holders, the employment of wage

labor, and high capital investment in buildings, drainage and


In the late sixteenth century one response to the pressure of

expanding population upon slowly growing resources had been the

promoting of emigration. By 1800, Europeans had made a large

contribution to the peopling of new lands overseas. It was already

discernible in the sixteenth century when there began the long

expansion of world commerce which was to last until 1930. It started

by carrying further the shift of economic gravity from southern to

north-western Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which

has already been remarked. One contribution to this was made by

political troubles and wars such as ruined Italy in the early

sixteenth century. The great commercial success story of the sixteenth

century was Antwerp's, though it collapsed after a few decades in

political and economic disaster. In the seventeenth century Amsterdam

and London surpassed it. In each case an important trade based on a

well-populated hinterland provided profits for diversification into

manufacturing industry, services, and banking. The Bank of Amsterdam

and The Bank of England were already international economic forces in

the in the seventeenth century. About them clustered other banks and

merchant houses undertaking operations of credit and finance. Interest

rates came down and the bill of exchange, a medieval invention,

underwent an enormous extension of use and became the primary

financial instrument of international trade.

This was the beginning of the increasing use of paper, instead

of bullion. In the eighteenth century came the first European paper

currencies and the invention of the check. Joint stock companies

generated another form of negotiable security, their own shares.

Quotation of these in London coffee-houses in the seventeenth century

was overtaken by the foundation of the London Stock Exchange. By 1800

similar institutions existed in many other countries. It was also the

time of some spectacular disastrous investment projects, one of which

was the great English South Sea Bubble. But all the time the world was

growing more commercial, more used to the idea of employing money to

make money, and was supplying itself with the apparatus of modern


One effect quickly appeared in the much greater attention paid

to commercial questions in diplomatic negotiation from the later

seventeenth century and in the fact that countries were prepared to

fight over them. The English and Dutch went to war over trade in 1652.

This opened a long era during which they, the French and Spanish,

fought again and again over quarrels in which questions of trade were

important. Governments not only looked after their merchants by going

to war to uphold their interests, but also intervened in other ways in

the working of the commercial economy. One advantage they could offer

were monopoly privileges to a company under a charter; this made the

raising of capital easier by offering some security for a return. Such

activities closely involved government and therefore the concerns of

businessmen shaped both, policy and law.

The most impressive structural development in European

commerce was the sudden new importance to it of overseas trade from

the second half of the seventeenth century onwards. This was part of

the shift of economic activity from Mediterranean to northern Europe.

By the late seventeenth century. Rising populations and some assurance

of adequate transport (water was always cheaper than land carriage)

slowly built up an international trade in cereals. Shipbuilding itself

promoted the movement of such commodities as pitch, flax or timber.

More than European consumption was involved; all this took place in a

setting of growing colonial empires. By the eighteenth century there

were already present an oceanic economy and an international trading

community which does business -- and fights and intrigues for it --

around the globe. In this economy an important and growing part was

played by slaves, most of them black Africans. In Europe itself,

slavery had by then all but withered away. Now it was to undergo a

vast extension in other continents. Soon a permanent slaving station

was set up in West Africa. This shows the rapid discovery of the

profitability of the new traffic. It was already clear that it was a

business of brutality. As the search for slaves went further inland,

it became simpler to rely on local potentates who would round up

captives and barter them wholesale.

Early industrial centers grew by accretion, often around the

centers of established European industries closely related to

agriculture. This long continued to be true. These old trades had

created concentrations of supporting industry. Antwerp had been the

great port of entry to Europe for English cloth; as a result,

finishing and dyeing establishments appeared there to work up further

commodities flowing through the port.

The twentieth century needs no reminders that social change

can quickly follow economic change. We have little belief in the

immutability of social forms and institutions. Three hundred years

ago, many men and women believed them to be virtually God-given and

the result was that although social changes took place in the

aftermath of inflation, they were muffled by the persistence of old

forms. Superficially much of European society remained unchanged

between 1500 and 1800. Yet the economic realities underlying changed a

great deal. Rural life had already begun to show this in some

countries before 1500. As agriculture became more and more a matter of

business, traditional rural society had to change. Forms were usually

preserved. Although feudal lordship still existed in France in the

1780s, it was by then less a social reality than an economic device.

