The Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the human life in the history of the world recorded in human documents. Eric Hobsbawm
The mid-18th century to the first decade of the 20th century brought fundamental changes in people’s lives and thoughts. During this time, Western Europe changed from a mainly agricultural region to an industrial one. These changes began in Britain and then spread to Western Europe and the U.S. Russia, East Europe, and the Balkans came later. The Industrial Revolution, as this period is called, is considered by many historians to be the most significant development in human history. It involved, among other things, the creation of new technologies and economic systems as populations shifted from farms and villages to cities. Political systems, economic exchange, social relations, and warfare underwent drastic transformations. New words like factory, railroad, middle class, capitalism, science, and engineers shaped how people saw themselves and their world (Winks 65). How did this revolution begin, and how did it fundamentally change human life? Why did it begin in Western Europe and, more particularly, Britain?
In this 7-part series of blogs, we will examine the following:
Part 1: Introduction: Defining the Industrial Revolution
Part 2: Population Growth and Improved Food Production
Part 3: Access to Foreign Markets and Capital Investment
Part 4: A (Pre-mechanized Factory) Domestic Manufacturing Economy
Part 5: Technology, the Mechanization of Production and Alternative Sources of Energy (e.g. coal)
Part 6: Land and Water Transport
Part 7: The Textile Industry.
Defining the “Industrial Revolution”
Scholars continue to debate various aspects of the Industrial Revolution. Even the chronology poses fundamental challenges. Historian Lindeman writes that the Industrial Revolution offers “no easily identifiable beginning and no discernible end. (Lindeman, 44). Some scholars identify the beginning as the mid-eighteenth century. Others, like R.C. Allen, go back to the 16th century.
Considering the topic’s complexity, we need to define our terms. “Industry” refers to the large-scale processing of raw materials and manufacturing goods in factories. “Revolution” is more problematic as it offers multiple meanings. In one sense, revolution can be sudden, radical or change. Historical examples include the French and American Revolutions that fomented sudden political and social change. However, “revolution” also refers to fundamental change. This might be political and socioeconomic change or ways of thinking, such as the Copernican revolution that revealed the Sun (rather than Earth) as the center of the universe or Darwin’s work on evolution. Such events virtually pervade all aspects of human life, altering how we think and interact with the world. This certainly applies to the Industrial Revolution.
Although timelines are still debated, historians agree that the revolution was not sudden but occurred over a long period (150 years or longer), so they focus more on “revolution” as a fundamental change over time. Donald Kagan writes that the Industrial Revolution “was revolutionary less in its speed, which was on the whole rate slow, than its implications for future of European society.” (Kagan 497) R.C. Allen writes that the Industrial Revolution “is no longer the abrupt discontinuity that its name suggests, for it was the result of an economic expansion that started in the sixteenth century.” (2). Accordingly, some scholars refer to an Industrial Evolution.
Of course, this extended period saw a profound change. The Industrial Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm points out, “was not merely an acceleration of economic growth, but an acceleration of growth because of, and through, economic and social transformation.” (13). The operative word here is transformation.
So, what was this “transformation” or “fundamental change? One answer is that the Industrial Revolution altered a world ultimately dependent on the earth’s resources and organic means of production – dependencies that limited growth. Food production, for instance, involved people and animals toiling in fields, their productivity limited by land availability and technological limits. Watermills used water flow but required proximity to a river. Wind-propelled ships and windmills depended on the wind. People burned wood to cook, heat homes, and metallurgy this but required access to trees – a rapidly dwindling European resource. At the beginning of the 1700s, more than 90 percent of the European population lived in rural settings and engaged directly in animal husbandry and agricultural activities.” (MIII, 301) Few urban dwellers worked in factories.
All of this would change – albeit gradually and in the beginning, only in particular parts of the world. Over time the focus on organic labour and agriculture shifted to alternative sources of energy -especially coal – and the factory-based and mechanized production of goods. (MIII,296) To better understand how this transformation happened, we must explore the preconditions that facilitated these changes. It all began in Britain.
So, this series of blogs will focus on the factors that led to Britain’s gradual transformation into the world’s first industrial nation.
Our next blog: Part 2 Population Growth and Improved Food Production
Allen, Robert. 1994. “Agriculture During the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850.” In Roderick Floud and Donald N. McCloskey, eds., The Economic History of Britain Since 1700. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Vol. I. Ashton,
Allen, R. C. “Why the Industrial Revolution Was British: Commerce, Induced Invention, and the Scientific Revolution.” The Economic History Review 64, no. 2 2011: 357–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41262428.
Cardwell, D.S.L. 1994. The Fontana History of Technology. London: Fontana. Crafts,
Cipolla, Carol M. The Fontana Economic History of Europe: Vol. 3, The Industrial Revolution. London: 1973.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. New York: The New Press, 1999.
Kagan, Donald. The Western Heritage. Toronto: Pearson Education LTD., 2007.
Komlos, John. “Nutrition, Population Growth, and the Industrial Revolution in England.” Social Science History 14, no. 1 1990: 69–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/1171364.
