Transitions and Transformations in World History
Transitions and Transformations in World History

Transitions and Transformations in World History

Lead Author(s): Richard Byers, Victoria Hightower

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Transitions and Transformations in World History 1500-present is a modular text that allows instructors to choose their path through the narrative of world history from roughly 1500 to the present. The modules emphasize five main themes: Competition and Contestation, Globalization and Contact, Imperialism and Resistance, Power, Oppression and Opposition, and Intellectual Change and Development. The modules can support either political, intellectual, social, economic, geographical or blended, custom approaches to teaching world history depending on how an instructor chooses to order the modules. The text allows for maximum flexibility and affordability for both instructors and students.

             Transitions and Transformations in World History, 1500-Present 

                   Section One: 1500-1750

Figure 1 World Map. Strebe, “Winkel Triple Projection SW.” Map. 2011. Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Unit Goals

After reading this section, students should be able to:

  1. Identify the major centers of power in the global system between 1500-1750 C.E., and explain why shifts in power occurred between regions.
  2. Understand the purpose of World History and its practice 
  3. Outline key themes that affect world history in this unit
  4. Explain the process of exploration and modern state formation, and compare its evolution across regions and culture. 


Zheng He                                                                                          New World
Direct trade                                                                                      Scientific Method
Mercantilism                                                                                    Renaissance
Treaty of Tordesillas                                                                      Reformation
Triangular Trade                                                                             Counter-Reformation
Factories                                                                                            Treaty of Westphalia
Venice and Genoa                                                                          Service nobility
Merchant class                                                                                Gunpowder Empires
Old World  

What is World History and How Does History Work?

Welcome to Transitions and Transformations in World History Since 1500. For many of you, this will be the first and the last time that you take a History course in college. As such, it is worth your while to engage with key concepts and ideas that are prevalent within the academic discipline of history in general, and the sub-discipline of World History in particular, at least for the rest of the semester, and hopefully for a lot longer.

Despite – or perhaps because of – what you have seen so far in your academic career, it is important to understand what academic, or professional, history is. It is an academic discipline concerned with reconstructing, analyzing, understanding, and writing about the past, and using a variety of methods to ask questions of the past, rather than just a series of dry, pre-assembled and accepted historical facts. All historical facts begin as elements of historical interpretations, or arguments about the historical past based on historical evidence, materials from past eras (books, letters, documents, photographs, artifacts, structures, cultural practices, digital files and many more) that have survived into our present. These forms of historical evidence are then interrogated by historians to validate their authenticity, usually through forensic source analysis, and then incorporated into historical arguments to generate evidence-based historical interpretations. Historians crunch these data, analyze them, and classify them before presenting their argument to the world. History is an argumentative rather than a consensual discipline, it is based on proof, rather than belief, and is bound by the historical evidence that it employs. As historians, we are bound by the sources available and history is a discipline that is constantly changing. 

This electronic textbook helps reflect the evolving discipline and the approaches to World History that are popular in the 21st century. Professional history is a search for supported arguments, not a search for ‘truth.’ History is an ongoing scholarly conversation, in which you, as a student of world history, are now a participant. 

Use your time in this class as an opportunity to develop and hone your own critical thinking abilities; you will be surprised with the results. Historians always ask a series of questions when considering the past: what happened, why did things happen, who benefited, and what were the outcomes? Seen in this context, history is not a series of dry dead facts, but rather a kaleidoscope of competing, dynamic interpretive arguments about the past. In other words, it is a universe all of its own, with each generation asking its own questions. What questions do you bring? How are you an historical actor? Begin thinking of yourself in these terms to better acquaint yourself with the materials you will encounter here and in class.

World History is a sub-field of history that has been alive since ancient times, but which has also grown considerably over the last twenty years. Themes are important to world historians. There is not a single story arc that helps us study World History. In other texts and classes, your instructors might have used the rise of Europe as a theme in their courses, or perhaps trade and power. Themes provide structure to the arguments made by world historians. This book is organized modularly to allow each instructor to navigate it according to their own path that they have devised for you. 

