Thematic History

PERIODS:

History isn't about memorizing names and dates, although these basic facts give us a framework for understanding the subject. There are a number of themes that occur and re-occur throughout the past. Tracing these themes over the course of the year will help you understand long-term changes in European history. We will focus on five themes this year. The overarching questions for each theme are listed below. Click on the theme for a deeper explanation.

Students are provided opportunities to apply learning objectives in each of the five themes throughout the course:

(To get a more detailed presentation, click on the blue title of any theme below)

Interaction of Europe and the World

Poverty and Prosperity

Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions

States and Other Institutions of Power

Individual and Society


Interaction of Europe and the World

Overview

Beginning in the 15th century, European nations sent explorers into the world beyond the Mediterranean, establishing new shipping routes, trading stations, and eventually, colonies in many parts of the globe. The motivations for these enterprises were complex and have been the subject of much historical debate. Were Europeans driven primarily by the desire for more direct and secure trade routes, by the pursuit of new commercial wealth, or by religious zeal — the desire to convert new peoples to Christianity? Whatever the motivations, these explorations created new, complex trade systems that profoundly affected European prosperity, patterns of consumption, commercial competition, and national rivalries. The activities and in uence of Europeans varied in different parts of the world. In India and China, centers of high civilizations, Europeans remained on the periphery in trading stations for centuries. In Africa, they also established themselves on the coasts, trading with the indigenous populations of the interior. In the Americas, they created colonies and imposed their religious, social, and political institutions on the native peoples. Europeans also brought new diseases to the Americas, which hastened the collapse of the indigenous cultures on the two continents. However, cross-cultural influence flowed in both directions. The encounters with non- European peoples profoundly affected European trade, social life, and ideas.

With their American colonies and the global reach of their seafarers, Europeans helped to create a truly global trading system, introducing new foods (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and corn) that changed the food cultures of China, India, and Europe. At the same time as Europe was experiencing the material consequences of its interaction with the world, European intellectuals began to describe and analyze the peoples and cultures with which they came into contact, as well as to collect and catalogue the ora and fauna they discovered. The use of “race” as a primary category for differentiating peoples coincided with the expansion of slavery, as Europeans sought a workforce for overseas plantations; this categorization helped Europeans justify the slave system. From the 16th to the 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade became a central feature of the world economy, and millions of Africans were transported via the notorious “Middle Passage” to labor on plantations in the Americas. The vast and cruel slave system began to generate opposition in Europe beginning in the late 18th century. Abolitionists objected to the system on humanitarian and religious grounds. An important strand of Enlightenment thought — the belief in citizenship, popular sovereignty, equality, and liberty — promoted by the American and French revolutions also contributed to the ideology of the abolitionist movements, and European states abolished the slave trade in the early 19th century. From the late 18th century to the era of decolonization, these Enlightenment principles in uenced those who opposed Europe’s global domination.

Yet, this critique of colonialism did not have an immediate effect, given that the 19th century proved to be a period of empire building. Driven by the needs of an industrial economy and nationalism, Europeans expanded their territorial control in Asia and Africa through warfare, the seizure of property, and, in some cases, immigration. In the late 19th century, the scale and pace of conquest intensified because of asymmetries in military technology, communications, and national rivalries among the Great Powers. In conquered territories, Europeans established new administrative, legal, and cultural institutions, and restructured colonial economies to meet European needs. These actions often led to resistance in colonial areas. Within Europe, exposure to new peoples and cultures in uenced art and literature, and spurred on efforts to nd a scienti c basis for racial differences. Competition for colonies also destabilized the European balance of power and was a signi cant cause of World War I. In the mid-20th century, the rise of the United States as an economic and military power, two world wars, and the four-decades-long Cold War led to a decolonization movement that diminished Europe’s economic and diplomatic place in the world. At the end of the 20th century, Europe sought new ways of de ning interactions among its own nations and with the rest of the world. At the same time, the migration of non- European people into Europe began to change the ethnic and religious composition of European society and to create uncertainties about European identity.

Proficient students should be able to ...

