What is my favorite period of history? While I love both the ancient-classical and medieval worlds (to use an oversimplification of time not equally application to every region), the early-middle modern period has always been a time I have been especially fond of. While there are many different definitions of this period, let us accept an approximate one that lasts from 1492-1914.
Some people see this period as a major break from the past. I don’t necessarily see the trends of this period a rejection of what came before; ideas like the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, while unique, also owe their roots to what came before, whether as developments of past ideas, or in opposition to them.
But the real reason this period if my favorite in history is due to the cosmopolitanism and interactions of civilization we see in this period. The world was very different before the 1500s. For example, Indian food, known for its spiciness , only came to feature red chilies because the Portuguese introduced them from the New World. Other important innovations like the printing press, tea cultivation, and canons also became global. And truly Global, not just encompassing a part of Eurasia, but the whole world including the Americas and Africa.
Thus, despite my interest in ancient and classical civilizations, there is something very compelling about the period I have outlined above. In short, it was the period when the world’s major regions and civilizations came together to form a global, often cosmopolitan society, instead of being mostly self-contained units with sporadic contact with each other. Globalization came in several spurts: Islam, the Mongols, and finally the expansion of the West.
Cosmopolitanism was balanced by the idea that there were nonetheless different cultures, who would develop in their own unique ways (glocalization). I think this is very important because the current thinking seems to want to move towards a more homogeneous world (globalization), an idea deeply resisted in many non-Western regions, and even Western countries like France. This period of time had the right balance, in terms of globalization and culture. No part of the world was totally alien or distant anymore, but there was still respect for the idea that things were done differently in China, Persia, or Mexico. In fact, some of what I like best about this period are the events that happened in the non-Western world, though of course, eventually the West became dominant. The religious syncretism of the Mughal Empire which saw far-flung religions combined in new world brought together in worship, or the Qing Empire’s solution of China’s perennial steppe nomad invasion problem using gunpowder were only possible in this era.
The West too reached a unique and special place during this period. Despite some continuity with the past, there was much that represented a new way of thinking and being. There was a sense of dynamism and discovery in the Western world during this period. Laws and politics became less arbitrary and more regular. Life became better for most as liberty and the rights of individuals expanded. There was a drive to expand the boundaries of knowledge, to map the world, to experiment with new forms of government. Yet, in tandem with this, there was still a thinking inclusion of the best traditions of the past, and an idea that there should be no radical break from cherished and commonsense ideas like a defined set of values for society and the idea of human nature. A man like Napoleon represents the spirit of the age: though he expanded rights, he realized the value of certain more traditional forms of government. His empire was imperial but cosmopolitan and totally unlike the projects attempted by 20th century dictators. His inquiry of Egyptian history and fauna during his expedition there demonstrated the thirst for knowledge that permeated the age but while there, he was completely willing to be rule as an Egyptian for the Egyptians and when in France, as a Frenchmen for the French. Or take the old Tsarist Russian Empire, which simultaneously had railroads and modern European cities coexisting with traditional communities, all with different literary traditions, religions, customs and laws, in places as far-flung as Lithuania and Uzbekistan.
It was an age (of course, to oversimplify and over-idealize, we all know there was a dark underbelly too) of authoritarianism tempered by liberalism, classiness without pomposity, spirituality without fanaticism.
There’s a reason I break off this period at the start of the 20th century. Does not the modern world share some of the characteristics of cosmopolitanism and dynamism of the period I described? Yes, but also no. Something went sour in the 20th century. No longer did we have a push towards greater liberty balanced with or tempered by traditional ideas and institutions. Communism and fascism were experiments so radical that they could not allow for the evolution of old institutions and mores. Similar breaks from the past occurred in post-colonial countries that sought to overcome what they perceived as backward cultural traits. Overall, a sense of nihilism and decadence pervaded the 20th century, defined as being a sense of aimlessness and lack of consideration for the big picture. I think the human mind, being the product of certain social and biological processes cannot happily come to terms with some of the developments of the later 20th century. The modern development of science, the individualism, the weaponry have created circumstances that make it hard for human beings to come to terms with the patterns of time, space, and mentality that they have evolved with.
But that is speculation about the present and future. Who knows what will happen? My purpose in this post is to praise a certain era. In this era, 1500-1900, there is a depth and richness not found before, but not the banality and decline of values like honor and magnanimity in the present world, which seems to be heading in a direction where nuance has gone out the window. But for the period I am writing about, there are a rich collection of histories, novels, stories, accounts, journals, and so on documenting a period when the fullness of the individual seems to come to the fore. From the diary of Babur to War and Peace, here is a world of new possibilities and directions fully fleshed out.
And every story, every individual event and detailed description of a certain time and place is just as interesting (as is also the case for ancient and medieval history) as the general picture I sketch here, if not more so. Because a study of history and stories is instructive in understanding human nature, individuals, and societies, and how they work more than abstractions. And this leads to both a sort of resignation about cyclical patterns in human affairs but also hope. There have been many golden means in history. The last, which lasted a few hundred years was the largest and most expansive in time and geography as well as being well-documented, but there were mean before and hopefully there will be many more in the future.