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 state. It provides the ideal testing ground for the various models of historical change advanced by Marx, Weber, and others. Consequently it has for some years now been a subject of special interest to that thriving new historical periodical Past and Present. This is directed by a group of the post-war generation of English historians, some Marxist, some decidedly not, all of whom are agreed that it is the duty of the historian to explain and analyze, not merely to record and narrate; that the most fruitful methods of explanation take the form of transnational comparisons using trans-disciplinary techniques; and that the most meticulous and detached scholarship can and should be applied to themes of general interest and importance in illuminating the human condition. The volume of collected essays from this journal shows both the very wide range of ideas, methods and evidence which can be brought to bear on a single problem, and the sophistication and learning which can be mustered, in England, France and the United States, to tackle a major historical theme in a serious, well-documented way. Though I am in some sense an interested party, it is my considered opinion that the appearance of this volume is proof that history is not in such a bad way as some of its detractors seem to think.

There are, basically, three general hypotheses about the causes of this seventeenth-century crisis. The first, the Marxist hypothesis, as propounded by Dr. Eric Hobsbawm, with heavy documentary support from the Braudel school in Paris, sees the problem in primarily economic terms. The political events are regarded as largely epiphenomena, and Hobsbawm only incidentally concerns himself with the great revolutionary outbreaks of the mid-seventeenth century. According to this view the crisis is one of over-production in the face of the limited elite markets offered by so-called “feudal” society, in which wealth was concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of aristocrats who used their accumulated capital for conspicuous consumption rather than for productive investment. The decline of the independent towns and the reimposition of serfdom in Eastern Europe were two consequences of the built-in limitation on growth of this type of society.


Suggestive though it is, this interpretation of Early Modern Europe contains too many ambiguities and difficulties to be fully satisfying. Thanks to Hobsbawm and others, no one now doubts the facts of a century or so of economic stagnation interposed between the forward thrust of the sixteenth century and the renewed acceleration of the middle and late eighteenth century. But in the first place the chronological picture is very vague, as Mr. Hobsbawm frankly admits in a postscript. The crisis is generally agreed to have begun in 1620, but it is sometimes regarded as being over by 1670, and at other times as trailing on until around 1740. Different parts of Europe and different sectors of economic and intellectual life clearly reacted in different ways and at different times over a very long period. English commercial and industrial production may have faltered, but her agricultural output increased rapidly throughout the century. Her commercial boom of the late seventeenth century failed to stimulate any very striking industrial activity, while the Newtonian scientific revolution and planned encouragement of technological innovation petered out by 1720. In the United Provinces the depression hardly touched the soaring fortunes of Amsterdam. In France the crisis of the early seventeenth century hit the south far worse than the north, and it was not until the 1680s that general economic and demographic decline set in. In Eastern Europe the rise of the great latifundia operated by serf labor proceeded not uniformly but from area to area over 150 years, ranging from East Prussia in the sixteenth via Sweden in the seventeenth to Russia in the early eighteenth century. Thus one may readily agree that a generally downward turn began about 1620, without accepting that there was any clear or uniform reaction to it.

NOR is the Marxist explanation of this downward turn altogether satisfactory. An alternative explanation as an unfortunate conjuncture of events pressing hard upon a demographically dropsical society seems equally valid. Plague returned to strike hard at the labor force; consumer markets contracted as war devastated ever greater areas of Germany; there developed a shortage of circulating media as the silver imports from Peru declined. Irresponsible monetary juggling by Sweden, Spain, and the German Princes shattered the confidence of the international trading community, and made rational calculation of profit impossible. Everything conspired to turn the years 1619-22 into a major crisis more profound and lasting in its effects than that of 1929. It may be that this prolonged seventeenth-century crisis was more important negatively, in pushing eastern and southern Europe way behind in the advance towards modernity, than in acting as a positive stimulus to subsequent growth in the key areas of North-West Europe. But however that may be, Hobsbawm’s brilliant synthesizing article has offered an explanatory model which will for long continue to give focus to the discussion.