Landis, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich, and Some are so Poor. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Biological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century. Lanham, Maryland: Bowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
McCloskey, D. N. 198-. “The Industrial Revolution in Britain 1780- 1860: A Survey,” in Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey, The Economic History of Britain since 1700.
Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the French Revolution to the Present. Volume Two. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.
The beginning of the twentieth century forever changed the course of Russian history. Two revolutions occurred in Russia in 1917 – the February and October Revolutions. The February Revolution toppled Tsar Nicholas II’s Russian monarchy and created a liberal-socialist Provisional government. In October, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power and ushered in decades of communist rule in what became the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1989. These events evolved from longstanding developments, including Russia’s revolution of 1905, which saw an unprecedented challenge to Tsarist authority that almost toppled the government. It was the first time in Russia that the Tsarist government faced a revolt from virtually all levels of society, including the liberals middle class, the workers, and the peasantry. These revolts revealed a groundswell of discontent that grew out of drastic social changes, economic inequalities, and a Tsar determined to retain absolutism in the face of widespread calls for reform. Nicholas II quashed the rebellions and retained power, but these events laid the groundwork for 1917. As Lenin mused in 1920, 1905 was a dress rehearsal for 1917. =
Tsar Nicholas II and Autocratic Rule in Russia. Tsars had ruled Russia since the 15th century and were considered divine right monarchs with unlimited power. Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1894 after his father, Alexanders II, passed. Only 26, Nicholas II lacked his father’s vision, experience and fortitude. Yet, the new Tsar believed he was entitled to rule as he wished and that his subjects were loyal to him even during widespread protest and dissent. He preferred to blame dissension on “foreign elements,” particularly Jews, rather than address the underlying causes, such as poverty and poor working conditions. Like his father, Nicholas used his secret police and armed forces to suppress revolts. However, this approach could not last as seismic social changes, encouraged by rapid economic growth, would increasingly challenge Tsarist rule.
Russia Industrializes. From the outside, Russia appeared to be an unstoppable power. It possessed the world’s largest state territory, extending from Germany to China and Japan, and Europe’s largest population and army. Russia also seemed set economically with abundant natural resources such as minerals and foodstuffs. Culturally, Russia boasted the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Tchaikovsky as leaders in their respective arts. However, in many ways, Russia lagged behind European powers like England and France. The Crimean War (1854-56), which saw Russia lose to English and French expeditionary forces with superior navies and better weapons, highlighted Russia’s “backwardness.”
The loss inspired Russia to focus on industrialization. Infused with foreign capital, Russia experienced large-scale industry growth as shops and largescale factories created products like textiles, printed materials and metalworks. By 1900, Russia had become the fourth largest steel producer and “turned out half of the world’s oil.” (Duiker, 15) Towns and cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg grew as they attracted people from the countryside seeking factory work. Economic growth also required dependable transport. In the 1870s, Russia began developing an extensive rail network that facilitated the development of Russia’s mineral sector and the export of its grains to Western markets. The vast Trans-Siberian railway linked Moscow to potential markets of the Far East – China, Manchuria, Korea and Japan.
Rapid Changes to Russian Society. Russia’s investment in industrialization and education fostered dramatic social changes destabilizing the regime. Industrialization led to increasing urbanization as more people moved to urban centres for work and school. This urban migration altered class demographics, bolstering the numbers of industrial workers, commercial and industrial capitalists and the professional middle classes, including doctors, lawyers, and merchants. State-sponsored basic education facilitated a rapid rise in literacy as universities arose in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Historian Orlando Figes writes that “Between 1860 and 1914, the number of university students in Russia grew from 5000 to 69000.”(Figes, PT, 163)
Russia also experienced significant rural changes. Serfdom ended in 1861, liberating serfs from the authority of manor lords from the noble class, but it did not drastically improve their plight. The new peasant class still laboured the land and now paid rent to the aristocracy through labour or money. Some still faced hunger and poverty with unpredictable growing seasons and minimal resources to manage agricultural setbacks. However, some peasants fared well “either by improving the agricultural productivity or by diversifying into non-agricultural activities.” (Hoskings, 358) The nobility retained a high status, occupying the highest posts in the military and government administrations and still owned vast lands. However, the end of serfdom eroded noble privilege. Moreover, the new urban classes that benefitted from industrialization and urbanization eroded the nobility’s status.
The Limits of Tsardom. Events such as the Famine Crisis of 1891 highlighted the limits of Tsarist authority and a need for a less centralized political structure. The 1891 famine, made worse by cholera and typhus, killed half a million people by the end of 1892. (PT, Figes, 159)The Russian government could not provide adequate relief and needed to solicit help from private groups to facilitate relief efforts. District councils known as Zemstvos orchestrated the distribution of food and medicine. Such demonstrations of Tsarist limitations and social change fed calls for political reform. For his part, Nicholas II dismissed these demands as stemming from foreigners, revolutionaries and Jews who needed to be vigorously repressed.