This course begins in the year 1500, but there are a few sections that begin earlier than that. Many of the transformations that emerge in 1500 do so as a result of earlier changes. Nonetheless, the 16th century (1500-1599) transformed the world and the ways different parts of it interacted politically, economically, and socially. This book’s story begins by examining how the networks that changed the world developed, who benefited from it, and what it looks like today. 

In addition to the three general narrative sections, the E-text includes many specialized essay modules, which are linked to the main text narrative and focus more narrowly on specific regions, developments, and historical events. These essays were written by several different authors, and include expertise from the disciplines of Philosophy and Anthropology as well as History. The purpose of collaborative authorship is to provide students with the expertise and experiences of many scholars across more than a dozen historical sub-fields.

The E-text also differs from conventional texts or their digital equivalents in an important way. The embedded links that appear throughout the text are designed both to enhance the written content with maps, images, or documents, and also to provide portals for further study. Please feel free to mine them deeply, as many contain massive amounts of useful and relevant content not immediately seen on their splash pages. If you find online content you feel would be a useful addition to the text, please inform your instructor, and your suggestions may appear in a future version of the E-text. Happy hunting!

Summary: The World, 1500-1750

The world c. 1500 C.E. (Common Era, a term equivalent to A.D.) looked quite different from the world of the twenty-first century. Major, or “core”, centers of power included East Asia (Ming China), the Islamic World, and the Mongol khanates of central Eurasia. “Peripheral” areas, or areas of lesser influence, included most of Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, which remained cut off from the rest of the world.

Figure 2 Fra Mauro map, 1460. Piero Falchetta, "Fra Mauro Detailed Map." Map. 2011. In public domain.

In 1500, Asia dominated most global trade, commerce, and culture, and was linked primarily over land-based trade routes such as the Silk Roads. These routes, guaranteed by the Pax Mongolica, or Mongolian control of Eurasia, allowed goods, ideas, and people to travel east-west from Africa and Europe to south and east Asia. For more information, see the Mongols in World History E-text module. Most of the world’s highest quality commercial goods were produced in these regions – Ming China operated as the world’s factory and warehouse. For more on the Ming Dynasty, read the essay module on it. 

European cartographical knowledge is demonstrated by the above Fra Mauro Map, constructed between 1450 and 1460 by an Italian cartographer. Its orientation is the opposite of most modern maps, with Africa and India on the top and Europe on the bottom. The map was inspired by a map constructed in the 12th century by an Arab, al-Idrisi, who served the king of Sicily, and by recently translated maps produced by the classical geographer Ptolemy combined with Portalan maps, maps produced by combining compass directions with distance estimates. The similarity between the two maps shows the importance of non-European knowledge to Europe in the 16th century. 

A thriving sea-based network centered on the Indian Ocean basin, and linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Islamic world, South Asia, Southeast Asia and east Asia through the efforts of Islamic and south-east Asian sailors, merchants and traders. See the Western Indian Ocean and African Exchange E-text modules for more information. By the early modern era, nautical technologies from East and Southeast Asia — such as the compass, astrolabe, triangular sails, and shallow-displacement hulls — would transit this basin and pass through the Islamic world into Europe, enabling European maritime expansion.

New World peoples, although they had established thousands of complex societies, including large imperial systems—such as the Aztec Empire of Mexico, based in Mesoamerica, that of the Inca, in the Andean highlands, and the Cahokia communities located in the Mississippi alluvial plain in North America—remained isolated from the Old World system. This was also true of other human communities present in other isolated regions, such as Melanesian and Polynesian societies in Oceania, and Kalmyks and Inuits in eastern Eurasia. For more on New World empires, read the Empires in the Americas essay module.

Other peripheral regions, such as northwestern Europe and Atlantic Africa, were disadvantaged by geographic location, small population base, and religious and linguistic barriers. They were characterized as “backward and barbaric” by their more advanced Eurasian counterparts in China and the Islamic world. Ironically, these prevailing circumstances would provide the catalyst for one group of “barbarians,” the European Christian kingdoms of Iberia (Portugal, and later Spain) and later northwestern Europe (primarily England, France, and Holland), to begin expanding outward. Soon, they incorporated regional communities throughout the “Atlantic World,” New World peoples, and even Polynesians into a new, sea-based global system of exchange that had no historical precedent. By 1750, few humans across the globe remained isolated from this global network. The first phase of globalization was underway.