It is the second aspect of the crisis, the political, which concerns Professor Trevor-Roper, whose paper in this collection of essays offers an alternative model to that of Hobsbawm. He sees the political upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century as the watershed between one age and another, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a crisis caused by a basic defect in the pre-existing political structure which made it incapable of standing the strains imposed upon it. Both Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper, the Marxist and the anti-Marxist, are at one, be it noted, in scorning the old Whig notion that constitutional conflicts can be taken at their face value. Both they and the other contributors to the debate—including Roland Mousnier, John Elliott, and Michael Roberts—are agreed that this is a naive and superficial way of looking at historical change, that behind every constitutional struggle lie interests and passions and prejudices which must be carefully explored and exposed. To Trevor-Roper, the crisis is one between the state and society. By the seventeenth century the centralized state machine—courtiers, officials, bishops and politicians—had become intolerably burdensome and oppressive to the rest of the society. The division between the beneficiaries and the victims of the political system was becoming more and more acute and obvious every day, as the Renaissance Court with its ever-increasing train of parasitic bureaucrats laid heavier and heavier burdens on society. When the Hobsbawmian economic recession reduced the size of the cake from which this governmental slice had to be cut, the situation became intolerable and various social groups tried to change the system by revolt and revolution. The cities had been crushed earlier on, in the sixteenth century; now it was the landed classes who fought against the Courts. The more successful societies, those of Holland, England, and France, adjusted to the situation partly by improving and streamlining the administration and partly by increasing their economic resources by the application of mercantilist ideas. By these means the burden was adjusted to the economic potential of society, and the age of Enlightened Despotism could begin.


As a number of other essays in the volume show, this ingenious and superficially attractive thesis does not stand up to close examination. Like so many generalizations currently made about the evolution of the modern state, the modern constitution, and the modern economy, it is the work of an historian taking a model first evolved to fit the unique British experience and then applying it indiscriminately to the very different context of the European continent. First, none of the conflicts under examination, in England, France, or Spain, turn out to be simple alignments of officials versus the rest, as Trevor-Roper lamely admitted in a postscript. Secondly, the picture of an enormously affluent horde of spendthrift courtiers is vastly overdrawn. The spectacular riches of the few have blinded Trevor-Roper to the modest, and often miserable, rewards of the many. And so the burden of the Court and bureaucracy, even allowing for the vast submerged iceberg of concealed fees and bribes, was nowhere comparable with the estimated cost of war. Thirdly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to view the mid-seventeenth century as a watershed and as the true revolutionary period as opposed to that of the Reformation, except in the narrow terms of the English experience. Neither France nor Spain were so very different after the upheaval from what they had been before, and the policies remained much the same. Finally, wherever one cares to look, the attempted internal reforms of Strafford, Richelieu, and Olivares are the triggers for revolt, rather than moves towards the new era as Trevor-Roper would have them.

IF THE Trevor-Roper thesis won’t do, what is the alternative? The solution tentatively put forward here by John Elliott and others, and supported elsewhere by myself, would lay major stress on the pressures of war. Indeed some scholars, such as Vicens Vives and F. C. Lane, regard the modern state as primarily a war-making machine, created and driven forward by the needs of military preparedness and aggression. It can hardly be doubted that this has been its most successful field of activity over the past four hundred years, and there is nothing in the contemporary world to suggest that any change is in prospect. Vives explains the rise of the Renaissance State in the early sixteenth century as the product of international warfare and internal disorder, and its most striking manifestation as the standing army, often composed of foreign mercenaries. Lane turns the argument into a financial profit-and-loss account. He looks on the modern state as a device for cutting the costs of protection by the acquisition of a monopoly of violence, both internal and external. Once this is achieved, the state can then charge a higher price for protection from enemies designated (and if need be manufactured) by itself, at substantially lower costs. It can thus transfer wealth from the population at large to the officials. This is a model which goes a long way towards explaining the rise of the Court system described by Trevor-Roper.

