My forthcoming book 1616 begins with an account of a masque performed at the court of King James and Queen Anne in Whitehall, London, called The Golden Age Restored. I am interested in the way the various cultures of the early seventeenth century defined themselves by reference to what they saw as the golden ages of the past. The following is a draft paragraph on this concept of the golden age. I’m a little uncertain about the Japan and Vietnam comments. I’m also unsure how the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals might have thought about this concept. Can any readers can provide insights into these questions?
Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, Western scholars, mindful of European success in colonizing other areas, viewed Europe as historically exceptional, developing in radically different ways from other regions. The West was seen as more dynamic, rational, and democratic than any part of Asia, for example, which was portrayed as monolithic and despotic, unchanging across centuries. But in fact the early seventeenth century was a time of enormous change in most regions of the world, change largely driven by a new maritime globalism that accelerated trade and exchange of goods and ideas. In the face of such unsettling changes, many cultures looked back nostalgically to earlier times as “golden ages,” and these eras served also as models legitimizing emerging states that were consolidating regions once made up of numerous small, independent principalities. (In Europe five or six hundred poliical units would eventually merge into just a couple of dozen; in mainland Southeast Asia a couple of dozen states would resolve into just three; and so on. This consolidation was the result in large part of the new availability of firearms and cannonry, which compounded the political advantages of centers of wealth.) While Renaissance Europe looked back to ancient Rome, Ming China looked back to the pre-Mongol Song dynasty as a golden age, Tokugawa Japan to the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, Romanov Muscovy to early Orthodox Christian Kiev Rus, Burma to Pagan, Siam to Angkor, and the Vietnamese states to early Confucian Dai Viet. During this period artists, writers, and political leaders throughout the world struggled between evolving new forms and respecting the models of the glorious past.