  1. Assess the relative influence of economic, religious, and political motives in promoting exploration and colonization.
  2. Analyze the cultural beliefs that justified European conquest of overseas territories and how they changed over time.
  3. Analyze how European states established and administered overseas commercial and territorial empires.
  4. Explain how scienti c and intellectual advances — resulting in more effective navigational, cartographic, and military technology — facilitated European interaction with other parts of the world.
  5. Evaluate the impact of the Columbian Exchange — the global exchange of goods, plants, animals, and microbes — on Europe’s economy, society, and culture.
  6. Assess the role of overseas trade, labor, and technology in making Europe part of a global economic network and encouraging the development of new economic theories and state policies.
  7. Analyze how contact with non-European peoples increased European social and cultural diversity and affected attitudes toward race.
  8. Evaluate the United States’ economic and cultural in uence on Europe and responses to this influence in Europe.
  9. Assess the role of European contact on overseas territories through the introduction of disease, participation in the slave trade and slavery, effects on agricultural and manufacturing patterns, and global conflict.
  10. Explain the extent of and causes for non-Europeans’ adoption of or resistance to European cultural, political, or economic values and institutions, and explain the causes of their reactions.
  11. Explain how European expansion and colonization brought non-European societies into global economic, diplomatic, military, and cultural networks.

Poverty and Prosperity

Overview

In the centuries after 1450, Europe first entered and then gradually came to dominate a global commercial network. Building off the voyages of exploration and colonization, the commercial revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries involved a wide range of new nancial and economic practices — such as joint-stock companies, widely capitalized banks, and triangular trade — all of which supported an emerging money economy. New commercial techniques and goods provided Europeans with an improved diet and standard of living. Wealth from commerce supported, in turn, the growth of industrial capitalism in subsequent centuries.

Commercial wealth helped transform a preindustrial economy based on guild production, cottage industry, and subsistence agriculture into one driven by market operations. While market mechanisms generated wealth and social position for some, they also destabilized traditional patterns of economic activity, such as when the wages of urban artisans and workers declined in the 16th century because of the price revolution. Still, commercial wealth generated resources for centralizing states, many of which, prior to the French Revolution, justified government management of trade, manufacturing, nance, and taxation through the theory of mercantilism. Mercantilism assumed that existing sources of wealth could not be expanded; accordingly, the only way to increase one’s economic power over others was to gain a greater share of the existing sources of wealth. As a result, mercantilism promoted commercial competition and warfare overseas.

Market demands generated the increasingly mechanized production of goods through the technology of the Industrial Revolution. Large-scale production required capital investment, which led to the development of capitalism, justi ed by Adam Smith through the concept of the “invisible hand of the marketplace.” The growth of large-scale agriculture and factories changed social and economic relations. Peasants left the countryside to work in the new factories, giving up lives as tenants on landlords’ estates for wage labor. Improved climate and diet supported a gradual population increase in the 18th century, and then came a seeming breakthrough of the Malthusian trap (the belief that population could not expand beyond the level of subsistence) with a population explosion in the industrial 19th century. Industrialization generated unprecedented levels of material prosperity for some Europeans, particularly during the second industrial revolution (1850–1914), when an outburst of new technologies ushered Europe into modern mass society.

Prosperity was never equally distributed, either geographically or by social class, and despite the wonders of the railroad and airplane, poverty never disappeared. Capitalism produced its own forms of poverty and social subjection. It created nancial markets that periodically crashed, putting people dependent on wages out of work and wiping out investors’ capital. Its trading system shifted production from expensive to inexpensive regions, reducing or holding down the wages of workers. By the 19th century, conditions of economic inequality and the resultant social and political instability across Europe raised questions about the role evolving nation-states could or should play in the economic lives of their subjects and citizens. Socialism argued for state ownership of property and economic planning to promote equality, and later, Marxism developed a systematic economic and historical theory that inspired working-class movements and revolutions to overthrow the capitalist system.