The bureaucratic expansion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the product of the needs of all states to recruit, pay, equip, and transport ever larger numbers of fighting men over ever larger distances. Since new offices could be sold, the increase of officials over organizational requirements was a product of the needs of war finance. This being so, the conflicts of the seventeenth century were primarily caused by the rising scale and duration of war, which forced all governments to attempt to invade old fiscal and constitutional immunities, in order to appropriate ever larger proportions of the national resources (which in any case were shrinking because of the general economic recession). In many areas, Scotland, Ireland, Catalonia, and Portugal, outlying provinces rebelled against the centralizing process for fear of crushing tax burdens and interference in local liberties. Elsewhere, in England, France, and Sweden, competing oligarchies among the elite—nobles, gentry and merchants—fought among themselves for access to or control of the offices, grants, and favors at the disposal of the new Leviathan. The final outcome of the conflict varied greatly from state to state, and it is illusory to suppose that the result of such a struggle (and a similar one seems to be in progress in Russia today) will necessarily result in the emergence either of a more democratic or a more authoritarian regime.

THE other two books under review are exclusively concerned with one country, England, which is the exception to this generalization since the military pressures upon it were relatively small, and which yet experienced the most radical and dramatic breakdown of all European states.

Professor Walzer has re-opened the problem of the Puritan Revolution by calling in the aid of social psychology. He points out that the radical innovation of the Puritans was to invent the ideological party combining fanaticism with discipline and consciously directed towards political action. This novel instrument of power, which is still very much with us today, has been the most successful agent of revolution the world has ever seen, and the similarities between Puritans, Jacobins, and Bolsheviks has been obvious ever since Crane Brinton pointed them out over a generation ago. All sought totally to destroy the old order and to set up a new, more moral, world; all were intelligent, virtuous, self-disciplined, hard-working, dedicated, and in many ways wholly admirable men; all resorted to tyranny and oppression, and may well have increased rather than diminished the toll of human suffering and injustice. But what made them tick? Walzer argues that these seventeenth-century radicals were a by-product of the social and religious dislocation of the era of the Reformation, as values and institutions crumbled. The church, the sacraments, the priesthood, the father, the village community, the guild, were all suddenly called into question or undermined. The result among anxiety-prone, literate, thinking men, was anomie, rootlessness, alienation, call it what you will. Out of this crisis of modernization emerged two new social groups, whose psychological and ideological characteristics were formed and fired in the crucible of exile on the continent during the reign of Mary. These two were the professional intellectuals, and the educated laity, from whom the dedicated Puritans—the Saints—were drawn. Calvinism provided the ideal support for these new groups, since it internalized controls and restored confidence in a morally secure and orderly world. If only the Saints could convert society as a whole to their own pattern of behavior, then the Hobbesian state would become superfluous. “Would that all the Lord’s people [meaning the English!] were Saints,” groaned Cromwell once, as he surveyed his troubled and sinful realm. These were the groups and forces which turned away from the corrupt Caroline Court and the Popish Laudian church in the early seventeenth century; who set out first to create a new and Godly society in Massachusetts, and then to make over the evil old world itself.

Calvinism, then, was not modernizing in itself, as Weber and Tawney saw it, not a cause of the rise of liberalism or bureaucracy or capitalism, but rather a psychological reaction to the stresses of social and religious change, which accidentally prepared the way for these developments. Puritanism was not part of the new order, but a product of disorder, which in turn made the new order possible. Puritanism did not mould the thought of Benjamin Franklin, but it made that type of thinking possible.

