Fantastic History #71: The Early Modern Globe by Michelle Herder

The emeralds adorning the Mughal rulers of India came from the mountains of Colombia.

The deep blue pigments of Renaissance paintings came from Afghanistan.

A bright red dye, highly sought after for carpets, uniforms, and ceremonial robes, came from insects living on Mexican cacti.

These are only some of the valued rarities that made their way around the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Imagine the journey of many of these items: from miners or growers or makers, often in rural areas, over land to larger markets and ports; from there over seas to trading hubs like Havana, Antwerp, and Manila; and from there spreading outward to buyers in middling-size communities. Along the way, goods might be taxed, counted, sold and resold, stamped by government authorities, or hidden away to conceal them from such officials. This period, often called by historians the early modern age, was one of ever-increasing connections across long distances, a growing web in which people making goods and people buying goods became ever more entangled with other people halfway around the globe.

Not only rare and luxurious goods moved across long distances in the pre-industrial age. Cotton textiles woven and dyed by Indian artisans – by hand – were in demand throughout the world for centuries. Indian cloth-makers intentionally made their goods to appeal to the tastes of diverse markets (European, African, Chinese), and merchants bought richly colored cottons in quantity, often to trade for other highly valued materials. Cotton and other products such as porcelain became more affordable and available, and spawned imitations which could be even cheaper.

In many cases, goods became detached from their original cultural context and adopted into new ones. Tobacco, for example, was grown and smoked by indigenous Americans for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Europeans who encountered tobacco valued its medicinal uses as well, believing tobacco to be beneficial for health, but tobacco rapidly became known from Europe to the Ottoman Empire to China. Tobacco’s stimulant properties made it especially popular among soldiers and others who needed to stay alert for long hours. Tobacco smoking made its way around the world so swiftly that seventeenth-century Chinese writers had no idea where it had originally come from, associating the product only with the European traders from whom they obtained it. Chocolate, similarly, had been a lavish and high-status drink among Mesoamericans, as well as a form of currency. Spanish people who encountered it often found the foamy drink off-putting, but it nevertheless gained popularity in Europe, especially when mixed with additional sugar. Other stimulant beverages, coffee and tea, would eventually supplant chocolate as a drink, but chocolate and sugar would become staples of European confectionery.

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this kind of trade and adaptation of goods. Human beings have always traded objects across long distances. Jewelry, coins, and other items from early burial sites attest to that. But from 1500 on, the world became interconnected as never before. People moved across oceans and continents in unprecedented numbers, transporting enormous quantities of goods as they went. People around the world developed tastes for new kinds of products – cotton cloth, porcelain, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, tea – and cultivators, merchants, and artisans sought to fill the demands of those new markets.

The results, of course, were calamitous for huge numbers of people: for the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died, suffered, and became forced labor for European conquerors, for the Africans forced into slavery and transported across oceans to work in brutal conditions for the profit of others. That is the bitter foundation underlying the mass production of cotton, sugar, silver, and many other objects. These products required intense labor to mine, grow, and process, and the vast majority of that labor was coerced and unpaid. When we think about the early modern age, we need to keep that reality in mind.
That reality, however, existed as part of a tangled and complex web of connections that linked people around the globe. The early modern world was full of extraordinary journeys and possibilities. It was an era in which it could be easy to pick up stakes and run away (as the well-documented Martin Guerre did) – to sea, to the army, to anonymity somewhere well away from one’s origins. Extraordinary individual stories surface from the period, including the tale of Catalina de Erauso, who fled from a Spanish nunnery, adopted masculine clothing and worked as a soldier in Spain’s American colonies, and subsequently wrote a dramatic memoir. Lives like these were fantastic enough; how many more people crossed boundaries and transgressed norms, without leaving as much of a mark in the historical record? There’s enormous potential for fantasy in studying, imagining, and re-imagining the history of this era.


Professor Michelle Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.