The devastating impact of two world wars and the Great Depression transformed pre-1914 economic patterns and complicated the task of governments in managing the unstable economic situation. Soviet Russia and its post–World War II satellites represented one path, while nations in Western and Central Europe modi ed laissez-faire capitalism with Keynesian budget and tax policies and an expanding welfare state. Consumerism, always an important factor in economic growth, took on even more importance in the second half of the 20th century, although not without criticism. Perhaps the most signi cant change since World War II has been the movement toward European economic unity and a common currency. Although policies of unity have supported Europe’s postwar economic miracle, they have also encountered challenges of a stagnating population, nancial crises, and growing social welfare commitments.

Proficient students should be able to ...

  1. Explain how and why wealth generated from new trading, financial, and manufacturing practices and institutions created a market and then a consumer economy.
  2. Identify the changes in agricultural production and evaluate their impact on economic growth and the standard of living in preindustrial Europe.
  3. Explain how geographic, economic, social, and political factors affected the pace, nature, and timing of industrialization in western and eastern Europe.
  4. Explain how the development of new technologies and industries, as well as new means of communication, marketing, and transportation, contributed to expansion of consumerism and increased standards of living and quality of life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  5. Analyze the origins, characteristics, and effects of the post–World War II economic miracle and the economic integration of Europe (the Euro zone).
  6. Analyze how expanding commerce and industrialization from the 16th through the 19th centuries led to the growth of cities and changes in the social structure, most notably a shift from a landed to a commercial elite.
  7. Explain how environmental conditions, the Agricultural Revolution, and industrialization contributed to demographic changes, the organization of manufacturing, and alterations in the family economy.
  8. Analyze socialist, communist, and fascist efforts to develop responses to capitalism and why these efforts gained support during times of economic crisis.
  9. Assess how peasants across Europe were affected by and responded to the policies of landlords, increased taxation, and the price revolution in the early modern period.
  10. Explain the role of social inequality in contributing to and affecting the nature of the French Revolution and subsequent revolutions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
  11. Analyze the social and economic causes and consequences of the Great Depression in Europe.
  12. Evaluate how the expansion of a global consumer economy after World War II served as a catalyst to opposition movements in Eastern and Western Europe.
  13. Analyze how cities and states have attempted to address the problems brought about by economic modernization, such as poverty and famine, through regulating morals, policing marginal populations, and improving public health.
  14. Explain how industrialization elicited critiques from artists, socialists, workers’ movements, and feminist organizations.
  15. Analyze efforts of government and nongovernmental reform movements to respond to poverty and other social problems in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  16. Analyze how democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian governments of the left and right attempted to overcome the nancial crises of the 1920s and 1930s.

Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions

Overview

Starting in the 15th century, European thinkers began developing new methods for arriving at objective truth — substituting these methods for appeals to traditional authorities — and then gradually moved away from belief in absolute truths to increasingly subjective interpretations of reality. Although most early modern Europeans continued to rely on religious authority and ancient texts for their knowledge of the world and as a standard of value, an increasing number argued that direct inquiry (philosophical and scienti c) was the principal way to formulate truths and representations of reality. Philosophers of the natural world created a new theory of knowledge based on observation and experimentation, along with new institutions to put the new theories into practice. Science came to be viewed as an objective source of truth about the natural world. Artists, musicians, and writers also employed empirical and quantitative methods to abstract the notions of space, time, and sound in new cultural movements, many of which continued to draw on classical subjects and motifs, such as the Renaissance.

During the Enlightenment, educated Europeans came to accept the world as governed by natural laws, accessible through systematic observation and articulated in mathematics. The results of this intellectual movement were impressive, producing a new understanding of the universe (often designated as Newtonian mechanics) and systems to organize and advance the growing body of knowledge of plants, animals, and minerals. Under the in uence of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, intellectuals and activists attempted to employ a similarly scienti c approach to the questions of political, social, and economic reform, resulting in the development of such ideologies as conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and Marxism. Those in the ne arts and literature both applied and commented on these methods in their depictions of European life during this period of rapid change.

