The seventeenth century has had a bad reputation among modern historians, who have encapsulated the entire period in the concept of “crisis.” For modern historians, it seems that no matter where or when one looks some part of seventeenth-century Europe was in crisis, be it in the economy, the church, politics, culture, or science. Merchants and peasants had to work around the troubles of war; kings tried mightily to assert their political authority against rambunctious nobles; preachers tried to protect their flocks from the other side’s errors; scientists wanted the freedom to explore the book of nature freely. And all of this was in vain.
The roots of modern “crisis” theory lie in the seventeenth-century’s reputation for brutal war, religious strife, and economic dislocation. The problem with the general approach is, however, that the seventeenth century was no more warlike than the sixteenth or the seventeenth centuries, though the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was a complete disaster for many of the German states. Dynastic competition and religious strife repeatedly turned
We will begin with an overview of European politics in the seventeenth century, and here we must note that our vision of the political is much different from the vision of seventeenth-century people. As you know from Historia Universal I, by 1600
The seventeenth century also inherited the great dynastic battles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of which the most important was the battle between the Habsburgs and Valois, and later the Habsburgs and Bourbons. The Habsburgs in
Given what I have said above, the first thing we should note is the centrality of religion to these family rivalries. On the one hand, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs were fervent Catholics who saw it as their duty to wipe out heresy. The Spanish, of course, brought Catholicism to the new world and worked vigorously to extinguish native faiths there. The Austrians, for their part, tried repeatedly to extinguish Protestantism in the northern German states. On the other hand, the French were traditionally Catholic, though they also had a tradition of independence from
The rise of dynastic interests points our attention, however, to problems that look more familiar to modern eyes. During the seventeenth century, new international players entered the European scene. First, the Dutch and the Swedes rose to Continental prominence, followed by the Prussians, the Russians, and the English. By 1609, the Dutch had won their independence from
All of these states developed centralized administrations that raised money and projected power in that country’s interest. We are not quite talking about a state yet; that would have to wait until the eighteenth century. Still, in the seventeenth century, an embryonic bureaucratic system appeared across
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries nobles had constantly risen up against their kings when it was convenient. This was especially the case after the Reformation, because this movement offered both spiritual “Truth” and political opportunities.
There is also a broad, less obvious change that is, however, of fundamental importance for understanding the seventeenth century. During this period, European the economy’s center shifted, moving from northern
Let us now return to the broader problem: the seventeenth century is both strange and familiar to us. At times it seems maddeningly backward, at other times distressingly modern. First, the century’s religious fervor and religious wars seem odd for three reasons. First, as children of the Enlightenment, we have learned to be skeptical of claims to absolute truth. Second, modern Europeans subsequently created a host of new reasons to kill each other that were, in fact, much more effective at fostering mutual hatreds. Finally, seventeenth-century science was both old and modern. On the one hand, it was dedicated to experimentation in what we see as acceptable realms such as physics. On the other hand, it also pursued experiments in “unacceptable” realms such as alchemy. For example,
Although state power became more important during this time, nation states did not exist and politics among nations followed different rules. Let me illustrate the problem by considering the modern state’s basic characteristics. First, the state maintains a monopoly on force. (Some states allow people to use force to defend themselves against attacks by private individuals. Still, no state allows people to use force against its own representatives, nor as a private punishment for crimes committed.) Second, a state controls its borders. Third, all the state’s citizens are subject to the same law, even if the law is not always applied equally. The modern state is, in short, characterized by uniformity and universality.
Early-modern European regimes such as Richelieu’s in
Even a famous “centralized” nation such as
With this broad overview we are in a better position to consider some themes that will run through the rest of this course. Seventeenth-century
Still, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, everywhere the central issue became how to get access to royal funds or special privileges, which was really the same thing. In
The king’s role as political center and cultural icon made royal courts the focus of power. The king dispensed favors, and since he was to be found at court, only those who courted him could get favors. In general, one had to be seen in order to gain royal benefits, which meant spending a great deal of time in some castle waiting to be seen by the king. Louis XIV once replied to a courtier who mentioned the desire of some noble for a special benefit, “I have not seen him.” In this sense, although we see
Louis XIV also calls to mind a central issue in seventeenth-century
To all of this we must add the continuing significance of religion. The Reformation had split
Now I will attempt to summarize the general points involved. First, the seventeenth century was marked by a trend toward centralization, but within the context of a very old system of diffused power. Those states that centralized most effectively became the strongest powers in the eighteenth century. Second, as royal authority grew, so too did the royal interest in aggrandizement. Princes wanted to become counts. Dukes wanted to be kings. Kings wanted to be emperors. Then, of course, all of these people wanted their neighbor’s lands. Thus, the seventeenth century opens our view on a new rapacious state that sought power and glory through conflict. Louis XIV, for example, attacked the Dutch in the second half of the seventeenth century largely out of contempt for their bourgeois ways. Finally, concomitant to this, the larger states now had to watch each other jealously, regardless of religious affiliation. For example, it the Habsburgs gained too much territory from the Ottomans, they might become too powerful for the French. It was, therefore, necessary for the French on occasion to make common cause with Muslims, even if the affected party was Christian. (the same can be said of