The Century of Crisis

The World We Have Lost

by Peter Laslett
Methuen, 280 pp., 25 s.

Not so very long ago it was possible to believe in a fairly steady linear progression of European history from the eighth to the twentieth century with respect to both economic output and bureaucratic organization. Today we are uneasily aware that for long periods of time, as long as a century or more, Europe has in fact stagnated or regressed. The first, longest, and most tragic intermission tasted from about 1320 to 1480, and covered the whole of Europe with the exception of Italy. During this dismal period, governmental authority crumbled as local warlordism grew, tax yields declined, and the state became a prey of aristocratic faction. Worse still, a Malthusian crisis followed by recurrent attacks of devastating bubonic plague, prolonged Anglo-French War, and erratic monetary manipulation, combined drastically to reduce both the population and the production and trade of Europe. Population shrank even faster than production so that real income per capita rose and the poor were probably economically better off than ever before, or than they were to be again until the mid-nineteenth century. But the psychological price of living in a contracting world, with a horribly low expectation of life, was very high indeed. As Huizinga showed many years ago, the fifteenth century was an age of melancholy and morbid introspection.

All this has been familiar for some time. But surely the arrival of Renaissance, Reformation, and nascent Capitalism in the sixteenth century ensured a steady progression henceforward? So one would like to believe, but however attractive such a concept is, it has recently become clear that the years 1620-1740 witnessed yet another such economic and political crisis. Some of the familiar fifteenth-century features recur. Devastating plague and famines cut back the population, particularly in Italy and Spain. In one country, England, preventative demographic checks (late marriage, no marriage, coitus interruptus) seem to have been in operation, for reasons which are at present wholly obscure. In another, Germany, there raged for thirty years a war as destructive of civilian lives and property as any of this century, and much of the area was left in ruins. Brecht was right to choose seventeenth-century Germany as the background for his moral tale about the horrors of war. Even England, which thanks to its colonial interests was less affected by the Great Depression, saw its population stagnate, its trade endure a prolonged crisis of readjustment from 1620 to 1660, and its output of iron, lead and tin level off.

Secondly, the mid-seventeenth century saw a crisis in the growth of the nation state. If 1848 was to be the year of revolution, the 1640s were the decade, during which major upheavals occurred in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Sweden, Catalonia, Portugal and Naples, there was a coup in Holland, and Germany endured the final, desperate convulsions of the Thirty Years War.

THIS problem of the double crisis of the seventeenth century is of critical importance in understanding the modern world, since out of it emerged both capitalist society and the bureaucratic …

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Communication from Buttocks April 28, 1966