Interaction of Europe and the World (int) Theme Description



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AP European History

Themes and Key Concepts


Interaction of Europe and the World (INT)
Theme Description:

Beginning in the 15th century, European nations sent explorers into the world beyond the Mediterranean, establishing new shipping routes, trading stations, and, eventually, colonies in many parts of the globe. The motivations for these enterprises were complex and have been the subject of much historical debate. Were Europeans driven primarily by the desire for more direct and secure trade routes, by the pursuit of new commercial wealth, or by religious zeal — the desire to convert new peoples to Christianity? Whatever the motivations, these explorations created new, complex trade systems that profoundly affected European prosperity, patterns of consumption, commercial competition, and national rivalries. The activities and influence of Europeans varied in different parts of the world. In India and China, centers of high civilizations, Europeans remained on the periphery in trading stations for centuries. In Africa, they also established themselves on the coasts, trading with the indigenous populations of the interior. In the Americas, they created colonies and imposed their religious, social, and political institutions on the native peoples. Europeans also brought new diseases to the Americas, which hastened the collapse of the indigenous cultures on the two continents. However, cross-cultural influence flowed in both directions. The encounters with non-European peoples profoundly affected European trade, social life, and ideas.


With their American colonies and the global reach of their seafarers, Europeans helped to create a truly global trading system, introducing new foods (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and corn) that changed the food cultures of China, India, and Europe. At the same time as Europe was experiencing the material consequences of its interaction with the world, European intellectuals began to describe and analyze the peoples and cultures with which they came into contact, as well as to collect and catalogue the flora and fauna they discovered. The use of “race” as a primary category for differentiating peoples coincided with the expansion of slavery, as Europeans sought a work force for overseas plantations; this categorization helped Europeans justify the slave system. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, the transatlantic slave trade became a central feature of the world economy, and millions of Africans were transported via the notorious “Middle Passage” to labor on plantations in the Americas. The vast and cruel slave system began to generate opposition in Europe beginning in the late 18th century. Abolitionists objected to the system on humanitarian and religious grounds. An important strand of Enlightenment thought — the belief in citizenship, popular sovereignty, equality, and liberty — promoted by the American and French Revolutions also contributed to the ideology of the abolitionist movements, and European states abolished the slave trade in the early 19th century. From the late 18th century to the era of decolonization, these Enlightenment principles influenced those who opposed Europe’s global domination.
Yet, this critique of colonialism did not have an immediate effect, given that the 19th century proved to be a period of empire building. Driven by the needs of an industrial economy and nationalism, Europeans expanded their territorial control in Asia and Africa through warfare, the seizure of property, and, in some cases, immigration. In the late 19th century, the scale and pace of conquest intensified because of asymmetries in military technology, communications, and national rivalries among the Great Powers. In conquered territories, Europeans established new administrative, legal, and cultural institutions, and restructured colonial economies to meet European needs. These actions often led to resistance in colonial areas. Within Europe, exposure to new peoples and cultures influenced art and literature, and spurred on efforts to find a scientific basis for “racial” difference. Competition for colonies also destabilized the European balance of power and was a significant cause of World War I. In the mid–20th century, the rise of the United States as an economic and military power, two world wars, and the four-decades-long Cold War led to a decolonization movement that diminished Europe’s economic and diplomatic place in the world. At the end of the 20th century, Europe sought new ways of defining interactions among its own nations and with the rest of the world. At the same time, the migration of non-European people into Europe began to change the ethnic and religious composition of European society and to create uncertainties about European identity.
Overarching Questions:

  • Why have Europeans sought contact and interaction with other parts of the world?

  • What political, technological, and intellectual developments enabled European contact and interaction with other parts of the world?

  • How have encounters between Europe and the world shaped European culture, politics, and society?

  • What impact has contact with Europe had on non-European societies?


Poverty and Prosperity (PP)
Theme Description:

In the centuries after 1450, Europe first entered and then gradually came to dominate a global commercial network. Building off the voyages of exploration and colonization, the Commercial Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries involved a wide range of new financial and economic practices — such as joint-stock companies, widely capitalized banks, and triangular trade — all of which supported an emerging money economy. New commercial techniques and goods provided Europeans with an improved diet and standard of living. Wealth from commerce supported, in turn, the growth of industrial capitalism in subsequent centuries.


