Every periodization in historical science is a setting based on certain criteria with the aim of systematizing the research field and delimiting and classifying a research object. As a result, only an approximation to historical reality is possible, or rather, a historical reality in the scientific sense is constituted in the first place. The transitions from the Middle Ages to the early modern period on the one hand and from this to the modern age on the other hand cannot be pinned down to individual dates. Rather, dates and specific events are only markers for orientation. The epoch boundaries are fluid and vary depending on whether, for example, political or socio-historical questions are in the foreground and which regions and countries are in focus. Moreover, many historical lines of development are of long duration and can also contradict a certain periodization.
Beginning of the early modern period
The intellectual and cultural awakening of the Renaissance and Humanism, the voyages of discovery by the Portuguese and Spaniards from the beginning of the 15th century, which changed the image of the earth forever, and the Reformation, which after 1517 destroyed the medieval unity of the (Western) Church destroyed – these three interrelated developments usually mark the beginning of the early modern period in European historiography.
In general, the Renaissance (rediscovery of antiquity) and humanism are seen as the beginning of a turning point. With it, a new image of man spread in Europe, which focused on the self-determined individual and his abilities. In philosophy, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and all other cultural areas, people oriented themselves back to the forms and content of antiquity.
This development can be seen earliest in Italy, where it began as early as the 14th century, reached its first cultural heyday in Florence in the 15th century and from where it spread throughout Europe by the beginning of the 16th century. Italy owed its pioneering role not least to the acceptance of a large number of Greek scholars from Constantinople, which had been conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. These scholars brought with them to the Occident what had long been thought lost. At the same time, the spread of knowledge was greatly accelerated by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable type. This made it possible to accumulate knowledge, which developed particularly in the cities. In the cities, especially in the large imperial and Hanseatic cities, differentiated legal and organizational forms had been developed that had a great civilizing effect.
The invention of the printing press, in turn, helped an event to achieve a breakthrough that, particularly in Germany, is associated with the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times: the Reformation. Martin Luther based his 95 theses, which he published in 1517, on a precise study of the Holy Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew, i.e. on knowledge based on the preliminary work of the humanists of the previous century.
Luther defended his theses in 1521 at the Diet of Worms before Emperor Charles V, who ruled an empire “on which the sun never set”. The Spanish possessions in the New World that Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492, the same year in which the Reconquista ended with the conquest of Granada, also belonged to this empire. The first impetus for the Age of Discoveries came from Portugal: expeditions had been sent out on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator since 1415 to find a sea route to India (India trade). Vasco da Gama succeeded in doing this in 1498. The discoveries of the Portuguese and the Spanish not only expanded the world view of medieval people, but also resulted in European expansion across the entire known world.