Goldstone J. A. (1998) The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World’

Goldstone Jack A. (1998) “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 41/3, 249-284.


Goldstone proposes here his elegant “own interpretation with minimal defence”(271) of what was the pre-modern world and what brought the modern one. Was there such a thing as an “early modern” period for each nation and the world in general? Goldstone argues, this period was neither “modern” nor “early”.

The socio-cultural approach

This notion derives from the idea of social modernity dear to the Enlightenments philosophers. It implied a process of modernization separating two equally world-wide homogeneous but holistically opposed phases (origins and modernity). The concept of modernization is now regarded as Eurocentric and each society is recognized its own distinctive structures and historical development. But the idea of modernity (as a development) itself is not contested.

Economic history

The Marxist historiography had recognized the period going roughly from 1500 to 1850 as a transition from feudalism to capitalism. This Age of absolutism was seen as “laying the foundations for the ‘modern’ world to come it could […] be labelled the ‘early modern world’” (253).

But this chronology is based on a theory singling out a shift in the modes of production that only took place in Europe (and arguably Japan) and which is totally disconnected from the political and cultural history. The periodization 1500-1850 has no significance in Africa, China, the Middle East or Russia, and hardly any for Japan and India. “At very best, ‘early modern’ is a code that has some, but certainly not global, application to world history” (255).

Two views

Is there any economic and technical common denominator to define “early modernity”? “Individual elements of ‘modernity’ may appear [early] in a scattering of places [from Athens to Song China], but such individual elements in isolation do not necessarily make a society […] ‘early modern’” (257). No place can be said politically, economically and culturally modern (be it early) before 18th century England. The features of modernity (fossil-fuel, constitutional governance and religious freedom) can never be found together anywhere before.

On the other hand, the definition of early modernity as an economy based on proto-industry, market-oriented households and merchant capitalism has been all too successful as these can be traced back all the way to pharaoh Egypt. World history is startlingly packed of “early modern” booms. Thus there is whether too much or not enough early modernity before the Industrial Revolution. Hence “the term ‘early modern’ is founded on a series of errors, and has no useful application to world history” (261).


E. A. Wriglay [1] defines as “advanced organic societies” (AOSs) the groups whose economy depended on organic sources of energy (biomass, animal, wind, wood and water, all necessarily limited) but able to overcome organizational barriers to manufacturing and trade. Only the exploitation of fossil-fuel could free these societies from land shortage. And this change came on with a rush: less than 5% of energy from fossil-fuel in 1800, over 60% in 1900 (263). Before, any growth was to abort sooner or latter. Many societies were not “in an ‘early’ stage of becoming ‘modern’” (265) but were certainly AOSs (Tokugawa Japan).

The rise of the West

This process went along with deep socio-political changes with elite diversification (between spiritual, administrative and commercial) and economies’ market-integration. Comparatively Europeans powers were new comers as AOSs and only in 1750-1850 did they managed to overmatch any other part of the world thanks to cheap energy. The European conditions were not exceptional, they simply reacted positively to the global shocks of the period (17th century crisis). Free societies were less advert toward risk-taking and thus England enjoyed a high rate of entrepreneurship leading to the invention of the steam engine.


Dropping the concept of early modernity allows to get rid of the questions about the lack of impetus and capacity in non-European regions; these were neither abnormal nor stagnant. Modernity was a “peculiar path” follow by a minority of European nations. The notion of early modernity should be replaced by AOSs period, but advanced and vibrant AOSs were not modern in any sense.

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