Over time, the new method for acquiring knowledge through observation and experimentation raised questions about the relationship between the observer and the observed. Beginning in the 19th century, new theories called into question the supremacy of reason and the possibility of nding objective truth in favor of subjective interpretations of reality and the importance of nonrational forces. In physics, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of relativity, which took the observer into account, challenged Newtonian mechanics, and, in psychology, Freud emphasized the importance of irrational drives in human behavior. Beginning in the 19th century and accelerating in the 20th, European artists and intellectuals, along with a portion of the educated public, rejected absolute paradigms (whether idealist or scienti c), replacing them with relative and subjective ones, as exempli ed by existential philosophy, modern art, and postmodernist ideas and culture. The emergence of these ideas created a con ict between science and subjective approaches to knowledge. Europeans continued to engage in science and to regard the results of science as being of universal value, while postmodernist thinkers emphasized the subjective component — the role of the actor — in all human activities, including scienti c ones.

Proficient students should be able to ...

  1. Account for the persistence of traditional and folk understandings of the cosmos and causation, even with the advent of the Scienti c Revolution.
  2. Analyze how religious reform in the 16th and 17th centuries, the expansion of printing, and the emergence of civic venues such as salons and coffeehouses challenged the control of the church over the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
  3. Explain how political revolution and war from the 17th century on altered the role of the church in political and intellectual life and the response of religious authorities and intellectuals to such challenges.
  4. Explain how a worldview based on science and reason challenged and preserved social order and roles, especially the roles of women.
  5. Analyze how the development of Renaissance humanism, the printing press, and the scientific method contributed to the emergence of a new theory of knowledge and conception of the universe.
  6. Explain how European exploration and colonization was facilitated by the development of the scienti c method and led to a re-examination of cultural norms.
  7. Analyze how and to what extent the Enlightenment encouraged Europeans to understand human behavior, economic activity, and politics as governed by natural laws.
  8. Explain the emergence, spread, and questioning of scientific, technological, and positivist approaches to addressing social problems.
  9. Explain how new theories of government and political ideologies attempted to provide a coherent explanation for human behavior and the extent to which they adhered to or diverged from traditional explanations based on religious beliefs.
  10. Analyze the means by which individualism, subjectivity, and emotion came to be considered a valid source of knowledge.
  11. Explain how and why religion increasingly shifted from a matter of public concern to one of private belief over the course of European history.
  12. Analyze how artists used strong emotions to express individuality and political theorists encouraged emotional identi cation with the nation.
  13. Explain how and why modern artists began to move away from realism and toward abstraction and the nonrational, rejecting traditional aesthetics.

States and Other Institutions of Power

Overview

After 1450, the old ideal that Europe constituted a uni ed Christendom was weakened by the rise of sovereign states. These states asserted a monopoly over law and the management of all institutions, including the church. The growth of secular power played a critical role in the success of the Protestant Reformation, and states gained increasing in uence over religious affairs. The military revolution of the early modern period forced states to nd new and better sources of revenue, and it spurred the expansion of state control over political and economic functions. In the long view, war became increasingly costly, technologically sophisticated, and deadly. As Europeans expanded overseas, the theaters of European warfare expanded as well.

European polities took a variety of forms — empires, nation-states, and small republics. Absolute monarchies concentrated all authority in a single person who was regarded as divinely ordained, whereas in constitutional governments, power was shared between the monarch and representative institutions. Early modern advances in education, publishing, and prosperity created public opinion and civil society independent of government — developments that supported and were promoted by Enlightenment theories of natural rights and the social contract. Political revolutions and industrialization shifted governance from monarchies and aristocracies to parliamentary institutions that both generated and embodied the rule of law while gradually widening the participation of citizens in governance through the extension of suffrage. In the late 19th century, as European states became increasingly responsive to public opinion and developed mass political parties, they ironically became impersonal and bureaucratic. After World War I, under the pressure of political and economic crises, totalitarian regimes threatened parliamentary governments.

