Early modern: A term that began to be used, with considerable variation, in the latter half of the twentieth century by some historians, linguists, and literary scholars to refer to a period beginning around the latter half of the fifteenth century in Western Europe and extending to some point between the mid-seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century. Significant developments in the early modern period, which roughly bridged the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, included the decline of feudalism; the invention of the printing press; the discovery of the Americas; the Protestant Reformation; the rise of modern science; the establishment of nation states, often with associated empires; and the emergence of modern capitalism, through the protectionist economic system of mercantilism. With capitalism came a nonaristocratic merchant class able to patronize the arts, literature, and other realms that had earlier been financially supported and controlled by the aristocracy and the Church.
The term early modern period is often used to refer to the Renaissance, but this usage is misleading. Renaissance is a cultural marker denoting the rebirth of learning, literature, and the other arts that began at different times in different regions of Europe, whereas early modern is a term more appropriately applied to: (1) a global historical period spanning some three centuries, from about 1500—1800; (2) language as it evolved and became standardized following the Middle Ages, with Early Modern English and Early Modern French, for instance, succeeding the Middle English and Middle French linguistic stages of the late Medieval Period; and (3) literature produced in early modern languages, including Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince) (written 1513; published 1532), Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1580), and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615).
As applied to English literature, the early modern period generally coincides with the Renaissance Period in English literature, which extended from 1500—1660, a time of unprecedented and, some would say, unparalleled literary production. The period gave rise to prose works such as William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (1525), the poetry of Edmund Spenser (1552—99), the plays of Christopher Marlowe (1564—93), the poems and plays of William Shakespeare (1564—1616), and the poems and prose of John Donne (1573—1631) and John Milton (1608—1674).