Traditional historical narratives argued that changes in Europe were most dramatic in this era because of the internal reorganizations of power (during and after events like the Reformation and Counter-Reformation), and also the newfound ability to project power beyond the countries’ boundaries into non-contiguous territories (overseas empires). In the 21st century, historians dispute this assertion, arguing that Europe’s rise in this era was mostly a result of Europe’s adaptation of foreign technologies such as the compass and triangular sails and their rising demand for Asian goods, not their inherent ingenuity as Europeans. Goods demanded included spices, like pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom, and Chinese and Indian manufactured goods including porcelain, silks, and cotton cloth. But there was a problem: Europe was severely disadvantaged in trading with Asia; their goods were simply not valued in Asia, or were of a lower quality than that which could be found in Asia, or both. As such, European companies and governments often engaged in the carrying trade, wherein European ships were often not trading European goods into the Indian Ocean or Asia, but rather moving Indian Ocean or Asian goods around those maritime systems in order to gain enough of their target goods to make the return trip to Europe profitable. 

Exploration and Migration - Globalization Part 1

The key themes in this era are exploration and migration, and the centralization of authority. Both resulted from the increased mobility and contact made possible by technological innovations of the 16th century and reflect the first phase of globalization.  In this phase, interconnectivity and interdependence gathered pace after 1500 C.E., intensified by state-supported maritime exploration. The Ming Chinese Emperor Yongle sent the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He around the Indian Ocean between 1405-1427 C.E.  In 1427 due to internal unrest, the death of Yongle, and a general interrogation of the necessity of such expensive voyages, subsequent Ming emperors did not maintain this network. European monarchies including the Iberian kingdoms of Portugal and Spain stepped into this vacuum and led the way between 1450 and 1600, followed by Holland, England, and France. Fearful of each other’s successes, these small, competitive northern European kingdoms were highly motivated to go and expand their networks abroad. These new maritime networks did not obliterate the existing networks of exchange like the Silk Road, Indian Ocean routes, or other overland trade routes through the Sahara, or the Americas. Existing networks adapted initially and remained important, even as transport and trade shifted to the seas. 

The Age of Exploration in Europe established direct trade throughout the world and over the two centuries included in this unit, this phenomenon fundamentally changed the global balance of power. Asia was the origin of most of the world’s luxury goods and between 1500 and 1750 many governments and merchants paid a very high price for the additional competition. Asian dynasties such as the Safavids in Persia (Iran) found it difficult to maintain their economies as the balance of power shifted away from the interior Silk Roads towards the coastal sea routes. The Ottoman Empire had to completely re-think its relationship with Europe and the Ming Empire collapsed entirely after experiencing a series of economic shocks caused by the sudden influx of silver from the Americas. For more, see the Western Indian Ocean module. 

Governments, in the forms of royal or state patronage and financial and military support, aided exploration. It also contributed to the creation of a state-directed, export-oriented economic structure known as mercantilism. Mercantilism was an economic system whose purpose was to maximize revenue by encouraging exports and discouraging imports. Some monarchies were small, however. Exploration enabled their growth by providing resources beyond what their home territories could provide. It was not necessarily considered an import if it was acquired overseas. Within mercantilist economics, imports were designated as goods purchased from rival monarchies’ merchants. Although mercantilist economics benefitted governments, merchants were often the most important beneficiaries. Their wealth grew as they traded and they rarely had the costs associated with fortifying a city after the trade was underway. For more discussion of mercantilism, see this website

By the 1600s C.E., Europeans had established small but sustainable colonial enclaves across the Americas, coastal Africa, and throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, leading to a series of exchanges of people, foods, technologies, plants, animals and ideas that continues today. Initially tiny outposts, after a century these territories, and the commodities they provided such as silver, furs, maize, and potatoes, played a vital role in expanding European global trade, generated a global consumer economy, ended the “feast/famine” cycle across Europe, and provided a foundation for long-term global population growth. Some of these imperial possessions, such as the massive Spanish American empire, were many times larger than the kingdoms that controlled them. 

