The Early Modern Period in Europe: How Did the Middle Ages End?

The Early Modern Period was a drastic shift from the Middle Ages. But what caused the changes? There is no precise black-and-white answer.

Jul 5, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

early modern period


The Early Modern Period arrived after the Middle Ages. But when did the Middle Ages end? Some say it was when Christopher Columbus set foot on American soil. Others, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door. Some claim that it was when Donatello finished his statue of David. The wise historian says nothing and smiles because he knows the answer is not so simple. Moreover, it is far more essential to understand why these events were taking place.


The Early Modern Period and the Middle Ages: What was the Difference?

quentin the moneylender the early modern period bourgeisie
The Moneylender and his Wife, by Quinten Metsys, 1514, via the Ministére de la Culture


The Early Modern Period differed from the Middle Ages in many ways so we cannot draw a line between the two eras just like that. The Middle Ages were full of magic and mystery, while cold reason crept in with modernity in the Early Modern Period. In the Middle Ages, there was one Church in the West, one universal ruler crowned by the pope, and one world — the old one. In the early modern period, many churches and many powerful princes fought for power, and the New World enriched the old one in a significant way. There was no one universal culture anymore. Catholics and Protestants developed their own cultures and cultural centers. But what brought the change? Why did the people of the Middle Ages change the way they saw the world?


The Two Worlds of the Early Modern Period

Christoper Columbus arrives in America, by L. Prang & Co, 1893, via the United States Library of Congress


Christopher Columbus and other voyagers discovered the Americas. We can hardly imagine what that meant. There were maps before 1492 with blank spaces on them. People knew there was something in the areas of the Americas but had yet to learn what. Nowadays, there is unexplored land — on the bottom of the seas and in the heart of some jungles. But the map of our Earth is otherwise complete.


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The land explorers discovered in South America completely differed from the land people knew. There was tobacco, coffee, and cocoa. There were strange animals and even stranger people. The European Christians in the 16th century knew of Muslims and the Jews, but these were both monotheistic religions. And yet there lived people in the Americas who had not heard the name of Jesus Christ. Their customs were so different from Eurasian civilization that the question was raised whether they were human at all. Cardinals and scholars discussed it a lot. Because if these strange peoples were humans, if they possessed human souls, then hunting and enslaving them would be wrong. European civilization had to cope with the shock of finding out that there were people unlike them.


How the End of the Reconquista Started the Voyages

the capitulation of granada early modern period
The Capitulation of Granada, by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz, 1882, via Wikimedia Commons


Why did these voyagers set sail in the first place? What drove them out of the relative safety of the European harbors? Those who left first were visionaries, people who dreamed of new lands. And technological progress enabled them to make these dreams come true. But that is not all. It is no coincidence that the first voyagers came from the Iberian peninsula.


In 1492 the Reconquista ended, Granada fell, and the last Arabs were driven out of Spain. After two centuries, there was finally peace. But what to do with the knights that for centuries did nothing but fight? These men were not suited to peace. They would not work, they would not plow, and they would not do business. A whole social class of proud, wild, and strong fighters was suddenly out of a job. The king and queen of the newly united Spain did the best thing for their country. They turned the Reconquista into a Conquista. They packed their knights onto ships and sent them to the New World to win new land for their king and queen. This saved Spain because the unruly knights could have been a problem. For now, the people of the Americas were to deal with the knights. Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizzaro were just two of these men.


Early Modern Warfare: Guns and Mercenaries

battle vienna early modern period warfare
Battle of Vienna, 1683, via Vienna Unwrapped


In the Middle Ages, cavalry knights were the deciding force in every battle. These knights did not work; war was their craft and loot was their source of income. But that time was now gone. Gunpowder had changed the game completely. Now infantry was the leading element of the war machine, armed with guns and cannons.


Mercenaries, specialized professionals, could now win a war. A mercenary did not follow a strict moral code. His loyalty was to his unit and his comrades; he fought for his employer as long as he was paid. Then, he was free to change sides. Warfare looked utterly different with cannons and guns, and a whole social class was now unemployed. Rebellions and convulsions erupted around Europe. Only Spain was spared this problem because Spanish monarchs dispatched their knights overseas.


The Birth of the Modern Reader

printing press
Drawing of a printing press, 1770, via Wikimedia Commons


Another change in the 16th century was the rise of literacy; more people could read than ever before. Of course, the reason was that there were more books to read. Cheaper books. Before the invention of the printing press in 1450, it could take months and even years to create a book. Now it was a matter of days and, later, hours.


