[Back to Modern Europe Syllabus]
Modern Western Civilization
Class 2: Roots of Western History
Before we start on Section 1 -
- This course is in modern history, but Western history did
not begin in 1700. It goes back thousands of years.
- This class looks at the Roots of Western history, at the ideas
that played an important part in its development.
- How there came to be a "West".
Chronology and Periodization
- "Classical", "Medieval", "Early Modern",
and " Modern".
- -has much to do with type of sources that survive
- -also generally from elite view point
What do you think the roots of Western history are?
II. Egypt and Mesopotamia
- Egypt - c. 4000 BC
Longest continuous civilization
Religion, Architecture, Maths
- Mesopotamia - also c. 4000 BC - in Iraq
Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria
-Numbers - use of base 12 - in time,
-Astronomy and Astrology
- These cultures influence us through two ways
- -the Jews and the Greeks
III. The People of Israel
- The Jews are the only ancient people still around.
One does not often meet Hittites or Goths in the street, but the
Jews are still here.
- They absorbed a lot from Egypt and Mesoptamia
-eg the creation story
- But one massive contribution- Monotheism
- Belief in one caring God.
Unity of cult and ethics
- Also a belief in history - that we are going somewhere.
This is a contrast with the more cyclic views of the East, and
of the Egyptians.
- Jews wrote the Bible: Most read book book in the world -
and parts are at least 3000 years old.
The Bible is one of the chief sources of western culture
These IDEAS pass into Christianity and Islam.
- The other major source of Western IDEAS.
Ideas more important heritage than details of its history.
The ideas survive in literature and art:-
- From around 750BC.
Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey
The idea of ORDERED COSMOS - vital in Western ideas about science
- Invention of writing - for everyone not just the clergy.
- Thales of Miletus - asked for the first time what the world
was made of - water - SCIENCE
- Athens - The People, Democracy, natural art,
- Socrates: People as morally autonomous,
- Plato - Asked most of the Philosophical Questions
-how do we know what we know.
- Aristotle - Introduces observation into science.
- Alexander the Great - c. 300BC. Conquers the whole Eastern
Mediterranean. Greek ideas, and the Greek language dominate the
- Note two things:
Greeks did not know about the Jews: Jews did know about the Greeks.
All the discussion so far has been based in the Eastern Mediterranean,
away from what we now call the West.
V. Rome - Always a Western city.
- From around 300BC it began to grow in importance. Within 300
years it had unified the Mediterranean into one state.
- All elites spoke either Greek or Latin.
- Intellectually Rome was dominated by Greece, but its genius
was in STATECRAFT and LAW.
- Roman Law is still the basis of Law, via Napoleon, in most
of Europe. US law derives from English Law, but that also is influenced
- The ideal of Unity and the Universal state has been important
in Western history ever since.
- Jesus Christ. Born c.6BC, d. c. 33AD.Founder of Christianity.
- St. Paul, A Greek-speaking Jew and main apostle of the Faith.
United Jewish and Greek ideas in Christianity.
- Christianity becomes religion of Mediterranean area c. 400.
- The most Christian areas are probably Egypt and Anatolia.
VI. Breakup of Classical World
- The Mediterranean was a united cultural area. It was the breakup
of this area that led to the development, amongst others of the
- Roman Empire: Invasions from the outside, Economic problems
internally. Breaks Up. But it did not die.
Each part took something from Greece, Rome and Judea
The Empire in the East continued, based in Constantinople.
It was Christian and Roman and Greek. It was the most obvious
heir to the culture of the Classical world.
The Byzantine Empire lasts until 1453.
Its culture still dominates Eastern Europe and Russia, through
Islam was the religion of Arab townsmen. Led by Mohammad (d.
c. 640, Hijira 622). They swept out of the Arabian peninsula.
Eventually took control of all North Africa, Egypt, Anatolia (under
the Turks) and for a time Spain.
Islam also is an heir to Classical civilization. It also learnt
maths from Mesopotamia, Philosophy from the Greeks and Monotheism
from the Jews.
For almost a thousand years Muslims were by all objective standards
more advanced than Western Europe.
- Latin Christendom
Finally, what was left, was dominated by Barbarians. France,
Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany.
The least developed of the three cultures that succeeded the classical
It was dominated increasingly also by the Church of Rome. It was
a Latin reading and speaking world. i.e "Latin Christendom."
This area was to become the West.
VII. The Western Middle Ages
A. From around 600 to 1000 AD conditions were fairly bleak.
Around 800 Charlemagne.
Most people lived on the land. Subsistence farming.
No towns larger than say 10,000 - at the most.
B. c.1050 Latin Christendom comes to life.
- Politically States begin to pull themselves together,
England, France, Germany (for a time)
- Concept of Kingship and what a king should be/do develops.
- Crusades - Westerners attack both Byzantium and Islam in order
to conquer Jerusalem. They succeed for a time.
