In early modern times, Western society was a group of states, each striving to grow, usually by annexing other states or at least bringing them under some sort of control. At any given moment some states were on the offensive, trying to gain land, power, and wealth; others were on the defensive, trying to preserve what they had. The units in this competitive system are usually termed sovereign states, which means in practice that their rulers had armed forces to carry out their policies and could take initiatives independently of other states.
The Great Powers in Conflict
In the long struggle between the European nations for hegemony, there was an enduring theme—a “long sixteenth century,” or long duree, of population growth and price inflation during which the Mediterranean basin largely remained the economic and military heart of Europe. In the past a steady increase in population tended to exceed the capacity of a society to feed the new mouths.
Here is no general agreement on which date, or even which development, best divides the medieval from the modern. Some make a strong case for a date associated with the emergence of the great, ambitious monarchs: Louis XI in France in 1461; or Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who were married in 1469; or the advent of Henry VII and the Tudors in England in 1485.
Scholars who value international relations tend to choose 1494, when Charles VIII of France began what is often called “the first modern war” by leading his army over the Alps to Italy.