This introductory chapter provides an overview of the early modern period in Jewish history. Following the virtual elimination of the oppressed and battered Jewish people from western and central Europe in the fifteenth and first two-thirds of the sixteenth century, an altogether different trend, toward reintegration, set in from around 1570 in much of the continent west of Poland. During the next few decades, the standing and functions of the Jews in western civilization were totally transformed. Amid a flurry of new charters, privileges, and concessions, Jews were all at once released from many of the old, stifling restrictions on their economic and cultural activity and lifestyle. As a consequence, they now exerted, especially in the period 1650–1713, the most profound and pervasive impact on the West which they were ever to exert whilst still retaining a large measure of social and cultural cohesion, that is to say, whilst still displaying a recognizably national character. The key factor behind the reversal of pre-1570 trends, and thus the transformation of Jewish life in the West, was the political and spiritual upheaval which engulfed European culture as a whole at the end of the sixteenth century. The chapter then explores ‘mercantilism’, which triggered what might be termed Europe's first great emancipation.
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