The first printed books were still costly. It took time before the printing press was effective. At the beginning of the 16th century, people still copied books and newspapers by hand because it was much quicker. Book vendors would choose carefully which book to print because it was very time-consuming to create the wooden blocks to print text. But there was one book that would always sell — the Bible. The printing press brought the Bible to everybody. Before the first Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1455, the literate few read handwritten biblical texts.


The old literate class could usually read Latin and there was no need for translations. But now, when the Bible was suddenly available to all, ordinary people wanted to read it, and it had to be translated. The printing press led to the rise of literacy and also the development of national languages in Europe.


Last but not least, when people could read the Bible themselves, they started to think about the text, God, their faith, and, more importantly, the Church. They began to ask whether the church in its current state was what it should be.


The Ultimate Spiritual Crisis of the Early Modern Period

antipapal caricatures in the early modern period
Antipapal Caricature, c. 1500, via Wikipedia Commons


The state of the Church at the end of the Middle Ages was not good. Voices were heard from within and without, calling for reform. During the fifteen hundred years of its existence, there were many moral lapses in the Church. People were used to it. But the worldliness of the Renaissance popes went beyond everything ordinary Christians could accept. Not only did the popes rule as secular princes, but they also had lovers and appointed their own children openly as rulers. It became a new norm but some people would not accept it and called for the pope and his cardinals to become humble servants of God. The pope´s title as the servant of God´s servants was further from reality now than ever.


In 1500, many people expected the end of the world. It all seemed so clear. The world was so different, and the Church was so corrupt. Surely the end would come— humankind could not go on like this. And 1500 seemed like a convenient number. But as usual, their God did not follow the convention, and the Apocalypse did not come. What then? A deep spiritual crisis followed. As more people read the Bible and other religious texts, more people could ask the right questions and look for an answer.


Moreover, townspeople gained influence in the Early Modern Period; business flourished, and they invested in the future of their souls. The aristocracy mostly donated money and land to the church in the Middle Ages to gain God´s favor. Now the burghers started to do the same. And when you pay for something, you watch over your investment. Thus, more laypeople felt they had the right to question the morals of the church.


The Religious Reformations of the Early Modern Period

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Luther Before the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877, via Staatsgalerie Stuttgart


Nowadays, historians mostly agree that it was Martin Luther who triggered the changes that led to the creation of various Protestant confessions and the reform of the Catholic church. Luther belonged to the Middle Ages; he wasn´t a humanist from the Early Modern Period. He was a medieval scholar with very original thinking and, more importantly, very influential supporters. He was the answer to the most burning question on everybody´s mind. The German Lutheran Church cut all ties to Rome; after the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Zwinglians came along. This would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago.


The Catholic church woke up too late to hinder the schism, but it did wake up, nonetheless. The Council of Trent triggered the Catholic Reformation and the Counter-reformation. The Catholic church rid itself of the moral lapses of the clergy, redefined itself, and finally reacted to the demands of the people of the Early Modern Period. Early modern Catholicism, as some scholars call it, was nothing like the medieval church. It was modern; it emphasized reason, the moral authority of the clergy, and education. The inevitable clash came in the 17th century when the Protestant churches established themselves and the Catholic church re-established itself. Thus the Early Modern Period was a time of religious disputes and even wars. For the first time in Christianity´s history, it was not the Church against a few heretics but a church against a new church.


The Culture of the Early Modern Period

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Idealized Portrait of a Lady, by Sandro Botticelli, around 1480, via Google Arts and Culture


Renaissance art and humanist culture brought man, the human, into the center of everything. God was still very prominent, don´t be mistaken. But the humanists did not ask questions about God´s substance and existence; they looked at God through his people. The Renaissance was the culture of educated laymen and, most importantly, of educated burghers, the culture of affluent Italian towns. Wealth, economic changes, and the rise of people in business from the bourgeoisie created perfect conditions for a new type of artist. The Renaissance artist. We owe much Renaissance beauty to the corrupted popes and cardinals of the 15th and 16th centuries. The rise of humanism was tied to the increase in literacy. Humanist scholars criticized the old order, the old universal order, and together with the religious reformation, they brought its collapse.


the triumph of bacchus and adrianne
The Triumph of Bacchus and Adrianne, by Annibale Caracci, 1591, via Web Gallery of Art


All these changes, together with a transformed economy, ended the Middle Ages and created the Early Modern Period. But there remained places where the difference was barely visible. In villages, people still depended on natural cycles and they would do so until the Industrial Revolution. Women would still die on birthing beds until modern medicine changed the game. We should never overestimate the labels we give to historical periods and never forget the people who lived to see them.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.