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Wilco van Esch

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    The early modern period of European history

    There is no weirder, wilder time and place than Europe from about 1400 to 1800 CE.

    Poland-Lithuania has an elective monarchy. They choose their king, and not just from a single family. The high drama of inheritance is subverted by gathering thousands of nobles together (who themselves did inherit their titles) and having them play out lots of small dramas until they select one of the candidates to rule them. I imagine myself sitting on an earthen wall watching the wheeling and dealing, the outfits, the tents and wagons and horses. Much more fun than watching a king's sour-faced response to having sired another daughter.

    The Holy Roman Empire contains an absolutely dizzying number (roughly 1800 at one point) of bishoprics, principalities, duchies, free cities, and other semi-sovereign authorities. Many are non-contiguous, with enclaves and exclaves littering the empire. Microscopic states with different measurements of weight and distance, different times, different coinage, different laws, different privileges. Somehow it keeps working for centuries. It's a bizarre, wonderful, and powerful mess. With so many noble families, it's also no surprise you find many Germans in foreign dynasties. Georg Ludwig, ruler of the Electorate of Hanover, becomes George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland. Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, from the ruling family of the Principality of Anhalt, becomes Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

    Castile and Aragon band together under the power couple Ferdinand & Isabella, who complete the Reconquista - pushing the last Caliphate out of the Iberian peninsula - and fund Columbus' expedition to find a western trade route to Asia, which will fail "happily", soon leading to the Pope dividing the world into land that's known, land that belongs to the Portuguese, and land that belongs to the Spanish. The age of colonisation and vast trade empires starts here.

    Instead of a united Italy, there are the rich city states like Florence, Milan, and Bologna, as well as the pragmatic and hypercapitalist maritime trade republics of Genoa and Venice, along with the influential Papal States, and the contested Kingdom of Naples, all huddled together south of the Alps. Art, literature, and science flourish. So does political warring and scheming.

    The Reformation focuses Europe's lively religious debate, including a Thirty Years War during which an estimated 20% of the European population dies prematurely (though mostly to disease and famine). Henry VIII invents the Anglican Church so he can divorce his wife.

    The Mongol Empire has shrunk back and disintegrated into smaller independent hordes, with the Russian principalities regaining independence only to get absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Moscow into what will become almost a reverse Mongol expansion.

    Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have an on-again, off-again relationship in the form of the Kalmar Union, with the balance of power shifting increasingly away from Denmark and towards Sweden except for a (for Sweden) disastrous Great Northern War.

    Everywhere in Europe, medieval kingdoms and other small territories combine into larger entities which become global powers. The Lowlands revolt against Spain and form the United Provinces of the Netherlands. England, Wales, and Scotland from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Kingdom of France expels the English from the continent and incorporates its last feudal territories. None of them are satisfied with this success and start covering the world's oceans with cannons on wooden platforms.

    France and England fight the Hundred Years War for hundred-and-sixteen years, with chivalrous knights fighting chivalrous knights, archers fighting men-at-arms, light cavalry fighting buildings, and England's War of the Roses would end up inspiring a brutal and unsatisfying hit TV show. However, the real game of thrones is played by Austria's Habsburg dynasty, who use every trick in the book to expand their dominions.

    The Ottoman Empire moves from dramatic siege to dramatic siege, puts the final nails in the coffin of the Byzantine Empire (the last remnant of ancient Rome, though Greek), gets on the bad side of Vlad Dracula, assimilates Christian child slaves into its armies as its elite household troops, and in a relentless drive to the heart of Europe knocks on the doors of Vienna, where the wave finally breaks and rolls back.

    That's not even mentioning the Hanseatic League, the Burgundian Succession, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and so much more. These are dull words hiding volumes of personal and collective tragedies and successes, the long term consequences of which we face every day. You could throw a dart at a map of Europe, pick a random year between 1400 and 1800, and you're guaranteed to land on a town or region at a time when they're going through a decisive and fascinating part of their history.