Widespread Discontent. However, the problems lay far beyond the Tsar’s short-sighted explanations. Industrial growth benefited some more than others. In the cities, the growing working class resented the obvious income disparities. As historian Margaret MacMillan writes, “The magnates in Moscow and St. Petersburg lived in magnificent mansions and assembled great collections of art and furniture while the workers lived in squalor and laboured long hours in appalling conditions.” (176) Workers also had few legal protections that offered job security or promoted physical safety. Unions were illegal until 1905, so there were few options to express their grievances as unions. With limited options, it is unsurprising that labour discontent was “widespread in Russia’s industrial center for at least the preceding two decades” before 1905 (Snow, 7).
Workplace culture was also evolving. As historian Neil Faulkner points out, workplaces bred “the more determined of the proletarian militants into a political revolution, creating a new kind of Russian intelligentsia, one formed of self-taught intellectuals.” (49). Since the Tsarist government tended to side with the industrialists against workers, the latter saw autocracy as a barrier to a better life.
Tensions also grew in the countryside. Peasants were officially emancipated in 1861, but their situations remained generally dire. Emancipation still favoured the landlord. Nobility, gentry, and prosperous farmers retained two-thirds of the land, including most pastures and woodland.” (38). Peasants could not sell the land allotted to them, raise money by mortgaging it or renounce their entitlement. Consequently, they had to pay a kind of tax for many years to claim the property they might not have wanted. (Boyd 48) To make matters worse, the landed nobility often raised land rent beyond affordability, so many peasants fell into arrears and worked extra to compensate. The more desperate committed petty crimes and looted prosperous landowners. Famines in 1892, 1898, and 1901 worsened their plight and led to peasant uprisings or jacqueries.
Meanwhile, a growing middle class in the cities intensified their demands for a greater political voice. There were no political parties or parliament to address their concerns or aspirations. The Tsar had created district councils or zemstvos to administer his agenda, but they did not impact national policies. The zemstvos’ active role in famine relief and the Tsarist regime’s inadequacies encouraged them to seek constitutional reform, including limits to Tsarist authority. Not surprisingly, Nicholas II would saw many zemstvos as potential havens of insurrection and “subjected them to a relentless campaign of persecution.” (PT, 164)
A growing number of students actively protested against Tsarist rule and policies. Urbanization and increasing literacy created a growing student population acquainted with the anti-autocratic ideas of western thinkers such as John Locke and Karl Marx, and Russia saw an upsurge in radicalism in the universities of St. Petersberg, Moscow, Warsaw and Kyiv. Nicholas further antagonized students when he passed a decree in July 1899 that lifted military deferments for students guilty of political misconduct. Predictably, as McMeekin writes, “many students who protested the decree were impressed into the army.” (McMeekin, 20) In July 1904, Plehve, the Minister of the Interior, was “blown to pieces by a bomb planted by the SR Combat organization.
Social Revolutionaries. Some Russians didn’t believe reforms went far enough and called for a revolution to create their vision of a better society. These included the Social Revolutionary Party, which focused on supporting the peasants – 80% of Russia’s population as the revolution engine. Social Democrats, on the other hand, focused on the urban working class or proletariat. By 1903 the Social Democrats would splinter/divide into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. These groups played a more critical role in events leading to 1917 but did contribute to unrest in 1905.
The Russo-Japanese War 1903-1905.
Russia’s domestic problems were exacerbated by its foreign policy, particularly its efforts to expand into the Fat East. Since 1860, when Tsar Alexander II founded a military base on the Pacific coast and dubbed it Vladivostok – meaning Lord of the East – Japan feared Russian encroachment and watched the construction of a Trans-Siberian mainland that couldtransport European arms on its borders (Boyd, 41).Japan expressed its concerns to Russia, whose leaders saw the Japanese as an inferior non-European power impeding Russian growth and progress.
Japan decided to act. On February 8, Japan launched a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. This pre-emptive attack occurred before Russia could send reinforcements for its Far Eastern forces. A series of defeats on land and sea would follow Russia’s initial setback.”(32 Fitzpatrick) The Japanese forces proved more formidable, and Russia could not overcome the numerous logistical problems of fighting a war 6000 miles away.
The defeat was humiliating and far-reaching. Russia approached the peace table as the first European power to lose to an Asian foe in the imperialist era. The war undermined Tsarist prestige and faith that Nicholas II could steer Russia in the right direction feeding the growing political unrest from all directions – students, workers, peasants, liberals and social revolutionaries. An event in the first month of 1905 would spark widespread unrest and threaten to topple in Tsarist government.
Bloody Sunday On Sunday, January 9, 1905, a crowd of almost 250,000 – workers and their families – approached the Tsar’s White Palace in St. Petersburg, intent on presenting Nicholas with a petition calling for political and economic reforms, including an eight-hour work day, the right to strike, civil liberties and a constituent assembly. Unbeknownst to the protesters, the Tsar had already left the city. As the unarmed peaceful protesters approached, Tsarist security forces panicked and fired on the crowd. More than a hundred protesters were killed or wounded in what became known as Bloody Sunday.