- Intellectual Life -
great writers like St. Thomas Aquinas (13th. C.)
- Christianity becomes more like it is today.
Devotion to Mary. Mass. Development of all the religious orders.
- Art and Music - We can now trace direct lines from then to
- Economically - From around 1050 a Commercial revolution.
In the earlier period money had largely disappeared. Now it becomes
important again and trade starts up in local areas and between
far distant areas. Westerners even get as far as China.
- In short the West begins to have notion of itself. The notion
is called Christendom, but develops into the idea of Europe.
- In the Middle Ages we have the origin of a specifically Western
civilization, based not on the Mediterranean, but the Western
lands of the entire Continent.
VIII. The Renaissance
- Period from late 14th, early 15th Century (explain 1300s and
- a new emphasis, spurred by examination of Classical past but
also by internal European developments created an artistic and
intellectual ferment first in Italy and then in the rest of Europe.
- Renaissance thought stressed Classicism, Individualism, Humanism
- belief in no limits to human accomplishment (Pico de Mirandola).
This, rather than more medieval ideas, was the precursor to modern
ways of thinking.
- Humanism -
A. Erasmus of Rotterdam - Version of Bible in Greek attacked superstition
B. Thomas More - Humanism in England
C. Calvin - first serious writing in French
D. Printing Invented - was to lead to great changes as information
could be spread much more easily - Johannes Gutenberg d. 1468
IX. Religious Thought: Reformation and Counter-Reformation
- The Reformation was another great development at the end of
the Middle Ages/Beginning of Early modern period.
- Religion united both the intellectual elite and the people.
Ways of thinking were not scientific for many - their pre-occupation
was with God and especially Salvation (getting to heaven). The
thinkers we shall be examining as creators of the modern world
lived in this background.
- Importance of Reformation was it split Europe into two ideological
camps. This in fact allowed new ideas to develop and have a chance
to become widespread.
The Reformation (First half of 16th C.)
- Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Began challenge to Rome in 1517.
His main concern was with personal salvation
-Justification (setting right before God), was the most important
thing for him.
-But it is important to note another aspect of the Lutheran Reformation
- the very great respect it gave to the state. In effect Lutheranism
allowed a separate morality for individuals and the State. This
is often seen as a factor in German history.
- John Calvin (1509-64)
Advanced the Reformation in French speaking areas.
-Most of his thought is implicit in Luther, but Calvin was more
rigorous. He had the doctrine of predestination to salvation or
damnation. The saved or the Elect were a major part of his thought.
(Came from his experience as a preacher - why did some not believe).
-Mention Calvinist Adherents
-Note importance of notion of the Elect. It made Calvinists Political
in a way Lutherans were not They felt able to reject the state
- led to religious wars in short term - but the is also important
in revolutionary thought. Calvinists often felt themselves to
be justified - gave confidence to Calvinist entrepaneurs.
The Counter Reformation
- Catholic Church reformed itself
- Council of Trent (1545-63) 18 Years
This re-established Catholic norms.
It even cleared up previously undefined areas.
It was very anti-protestant.
- The Jesuits - Shock troops of the Church.
Insisted on intellectual rigor.
- The Index - this was only really important now that there
were many books about due to printing
Effects of Renaissance and Reformation
- The Counter Reformation made Catholic Countries firm in their
Catholicism - and made it impossible, or very hard, for non-believers
to live there.
- Secondly it was much harder to express new opinions and ideas
in Catholic Countries (France was different - the French Church
-the Gallican Church - was under royal control - some liberty
of thought allowed)
- So most of the new ideas that made modern world grew up in
Protestant countries and France (Value of diversity of states
X. The Thirty Years War and 1648
- There were a lot of religious conflicts in Europe for almost
a 150 years after Luther. These were major wars that tore countries
apart - The Holy Roman Empire was divided, France was rocked by
wars between Catholics and Calvinists (1598 Edict of Nantes, Henry
Religion was not the only factor, often not even the major one.
Suffice to say that many states came close to destruction, and
one, Poland, disappeared.
- There was a large scale general European war from 1618-1648.
Thirty Years War
Treaty of Westphalia 1648. Pope not invited
- In Europe - a general feeling that religion should be removed
The 18th C. was to be much less religious.
It is at this point we can start modern history.
XI. Continuity of Old Ideas
- There was an entirely different world view for people in late
middles ages, plus 15th Century - also note that these ideas persisted
a long time - alongside more modern ones - eg look at modern newspaper
It was hard to break out of this view of the world - Great intellects
had built it up and it took enormous breadth of knowledge imagination
and even hubris to change it.
The changing of the Scientific world view, was the single most
characteristic change that led to a modern world view.
- We have been discussing the world that people lived in at
the start of the modern era. Many of theses ideas we have been
discussing continued amongst some groups long after the revolutions
in European life we will be discussing
- One of these was the Divine right of Kings. Lead into Absolutism
- to be covered in next lecture