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?

The desire to re-examine the connections between a series of events that were geographically dispersed but chronologically contemporary led to another set of essays, The General Crisis of the 17th Century, published in 1978 and edited by Geoffrey Parker and Lesley Smith. Thanks particularly to the editors’ introduction and John Eddy’s essay on the effect of sunspots, the debate was pushed in a new direction: climate change and its impact on the food supply and demography now became a central theme. The absence of recorded sunspots and the presence of substantial carbon-14 deposits pointed to a lowering of average temperatures across the world in the mid-17th century, and the resulting Little Ice Age was seen as the prime cause of endemic hunger, malnutrition, subsistence crises and the resurgence of virulent epidemics. When these natural scourges were accompanied by intense warfare, heavy taxation and economic disruption, the pressures provoking resistance and revolt multiplied.

The volume generated renewed discussion but there were few publications that directly developed or refined the notion of the 17th-century crisis. In 1991 Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World sought to subsume the idea into a far larger pattern of cyclical unrest and rebellion, whose most significant determinant was population expansion and its pressures. By the later 1990s it was becoming increasingly unfashionable: in the 1980s undergraduate exam papers regularly included questions on the ‘General Crisis of the 17th Century’, but over the last two decades the issue has vanished so completely from the syllabus that today otherwise well-read students are baffled by any reference to it.

It is an irony that would not be lost on Geoffrey Parker that the Little Ice Age is today more likely to be appropriated by climate change sceptics than by historians: humanity survived global cooling, they argue, so we need not worry about global warming – just another part of the cycle. Parker’s new book, Global Crisis, responds directly to this type of argument, asserting that humanity survived only at a terrible cost. His epilogue is a plea that the lessons of climate change in the 17th century should not be ignored or misinterpreted. We should be in no doubt that decisions taken now will have an effect on the future impact of natural catastrophes, the resilience of agriculture and the competition for material resources.

Current controversies aside, Parker’s monumental book seeks to reinstate the General Crisis as a defining concept in early modern history, and it is on a scale appropriate to the ambition: eight hundred pages of text and notes, and fifty more of bibliography. The book has been 15 years in the making, and its primary and secondary sources stretch across every continent and extend well beyond the 17th century. Parker explores the crisis on the basis of a massive accretion of new evidence, analysis and global case studies, particularly from outside Europe. The opening sections set out an extended analysis of the factors – natural and human – that drastically worsened survival chances in the first half of the 17th century. Global cooling of 2ºC might appear inconsequential, but had a profound impact on growing seasons, the use of marginal land, crop yields and agricultural diversity. Regional variations and responses also need to be taken into account: Parker isn’t making a general argument for agricultural downsizing. Seen from a global perspective, cooling has other dramatic consequences. Above all, for those territories flanking the Pacific, El Niño the shifting of surface air pressure at the equator that causes westerly winds to blow strongly from Asia to America – brings reduced monsoon rains and frequent drought to Asia and catastrophic flooding to the Americas.

Parker makes it clear that natural disaster was only half the story: this was also ‘the century of the soldiers’, and war was, for many, the most direct reason for their sufferings. Wars were fought across much of the globe and expanding military ambitions and ever larger armies coincided with a general lessening in state control over the army organisation. Combat deaths, though numerous, were less important than the impact of soldiers on civilian society: the movements or, worse, the billeting of troops brought poverty, starvation, brutalisation, disease and wanton destruction. As Parker points out, the almost universal population increases of the 16th century had led to a volatile situation in which any reduction or disruption of food supplies, any decline in the availability of marginal employment, any fall in wage levels or increase in rents, pushed large groups into destitution and starvation. War, and the mismanaged demands of sustained military activity, brought precisely these problems to an already vulnerable population. Climate change would have done a great deal of damage on its own, but without the fiscal extortion, military destruction, political ineptitude and uncertainty that accompanied almost universal conflict, the crisis would have had considerably less impact.