The event triggered seismic outrage and sparked the 1905 revolution. As William Duiker writes, it was a cataclysmic eruption of social disorder. (Duiker, 13). Indeed, the event intensified dissent across Russia as “Wave upon wave of protest strikes rolled over the land….” (Lindemann, 159). Within a week, industrial workers across Russia were on strike. Revolutionary councils (soviets) sprang up in urban centers to help organize strikes that continued into the summer and the fall. Print workers protested in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Railroad workers went on strike a month later, paralyzing rail travel. By the end of October, strikes had brought St. Petersburg “to its knees.” (Boyd, 58) Revolts spread to the countryside with the 1905 Spring thaw peasants rose, refusing to pay rent, looting, seizing and burning estates.
However, these protests were generally disorganized. Tsarist forces readily quashed peasant uprisings village by village. In the cities, they infiltrated and arrested organizers of worker strikes and student revolts. As McMeekin writes, “So long as the army remained loyal, revolutionary schemes to topple the tsar remained little more than fanciful wish dreams.” (McMeekin 28)
Nonetheless, Russia’s government officials feared ongoing discontent that could eventually topple the regime and encouraged Nicholas II to make reforms. The Tsar resisted but finally conceded. Secretary of the Interior Witte publicly committed to drafting a proposal for a State Duma (Parliament), universal male suffrage, and fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and association, to present to the Tsar for consideration.
The October Manifesto. Nicholas agreed to what became known as the October Manifesto. The Manifesto legalized unions and political parties and established a nationally elected Parliament, the Duma. The Manifesto offered no solution to worker grievances, such as the eight-hour workday, respectful treatment by the employer, and better pay and conditions. (Figes, 33) It would not be until the Tsar’s decrees of March 4, 1906, led to the legalization of strikes and worker’s unions. For the peasantry, Tsar eased the peasantry’s redemption payments.
Despite its limitations, the Manifesto was initially well received, with people celebrating the proclamation in the streets.” (Figes, 32) However, this euphoria would be short-lived. Tsarist actions would soon dispel hopes that Russia was en route to becoming a constitutional monarchy. Nicholas II agreed to sign the Manifesto to appease a growing revolt rather than any conviction that he should share political power. Moreover, the defeat of the revolution proved to him that the Russian monarchy could triumph over adversity, that it was destined to lead Russia out of a time of trouble… (Wortman, 216)
Convinced of his righteousness and perceived need to weed out bad Russia’s harmful elements, Nicholas II resumed his suppression of those involved in the uprisings. In December 1905, Nicholas II ordered the leaders of the St. Petersburg soviets arrested and put on trial for armed rebellion.” (Lindemann, 159). By 1906, the Tsar had curtailed the power of the Duma and fell back on the army and bureaucracy to rule Russians.” (Duiker, 15)
Conclusion. The 1905 Russian Revolution presented Russia’s Tsardom with a historically unprecedented challenge to its authority. Members of all classes – workers, middle-class liberals, students, and peasants – protested Russia’s political system. To stave off his usurpation, Nicholas II agreed to sign the October Manifesto that established Russia’s first Duma (Parliament) and offered long-demanded concessions, including the right to strike, legalizing unions, etc. Tsar also retained power because he retained the loyalty of the Russian Army and state police that could repress uprisings in the city and countryside.
While the Tsar survived 1905, it was on borrowed time. Widespread discontent would not wane as various classes continued to struggle. Nicholas II’s unwillingness to make meaningful reforms that would include more Russians in the political process lent credibility to the social revolutionaries who insisted that revolution was the answer. With the added strains of the Frist World War (1914-1918), Russia toppled the Tsarist regime and embarked on a new path that would change the course of Russian and global history.
Ascher, Abraham. The Russian Revolution: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.
Boyd, Douglas. Red October: The Revolution that Changed the World. Glouchester, The History Press, 2017.
Duiker, William J. Twentieth-Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2007.
Figues, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
Hoskings, Geoffrey. Russia and Russians: A History. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011
Hutchinson, John F. “Sovereignty as a Constitutional Issue in Imperial Russia, 1905-1915.” T. University of British Columbia, 1963.
Lindeman, Albert S. A History of Modern Europe From 1815 to the Present. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
Lindert, Peter H., and Steven Nafziger. “Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 74, no. 3, 2014, pp. 767–98. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24550511. Accessed 12 Jan. 2023.
MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2013
World History devotes much attention to the world’s belief systems and religions that shaped our past. One integral theme is the development and impact of monotheist religions, particularly the “Abrahamic traditions” -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Polytheism (multiple gods) preceded these “One-God” religions that eventually came to predominance in much of the world. Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists seek to understand how and why monotheism happened. Recent studies over the last thirty years suggest that the three monotheistic religions evolved slowly from various historical circumstances. This evolutionary view challenges the traditional idea of monotheism as revolutionary insights from the likes of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed.
Polytheism predated monotheism and resided in the earliest civilizations, linking gods to various phenomena. Gods inhabited or controlled the forces of nature or more minute aspects of life. Historian Greg Woolf writes that Mesopotamians “recognized thousands of different divinities, each associated with a different aspect of the universal, from the sky and the sea to humbler implements such as the plow and the hoe – there was even a god of brick-moulds.” (Woolf, 84). Polytheistic deities possessed supernatural but not unlimited powers and displayed human foibles. Sumerian gods for instance, “ate, drank, lusted, quarrelled and intervened in earthly affairs.” (Woolf, 8). In the Greek pantheon, Zeus’s philandering evoked Hera’s jealousy, and various gods vied for power. Polytheistic systems also tended to be linked to localities – a stark contrast to the universal God espoused by later monotheistic traditions.
