August 2017

Review: The Early Modern World, Chapters 5 to 7 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

Chapters 5-7 provided numerous opportunities for demonstrating and examining connections between the "West and the rest." These opportunities, had they taken them, would have allowed this book to be an actual world history.

by Jennifer Tellman

Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times adheres to a traditional view in history: the West and the rest. The author drew lines in the sand between Western Europe and the rest of the world that utterly deny the fluidity, assimilation and sheer dumb luck that proliferate throughout human history, and replaces them with quasi-strict divisions that separate Western European agency and actions from the wider world. Due to these stringent divisions, the information provided focuses mainly on Western European history with few glances given to the non-Western European world. While Unit 2 claims the title “The Early Modern World,” only two of its seven chapters examine the non-Western world.

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Coffee House in the Ottoman Empire, 16th century. Courtesy of Herb Museum.

Chapter 5 gives a general overview of the Italian Renaissance with a cursory glance paid to the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The chapter places considerable attention and emphasis on the Renaissance concept of the individual. While this Renaissance idea carried considerable significance, it is also important for students (readers) to remember and understand that the Renaissance affected only a handful of people in the early modern Italian city-states. The sense taken away from reading this chapter is that just about everyone living in Italian city-states felt the direct impact of the Renaissance personally. As a result, the chapter does an admirable job in focusing on the importance of ‘the individual’ but neglects to demonstrate how early modern Western Europe was one in which the traditional (medieval) social and cultural structures remained deeply ingrained. This chapter also lacks any real acknowledgment of the wider world. For a world history textbook, this chapter basically ignores the non-Western world (save for a small note about overseas trade tucked away on the side), overlooking the contributions from Constantinople and the Islamic World and they influenced Renaissance intellectuals. As such, the chapter paints the Renaissance as an inescapable intellectual and cultural feat achieved by and in Western Europe alone.

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Nanban ships arriving for trade in Japan, 16th century. Courtesy of S Media Cache.

In chapter 6, European expansion sounds almost predestined or preordained to succeed. This overarching sense of inevitability completely undercuts rather than highlights the multiplicity of complex world events, movements of people and goods, and developments in technologies that occurred to enable European development. Readers will leave this text with a sense that overseas expansion by Western European powers was an unavoidable outcome, as was the growth of the slave trade and the various conquests and plantations in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The presumed inevitability of European successes overseas occludes what other non-European countries sought—or did not seek—in overseas (or terrestrial) explorations, creating the illusion that other countries held no interest in expanding their territories or their own wealth for the benefit of their rulers and merchants. As with chapter 5, this chapter only offers an overview of how Western Europe was destined to achieve overseas success by obtaining wealth at the cost of native inhabitants. The latter part is undeniably accurate. To tout European expansion as an inescapable outcome, however, is detrimental to understanding world history. By doing so, it negates the agency and activities occurring outside of Western Europe and its colonies. A prime example of this comes in section 3 of chapter 6 covering the Latin American colonies, in which the agency of Spain and Portugal as conquerors surpasses the only obscurely mentioned agency of native peoples.

Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times adheres to a traditional view in history: the West and the rest.

The obvious control, prestige and privilege enjoyed by Western Europeans in and from their colonies cannot be downplayed or ignored; however, the muted treatment given to the native groups only serves to diminish and degrade them further. Providing a well-balanced overview of European expansion that actively includes the agency of non-Europeans would benefit the text on a whole.

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The Florentine Codex. Courtesy of Khana Academy.

Chapter 7, focusing on Western Europe during the seventeenth century, not so surprisingly, mentions nothing about the Little Ice Age that so heavily impacted life during the period not just in Western Europe but across the globe. Including the Little Ice Age would have provided the necessary connections needed for this textbook to truly be a study of world history rather than merely a text on the West and the rest. Even though almost every place and people in the world struggled with and against the global disasters wrought by the Little Ice Age, this chapter offers only top heavy and brief political overviews of France, England (where even Scotland and Ireland are utterly ignored), and one section on Prussia and Russia. Providing connections as well as comparisons with how different countries, governments and peoples responded to the Little Ice Age and the crises of the seventeenth century would not only make this chapter an actual world history, it would also demonstrate what events (natural and human-made) that shaped the seventeenth century, thus influencing later generations.

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World map, 17th century, by Jesuits stationed in China. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chapters 5-7 focus on Western Europe during the Renaissance, Reformation, Exploration and Absolutist periods. However, as this book markets itself as a world history textbook, it needed to examine the connections (trade, migration, syncretism, technology, and wars) between the different histories and geographical areas the book claims to study in equal measure. Instead, what readers are left with is a Western Eurocentric overview of the West and some of the rest. Chapters 5-7 provided numerous opportunities for demonstrating and examining these type of connections. These opportunities, had they taken them, would have allowed this book to be an actual world history.

Recommended Readings

Clulow, Adam. The Company of the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Parker, Charles. Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Weaver, Stewart. Exploration: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Jennifer Tellman is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and received her MA from Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She studies early modern English exploration and expansion focusing on the promotional and scholastic literature produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Currently, her research interest is examining the conceptions of temporality and space articulated in promotional literature. She can be contacted here.

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1 comment on “Review: The Early Modern World, Chapters 5 to 7 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Back to School: The Activist History Review Reviews High School History Textbooks – The Activist History Review

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