the beginning of the Modern Age can be placed in 1453, with the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. Or with the invention of the printing press , a creation that would allow the democratization of the book. Others prefer to delay the date until 1492, with the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus and the rise of geographical discoveries, with exploits such as the first round the world, starring Magallanes and Elcano.
What would distinguish the new stage of the preceding centuries? We attended, first in Italy, then in other areas, the emergence of the humanist movement . Faced with the theocratic mentality of past times, reason is now exalted. The human being has become the measure of all things. Although it is convenient not to be deceived: the humanists are still devout Catholics. The Church retains a decisive power in the configuration of individual and collective mentalities.
Humanism provides the most relevant ingredient of the Renaissance . What is reborn? The interest in the world of classical antiquity. Palpable in the art of the time, by the hand of pictorial geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci , Michelangelo or Titian . Now not only scenes from the Holy Scriptures are represented; also episodes of Greco-Roman mythology.
While the scholars are dedicated to unravel old manuscripts, the monarchs dispute the hegemony of the continent . Two are the aspirants to supremacy: France and Spain. This last one, after centuries of occupying a marginal place in Europe, emerges with force after the meeting of the Crowns of Aragon and Castile in the same headlines, Fernando and Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs . His rise was based on the military effectiveness of his armies, but also on a skilful marriage policy designed to encircle the Gallic enemy. With finally unexpected effects: when Prince Juan, heir to the monarchs, dies prematurely, the succession falls on his sister Juana, married to the archduke Philip the Fair.
It will be like this that a foreign dynasty, the Habsburgs
will come to rule in the peninsula with the son of both, Charles I, turned into Charles V when he gets, with bribes, to convince the German princes to make him emperor of the Holy Empire. A quiet reign will not wait for him, as his continuous trips from one end of his domain to another, in a desperate attempt to put out fires, show. Because, rather than controlling events, events control him.
The most dangerous bomb that seeks to deactivate is the emergence of the Protestant Reformation, after a German monk, Martin Luther , published the 95 theses in which he attacks the abuses of the Catholic Church. A central point in his preaching is the criticism of the trade of indulgences , by which the faithful, in exchange for an economic outlay, could avoid the penalties for their sins in this life or in the other.
What began as a simple theological dispute quickly spread throughout Europe, in a mixture of politics and religion. For the German princes, adopting Lutheranism was a way of opposing imperial authority. In England, meanwhile, Henry VIII divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, of which he had had no sons. Rome’s opposition to his separation pushed him to break with the Catholic Church. Rome would react with the so-called “counter-reform”, promoted by the Council of Trent. A new religious order, the Society of Jesus , would become the pope’s army to fight heresy.
Carlos V was concerned, above all, with European problems. But, meanwhile, Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru incorporated into their Crown territories of gigantic dimensions, in which there were quantities of precious metals that exceeded everything imaginable. The silver of the Indies , from now on, would contribute to sustaining Spanish imperialism in Europe by using it as collateral for loans that bankers like the Fuggers granted to the Crown. However, the Spanish Treasury will suffer a chronic shortage of funds, so that bankruptcies will happen every so often.
The disputes over the faith bloodied for decades the Old Continent
with episodes as cruel as the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of French Protestants on the night of St. Bartholomew or the execution of the scientist Michael Servet by order of John Calvin, the spiritual leader of Geneva . In the second half of the sixteenth century, France, torn apart by the wars of religion , ceased to be a serious rival for Spain. Until Enrique IV inaugurated the Bourbon dynasty with a timely conversion to Catholicism. Because Paris was worth a Mass.
If the XVI was the century of Spain, the XVII belonged to its rival on the other side of the Pyrenees. At the hand of Louis XIV, the Crown strengthened its power, symbolized by the splendor of the palace of Versailles , and initiated an expansionist policy. Not without many complications, because countries like Holland or England, which had previously been bitter enemies of the Spaniards, now supported them to contain the Sun King. Meanwhile, all eyes were on the monarchy of Charles II the Bewitched, a man of very weak health that had no children. For that reason, before the indignation of the monarch, there were pacts to distribute the Spanish empire after his death.
As those agreements did not work at all, the XVIII century began with a generalized warlike conflict, the war of the Spanish Succession , which ended with the liquidation of Spain as a great continental power. He retained his American empire, but lost all his dominions in the Netherlands and in Italy. From then on, Europe would be governed by a system based on the balance of powers. Each time a power acquired an excessive preponderance, the rest united against it. England, erected in great naval power, had become the arbiter of international politics. To level their influence, Madrid and Versailles, under the government two branches of the Bourbon dynasty, established the Family Pacts. The two courts contributed to the independence of the United States from British power, but, in the long run, their attempts proved unsuccessful.
The so-called “century of lights” witnessed the flourishing of the Enlightenment
Thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau or Kant questioned the dogmas inherited from tradition and favored free thinking. This was translated, for example, into a historiography that sought to refine the past of legends through rigorous documentation, or in a scientific practice where empiricism prevailed, above all. Monarchs such as Joseph I of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia or Catherine II of Russia used the new ideas for propaganda purposes. Now, monarchies were legitimized as a service to the community, although without yet accepting democratic principles. “Everything for the people, but without the people,” was the slogan that defined the new mentality. If it was new. Because it is more likely that a simple facelift was given of the old absolutism.
It has been debated a lot if the enlightened ones contributed the ideological base that allowed the outbreak, in 1789, of the French Revolution . But we must bear in mind that most of the eighteenth century thinkers were socially conservative. The people horrified them. What they were looking for was a ruler who consented to apply his rationalist program, not a democratic system.