Polytheism pervades most of human history, but at some point, monotheism evolved, espousing the belief that one uncreated, all-powerful, and all-knowing God created everything. How did monotheism evolve and grow? The answers remain elusive, but scholars generally began with Judaism.
There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a saviour; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45: 21-3
The Old Testament of the Bible identifies Abraham (born.c.1800 BCE) as the first Hebrew and the first monotheist. Abraham left Ur (Mesopotamia) and travelled west to Canaan (modern Israel) after God promised him a “land of milk and honey.” In Canaan, Abraham received the covenant from God on Mt. Sinai, the written and oral law established between God and the Jewish people. God, often referred to as Yahweh (by scholars but not believers), later led Moses and his chosen people out of enslavement in Egypt (an event known as the Exodus) and back to Canaan. In Canaan, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment specified, “You shall have no other gods before me.” However, some Israelites continued to worship other deities, but over time an increasing number established a covenant with the One God.
This God fundamentally differed from gods previous. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but a realm apart” (99). In other words, God transcended the limited role ascribed to geography or function (e.g. Ares, God of War). As Robert Wright writes, Yahweh “was Lord of nothing in particular and everything.” (100)
Interestingly, recent scholarship suggests that forms of monotheism, such as that espoused by the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten (c. 1353-1335 BCE), predated Judaism but did not survive. On the other hand, Judaism demonstrated incredible resilience as it spread with Jewish merchants to various communities and trading centres in Europe and Southwest Asia. As Christine Hayes writes, “Judeans survived even after the more numerous and powerful people like the Sumerians and Babylon and Hittites and “carried with them new ideas, a sacred scripture, a set of tradition that would lay the foundations for the major religion of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” (2)
Almost 2000 years after Abraham left Ur, a Jewish prophet would inspire what eventually became the most widespread religion in history – Christianity.
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God. Paul, Corinthians. 8: 5-6.
Christianity evolved from the Jewish notion of a “messiah,” foretold in the Old Testament. Christians identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Christ is the Greek word for messiah. This belief fundamentally differs from Judaism and Islam; both recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as a divinity.
A Jew born in or near Nazareth, Jesus continued the Jewish tradition of prophets who mediated the earthly world with the spiritual. A “charismatic faith healer,” Jesus offered his teaching in Roman-controlled Palestine and attracted devoted followers until Romans crucified him (around 29 BCE) – an event Christians believe was a sacrifice of God’s son for the sake of humanity. After his death, Jesus’s followers recorded his teachings in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels. Christian missionaries and merchants spread these teachings via a vast network of Roman roads and overseas trading routes. “Jesus groups” and prophets like St. Paul gain coverts by offering an inclusive religion that promised salvation through faith in Jesus. Christianity, as Huston Smith points out, “sought converts more provocatively than Judaism and would rapidly spread over the following centuries.
This rapid spread, as Karen Armstrong writes, “certainly would not have succeeded without the Roman Empire.” (106). Rome initially persecuted Christians, who they saw as an obscure Jewish cult, as disloyal to the emperor but legally recognized Christianity in 313 CE, allowing Christians to own property and worship freely. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337 CE) organized the first ecumenical council of bishops of the Roman Empire ” to unify canons of doctrinal orthodoxy and define a common creed for the Church.” As Scott Vitkovic points out, this step offered the first uniform Christian doctrine” that would bind Christians and foster Christianity’s growth. (5) By 380 BCE, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, a status that allowed Christians a significant advantage over competing belief systems.
When the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the Christian Church filled the power vacuum, ostensibly providing political stability, social order, faith, and hope. The Pope became the spiritual and political leader of much of Europe. The Church established a hierarchy of regional bishops overseeing more local priests administer this growing influence. Christianity continued to grow into the next millennium until 1054 when it split into the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. A more profound split occurred with the Protestant Reformation, encouraged by Martin Luther in 1517. Numerous Christian denominations evolved, but scholars tend to identify three main groups – Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic.
Christianity’s meteoric rise as a global religion would foreshadow the rapid rise of another monotheistic religion centuries after Christ’s death– Islam.
He is the One God;God, the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of all being. Koran 112.
More than 500 years after the death of Jesus Christ came Muhammed (570-632), the prophet of Islam, who lived in Mecca, a commercial center in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Polytheism still predominated Arabic society, but by this time, Judaism and Christianity had developed well-established traditions and a growing influence. As historian Ira M. Lepidus points out, monotheistic religion was “introduced into Arabia by foreign influences: Jewish and Christian settlements” and “travelling preachers and merchants…” (19). Accordingly, by “the sixth century, monotheism had a certain vogue.” (19)
At 40, Muhammed experienced a series of revelations through Allah’s angel Gabriel. Through these revelations, he identified himself as the last in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammed saw these revelations as the completion of Judaism and Christianity that had lost their way. According to Islam, Muhammed and all prophets possessed no divine qualities but were mere messengers of God. In this sense, Islam agrees with Judaism by denying Christ’s divinity as the Son of God and the Messiah. Muslims see the period before Muhammed, including the polytheist and monotheistic religions, as a period of ignorance. Islam, in short, is a pristine monotheism.