The discovery of the Americas pumped much needed bullion, gold and silver, into the Iberian, and eventually the world economy. But the Spanish were not content to stay and exploit the Americas. The purpose of exploration was to access the spice producing islands in the Indian Ocean directly—remember, Columbus searched for the Indies and it is for this reason that indigenous people at the time were called Indians. However, Papal Law forbade the Spanish from sailing eastward. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided the world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres. Because the Portuguese explored eastward first and had trading ports and alliances signed, the Pope gave them that side of the world. The Spanish, who had explored the route westward, were given control of all things to the west. 

In their fulfillment of the terms of the treaty, the Spanish explored westward and eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean. In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan established Spanish authority in the Philippines. This trading port gave the Spanish access to Asian trade goods and their discoveries in the Americas gave them the bullion necessary to purchase these goods directly. The Spanish became an importer of both to Europe and their treasuries expanded.

Figure 3 Map of Spanish holdings. Key shows when territories were lost by the Spanish crown. Trasamundo, "Spanish Empire Anachronous en." Map. 2013. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license.

The direct trading of goods between Europe and Asia profoundly affected global trade and politics. It brought the Asian kingdoms and European kingdoms into direct treaty relations and contact, while a lso shifting power away from Asian land empires and towards the coasts. For much of the sixteenth century, the Europeans existed as merchants in the Indian Ocean. Although the Portuguese tried to control trade, they were generally unsuccessful in doing so. Further, their ruthless policies towards indigenous rulers resulted in those rulers looking for other trading partners. By the 1600s C.E., as the Dutch, British, and French began sending their East India Companies’ vessels into the Indian Ocean, many Asian and African rulers were willing to sign treaties with them and to exclude the Portuguese. 

As Europeans expanded, they constructed two distinct types of imperial systems—trading colonies and formal colonies. The trading colonies, like those in Goa in India, Malacca in present-day Malaysia, and Macau off the Chinese coast, were established with very small European populations and acted as what were called factories, essentially warehouses, for goods. Because the trip between Europe and the Indian Ocean lasted at least a year, six months out and six months back, these factors, the men who ran the factories, traded and stockpiled their acquisitions until the arrival of a ship to move the goods back to Europe. 

Formal colonies were very different. They involved the settlement of a place by Europeans and generally resulted in a complete economic and social transformation of that place’s culture. Much of Latin America and North America were claimed as formal colonies. The Triangular Trade – see map herelinked Europe to West Africa to the Caribbean and Americas in a complex network of trade. Plantation agriculture flourished in the New World, particularly in the Caribbean and Brazil, and acute labor needs of plantation crops such as tobacco, indigo and sugar cane drove the development of a transatlantic commercial system. This resulted in untold wealth for Europeans, the chief beneficiaries, and unimaginable misery for Africans, who as slaves provided the labor for the Atlantic plantation economies, and Native Americans, whose land now became part of these hugely profitable commercial networks. This forced migration of millions of Africans, mostly young and male, severely reduced agricultural productivity in central and western Africa for generations, and led to the militarization of coastal African kingdoms such as Ashante and Dahomey, who now became crucial middlemen in the Atlantic slave trade. The Triangular Trade forms part of a larger process of early modern global migration that sees the development of new civilizations across the Old and New Worlds, such as Latin America (see section below) and the European colonies in North America, and also ushers in what many scholars call the “Atlantic World,” which linked the coastal areas and inhabitants of Europe, Africa, the Americas, and others from all parts of the world in a new cultural and commercial network.

