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During the 16th through 18th centuries, European civilization experienced big changes to its social, political, and economic structures. A break from the Middle Ages began during the Scientific Revolution when respected thinkers of the time began to explore new possibilities, such as the likelihood of a sun-centered universe instead of an earth-centered one. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement that pointed out the danger of unchecked authority and concentrated on values of law, reason, humanity, and religious toleration. The French Revolution represented a broad wave of political changes and democratic ideas that splashed France, and subsequently, all of Europe. The Industrial Revolution changed the way people lived and worked by introducing the steam engine, mechanical looms, industrial sawmills, and steam-driven threshers. The combinations of all of these revolutions, triggered many profound changes in European society beginning with new scientific view of the world and nature that led to intellectual and cultural movements which in turn caused political movements that toppled old monarchies establishing new, democratic societies powered by industrialization.
The Scientific Revolution produced new form of thought. People started to look at the world through their experiences rather than through the Churches’ dogmatic theories that the world was created by God. Changes were slow in the beginning and many notable thinkers of that time still believed that their work proved that God created the world, like Isaac Newton for example. Nicolaus Copernicus, also believed in God’s creation of Earth, but by using mathematical calculations, he came to the conclusion that Earth is not the center of the Universe and that it is not stationary, but revolves on its own axis and around the Sun. Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler who are considered the greatest astronomers, also tried to explain the discrepancies in the leading church theories through their own observations and calculations. Tycho suggested that the planets orbit the sun and the whole planetary system orbits the Earth. After Tycho’s death, his assistant, young mathematician Johannes Kepler used Tycho’s observations and came up with his First Law that orbits of the planets are elliptical instead of round like Copernicus believed. With his Second Law, Kepler stated that the speed of the planets depends on their distance from the sun which helped English astronomer and physicist Isaac Newton, to come up with his Law of Universal Gravitation. Galileo Galilei built a telescope in 1609, and he studied the night sky, observing the earth like features of the Moon, moons orbiting Jupiter, and sun spots. He published his work, which later earned him a trial by the church and a house arrest for life. “According to a story that began to circulate shortly afterward, as he left the court for house arrest he stamped his foot and muttered deﬁantly, looking down at the earth: Still, it moves”. Francis Bacon and René Descartes established standards of practice and scientific evidence, and they were true believers in human thinking. Physician, William Harvey contributed to science by observing dissected living animals and experimented on himself that the blood circulates in our bodies through veins, heart, and arteries. Inventor and experimenter Robert Hooke introduced microscope into the laboratory and studied the structure of plants on the cellular level. Isaac Newton gave us laws of motion, universal gravity, the reflecting telescope, optic theories, and Calculus.
The advancement of science led to the Enlightenment era in which people started to think about social problems, good government, morality, and social order. At the beginning of the 18th century, both England and France represented political and economic powers in Europe and the world. The population grew due to cheaper food and less infectious diseases, the introduction to new crops from the Americas like corn and potatoes, manufacturing and trade prospered, while transportation was improved. “The result of all these developments was a European economy vastly more complex, more specialized, more inte-grated, more commercialized, and more productive than anything the world had seen before.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment concentrated on three major questions in the society: law and punishment, religious toleration, and government administration including taxes and economic policies. In the heart of the Enlightenment most thinking revolved around the question of slavery. As colonial powers, “European slave traders sent at least 1 million Africans into New World slavery in the late seventeenth century, and at least 6 million in the eighteenth century. Control of the slave trade became fundamental to great power politics in Europe” (page 558, chapter 17). The question of women’s rights was also raised and many thinkers were writing and acting upon it. The rulers of Europe were implementing centralized government, the increase in taxes, formed paid military, and enforced greater control over the Church. Ideas during the Enlightenment were playing a major role also in the American Revolution, which resulted in 13 colonies proclaiming their independence from Great Britain. As people searched for equality and freedom, the prosperity was not evenly distributed and there were great differences between the rich and poor. As North American colonies boldly proclaimed the independence, the enlightened French people sought changes in their political system too. “The American Revolution of 1776 was a crisis of the British Empire, linked to a long series of conﬂicts between England and France over colonial control of North America. It led to a major crisis of the old regime in France”.
Revolutionaries overthrew Louis XVI and established a democratic society. They eliminated the church tax on harvest, and they cut many privileges for nobility such as hunting and buying offices, which severed the ties with the last remnants of Feudalism. Their Declaration of the Rights of Man stated equality for all citizens before the law, freedom of speech, natural right to property, security, liberty and resistance to oppression. Women took an active part in the revolution, became more organized, and more publicly visible. The Industrial Revolution started when Scottish mechanic, James Watt, improved the primitive steam engine of Thomas Newcomen. This improved steam engine found use in many areas of life. Transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing experienced a fundamental change. People now had machines to do work for them, which increased the amount of goods that could be manufactured. New resources were more in use like coal and iron. Cities became more populated and urbanized, and new social classes like the middle and working class emerged along with new social inequalities. Cities became overpopulated, factories started employing women and children, and environmental pollution was a fact. “Over all of England, air pollution took an enormous toll on health, contributing to the bronchitis and tuberculosis that accounted for 25 percent of British deaths”. The old ways of life, politics, and economy were crumbling under the waves of progress that came first with the intellectual thought and different outlook on the world and nature. After many changes in the scientific world, the ideas spread to society and people became aware that they can change the order of things for the better. Political uprisings produced the toppling of the monarchy in France and established a more democratic society. The great innovations of the steam engine and other machines ushered many changes in manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, trade, and economy. These changes also had a great effect on the everyday lives of people, on how they lived and worked. The social structure was changed with the emerging of new classes. New social problems developed like child labor, women’s role in the society, living conditions, working conditions, environmental pollution, and the distribution of wealth.
Consequently the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution were very powerful forces that rocked and shaped Europe’s social, political and economic structures.
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