The European state system, originating in the Peace of Westphalia and structuring interstate relations through World War I, assumed that the continent would be divided into independent sovereign states and that war and diplomacy would be the normal means of interstate relations. In the 19th century, the goal of establishing and maintaining a balance of power was challenged by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the emergence of Italy and Germany as states, the weakening of traditional empires, and shifts in the alliance system. New and hardened alliances between countries driven by overseas competition and the growing in uence of nationalism undermined diplomatic efforts to stave off war in the rst half of the 20th century. In the 20th century, new international organizations (the League of Nations, the United Nations, NGOs) attempted to develop international law and modes of dispute resolution that would promote peace. After the catastrophe of two world wars, European states returned to the goal of a unified Europe, embodied this time not in Christendom but in the secular institutions of the European Union.

Proficient students should be able to ...

  1. Explain the emergence of civic humanism and new conceptions of political authority during the Renaissance as well as subsequent theories and practices that stressed the political importance and rights of the individual.
  2. Explain the emergence of and theories behind the New Monarchies and absolutist monarchies, and evaluate the degree to which they were able to centralize power in their states.
  3. Trace the changing relationship between states and ecclesiastical authority and the emergence of the principle of religious toleration.
  4. Analyze how new political and economic theories from the 17th century and the Enlightenment challenged absolutism and shaped the development of constitutional states, parliamentary governments, and the concept of individual rights.
  5. Assess the role of colonization, the Industrial Revolution, total warfare, and economic depressions in altering the government’s relationship to the economy, both in overseeing economic activity and in addressing its social impact.
  6. Explain how new ideas of political authority and the failure of diplomacy led to world wars, political revolutions, and the establishment of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.
  7. Explain the emergence of representative government as an alternative to absolutism.
  8. Explain how and why various groups, including communists and fascists, undermined parliamentary democracy through the establishment of regimes that maintained dictatorial control while manipulating democratic forms.
  9. Analyze how various movements for political and social equality — such as feminism, anticolonialism, and campaigns for immigrants’ rights — pressured governments and redefined citizenship.
  10. Trace the ways in which new technologies, from the printing press to the Internet, have shaped the development of civil society and enhanced the role of public opinion.
  11. Analyze how religious and secular institutions and groups attempted to limit monarchical power by articulating theories of resistance to absolutism and by taking political action.
  12. Assess the role of civic institutions in shaping the development of representative and democratic forms of government.
  13. Evaluate how the emergence of new weapons, tactics, and methods of military organization changed the scale and cost of warfare, required the centralization of power, and shifted the balance of power.
  14. Analyze the role of warfare in remaking the political map of Europe and in shifting the global balance of power in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  15. Assess the impact of war, diplomacy, and overseas exploration and colonization on European diplomacy and balance of power until 1789.
  16. Explain how the French Revolution and the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars shifted the European balance of power and encouraged the creation of a new diplomatic framework.
  17. Explain the role of nationalism in altering the European balance of power, and explain attempts made to limit nationalism as a means to ensure continental stability.
  18. Evaluate how overseas competition and changes in the alliance system upset the Concert of Europe and set the stage for World War I.
  19. Explain the ways in which the Common Market and collapse of the Soviet Empire changed the political balance of power, the status of the nation-state, and global political alliances.

Individual and Society

Overview

Early modern society was divided into the three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners, the latter of which included merchants, townspeople, and the overwhelming majority, the peasantry. Within those estates, family, religion, and landed wealth shaped social practices, and inequality of wealth prevailed within each estate. The poor were viewed as objects of charity or dangerous idlers requiring social control, such as disciplinary measures or con nement. Social values and communal norms were sancti ed by religion. With the advent of the Reformation, new Protestant denominations clashed with the Catholic Church and with each other to establish new religious practices and social values.

