An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Modern (Modernity)


Modernity is defined by some (but not necessarily all) of the following:

  • the rise of the “nation state”
  • the accumulation of capital rather than subsistence
  • the rise of rational inquiry
  • urbanisation and industrialisation
  • and, as a result of the above, specialisation of labour
  • the decline of “magic” and supernatural explanations of social and natural phenomena
  • the decline of church power over the political sphere
  • the growth of bodies representing the interests of capital rather than the church or the aristocracy
  • exploitation of inter-regional trade networks
  • crucially a belief that humanity and society is progressing from the dark ages to an age of enlightenment

Many of these concepts are dependent upon and fuel each other. For instance, nation states require large bureaucracies and standing armies to support their governments; hence, trade networks need to be exploited, cities need to produce more goods and agriculture needs to be rationalised to feed all these people no longer working in the fields.

Of course, these traits can be applied to many, many different societies across different time periods. These traits also tend to have a very European bent – China was often portrayed as “backward” by Europeans in the 1800s, despite possessing many of these “modern” attributes in the time of Jesus Christ.

In general, “modernity” is said to start in Western Europe from around the end of the fifteenth century. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; but it was also the year that white Spaniards drove the last Moors from the Iberian peninsular. This made Europeans re-think their position in the world and the basis of their world view. Ancient texts were rediscovered in Muslim seats of learning, allowing Europeans to directly access the books of the ancient Greeks, Romans and mediaeval Arabs in a way hitherto unknown.

And, obviously, the Bible and Aristotle never mentioned America and the Indies – which brought everything into question.

Princes and Kings began to accumulate wealth and build sophisticated bureaucracies to understand what they owned and how they could tax the people in their lands. They built armies to defend their territory which, thanks to improved map-making techniques, could be rigidly and legally defined. More and more merchants began to own land, displacing feudal lords. The children of these merchants were educated in new-fangled universities, taking learning out of the monasteries and into the high culture of the early-modern courts. A “renaissance” of art, literature and natural philosophy ensued.

This is a very rough description of the process of modernisation as experienced in some parts of Europe. The pattern is not necessarily seen everywhere.

However – we can tentatively say that the “Industrial Revolution” marks the point at which societies had achieved modernity. These societies are modern. Those before are in the process of modernising, or can be seen as early-modern, and possess many of the traits of modernity.

See also: modern (history), progress

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