When he died in 632 BCE, Karen Armstrong writes, Muhammed “had managed to bring nearly all the tribes of Arabia into a new united community, or ummah” – an incredible feat. (135). He did not leave any writings, but his successors recorded his teachings in the Qur’an (Koran). Two main groups, the Sunni and the Shiite, evolved from disputes over the rightful successors to Mohammed. By the end of the 7th century, despite divisions, Muhammed’s followers had conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Isreal, North Africa, and Spain. Today, it stands as the world’s second-largest religion.
How did monotheism happen? Traditional religion asserts that monotheism began before history and the creation, with God the uncreated and that God (or Allah) first revealed himself to Abraham. However, historical evidence suggests that monotheism did not begin with Abraham of Ur. Scholars of the Ancient Near East generally agree that monotheism grew out of various historical processes but dispute how this happened. Biblical scholar Yehezkeh Kaufman sees the Hebrew God as more revolutionary than evolutionary, rejecting monotheism as “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Instead, he sees “an original creation of the people of Israel…absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” (Wright, 100)
Kaufman published his works in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, new scripture analysis and archaeological finds seem to reveal a more evolutionary process. Regarding the more traditional view that identifies monotheism as early as Abraham, scholars such as Karen Armstrong suggest that “we tend to project our knowledge of late Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages.” (14). Evidence indicates that Abraham and other biblical figures – Isaac and Moses – likely recognized multiple gods. Ancient Hebrew scripture refers to many Gods before gradually focusing on one God – Yahweh. Initially, Yahweh faced competition from the gods such as Baal, Enlil, Mardele and Amon-Re. Over time the Hebrews came to regard Yahweh as the only God, thus laying the foundations for a monotheistic religion.
While the precise reasons for this evolution to monotheism remain elusive, scholars suggest various reasons. Historian Ira M. Lapidus links the development of monotheism to a growing and increasingly connected Middle Eastern population that could see a larger world beyond their local experience. So, instead of a god for a small community, why not gods (and eventual God) for the vaster world? (19?) Lapidus suggests that these religions, Judaism (and later Christianity and Islam), offered salvation and a sense of universal order in an often-unstable world. Scholar Reuven Firestone reinforces this view, suggesting that monotheism “removed the universe and all its people from the fractions and uncertain rule of often bickering deities and placed them under the grace of One Great God. (20).
Besides monotheism’s appeal for some, scholars point to the persecution of polytheists, later labelled as “pagans.” The term “pagans,” writes Jonathan Kirsch, “is a word invented by early Christians to describe anyone who refused to recognize the One True God.” (19). Some monotheistic believers actively sought to rid the world of pagans. In 529 BCE, for instance, the Roman Emperor Justinian closed the school of philosophy in Athens, what Karen Armstrong calls “the last bastion of intellectual paganism.” (125). Some nine centuries later, the Renaissance would see the revival of classical Greek and Roman philosophical works in Europe.
Exploring the reasons for the growth of monotheism requires more space than we have with this blog which outlines the origins of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three claim to follow the only God, a claim that has led to many conflicts among monotheistic religions (e.g. The Crusades) and against “pagans”. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that monotheism evolved very gradually after Abraham. The scholarship also presents evidence that even with their monotheistic foundations, these religions evolved much slower than we once believed. Scholars such as Karen Armstrong argue that Christianity, for instance, grew out of disparate Jesus groups and did not consolidate until centuries after the death of Jesus.
What is certain is that these monotheistic religions profoundly impact our past and our present. Future blogs will further explore these belief systems and others such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1993.
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. W.W. Norton, 2007.
Bowker, David et al. World Religions: The Great Faiths explored and explained. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.
Firestone, Reuven. “A Problem With Monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Dialogue and Dissent.” Heirs of Abraham: The Future of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Relations. New York: Orbis, 2005 20-54.
Hayes, Christine. Introduction to the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
Kagan, Neil ed. Concise History of the World. An Illustrated Timeline. Washington, D.C. National Geographic, 2006.
Kirsch, Jonathan. God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.
Lapidus. Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Oxtoby, William M. and Alan G. Segal. A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Perry, Marvin. ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Volume II, From the 1600s. Sixth Edition. 2000.
Rosenberg, David. Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Sayem, Md. “The Monotheistic Concept of Judaism and Islam in the Light of their Basic Creeds: A Comparative Analysis.” The Dhaka University Studies. June 2012. p. 127-137.
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Our Great Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991
Vitkovic, Scott. (2018). The Similarities and Differences Between Abrahamic Religions. IJASOS- International E-journal of Advances in Social Sciences. 4. 2018, 455-462. 10.18769/ijasos.455673.
Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Beliefs, Mythology, and Art. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005.
Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009.