Despite the economic changes in this era, much of Europe experienced a commercial revival between 1300 and 1650—the most significant increase in trade, commercial activity since the decline of the Western Roman Empire nearly one thousand years before. Italian city states including Venice and Genoa led the commercial revival and helped established trade networks throughout Europe, taking advantage of rising urbanization. By the 17th century, this commercial change in Europe stimulated a financial change as banking separated from money-changing for the first time. This allowed for mobile and transferable creditor/debtor obligations to develop and expand. Also, coinage returned as an important, quantifiably abstract form of economic exchange, replacing barter. The rise of the merchant class is critical— merchants were usually concentrated in urban communities as associations of free men. 

Soon, what began as a regional revival became a global revolution. Commercial activity of all kinds intensified, displacing—but not destroying—local and regional trade networks and enmeshing the global population within its web. In short, commercial activity became more important, and more pervasive, than ever before. The European revival allowed for re-establishment of links with the Indian Ocean and East Asian economies, initially through local patrons and intermediaries, then later on increasingly favorable and direct terms. Dutch sailors, traders and financiers led the way. After fighting a successful war of independence with the Spanish, Dutch elites established innovative new credit and banking systems, including the world’s first stock exchange in Amsterdam, and pioneered the use of joint-stock companies and insurance (and re-insurance) networks that diluted and helped to manage risk in investments. Soon, English and Dutch ships wrested control of much the world’s oceanic transit routes and their coastal settlements from the Spanish, the Portuguese and other naval powers such as the Ottomans and Ming Chinese, although it is important to recognize that in regions such as Southeast Asia, ongoing local resistance significantly limited the expansion of European imperial settlements until well into the nineteenth century.

The era of exploration changed the ways that kingdoms and individuals thought about themselves and their places in the world and introduced new concepts across the globe. The increased contact by more people throughout the world forced some to question cultural and social realities and others to reinforce them. The quintessential example of this process of social and cultural development occurs in what becomes known as Latin America, where a “hybrid” culture that shares American, African and European origins emerges. 

For the first time in over 15,000 years, all of the world’s human population came together in intimate proximity, leading to the development of a series of new mixed or “hybrid” civilizations that reflected the collision of many different cultures, traditions and ethnicities. Latin American society, composed of a fusion of European, American, and African elements, fits this pattern. 

Beginning with the voyages of exploration and later the conquests of the conquistadores, and sustained by the increased involvement of the Americas and Oceania in the European-directed global sea-based system, Latin American society, after recovering from a devastating series of Old World, (Europe, Africa, Asia) diseases and pandemics, soon became a kaleidoscopic blend of peoples and cultures. This New World (the Americas) changed at a dramatic pace. As most European colonists were men - indeed most traders in this period were men - there were often populations of mixed descent in port cities due to intermarriage and inter-cultural sexual relations. The creation of mestizo (European/American) and mulatto (European/African) populations in the Americas is one result, but mixed populations existed in virtually every port city in the world from Africa, to the Indian Ocean ports, to Asia, and the Americas. 

Exploration stimulated migration, both for profit and for settlement. It created mixed populations, but also had significant political and economic ramifications. As you read through the coming Etext modules, keep this theme in mind and look for ideas and instances that both challenge and support the issues raised in this section. 

Centralization of Authority - Rise of the Modern State

The second key theme of this unit is the centralization of authority. Very gradually, smaller monarchies became incorporated into larger empires. Throughout many imperial and feudal states, a centrifugal series of political and constitutional reforms and policies greatly enhanced the ability of rulers to train and pay large armies, and organize bureaucracies of officials through taxation. These reforms required sovereigns to monopolize armed force within their realm, and take firmer hold over legal affairs. Historian J.M. Roberts argues that this era’s institutional reforms also involved a shift in authority’s perspective over those it ruled, and “marked a change in emphasis within government, from a claim to control persons who had a particular relationship to the ruler, to one to control people who lived in a certain area.”[1] Control of space, rather than subjects, now became the principal issue for a host of centralizing leaders from China to England.

