Sad Century

David Parrott

  • Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century by Geoffrey Parker
    Yale, 871 pp, £16.99, August 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 20863 4

Contemporary accounts leave little ambiguity about the character of the 17th century. Natural disasters, warfare, political unrest and rebellion combined to bring about levels of mortality, destruction and collective trauma unmatched until the mid-20th century. The confessional conflicts, rebellions, plagues and famines of the 16th century were mild by comparison. ‘’Tis tru we have had many such black days in England in former ages,’ James Howell wrote in 1647, ‘but those parallel’d to the present are to the shadow of a mountain compar’d to the eclipse of the moon.’ In his Essay on the Customs and Character of Nations, Voltaire mildly said that the mid-17th century had been an ‘unfortunate’ time for monarchs: he drew attention to the deposition of the Ottoman Sultan Ibrahim, the destabilising of the Holy Roman Emperor, the flight of the young Louis XIV from Paris in the face of popular revolt, the trial of Charles I and Philip IV of Spain’s loss of Portugal and its empire: a flood of usurpations and revolutions, as he put it, ‘almost from one end of the world to the other’. Voltaire’s identification of the moment around 1650 as a high point of political unrest attracted many subsequent historians, some of whom doubted there were underlying connections between the events, but nonetheless noted the phenomenon of so many ‘contemporaneous revolutions’, as R.B. Merriman called them in his comparative study of 1938. The view that these natural and human catastrophes reached a climax around the mid-century implied that there was some improvement after that. It was logical therefore to speak of the mid-century as a ‘crisis’, the word borrowed from medical terminology. Europe did not descend into anarchy, so the crisis must have led to recovery. But if so, what was the crisis about, and what was its resolution?

The original case for a crisis was made in 1954 by Eric Hobsbawm, who argued that it should be understood in the context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism: vigorous mercantile and commercial interests that had been gaining strength through the previous century reacted with rebellion and revolt to the economic and political constraints imposed by feudal elites. In 1959 Hugh Trevor-Roper replaced Hobsbawm’s economic crisis with a political/fiscal one, a struggle between the centralising efforts of princely courts and government, on the one hand, and provincial and local powers on the other. In 1965 Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper’s articles appeared side by side in an edited collection, Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660, along with other pieces previously published in Past and Present. The volume may inadvertently have launched the most persistent criticism of the whole idea of a crisis: that ‘crisis’ is for the 17th century what ‘history’ is for other centuries. Hobsbawm’s theory lost currency with the decline and fall of doctrinaire Marxist interpretations of early modern history. Trevor-Roper’s political crisis suffered a slower disintegration, through a revisionism which steadily sapped the life out of binary models that pitted a radical centre against a backward periphery, or new bureaucratic functionaries against reactionary nobles. In the end, both interpretations were of course thoroughly Eurocentric. How useful was the concept of the transition from feudalism to capitalism when examining political upheavals in mid-17th-century China? Did it make any sense to discuss the crisis of the Ottoman Empire in terms of a struggle between a centralising monarchy and reactionary provincial nobility?

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