Oceans and seas make up about two-thirds of our planet, yet historical attention to such bodies has been minimal at best. Rainer F. Buschman.
With the rise of world history, more people view the past through a lens that brings a broader range of global interconnections to light. Essential to these linkages are geographical features such as waterways (oceans, seas, and rivers) and landforms (e.g. mountains, deserts, and forests) that help shape the formations of societies and their interactions and exchanges, including trade, culture, flora and fauna, and disease. Understanding these geographical features is critical to understanding our past.
Traditional world history tends to be “terrestrial-focused,” but this is changing as historians display an increasing tendency to study the world’s waterways. Maritime history enriches our understanding by highlighting world history trends and patterns in unique ways. As Eric Kjellgren writes, “favorable prevailing winds and fish suddenly seem as influential as access to fresh water and arable land. Shipbuilding and skillful navigation challenge the prominence of building roads and canals. (1) World history returns the favour by encouraging maritime history into a global approach that moves away from seeing oceans as barriers to human interaction to conceiving them as important interconnected regions. In short, a blending of maritime and world history can lead to more sophisticated understandings.
Oceans. It would be a severe understatement to say that the world’s oceans and seas that comprise about two-thirds of the planet play an essential role in unfolding world history. Oceans and seas facilitated the migration of people, animals, flora, disease, culture and technologies. As maritime historian Lincoln Paine writes, “Before the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. Besides transport, people used oceans and seas to provide food and other vital goods. Whale blubber, for instance, served as lamp fuel, lighting a growing world population. Waterways have imbued culture. Poseidon and Neptune, Moby Dick, the Ancient Mariner, various folk songs, and countless varieties of seafood reveal how waterways help shape the world’s cultures.
Beyond a Eurocentric Focus. World history encourages maritime history to move beyond a Eurocentric approach. As S. Arasaratnam points out, world history fosters a move “away from a view of the ocean as primarily the playground of European naval and commercial powers with indigenous actors providing minor roles for the lead up to the period of empire in the nineteenth century. (246) Of course, studying the European powers remains vital to our understanding of the unfolding of global history. How, for instance, could we understand the monumental developments in the Atlantic community without carefully studying its most impactful player – Europe? But an exclusive focus on these players can limit our understanding. David Abulafin argues that “the European presence around the shores of the oceans can only be understood by taking into account the less well-documented activities of non-European merchants and sailors, some of whom were indigenous to land in which they lived.” (xx) For instance, the “Silk Road of the Sea” that connected people as far as China and the Roman Empire involved a blended relay of major powers such as Rome and China with more local merchants indigenous to the shores of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Conclusion. As Lincoln Paine writes, “maritime history offers an invaluable perspective on the world and ourselves. (599). Waterways such as the world’s oceans, seas, and rivers are integral to our past. Interestingly, recent historiography has questioned whether we can consider the oceans as separate entities. As David Armitage writes, “the oceanographic connections among the oceans ensure that any attempt to separate them will be artificial and constraining.” (359). This is particularly true after developments such as da Gama’s navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, and later, the Suez and Panama canals connected major bodies of water.
We are writing four upcoming blogs, each focusing on one of the world’s four oceans – the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, and the Arctic. The first focuses on the world’s largest, the Pacific, but will include its relationship to other bodies of water, including the Indian Ocean. These blogs will reflect the fruitful mingling of maritime and world history that highlights regional and global connections.
Abulafin, David. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Ocean. London: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Arasaratnam, S. “Recent Trends in the Historiography of the Indian Ocean, 1500 to 1800.” Journal of World History 1, no. 2 (1990): 225–48.
Armitage, D. (2019). World History as Oceanic History: Beyond Braudel. The Historical Review/La Revue Historique, 15(1), 341-361.
Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson eds. India and the Indian Ocean 1500 to 1800. New Dehli, 1987.
Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours. Cambridge, Mass, 2005.
Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Buschman, Rainer F. “Oceans of World History: Delineating Aquacentric Notions in the Global Past.” History Compass 2 (2004) WO o68, 1-10.
Crosby, Alfred. The Columbine Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westpoint; Conn, 1973.
Duiker, William J. Twentieth Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
Martin J. Peggy, Beth Bartolini-Salimbini, Wendy Peterson. 5 Steps to a 5: AP World History 2019. McGraw-Hill Education, 2018
Mukherjee, Rita. “Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History,” Indian Historical Review 41 (2014), 87-101.
Paine, Lincoln. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
World history explores many topics and themes. As Jay P. Harmon points out, “The AP World History test developers want you to see the big picture. They want you to make connections across the globe and across time and to analyze common human experiences like migration, trade, religion, politics and society.” (6) Chronology remains essential, but the focus is on various themes over time and space.
The Advanced Placement (AP)World History program identifies six broad themes.
Human-Environment Interaction. Here we focus on the mutual impact of humans and their environments. Environments largely determined what people ate, how they travelled, what they built, and organized themselves. Access to water, for example, facilitated trade and travel and enabled farming. The earliest civilizations arose near major waterways (Mesopotamia and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Egypt and the Nile River). Water also divided people. The Americas and Eurasia lived unaware of each other (on a large scale ) until the 15th century. Topography impacted human societies. The mountainous terrain separating various fertile basins in Greece encouraged the formation of city-states rather than the more centralized polities.Humans, of course, impacted the environment. People manipulated waterways – irrigation, dams, canals – to facilitate farming and transport. Agriculture, the rise of cities, and a rapid rise in consumption drastically altered the global landscape.