Commercial wealth helped transform a preindustrial economy based on guild production, cottage industry, and subsistence agriculture into one driven by market operations. While market mechanisms generated wealth and social position for some, they also destabilized traditional patterns of economic activity, such as when the wages of urban artisans and workers declined in the 16th century because of the Price Revolution. Still, commercial wealth generated resources for centralizing states, many of which, prior to the French Revolution, justified government management of trade, manufacturing, finance, and taxation through the theory of mercantilism. Mercantilism assumed that existing sources of wealth could not be expanded; accordingly, the only way to increase one’s economic power over others was to gain a greater share of the existing sources of wealth. As a result, mercantilism promoted commercial competition and warfare overseas.
Market demands generated the increasingly mechanized production of goods through the technology of the Industrial Revolution. Large-scale production required capital investment, which led to the development of capitalism, justified by Adam Smith through the concept of the “invisible hand of the marketplace.” The growth of large-scale agriculture and factories changed social and economic relations. Peasants left the countryside to work in the new factories, giving up lives as tenants on landlords' estates for wage labor. Improved climate and diet supported a gradual population increase in the 18th century, and then came a seeming breakthrough of the Malthusian trap (the belief that population could not expand beyond the level of subsistence) with a population explosion in the industrial 19th century. Industrialization generated unprecedented levels of material prosperity for some Europeans, particularly during the Second Industrial Revolution (1850–1914), when an outburst of new technologies ushered Europe into modern mass society.
Prosperity was never equally distributed, either geographically or by social class, and despite the wonders of the railroad and airplane, poverty never disappeared. Capitalism produced its own forms of poverty and social subjection. It created financial markets that periodically crashed, putting people dependent on wages out of work and wiping out investors’ capital. Its trading system shifted production from expensive to inexpensive regions, reducing or holding down the wages of workers. By the 19th century, conditions of economic inequality and the resultant social and political instability across Europe raised questions about the role evolving nation-states could or should play in the economic lives of their subjects and citizens. Socialism argued for state ownership of property and economic planning to promote equality, and, later, Marxism developed a systematic economic and historical theory that inspired working-class movements and revolutions to overthrow the capitalist system.
The devastating impact of two world wars and the Great Depression transformed pre-1914 economic patterns and complicated the task of governments in managing the unstable economic situation. Soviet Russia and its post–World War II satellites represented one path, while nations in western and central Europe modified laissez-faire capitalism with Keynesian budget and tax policies and an expanding welfare state. Consumerism, always an important factor in economic growth, took on even more importance in the second half of the 20th century, although not without criticism. Perhaps the most significant change since World War II has been the movement toward European economic unity and a common currency. Though policies of unity have supported Europe’s postwar economic miracle, they have also encountered challenges of a stagnating population, financial crises, and growing social welfare commitments.
Overarching Questions:

  • How has capitalism developed as an economic system?

  • How has the organization of society changed as a result of or in response to the development and spread of capitalism?

  • What were the causes and consequences of economic and social inequality?

  • How did individuals, groups, and the state respond to economic and social inequality?


Objective Knowledge and Subjective Visions (OS)
Theme Description:

Starting in the 15th century, European thinkers began developing new methods for arriving at objective truth — substituting these methods for appeals to traditional authorities — and then gradually moved away from belief in absolute truths to increasingly subjective interpretations of reality. While most early modern Europeans continued to rely on religious authority and ancient texts for their knowledge of the world and as a standard of value, an increasing number argued that direct inquiry (philosophical and scientific) was the principal way to formulate truths and representations of reality. Philosophers of the natural world created a new theory of knowledge based on observation and experimentation, along with new institutions to put the new theories into practice. Science came to be viewed as an objective source of truth about the natural world. Artists, musicians, and writers also employed empirical and quantitative methods to abstract the notions of space, time, and sound in new cultural movements, many of which continued to draw on classical subjects and motifs, such as the Renaissance.


During the Enlightenment, educated Europeans came to accept the world as governed by natural laws, accessible through systematic observation and articulated in mathematics. The results of this intellectual movement were impressive, producing a new understanding of the universe (often designated as Newtonian mechanics) and systems to organize and advance the growing body of knowledge of plants, animals, and minerals. Under the influence of the French and Industrial Revolutions, intellectuals and activists attempted to employ a similarly “scientific” approach to the questions of political, social, and economic reform, resulting in the development of such ideologies as conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and Marxism. Those in the fine arts and literature both applied and commented on these methods in their depictions of European life during this period of rapid change.
Over time, the new method for acquiring knowledge through observation and experiment raised questions about the relationship between the observer and the observed. Beginning in the 19th century, new theories called into question the supremacy of reason and the possibility of finding objective truth in favor of subjective interpretations of reality and the importance of non-rational forces. In physics, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of relativity, which took the observer into account, challenged Newtonian mechanics, and, in psychology, Freud emphasized the importance of irrational drives in human behavior. Beginning in the 19th century and accelerating in the 20th, European artists and intellectuals, along with a portion of the educated public, rejected absolute paradigms (whether idealist or scientific), replacing them with relative and subjective ones, as exemplified by existential philosophy, modern art, and postmodernist ideas and culture. The emergence of these ideas created a conflict between science and subjective approaches to knowledge. Europeans continued to engage in science and to regard the results of science as being of universal value, while postmodernist thinkers emphasized the subjective component — the role of the actor — in all human activities, including scientific ones.
Overarching Questions:

  • What roles have traditional sources of authority (church and classical antiquity) played in the creation and transmission of knowledge?

  • How and why did Europeans come to rely on the scientific method and reason in place of traditional authorities?

  • How and why did Europeans come to value subjective interpretations of reality?

States and Other Institutions of Power (SP)
Theme Description:

After 1450, the old ideal that Europe constituted a unified Christendom was weakened by the rise of sovereign states. These states asserted a monopoly over law and the management of all institutions, including the church. The growth of secular power played a critical role in the success of the Protestant Reformation, and states gained increasing influence over religious affairs. The military revolution of the early modern period forced states to find new and better sources of revenue, and it spurred the expansion of state control over political and economic functions. In the long view, war became increasingly costly, technologically sophisticated, and deadly. As Europeans expanded overseas, the theaters of European warfare expanded as well.


European polities took a variety of forms — empires, nation-states, and small republics. Absolute monarchies concentrated all authority in a single person who was regarded as divinely ordained, whereas in constitutional governments power was shared between the monarch and representative institutions. Early modern advances in education, publishing, and prosperity created “public opinion” and “civil society” independent of government, developments that supported and were promoted by Enlightenment theories of natural rights and the social contract. Political revolutions and industrialization shifted governance from monarchies and aristocracies to parliamentary institutions that both generated and embodied the rule of law while gradually widening the participation of citizens in governance through the extension of suffrage. In the late 19th century, as European states became increasingly responsive to public opinion and developed mass political parties, they ironically became impersonal and bureaucratic. After World War I, under the pressure of political and economic crises, totalitarian regimes threatened parliamentary governments.
The European state system, originating in the Peace of Westphalia and structuring interstate relations through World War I, assumed that the continent would be divided into independent sovereign states and that war and diplomacy would be the normal means of interstate relations. In the 19th century, the goal of establishing and maintaining a balance of power was challenged by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the emergence of Italy and Germany as states, the weakening of traditional empires, and shifts in the alliance system. New and hardened alliances between countries driven by overseas competition and the growing influence of nationalism undermined diplomatic efforts to stave off war in the first half of the 20th century. In the 20th century, new international organizations (the League of Nations, the United Nations, NGOs) attempted to develop international law and modes of dispute resolution that would promote peace. After the catastrophe of two world wars, European states returned to the goal of a unified Europe, embodied this time not in Christendom but in the secular institutions of the European Union.
Overarching Questions:

  • What forms have European governments taken, and how have these changed over time?

  • In what ways and why have European governments moved toward or reacted against representative and democratic principles and practices?

  • How did civil institutions develop apart from governments, and what impact have they had upon European states?

  • How and why did changes in warfare affect diplomacy, the European state system, and the balance of power?

  • How did the concept of a balance of power emerge, develop, and eventually become institutionalized?

Individual and Society (IS)
Theme Description:

Early modern society was divided into the three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners, which included merchants, townspeople, as well as the overwhelming majority, the peasantry. Within those estates, family, religion, and landed wealth shaped social practices, and inequality of wealth prevailed within each estate. The poor were viewed as objects of charity or dangerous idlers requiring social control, such as disciplinary measures or confinement. Social values and communal norms were sanctified by religion. With the advent of the Reformation, new Protestant denominations contested with the Catholic Church and with each other to establish new religious practices and social values.