THE FULL complexity of this brilliant and original work has been partly lost in summary, but enough has been said to show its importance and its novelty. Is it true? The only answer one can make at this stage is: Perhaps, even probably, but it has not yet been conclusively proved. What needs to be done now is to demonstrate in concrete historical instances the linkage between social disturbance, personal anxiety, and the sudden blinding conversion which for many marked their acceptance of Puritan ideology. In particular, why did apparently rich, assured, well-established gentry and aristocracy embrace this deeply anti-aristocratic creed in such large numbers? Secondly, is it correct that the Presbyterian Calvinists were truly radical and revolutionary until just before the end, before the 1630s or even 1640s? There is reason to doubt it. Three whole generations lived and died in uneasy conformity to the Established Church and the sovereign state, before passing over into revolutionary activity. Thirdly, where do the Independent sectaries fit in? It was they who were the true sixteenth-century radicals, and they who captured first the army and then political power with Oliver Cromwell, but Walzer dismisses them as irrelevant cranks. All this does not mean that the Walzer thesis is unacceptable, but rather that there are important loose ends which have still to be tied up.

Mr. Peter Laslett can be briefly dealt with. His slipshod, muddled, pretentious, and unscholarly work is best regarded as an unfortunate lapse by a distinguished historian who has rushed prematurely into print (its manifold deficiencies have been cruelly exposed in the Times Literary Supplement of 9 December 1965). One of Mr. Laslett’s contentions is that there was no seventeenth-century crisis or revolution, since no revolution is worthy of the name which does not affect the structure of the family (a development he believes did not occur until some far later period, perhaps after the Second World War). But even if we accept this most implausible proposition, in fact there were some fundamental changes in the nature of the family, at any rate among the upper and middling classes. The great households of the past dwindled and shrank, as bands of retainers became a thing of the past; the role of kinship as an organizing force in politics declined; privacy replaced publicity as men withdrew from the cavalcade to the coach, from the great hall to the private dining room; wives obtained greater legal protection of their property, and a greater voice, if only a negative one, in the choice of marriage partners; extra-marital liaisons were conducted far less blatantly than before; the traditional English indoor sport of wifebeating was brought under some modest control by the Courts; children were treated with more respect for their personalities, and although primogeniture grew ever more strict, the allowances of the younger children were assured them as a right rather than at the whim of their elder brother; the flogging of children rose to a crescendo in the early seventeenth century but then began to ebb. It is reasonable to conclude that in the seventeenth century among social groups a stage higher than the vast poverty-stricken masses, there was a giant step forward towards the nuclear, individualistic, child-centered family of today. Secondly, Mr. Laslett argues that the debate about the social origins of seventeenth-century conflicts is totally beside the point since it was a “one class society”—by which he seems to mean that it was a two-status society of gentlemen and non-gentlemen. But it is precisely conflicts within the elite group that are at issue, so that the relevance of his rather commonplace observation is obscure. A book about social change over a broad time-span which ignores the changing role of the state, the changing size and composition of the political elite, the effects of urbanization on the quality of poverty, the changing relationship of the landed and the commercial/professional interests, can hardly claim to be taken very seriously.

THE appearance of the seminal works by Hobsbawm, Trevor-Roper, Walzer, and others, and of Laslett’s unhappy venture, points a very clear moral. As we move away from the more securely based, but dismally narrow and unanalytical biographies and narrative, institutional, and political histories, as we probe behind what men said to what we think they really meant, as we seek to discover broader and deeper social, economic, and ideological forces behind the tides of history, so we run the risk of outpacing our evidence. If we go down this road too far, too fast, we fall into the Toynbeean bog of vast, vague, soggy generalizations, whose murky depths cannot be tested, probed, and measured by any assemblage of empirical data. A few years ago it seemed that history was becoming an atomized pile of trivia of no interest to anyone but the narrowest of specialists (and the great bulk of Ph.D. dissertations is still of this order today). But we are now at the stage of being stunned by a barrage of organizing hypotheses of middle magnitude, which are supported by a good deal of plausible-seeming data, but which cannot yet be firmly embedded in the historical evidence. To document, to quantify, and to qualify these generalizations is the primary task of the current generation. We need to combine this welcome breadth of ideas with the meticulous scholarship and high standards of evidence that were the glory of the old school of historians.

This Issue

March 3, 1966