Marriage and family life were constrained by the values of the community. Men and especially women of all estates followed closely prescribed norms. Gathering resources to create a new household often required young adults to work and save for a period of years, and a late age of marriage for commoners (the European family pattern) tended to limit demographic growth. In preindustrial Europe, women’s and men’s work was complementary rather than separate, as peasants worked communally to bring in the harvest or artisanal women oversaw journeymen and apprentices, kept the books, and marketed the product. Despite female involvement in movements of cultural and social change, gender norms continued to stress women’s intellectual inferiority and their duty of obedience to fathers and husbands, as well as limit their access to institutional power. The Protestant Reformation placed new emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship to God and the role of women in the family as mothers and assistants in religious instruction and schooling, while excluding them from clerical roles. Social and economic stresses along with negative gender stereotypes led to witchcraft persecution, which victimized elderly women in particular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Demographic growth spurred social change in the 18th century. The Enlightenment brought a new emphasis on childhood as a stage of life, and the ideal of companionate marriage began to compete with arranged marriages. The French Revolution formally ended the division of society into three estates and continued to challenge traditional society throughout the 19th century; though remnants of the old order persisted into the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution created a division of social classes based on new criteria of capital and labor. The revolutionary emphasis on liberty galvanized many excluded groups to take an active role in politics, and the language of natural rights spurred the development of movements of equality, such as feminism and the end of feudalism and serfdom. The growth of the middle classes in the 19th century tended to anchor men and women in “separate spheres” and elevate women’s role in the home into “the cult of domesticity.” Early industrialism negatively affected the working classes and, more generally, shifted the family from a unit of production to one of consumption.

By the late 19th century, a new mass society had emerged defined by consumerism, expanding literacy, and new forms of leisure. The “woman question” that had emerged in the 17th century took on a new intensity as women sought economic and legal rights. World War I profoundly affected European society by conclusively ending the residual hold of old elites on power and democratizing society through shared sacrifice, represented by female suffrage in many nations. Between the wars, Soviet communism theoretically endorsed equality, yet women often performed double duty as laborers and mothers, while kulaks were considered enemies of the state and thus liquidated. On the other hand, fascist regimes re- emphasized a domestic role for women and created states based on a mythical racial identity. After World War II, the welfare state emerged in Western Europe with more support for families, choices in reproduction, and state-sponsored health care. Economic recovery brought new consumer choices and popular culture. In the Soviet bloc, family life was constrained and controlled by states dedicated to heavy industry rather than consumer goods, though basic needs such as housing, health care, employment, and education were provided within an authoritarian context. The end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union brought some shared social values to light, as well as contested issues of immigration, guest workers, and the shifting religious and ethnic balance of Europe. Immigrants sometimes challenged secularism in European life and reasserted their religious values. European society has become, with ts and starts, a pluralistic one.

The European state system, originating in the Peace of Westphalia and structuring interstate relations through World War I, assumed that the continent would be divided into independent sovereign states and that war and diplomacy would be the normal means of interstate relations. In the 19th century, the goal of establishing and maintaining a balance of power was challenged by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the emergence of Italy and Germany as states, the weakening of traditional empires, and shifts in the alliance system. New and hardened alliances between countries driven by overseas competition and the growing in uence of nationalism undermined diplomatic efforts to stave off war in the rst half of the 20th century. In the 20th century, new international organizations (the League of Nations, the United Nations, NGOs) attempted to develop international law and modes of dispute resolution that would promote peace. After the catastrophe of two world wars, European states returned to the goal of a unified Europe, embodied this time not in Christendom but in the secular institutions of the European Union.

Proficient students should be able to ...

  1. Explain the characteristics, practices, and beliefs of traditional communities in preindustrial Europe and how they were challenged by religious reform.
  2. Explain how the growth of commerce and changes in manufacturing challenged the dominance of corporate groups and traditional estates.
  3. Evaluate the role of technology, from the printing press to modern transportation and telecommunications, in forming and transforming society.
  4. Analyze how and why the nature and role of the family has changed over time.
  5. Explain why and how class emerged as a basis for identity and led to con ict in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  6. Evaluate the causes and consequences of persistent tensions between women’s role and status in the private versus the public sphere.
  7. Evaluate how identities such as ethnicity, race, and class have de ned the individual in relationship to society.
  8. Evaluate how the impact of war on civilians has affected loyalty to and respect for the nation-state.
  9. Assess the extent to which women participated in and bene ted from the shifting values of European society from the 15th century onward.
  10. Analyze how and why Europeans have marginalized certain populations (de ned as “other”) over the course of their history.