Marriage and family life were constrained by the values of the community. Men and especially women of all estates followed closely prescribed norms. Gathering resources to create a new household often required young adults to work and save for a period of years, and a late age of marriage for commoners (the European family pattern) tended to limit demographic growth. In preindustrial Europe, women’s and men’s work was complementary rather than separate, as peasants worked communally to bring in the harvest or artisanal women oversaw journeymen and apprentices, kept the books, and marketed the product. Despite female involvement in movements of cultural and social change, gender norms continued to stress women’s intellectual inferiority and their duty of obedience to fathers and husbands, as well as limit access to institutional power. The Protestant Reformation placed new emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship to God and the role of women in the family as mothers and assistants in religious instruction and schooling, while excluding them from clerical roles. Social and economic stresses along with negative gender stereotypes led to witchcraft persecution, which victimized elderly women in particular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Demographic growth spurred social change in the 18th century. The Enlightenment brought a new emphasis on childhood as a stage of life, and the ideal of companionate marriage began to compete with arranged marriages. The French Revolution formally ended the division of society into three estates and continued to challenge traditional society throughout the 19th century, though remnants of the old order persisted into the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution created a division of social classes based on new criteria of capital and labor. The revolutionary emphasis on liberty galvanized many excluded groups to take an active role in politics, and the language of natural rights spurred the development of movements of equality, such as feminism and the end of feudalism and serfdom. The growth of the middle classes in the 19th century tended to anchor men and women in ”separate spheres” and the elevation of women’s role in the home into “the cult of domesticity.” Early industrialism negatively affected the working classes, and more generally shifted the family from a unit of production to one of consumption.
By the late 19th century, a new mass society had emerged defined by consumerism, expanding literacy, and new forms of leisure. The “woman question” that had emerged in the 17th century took on a new intensity as women sought economic and legal rights. World War I profoundly affected European society by conclusively ending the residual hold of old elites on power and democratizing society through shared sacrifice, represented by female suffrage in many nations. Between the wars Soviet communism theoretically endorsed equality, yet women often performed double duty as laborers and mothers, while kulaks were considered enemies of the state and thus liquidated. On the other hand, fascist regimes re-emphasized a domestic role for women and created states based on a mythical racial identity. After World War II, the welfare state emerged in Western Europe with more support for families, choices in reproduction, and state-sponsored health care. Economic recovery brought new consumer choices and popular culture. In the Soviet bloc, family life was constrained and controlled by states dedicated to heavy industry rather than consumer goods, though basic needs such as housing, health care, employment, and education were provided within an authoritarian context. The end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union brought some shared social values to light, as well as contested issues of immigration, guest workers, and the shifting religious and ethnic balance of Europe. Immigrants sometimes challenged secularism in European life and reasserted their religious values. European society has become, with fits and starts, a pluralistic one.
Overarching Questions:

  • What forms have family, class, and social groups taken in European history, and how have they changed over time?

  • How and why have tensions arisen between the individual and society over the course of European history?

  • How and why has the status of specific groups within society changed over time?

Period 1: c. 1450 to c. 1648
Key Concept 1.1

The worldview of European intellectuals shifted from one based on ecclesiastical and classical authority to one based primarily on inquiry and observation of the natural world.
Renaissance intellectuals and artists revived classical motifs in the fine arts and classical values in literature and education. Intellectuals — later called humanists — employed new methods of textual criticism based on a deep knowledge of Greek and Latin, and revived classical ideas that made human beings the measure of all things. Artists formulated new styles based on ancient models. The humanists remained Christians while promoting ancient philosophical ideas that challenged traditional Christian views. Artists and architects such as Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael glorified human potential and the human form in the visual arts, basing their art on classical models while using new techniques of painting and drawing, such as geometric perspective. The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century accelerated the development and dissemination of these new attitudes, notably in Europe north of the Alps (“The Northern Renaissance”).
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans developed new approaches to and methods for looking at the natural world in what historians have called the Scientific Revolution. Aristotle’s classical cosmology and Ptolemy’s astronomical system came under increasing scrutiny from natural philosophers (later called scientists) such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The philosophers Bacon and Descartes articulated comprehensive theories of inductive and deductive reasoning to give the emerging scientific method a sound foundation. Bacon urged the collection and analysis of data about the world and spurred the development of an international community of natural philosophers dedicated to the vast enterprise of what came to be called natural science. In medicine, the new approach to knowledge led physicians such as Harvey to undertake observations that produced new explanations of anatomy and physiology, and to challenge the traditional theory of health and disease (the four humors) espoused by Galen in the second century. The articulation of natural laws, often expressed mathematically, became the goal of science.
The unexpected encounter with the western hemisphere at the end of the 15th century further undermined knowledge derived from classical and biblical authorities. The explorations produced new knowledge of geography and the world’s peoples through direct observation, and this seemed to give credence to new approaches to knowledge more generally. Yet while they developed inquiry-based epistemologies, Europeans also continued to use traditional explanations of the natural world based on witchcraft, magic, alchemy, and astrology.



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