These developments also facilitated the rise of the prince/monarch as a political (rather than symbolic or feudal) leader, and, importantly, as a guarantor of justice. Sovereigns “appeared to promise more independent, less expensive justice than local lords.”[2] To ensure these reforms developed strong roots among their subject populations, centralizers encouraged the growth of national narratives and other popular myths that enhanced popular support for the state. These narratives and myths were linked to the cultural invention of the nation as a discrete concept—as the appearance of national patron saints, national histories, and other representative institutions such as parliaments suggests. 

This phenomenon occurred in different ways and for different purposes throughout the world. In Asia, the growth in demand for economic goods and the necessity of trading them over long distances, created expansive growth that incentivized rulers to expand their territories. The creation of the Safavid and Mughal Empires and the meteoric expansion of the Ottoman Empire exemplifies this, as does the establishment of African and American Empires including the Kingdom of Kongo, the Aztec, and Inca. 

Although the centralization of power in Europe resulted from economic motivations, it was the intellectual and political shifts created by the Renaissance, rise of science, and the Reformation that made the most lasting changes on that continent. 

The Renaissance (13th-16th century C.E.) began in the Italian city-states, Florence, Genoa, Venice, and over the course of centuries spread throughout European upper classes. This movement helped rediscover Greco-Roman knowledge and art and stimulated an education revolution throughout the upper classes of the continent. The revival of commerce and further contact with Chinese and Muslim intellectuals stimulated new ideas about knowledge production and the structure of the physical world. 

Occurring alongside the Renaissance was the rediscovery of scientific knowledge and the desire for scientific inquiry. This science centered on a methodological approach known as the scientific method—which involved direct observation and repeatable experimentation—and involved new technologies and questions. New knowledge appeared that led to the modern scientific disciplines, such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology because people were able to magnify items beyond the power of the human eye. For some, science became a demonstrable manifestation of God’s power and design. For others in Europe, especially when compounded by the religious wars of the Reformation, science became a haven from the Catholic Church’s attempts to maintain control over individual daily life and thought. 

The Catholic Church also tried to monopolize knowledge in Europe by maintaining control over the language of education (Latin) and the institutions of it (monasteries), although new institutions such as universities began to loosen these controls. Priests and Church officials were criticized for their personal immorality, corruption and aggressive public sale of indulgences (forgiveness for sins). Within the Church officials questioned the morality of these actions and in 1517, one former monk and university professor, Martin Luther (1483-1546) publicly expressed his outrage. Luther argued in favor of the vernacularization of religion via the translating of the Bible into spoken languages, rather than maintaining the liturgy in Latin. He advocated that priests remain faithful to their vows of poverty and celibacy (no sexual relations, although he later changed his mind on this second point, and today Protestant officials can marry). His message was accepted by many and led to the division and fragmentation of Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic sects. This Reformation (1517-1648), was not only an intellectual movement. Many connections existed between the Catholic Church and the monarchs of Western Europe—the Treaty of Tordesillas discussed above shows you some of the Pope’s political authority. Luther’s revolution not only changed the way people thought of Christianity, but also enabled monarchs to question their relationship to the Pope. 

The Reformation and the Catholic Church’s response to it, the Catholic or Counter-Reformation, fueled and helped sustain a century and a half of virtually continuous warfare in Europe in which monarchs lined up to defend or contest Papal authority. Henry VIII is probably most famous for using the Reformation and Protestantism to contest the Papal rejection of his request to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. This triggered a series of religious cleansings throughout the next century as Catholics and Protestants warred to control the English throne. Elsewhere in Europe, monarchs worked to establish their independence, most notably the Dutch who took the opportunity of the Reformation’s wars to pursue independence from Spain. These maps show the development of Europe’s religious disputes. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the final major war within the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War. This treaty worked to establish a system of states that were sovereign and autonomous, free from Papal authority. In central Europe, kings lost their kingdoms as the area that became Germany in the 19th century went from almost three hundred separate kingdoms to about thirty. The Treaty of Westphalia established the foundations of modern international law and international relations, and provided a firm basis for monarchs to act truly independently of each other and of any religious authority, even those who maintained their Catholic faith, like Spain, Portugal, and France. 

