In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern Portugal

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Political History
  • Portuguese Empire
  • Diplomatic History
  • Economic History
  • Social History and Welfare
  • Cultural History
  • Religious History
  • Art History
  • Local History

Atlantic History Early Modern Portugal
José Pedro Paiva, Roger Lee Jesus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0237


During the first decades of the Early Modern period, due to discoveries made by Portuguese explorers, Portugal acquired one of the earliest and most important European overseas empires. Over the course of three centuries, close links were established with Africa, America, and Asia in a dynamic move mediated by means of the sea. This was an epoch in which Portugal constituted a central player in great world transformations. Its dramatic opening to the wider world provoked deep changes at different levels inside the realm, from central political organization, in which the king and his court played a central role, to trade, society, and even the identity of Portugal and the self-perception of being Portuguese. Little affected by the religious break occasioned by Protestantism that shook central and northern Europe, though facing the challenge posed by the presence of a large group of Jewish descendants who were baptized forcibly in 1497, the kingdom embarked on its new course without cutting links with Europe, which some elites continued to view, until the late 18th century, as an inspiring intellectual, cultural, and artistic center. The leading role played by Portugal was marked by a hiatus between 1580 and 1640, a period during which, due to a dynastic crisis caused by the death of King Sebastian during a battle in North Africa, it was ruled by the Spanish Habsburg monarchy in an arrangement in which the country enjoyed a loose political autonomy. After 1640, with a new dynasty in charge, the kingdom faced severe difficulties, most especially until 1668. In the course of the 17th century when Portuguese overseas interests were attacked by the Dutch and the English, the center of the empire slowly moved from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. This shift in geographic emphasis together with the discovery of diamonds and gold mines in Brazil led, by the end of the 17th century, to a period of economic growth that lasted until the first half of the 18th century. During this period, the Crown profited by reinforcing its power both internally and externally. Influenced by Enlightenment doctrines that were accompanied, simultaneously and paradoxically, by use of repressive methods, the government, after the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, instituted deep reforms, which were were set up under the leadership of Carvalho e Melo (Marquis of Pombal), who gained the favor of the king as chief minister until 1777. The historiography on early modern Portugal is rich, particularly in works published by Portuguese authors after the 1970s. The following entries are limited to the most representative essays in each of the different topics: political history, Portuguese empire, diplomatic history, economic history, social history and welfare, cultural history, religious history, art history, and local history.

General Overviews

No textbooks provide a global, up-to-date overview of early modern Portugal. The two best works for undergraduates are the classic, didactic, and well-structured Marques 1972, which has been published in English, and Ramos, et al. 2009, which, as the most recent history of Portugal, offers a balanced and up-to-date overview, yet which focuses especially on political history. For a more detailed perspective on the political evolution, rooted in good sources, but lacking a problematical context, see Serrão 1980. During the 1990s, two very good overviews were published in different volumes, Mattoso 1992 and Serrão and Marques 1998. Written by a set of leading scholars, both works allow students and specialists to examine a wide array of topics, including political, cultural, economic, social, and religious fields. Both works are characterized by broad, up-to-date, and rigorous research. Unfortunately, both lack uniformity and sometimes coherence for readers searching for a general and systematic overview of early modern Portugal. Very useful for beginners, graduates and even senior historians is Serrão 1999, a rich historical dictionary with clear and largely consistent entries, which allow for thematical and biographical searching. Unfortunately, apart from Marques 1972, none of the abridged Portuguese histories is available in English. Birmingham 2003 and Anderson 2000 deserve particular attention and should be used carefully.

  • Anderson, James Maxwell. The History of Portugal. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

    Brief summary of the history of Portugal. Useful for providing a quick and comprehensive view of all the reigns, yet omitting very important data.

  • Birmingham, David. A Concise History of Portugal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Summary of the history of Portugal. Presents the main political events. Although it requires serious criticism, good for undergraduates for a first approach.

  • Marques, A. H. de Oliveira. History of Portugal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

    A classic and good first approach summary of the history of Portugal, joining the political history of the kingdom in an overview of the economy, culture, and society.

  • Mattoso, José, ed. História de Portugal. Vol. 3, No alvorecer da modernidade, 1480–1620. Lisbon: Círculo de Leitores, 1992.

    See also Volume 4, O Antigo Regime, 1620–1807 (Lisbon: Círculo de Leitores, 1994). With chapters written by different authors, though for the most part by leading scholars, offers updated and in-depth discussions on economics, governing powers, and institutions as well as cultural, social, and political history. Not recommended as a first reading for undergraduates.

  • Ramos, Rui, Bernardo Vasconcelos e Sousa, and Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro. História de Portugal. Lisbon: A Esfera dos Livros, 2009.

    The latest overview of Portuguese history, including recent research on different topics in the history of the realm and its empire, yet focused most closely on politics.

  • Serrão, Joaquim Veríssimo. História de Portugal. Lisbon: Editorial Verbo, 1980.

    Offers a very detailed and consistent reconstruction of political events, adding some data on economic, social, and cultural history. Very useful to understand the chronological succession of events and the major political trends of Portuguese early modern history.

  • Serrão, Joel, ed. Dicionário de história de Portugal. Porto, Portugal: Livraria Figueirinhas, 1999.

    Despite being a bit outdated, a very helpful dictionary, containing central definitions to understanding early modern Portuguese history. Provides also a basic bibliography for each entry.

  • Serrão, Joel, and A. H. de Oliveira Marques, eds. Nova história de Portugal. Vol. 5, Portugal: Do Renascimento à crise dinástica. Lisbon: Presença, 1998.

    See also Volume 7, Portugal: Da paz da restauração au ouro do Brasil (Lisbon: Presença, 2001). A work set that best summarizes with some in-depth discussions the early modern history of Portugal in its various fields. Good summary of the political history, fitting it in the economic, social, and cultural context. Written by different scholars, not all chapters have the same level of quality.

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