17 to 21- Looking backwards, Looking forwards.

People often ask me what I majored in College and wrote my dissertation on.  When I say Early Modern History, there is almost always a moment where they give me a blank look. This is almost certainly the curse of any academic who has chosen to confine themselves to an obscure and unavailable subject. You can see it in their eyes: you’ve just named a topic they’ve never thought about, and never much cared to. It’s happened to me before, and it begs that you let go of the specifics. The mind swerves to look for hallmarks of state-mandated history classes and pop-culture familiarity in order to relate that collegiate passion to someone who obviously has had better things to think about while you were away in the mind-bubble of a liberal-arts education.

If I was a fanatic in the true sense I would now continue without any hesitation to speak of the truths inherent in my subject or produce a copy of some seminal work from a rucksack and force it into their unwilling hands. But I am not a fanatic, not even a second rate one. I usually just stammer “That’s the 1600’s. It’s kinda like The Tudors, have you ever seen that show? Yes, kinda in-between the Middle Ages and the War of Independence, does that help?”

It’s not a snobbery thing, or if it sounds that way it is unintentional.  The real problem of focusing on Early Modern History (roughly the Italian Renaissance to the French Revolution, 1450-1789) is that it is one of those subjects which is very isolated from the American historical consciousness, even though it was the period of our national inception. This goes even further down the rabbit-hole when your main historical bread and butter is the Seventeenth Century (1600’s), which is singularly devoid of immediate recognition to the average American, simply because not a lot was going on that gets a lot of airtime.

Sure there was Jamestown, Plymouth Colony, the First Thanksgiving, and Buckles on Hats, but pressured to say more, most people can’t. Unless you live on the East Coast (in the original 13 Colonies) or in some state crisscrossed by Spanish or French explorers, you’re unlikely to get enmeshed in the 1600’s for anything other than a bit of local history (no longer taught in my former school). Even in Europe, in which the Seventeenth Century was one of the most chaotic centuries in history, the struggle of 400 years ago is distant, often summed up by one or two historical figures ore events, rarely remembered. This makes explaining the subject difficult, and I am hard pressed to say why I chose it. “It just always fascinated me, I guess.”

This is not to snipe at my acquaintances for neglecting the Seventeenth Century. Certainly a lot of very interesting stuff has happened since then, a lot which is more “A follows B and determines C”. World War II and Vietnam, Truman and Reagan, Israel and North Korea; these are having big impacts right now, far more so than the now long dissolved Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the War of the Spanish Succession. Yet I am in the camp that says that it is time for a massive reappraisal of the 1600’s, because historically-speaking they have about the development of the power assumptions of the last 3 centuries, and they have an important moral for those who are looking forward.

And the moral is this: get ready for some growing pains.

There are obviously some limits to the lessons you can draw from a pre-industrialized and pre-modern society in an age of instant communications on a global scale. But the Seventeenth Century was an age in which what we might identify as “the West” began the push outwards. The century formed the skeletons of modernity, as it saw the commercial and colonial enterprises that would establish the patterns of subsequent world history which are still being keenly felt in a post-colonial world. At the same time, the inception of modern scientific ideas and the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, and others were paving the uneven way to the rationality of the Enlightenment, and from thence to competing philosophies that have dominated the intellectual and political trends of the last two centuries.

In the realm of the military and international relations, the Seventeenth Century was the paramount birth of recognizably modern institutions, namely the rise of centrally-organized bureaucratic European-model states with a monopoly on coercive governorship (i.e. violence). By the end of the century the shift towards the dominance, however inaccurate, of firearms on European battlefields was demanding the growth of states capable of performing the mechanisms of government required to field large standing armies of soldiers armed to fight with firearms. Permanent armies organized in the name of the country or the monarch (often times one and the same in theory) were trained and drilled at state expense instead of being raised from feudal levies for a short-term effort. The monies to make war were required in taxes, and the state’s ability to raise taxes and funnel that money into more effective war making. War was moving out of the province of the warrior elite and into the hands of governments, and the mechanisms of civil administration were growing to suit these causes. The countries which mobilized for the first time to fight well beyond what were already coming to be recognized as national borders, and indeed, for the first time, across entire continents, were states with the strength to channel wealth and governmental energies into war-making in an unprecedented way.

Soveriegn of the Seas

An example of the growing importance of state navies, the 90 Gun English Warship Sovereign of the Seas demonstrated the power implicit in building such warships, and the costs of upkeep which inspired discontent.

