1616 and the Golden Age

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.

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  1. I don’t have any intelligent answers to your question but this is a fabulous teaser for your upcoming book.

  2. You’re very kind, Nancy.

  3. I just had a thought – didn’t a 16th century European (maybe English) visitor to the Mughal court keep a diary? I think it was during the reign of James I (IV of Scotland). I can’t remember the name but I’ll bet he had some comments on ceremonies at the Mughal court. Also, what about Matteo Ricci in China – he was later but given the conservative nature of the Chinese court, I’ll bet he made some astute observations.
    And thank you for the compliment – this kind of book is better (well almost) than ice cream and apple pie.

  4. Anthony

    Kamakura. Romanov.

    The Chinese of all periods tended to look back to the Former Chou Dynasty as the golden age. I am sceptical about the Tokugawa considering former shogunates as a golden age. The Meiji Restoration to some degree looked back to the very early Yamato period when the emperor had real control. But I’m not sure they carried this emulation into further detail. The later Romanovs seemed to consider the reign of Peter the Great to be a golden age, and to some extent the reign of Catherine the Great. I doubt they looked to Kievan Rus for inspiration more than to early Muscovy itself. (FWIW. These remarks are just caveats from an amateur.)

  5. Thanks, Nancy and Anthony.

    There were several Western European travelers in Turkey, Persia, and India during this period, among them Thomas Coryate and Pietro della Valle. I will be writing about travel and tourism in my final chapter.

    I’m very confident about the Ming and its attitude to the Song. One author who has written on this extensively is Timothy Brook. I’m less confident about Japan where my knowledge is thinner — this comes from Victor Lieberman’s work, but he is not really a Japan specialist either. The Kiev Rus notion comes from an article by a Russian specialist whose name I don’t remember — I don’t have the book here in Trent, where I’m on press. I think the idea is that this is when Orthodox Christianity was brought to Muscovy. The Russian situation was pretty chaotic.

    I’m still unsure what to say about the Muslim powers. The Mughals had a kind of dual reference to the Central Asian Timurids and to the Persian tradition, which was more learned. The Persian situation is maddeningly complicated. For the Ottomons, I think that already by the early 17th c the period of Suleyman the Magnificent (the Lawgiver) was beginning to seem a golden age. One effect of the Portuguese and Spanish maritime trade was that economic power shifted from the eastern to the western Mediterranean.