The early modern period has been typically portrayed through the activities of Europeans. In this historical narrative, European nations inaugurated an unstoppable process of global domination beginning with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s. From then on, European armies, merchants and missionaries fanned across the globe, and established themselves through colonization, commerce, and conversion. This process culminated in the eventual triumph of the nation-state and industrial capitalism as the best forms of political organization and economic production. Recently, however, scholars have identified serious deficiencies in this longstanding narrative. First of all, it blurs important distinctions between the early modern and modern periods; second, it relies on simplistic cultural stereotypes and portrays non-Europeans largely as passive bystanders; finally, it overlooks several processes, such as exchange and interaction on a global scale, that allow for a more nuanced interpretation of the early modern period.
Thus, while Eurocentric narratives of “The Age of Discovery” may paint it as such, the early modern period was not solely the age of European expansion throughout the world. To be sure, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, German, Swedish, and Danish officers sailed the seas and carved out distant maritime outposts and colonies from the 1400s to the 1700s. But these European actors were not the only empire builders since a number of Middle Eastern and Asian states established control over large territories simultaneously. The Ottomans (1300-1922) extended their rule into Central Europe and the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, and most of the Middle East; the Safavids (1501-1722) controlled the territories of today’s Iran; and the Mughals (1526-1857) occupied most of the Indian subcontinent. Through their use of gunpowder weapons, their development of relatively efficient bureaucracies, and their interest in international trade, these empires successfully competed with the European political and commercial interests. The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties built a vigorous economy in East Asia, and expanded into Central Asia, Mongolia, Turkestan, and Tibet. Muscovy, once a tributary of the Mongols, increased its land at the expense of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west, and established control over large swaths of Siberia, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean by the mid-seventeenth century.
The near-simultaneous rise of empires throughout Eurasia led to intense imperial rivalries, which manifested themselves in the form of warfare as well as cultural and economic competition. Even though Africans, Asians, and Europeans had engaged one another intermittently since ancient times, the early modern empires connected different communities within a global environment, and in a more comprehensive fashion. In this period of intense cultural, political, military, and economic contact, a single region or actor was not able to prevail over the others. Rather, a host of individuals, companies, tribes, states, and empires clashed, competed, and also cooperated. Travel became a much more frequent activity, and it increasingly involved individuals from different social and cultural backgrounds. These travelers (merchants, soldiers, pilgrims, missionaries, adventurers, members of persecuted groups) carried their wares, food, books, and germs across the globe. Eventually, these travels led to the circulation of practices, ideas, and beliefs on a wide scale that ranged from political sovereignty to apocalypticism. Early modern interaction was distinctive, standing out from later, modern patterns that emerged in the 1800s with the advent of industrialization. The Industrial Revolution equipped western nations with the technical capacities that enabled a handful of European countries (and later Japan and the United States) to dominate world affairs. The early modern period, on the other hand, allowed for the existence of several cultural and economic centers, across which travel and exchange was possible.
Over the past few decades, scholars from a variety of disciplines, fields, and geographical areas helped redefine our understanding of early modernity. They established interdisciplinary approaches, and emphasized the agency of individuals and communities rather than merely focusing on states and empires. The three-week NEH Summer Institute at Indiana University, “Beyond East and West: Exchanges and Interactions across the Early Modern World (1400-1800),” will offer college and university teachers the opportunity to absorb these new approaches. We are now increasingly aware of living in a global environment through the circulation of global cultural artifacts (ethnic food, modern art, music, literature, movies) as well as our exposure to global problems (the deterioration of nature, refugee crises, global market volatility). In order to better understand the implications of these developments, it is crucial to rethink their origins in the so-called early modern period.
This Institute will be built around the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of recent early modern scholarship. We welcome participants from different fields, at different stages in their careers, and from different types of academic institutions. Participants will possess distinct interests, and offer their own insights, all of which will enrich our collective Institute experience.
Kaya Şahin and Julia Schleck