These wars did not remain within Europe, however. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation occurred virtually simultaneously with exploration and the increased mercantile contacts throughout the world. European voyagers increasingly used the pretext of ongoing war in Europe to attack rivals abroad. This had particularly negative consequences in East and Southeast Asia, as these conflicts became a motivation to some Asian monarchs to close or limit trading with Europeans.

Accompanying the centralization of power came the institutionalization of governments. The reliance on courtiers decreased and by 1750, many states relied on a “service nobility,” of aristocrats lacking independent wealth and land ownership, entirely dependent on their service to the government for their position and survival. In other monarchies, the rising middle class, merchants without titles or elite genealogies worked to administer and manage bureaucratic details. These “state-building” exercises took place throughout the world beyond Europe during this era. Russia emerged from Mongol control in the late 1400s and expanded under energetic leaders such as Ivan III, Ivan IV and Peter I “the Great” who worked to professionalize the military and transition power away from traditional elites. Across the Muslim world in Southwest and South Asia, the “Gunpowder Empires”—the Ottomans under their greatest leader Suleiman I (1494-1561), the Safavids of Persia under Abbas I (1571-1629) and the Mughals of India under Akbar the Great (1542-1605)—sought to impose similar processes on their diverse, and much larger, subject populations. Many of these raised slave-soldier armies to ensure their armies’ loyalty and instituted legal and educational institutions in their realms. In East Asia, the Ming, or “brilliant”, emperors Hongwu (1328-1398) and Yongle (1360-1424) revitalized the Chinese Empire, while rulers in Korea and Japan such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) built new state structures that proved remarkably resilient to external pressures. 


The coming modules will help you understand many of the ideas introduced here. Although we have introduced two main themes for this unit: exploration and migration, and the centralization of authority, these are not the only themes you can use to help you understand this unit’s information. Trade, political change, and the impact of intellectual challenges are additional themes that can help you make sense of the volume of information introduced here. Suffice to say that during the period between 1500 and 1750 the world changed and people’s lives were transformed through increased contact with foreign individuals, the introduction of new food crops and exposure to new disease pathogens, and the growth of new empires through conquest and warfare. Can we imagine Italian food without tomatoes or Indian food without chilies? 

World history gives us the tools to investigate not only what happened in the past, but to explain why it happened, and it is in this last part that professional historians are most interested. In the coming sections and modules, we expect that you will keep the questions of “why” and “so what” in your head—these two questions are invaluable to an historian and help us to construct an interpretation of the past that is alive with meaning and significance. These two questions and the realization that nothing is caused by one factor alone will help you succeed in this class and to understand history more generally.

Review Questions

Shifting power

Who benefits most from direct trade between Asia and Europe?


Ming Emperor




African kings


Ottoman Empire

Rise of the modern state

The rise of the modern state structure led to all of the following outcomes EXCEPT:


Empowered absolutist monarchs in Europe


Created a middle class who were neither peasants nor nobles


Created an egalitarian society in which all classes were equal


Made the nobles reliant on the monarch


Mercantilism is an economic system in which


A country encourages exports while discouraging imports


Nobles produce goods, the king buys the goods, and sells the goods to peasants


Trade barriers are obsolete


Production is specialized and cooperative

What is a paradigm shift?

What is a paradigm shift?


A sudden rupture in the historical record caused by war


The decision of a king to expand his empire


The evolution of land warfare


A transformation that results from a series of small adjustments

What separates the Old World from the New World?

What separates the Old World from the New World?


The Indian Ocean


The Atlantic Ocean




Malacca (Melaka)

Table of Figures

Figure 1 World Map. Strebe, “Winkel Triple Projection SW.” Map. 2011. Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Figure 2 Fra Mauro map, 1460. Piero Falchetta, "Fra Mauro Detailed Map." Map. 2011. In public domain

Figure 3 Map of Spanish holdings. Key shows when territories were lost by the Spanish crown. Trasamundo, "Spanish Empire Anachronous en." Map. 2013. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license


[1] J.M. Roberts, A History of the Modern World (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003), 503.

[2] Ibid., 504.

J.M. Roberts, A History of the Modern World (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003), 503.
Ibid., 504.