Cultural Development/Interaction. Cultural elements such asreligion, belief systems, arts and architecture, and ideas profoundly impacted human history. Religious belief informed the fundamental institutions of marriage, childhood, and the family. Politics often reflected preeminent intellectual traditions. Confucianism, for instance, reinforced respect for Chinese traditions. The political ideas of Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Locke, Marx shaped political thought and institutions. The fact that various communist movements in the 20th century – the Soviet Union, Cambodia, to name a few – distorted Marxian theories do not discount the global influence of his ideas. Cultures mingled through trade, travel and war. Mesopotamian and Egyptian architecture inspired Greek builders. Religions reached as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity spread over water and land, attracting new converts. Evolution, the brainchild of Charles Darwin, made people think differently about their origins and place in the world. Subsequent pseudo-scientific claims of Social Darwinism offered justifications for imperialism and industrialization in the 19th and 20 centuries.
Statebuilding, Expansion, Conflict. Essentially this is about politics. How do people govern? How do people develop, expand, and resist political control? We examine various political forms, including city-states, provinces, states, empires, and dynasties. How did polities differ, and how did they resemble each other? Athens and Sparta, for instance, city-states that shared a language and belief system, held different ideas about statehood, gender roles, and education. How did Rome evolve from a republic to an empire, and how did it rise to become one of the most powerful polities in history before declining then falling? Political revolutions, of course, deserve attention. The French and American Revolutions of the 19th century and later the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution in China in 1949 profoundly shaped the 20th century and beyond. Conflict, of course, occurred between states. AP history examines conflicts such as the Peloponnesian Wars, the World Wars of the 20th century and the Cold War.
Creation, Growth, Interaction of Economic Systems. As John Tosh writes, economic history includes “all those activities that have to do with production, exchange and consumption. (81). A basic example – Greeks grew olives and exchanged them for wheat that they could not produce in sufficient quantities. Changes in production technologies and practices profoundly influenced the course of history. The Agricultural revolution brought about a fundamental shift from hunting and gathering to farming, led to drastic population growth and encouraged the specialization of labour. Later, the Industrial Revolution, beginning in Britain, led to more fundamental changes, including population increases, urbanization, and middle-class growth. Goods, ideas and technologies were exchanged along established trade routes like the Silk Roads and waterways. Chinese technologies such as papermaking and gunpowder travelled westward. Compromised access to these routes encouraged western European nation-states to send expeditions across the Atlantic, eventually settling into the Americas.
Development and Change in Social Structure. John Tosh writes, “Social structure essentially means the sum of the social relationships between the many different groups in society. (85) Here, we explore concepts such as gender, class, and race. Gender roles played a central role in social organizations pervaded by patriarchy. Men dominated the public sphere – politics, trade and commerce – while women focused on domestic matters like child-rearing and managing the household. Race played an integral role in human affairs. Social Darwinism of the 19th century fed justifications for imperialism, slavery, segregation and other exploitive practices culminating with Nazi Germany’s pseudo-scientific racial theories that inspired horrific atrocities. Class played a vital role in historical events. Slavery existed in most ancient societies. India’s caste system determined one place in society, setting strict conditions of what people could do and how they interacted with each other. Feudalism dominated medieval Europe, and landowners enjoyed a relatively easy life to the peasantry who laboured the land. Class struggle, often inspired by desperation and a sense of unfairness, fomented numerous rebellions and revolutions.
Technology and Innovation. The word technology, writes James E. McClellan III, derives from the Greek techne having to do with practical arts, craftsmanship, and techniques. (1) World history offers innumerable examples of influential technologies and innovation. For example, irrigation and canal building facilitated farming in the earliest civilizations. The advent of writing and, later, the printing press accelerated the spread of ideas. The printing press, for instance, played a vital role in the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century by spreading Martin Luther’s critique of Catholic interpretations and practices. Agricultural innovations forever altered our relationship with our natural environments and further changed with the advent of industrialization. Factory work encouraged a different approach to time as days, weeks, and months were measured to maximize production. Medical technologies increased life expectancy via vaccines, operational procedures and more sanitary practices. As a result, infant mortality and maternal death drastically decreased. The 20th century saw an accelerated technological change. The world wars stimulated innovative industrial processes, communication, transportation and, of course, weaponry. Flight, space travel, and computers, once confined to science fiction, became a reality.
The Advanced Placement (AP) program recognizes that history involves the interplay of many factors. Therefore, themes offer an effective organizing principle to explore, compare and contrast societies of different times and places.
Explore and enjoy!
Bartlett, Kenneth. The Experience of History. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2017
Harmon, Jay. P. AP World History: Crash Course. New Jersey: Research and Education Association, 2018.
McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn. Science and Technology in World History. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015
Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1999.
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