The Foundations of Early Modern Europe covers, in short order, Renaissance science and technology, Portuguese and Spanish exploration, developing capitalism, the social aspirations and relations of classes, humanist education, political forms of sovereignty, international dynastic rivalry, and religious reformation. Although other historians have seen this brief period as foundational to modern life, in his introduction to the first edition Rice suggests otherwise: as later twentieth century life grows increasingly remote from the concerns, motivations and needs of this period, 1460-1559 should be seen as a century of "rapid comprehensive change" (xiii) between the medieval and early modern eras (emphasis his). Without a better grounding in the period, I cannot comment on the presentation of particular issues within the period; that is, I do not know how his reading of major events like the Protestant reformation or the Portuguese exploration compares to those of other historians; however, I had the sense that the work is well-informed and well-supported.
What were the most important elements of the rapid and comprehensive change in the century bracketed by 1460-1559? Printing is the first of the changes listed; the appearance of gunpowder in the West is the second. Explosions of very different order, no doubt, but explosions nevertheless: the possibility of one individual owning a set of books that could be consulted about the same idea, or of two individuals being able to discuss books across distance and time by referring to the same page changed the practice of scholarship dramatically. Guns altered the standard methods of battle and ended the class immunity represented by the purchase of armor. When it became evident that a peasant could kill a duke, apparently some of the fun went out of warfare right then and there.
If this century was a less good time to be a duke on a battlefield, it was a fairly good time to be a scholar-artisan: Grafton describes the origins of modern science as a combination of the logical philosophy of the scholastics, the experimental habit of artists-engineers, and the mathematical knowledge of scholars trained in newly rediscovered Greek texts. (24) New scientific instrumentation, greed, and what can only be described as sheer guts supported the explorations of the Portuguese down the coasts of Africa, and the Spanish out beyond the pillars of Hercules. The Portuguese struggled with the Venetians for control of the spices flowing into Europe and with the Spanish for silver from the Americas. But most goods were traded internally within Europe, and that trade expanded dramatically following the population rise in the century after the Black Death. Bankers traveled with trade fairs, and developed systems of credit as well as systems of industrial production -- systems of rural and urban outputting that undermined the control of craft guilds. The trading activities of wealthy and successful merchants became socially and religiously acceptable, even admirable, rather than socially and religiously suspect. Grafton argues that feudal serf or tenant relations held in places where markets were local and unspecialized, but changed in places where commodities (wool, grain) could be produced for export. (70) Freedom to change one's work, one's status, was possible. The peasants were, nevertheless, taxed heavily throughout the sixteenth century and maintained uncertain control over the means of their own support.
A more heartening uncertainty dominated the possibilities for education
during this period: new books were available and new ideas about proper
education were developed. History "flipped"
-- that is, the medieval period seemed "dark" in the eyes of Renaissance scholars and the period they themselves were forming was "light," a rediscovery of the knowledge of the Greeks and Roman authors; mankind as a whole was now invested with dignity and possibility. Realism and perspective in art expressed the new mathematical knowledge of artists (102), the new attention to the sensuous, and the new understanding of individuality.
Individuality was nowhere made more concrete than in the power wielded by sovereigns over consolidated territories. Such territorial consolidations were slow, and by no means uniform in their results, but families and individuals were able to pursue dynastic ambitions at what appears (perhaps anachronistically) to be unbelievable social cost. And yet, a distancing disbelief is not entirely modern: during this period Thomas More and Niccolo Machiavelli both meditated in print on the power of princes, and what a just society would look like. Sovereignty did not extend to national unity: Charles V, who inherited the sprawling Hapsburg holdings and the title of Holy Roman Emperor, was in no part of his kingdom the same king with the same powers. Germany was perhaps the least unified and most resistant to consolidation; perhaps it is unsurprising then, that during a visit to Germany in 1521, Charles V met with the highly individual Martin Luther, heard him, and rejected his heresies. Luther held that individuals must read the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit alone, and without the mediating influence of the church; furthermore, each person's salvation was by grace alone, also without the assistance of the church. Calvinists, Zwinglians, and Anabaptists expressed similar commitment to personal choice. Unfortunately heresy carried the same price, but a whole new host of judges had sprung up. The Roman Catholic church engaged in reform while the Protestant revolution carried on, and a Roman commitment to piety was revived, but the two faiths were permanently polarized.
Grafton ends at the threshold of war -- I can do nothing so dramatic;
but I can say that the work offered some useful directions for thinking.
I would like to explore his ideas about the sources of scientific thought,
and also his mention of Goro Dati's handbook on geography. (29).