Parker doesn’t apply a rigidly determinist approach: revolution and rebellion aren’t seen as an inevitable consequence of global cooling and the burdens of wars or taxation. The central section of the book is made up of a series of extended narratives set across and beyond Eurasia. Parker looks in turn at states that succumbed catastrophically to rebellion, civil war or invasion; at those that managed to mitigate some effects of climate change; and at those few that seemed to escape relatively unscathed. The length and detail of these accounts testifies to Parker’s recognition that there are no general, let alone monocausal, answers to explain the diversity of outcomes. A determinist insistence that dearth and the threat of starvation will always provoke revolt is demonstrably untrue, but it’s equally unsatisfactory to deny long-term and structural factors and insist that the explanations for particular revolts are contingent: the incompetent decision-making of Cardinal Mazarin, Charles I or the Manchu regent, Dorgon. In the same way, particular social groups may have a distinct role in mobilising popular agitation in crisis-prone societies: an intelligentsia that far exceeds available employment; articulate clergy equipped with justifications for resistance; opportunist nobles excluded from mainstream politics. But again, their role in provoking or sustaining major upheaval depends on many other factors.

Parker begins his crisis narratives with the collapse of Ming China under the pressures of famine, banditry, civil war and Manchu invasion. European states follow: the territorial revolts that threatened to pull apart the Spanish monarchy in the 1640s; the Fronde uprising in France against a hated ministerial regime pursuing an unpopular foreign policy; the British civil wars, followed by the regicide and the destabilising experiment in republicanism; government breakdowns and crippling social unrest in Muscovy, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. But Parker is no less interested in those territories where the impact of crisis was mitigated. Tokugawa Japan determinedly avoided becoming entangled in foreign war while maintaining a large military elite, reducing the scope for political or social unrest. In Safavid Iran, the Indonesian archipelago and the states of North Italy, too, warfare and its burdens were kept in check, and resources could be channelled towards ameliorating the worst effects of climate change.

For all the insistence on focusing on each set of circumstances individually, the patchwork comes together to give a shattering picture of catastrophe on both a territorial and a human scale. The human dimension is never lost sight of thanks to one of the greatest strengths of the volume: its massive reliance on (mostly unfamiliar) contemporary sources. The accounts and opinions of innumerable individuals, written in diaries, memoirs, histories, government reports, pathetic scraps of paper accompanying abandoned children, are forceful reminders of the costs of famine, military occupation and disease. Parker’s use of such sources offers something new in the literature of the crisis: the possibility of entering into the mental world of generations oppressed by physical suffering, by the constant presence of death and the threat of violence, by the total uncertainty and instability of day to day life. ‘People held their lives to be of no value,’ one Chinese writer said. ‘They knew none of the joys of being alive.’ As Parker points out, rates of suicide, abortion, infanticide and abandonment soared, as did the incidence of ‘melancholia’, many cases of which we would today diagnose as clinical depression or post-traumatic stress. Even Samuel Pepys, whose diary during the London plague of 1665 shows him preoccupied with the favours of a new mistress, recognised that his own happiness was set against ‘this sad time of plague’.

What of a post-crisis resolution? Was Pepys’s happiness simply evidence of his indefatigable solipsism, or an augury of changing times? The global scale of Parker’s project makes both the form and the timing of a resolution to the crisis difficult to establish. Though Parker carefully avoids mechanistic arguments which explain revolt and unrest entirely in terms of climate, dearth or warfare, it is certainly a challenge to his focus on the mid-century as a turning point that the Little Ice Age continued – and worsened – into the 18th century. Global temperatures continued to fall: the winter of 1695 was the worst in five hundred years; January 1709 was even colder. Moreover, whereas by the early 18th century Tokugawa Japan was enjoying its Great Peace, and the Manchu regime had re-established order in China and was in the process of exporting war to Central Asia, West-Central Europe was in the midst of a second thirty years’ war fought in response to the territorial aggrandisement of Louis XIV, and Northern and Eastern Europe had plunged into the Great Northern War. These were wars fought on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented cost. In France more than a million people died of starvation, cold and disease between 1691 and 1701, and a further 600,000 in the winter of 1708-9. Yet the cold, shortages and crushing fiscal burdens brought despair and hopeless compliance rather than revolt and resistance.

From the perspective of a historian of France, some of Parker’s remarks in his final section seem too optimistic. How far the threat of disorder may have been reduced by rudimentary welfare provisions, modest improvements in agricultural productivity or the containment of epidemics seems questionable. More convincing is his harsh argument that in many areas the Global Crisis eliminated surplus population and so restored the balance between food supply and mouths to feed. It was this which made it possible for some to survive the continuing depredations of global cooling, especially in countries where rulers had the sense to limit their military and political ambitions in a way that, as Parker rightly points out, had mostly not been the case in the earlier 17th century. In that respect, as in others, Louis XIV was a throwback, confirming Parker’s own synthesis of causation in which the actions of individuals are as much part of the Global Crisis as volcanic ash or military taxation.