Europe was divided roughly along the Elbe. To the west lay

countries evolving slowly by 1800 towards more open social forms. To

the east lay authoritarian governments presiding over agrarian

societies where a minority of landholders enjoyed great powers over a

largely tied peasantry. In this area towns did not often prosper as

they had done for centuries in the West. They tended to be overtaxed

islands in a rural sea, unable to attract from the countryside the

labor they needed because of the extent of serfdom. Over great tracts

of Poland and Russia even a money economy barely existed. Much of

later European history was implicit in this difference between east

and west.

In the time span between the sixteenth and the eighteenth

century states that were once powerful fell in rank, namely Spain,

Sweden, the Netherlands, and the Ottoman Empire. This led to the rise

of the new great powers such as Austria-Hungary, England, France,

Prussia, and Russia. Factors to their rise were their geography,

financial system, military strategy, and a new form of bureaucracy.

Laws ensured the people¹s security , whereas religion did not

interfere. Furthermore a new form of government was introduced, where

there was more than just an exclusive group at power. With these

changes a new system of modern bureaucracy began to rise. With that a

major contradiction seemed to come up. How could capitalism, promoting

free enterprise, and bureaucracy, which was a complex system of

regulations and restrictions, coexist? However, taking a closer look

at today¹s capitalistic societies one can clearly detect an advantage

of that constellation. In Germany for example the capitalistic

business world is strongly restricted by government regulations,

decreasing the companies¹ profits, but benefiting society. In Brazil,

on the other hand, where the so called "capitalismo salvage" prevails,

the business world lives of the people, leaving them in poor


The ³Treaty of Utrecht² benefited most of central Europe by

establishing a balance of power and restoring peace. Russia benefited

of Sweden¹s decline, and a large bureaucratic machinery collected a

lot of taxes. Ivan the Terrible build up an extremely efficient system

of espionage, which preserved his own power and increased state

revenues. Likewise, Prussia prospered from its modern legal system,

its strong state apparatus, where bureaucrats were state servants with

some duties and many privileges. Prussia was also known for its

disciplined army with advanced weapons. One could say that Prussia was

a very well organized efficient power.

Austria-Hungary was also able to maintain its status as a

great power for a long time. The bureaucracy remained efficient due

to the separation of power that existed between the prince and the

people. In this case, the elements of finance, geography, and

military strategy were not as crucial to the rise of this

organization. France kept an effective and rational bureaucracy that

consisted of royal officials who acted as state authorities along with

the king. The collection of revenue was direct and strictly enforced

by the bureaucracy. While France was a prominent Great Power, it also

faced numerous problems. Their military strategy was extremely weak.

The allotment of revenue that went towards defense was split between

land and sea powers; creating a mediocre military in both areas.

Thus, France was unable to turn to the offensive. The taxes collected

were not enough to uphold the maintenance of the state. France's

financial situation was inferior to that of England's since they had

no system of credit which England already developed. France also

relied heavily on the importation of goods from colonies. This

constant trade drained the economy because it called for a strong navy

which was not possible.

England became superior to France in many ways. This was

largely due to the industrial revolution that made England a powerful

force while France suffered because of structural problems. England

experienced success in the coal, iron, textile, and steel industry.

England was the leading nation in Europe in mining and heavy

manufacturing. Then came more innovations such as the invention of

the steam engine in 1712. This success led only to more prosperity in

many areas.

The rise of the mentioned powers was greatly influenced by the

adaptation of a new system of bureaucracy. This new system utilized

at least one of the important factors that brought about the rise of

these nations: finance, geography, or military strategy. England

proves to be the best example of this modern bureaucratic system

because it used all three elements while striving for maximum

efficiency and power.

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