Early Modernity and the World Beyond Europe

Written by Seth Silverberg

Can the concept of early modernity in an historical context be used outside of Europe? We will see that the answer depends entirely on how one defines ‘early modernity’. The usefulness of the concept of ‘early modernity’ when studying history outside of Europe is influenced by three concepts. First, the definition of modernity itself is important; its relevance and usefulness depend largely on which point of view is adopted. Second, there is the issue of a Eurocentric point of view being applied outside of Europe. Finally, the concept of ‘historical continuities’, or ideas and patterns that develop in different countries that are not in contact with each other, is helpful when considering the pertinence of using the term ‘early modern’ in non-European contexts. 

This first section will delve into how ‘early modernity’ can be applied outside Europe if we are careful with what is considered modern before applying the term to individual countries. Indeed, modernity is too much associated with the rise of the West. There is a prevailing idea that modernisation is an unavoidable progression from a universal ‘pre-modernity’ to modernity as seen in European societies, which other countries have no choice but to follow. This is both Eurocentric and misleading. After all, there is a wide variety of societies with different historical developments seen both before and after Western contact, and even those that have become ‘modern’ do not all do so in the same way: some become Communist, others autocratic and others still stay highly religious. Japan, for example, can be said to have attained its own form of modernity in the early twentieth century.  

In addition, individual elements of modernity can show up in a lot of places, but in isolation, they do not make the society ‘modern’ or even ‘early modern’. For example, if we use the presence of markets, merchant capitals, and proto-industrial productions to check the existence of ‘early modern’ societies outside of Europe, we risk finding evidence of early modernity as far back as Egyptian landlords from Greco-Roman times or even Assyrian merchants in 1900 BCE. Furthermore, one of the ways to see modernity is as a combination of constructed authority with minimal religious authority and mass production depending on fossil fuel or electricity, but if this is used, we do not find modern societies before 1850 in England or before 1900 or later in the rest of the world – which is later than most agreed-upon end dates for the early modern period.  

In contrast, E.A. Wrigley argues that, instead of calling pre-modern societies ‘early modern’, it would fit better to call them advanced organic societies, i.e., societies that are dependent on organic sources of energy that exist in limited amounts rather than the exploitation of coal for cheap energy. Under Wrigley’s definition, the transition to modernity would be marked as the exploitation of fossil fuels, and it would not be a slow transition– around 1200 CE, one hundred percent of societies used human or animal muscle power, water, and windmills; by 1800 CE, it was down to ninety-five percent, and by the 1900s, it was only forty percent. Using this model, China cannot be considered ‘early modern’ from around 960 to 1911 CE, but it can be described as an advanced organic society, and Japan is in a similar position. As such, instead of painting ‘early modernity’ as a universal phenomenon, historians might be better served by using different chronologies for each region or country instead of one global periodisation which by default privileges one specific point of view. 

Secondly, let us explore how the idea of ‘early modernity’ can be used outside of Europe if we remove the Eurocentric lens and idea that modernisation is Westernisation. Indeed, there is a preconception that ‘the West is modern because Westerners have more stuff’ and that modernity is the process of spreading the Western model of society around the world. This idea of Western superiority is then used as a measure to judge all other countries against, one in which they often come up short. Instead, it would better serve to speak of a plural of ‘early modernities’ rather than a single global ‘early modernity’, as even within Europe, countries evolved and grew differently at their own rates. For example, within the Western world, it could be argued, as Peter J. Taylor has, that Europe has been ‘modernised’ twice: first, when the Dutch mercantile industry was taken over by British industrial modernity and second, when British industry was itself taken over by American consumer modernity. In Asia, this model can be seen in the case of Japan, which experienced economic development and state centralisation in the still-feudal Tokugawa period (1603-1868 CE). Similarly, in China, the early modern period could be considered to have started earlier (in 1368, with the expulsion of the Mongols) or ended later (in 1911, with the overturning of Confucian patterns) than what is outlined in the usual periodisation. As such, we need to see ‘early modernity’ as a continual process of the construction and reconstruction of different cultural ideas instead of seeing it as the universal process of Westernisation.  

Finally, this section will examine how ‘early modernity’ can be used outside of Europe if we use key characteristics that happened independently all around the world around the same time–what Joseph F. Fletcher calls ‘historical horizontal continuities.’ Indeed, Fletcher observed that there were seven key horizontal continuities, all of which could be said to have led to the next. These are not new or unique, but simply continuities of each other. The first horizontal continuity is a noticeable population increase starting around the fifteenth century, with a decline and regrowth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. The second is an increase in pace or rate of historical changes. This is followed by the growth of cities and towns as part of a greater trend of urbanisation and the increase in importance of towns in regional short-distance trade. The fourth horizontal continuity is the rise of commercial classes, i.e., merchants and artisans, in urban centres. This is then followed by religious revival and worldwide religious reformations. The penultimate continuity is an increase in rural uprisings, revolts, and general peasant discontent due to heavier taxation and the annexation of land. The final continuity is the decline of nomadism, though the exact cause of this remains uncertain. Unfortunately, it is easy when studying history to overlook these historical horizontal continuities, as they can be obscured by historical events and interconnections, but there would be no history as we know it without these horizontal continuities. As such, when studying the history of specific countries, we need to look outside of their borders to see if we can observe horizontal continuities that would indicate if they experienced their own ‘early modernity’. 

Now that we have looked at the definition of ‘modernity’ that is used to study each country, acknowledged that there needs to be a shift of the Eurocentric lens associated with the concept, and understood the existence of horizontal continuities, we can see that the concept of ‘early modernity’ can indeed be used outside of Europe, but only on the condition that we accept pluralities and the existence of multiple ‘early modernities.’ This may lead to implications that some might find uncomfortable, such as acknowledging that some countries outside of Europe might have entered their own version of early modernity before the Western world, but it is important to challenge such preconceived notions.


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Featured image credit: Printmaking triptych (before 1865), Utagawa Kunisada. Public domain.

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