The Dutch and the Spanish fought an 80 year long war over possession of the Low Countries starting in the 1560’s and going with a brief period of truce until 1648, and this war was waged not only on the fields of Flanders, but on Taiwan and in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. England and the Netherlands came to blows on the American continent over whether it would be New York or New Amsterdam. Sweden emerged from relative obscurity as a weaker member of a Union under Denmark’s political control to dominate the affairs of Germany, Poland, Russia, and the Baltic at large, with a population of less than 2 million people. France’s army swelled to over 100,000 men, and it waged war across the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Rhine, and in conjunction with the Abenaki tribes across the snowy mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire into New England. War was being pushed to new limits, and the formation of military sciences began to take shape as a discipline practiced in state-organized military and naval schools.

The Seventeenth Century also witnessed the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and Danish go abroad to establish trading posts. The rise of global commercial webs and European demand for exotic goods drove the establishment of trading entrepots across Asia. Here European military science proved its importance. With small numbers of men but powerful ship-board cannon, Portugal blasted its way into arbitrary power in the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century, seizing important trade ports on the Coromandel Coast, Goa on the East Coast of India, Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and prime positions at Macao in China and in the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch East India Company, commercially bent but armed for war, challenged this ascendancy and seized control of the Spice Islands (modern day Indonesia and Malaysia) and the monopoly of the highly restricted Nagasaki trade with Japan, while the British and the French jockeyed for power in Bengal and the West Coast of India. Africa too was increasingly brought into this commercial network, which on the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden predated the European arrival by a millennium. With the economic expansion of the sugar and cash-crop economies of the West Indies and the American Colonies came the desire for slaves to feed coastal European Markets, resulting in slaving wars and an diaspora of West and Central Africans, the effects of which have marked African and American history and continue to be of pressing importance.

While of course in hindsight it is possible to identify the roots of European imperialism in India and Africa, and very easy to see the expansion of colonial subjugation in the Americas which grew rapidly in this period, the Seventeenth Century was still primarily one of European economic expansion as opposed to territorial control. While they held a technological edge over Indian Ocean craft political power often remained outside the parameters of European trading companies. With a few exceptions like Goa and Batavia, the Europeans tentatively hung on at the fringe of powerful Asiatic Empires, who granted them access and could as easily limit it. Only in the Eighteenth Century would Britain’s ascendancy in India truly take hold; French, English, Danish, and Dutch alike vied for influence, rarely with force, with the Mughal Emperors who could grant them trade and coinage rights, and the Chinese Emperors barely paid mind to the traders who arrived on their coasts desiring Chinese porcelain (exclusively available there until finally successfully copied in the Netherlands in the early Eighteenth Century). When it burgeoned the Chinese kept it under close surveillance and regulation, and the Japanese trade was so regulated that it was conducted out of one port in Nagasaki with the Dutch traders walled off on their own floating island and forbidden items thought to undermine Japanese culture, such as Christian books and symbols. It was an age where Europeans tread carefully in foreign waters, and for whom the main goal was profits, not domination. “There is nothing to be gained”, wrote the Directors of the Dutch East India Company, “by dead lands and empty seas”. The dimensions of European supremacy awaited the rise of true European Power projection, a combination of economic enterprise supported with the full force of the realized nation-state, which became the hallmark of the nineteenth century when the British and French occupied Beijing, Americans opened Japan under threat of bombardment, and the European powers divided Africa between them.

Commercial rivalries aided not only in the rise of state navies (an administrative nightmare in terms of cost, so bad that it repeatedly bankrupted the Spanish Crown and led to the French abandoning their state navy to briefly experiment with exclusively privatized commerce raiding), but also inspired theories about the sovereignty of waters and territories. Struggles over commodities and markets led to the establishment of the English Navigation Acts to protect North American markets for London merchants, and brought about a vital change in the nature of European Colonialism, one that would inspire extensions of a state’s coercive power to the formerly largely-independent realm of merchants and bankers. In turn the backlash inspired the forerunners of economic liberalism. The writings of the Dutch political and ethical philosopher Hugo Grotius, especially his massively influential The Free Sea, established the basic tenants of free trade and began to argue for the rise of an international system that found its tentative beginnings at the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 finally brought Thirty Years of European Conflict in Germany to an end and established important precedents in the diplomatic history of Europe.

In short, the beginnings of the historical trends and the political institutions of the next 300 years were being established in the Seventeenth Century. Europe was gaining a steady hand in worldwide economic expansion and forming the apparatus necessary to build armies and navies that would secure the ascendancy of European ideas and technologies in the following centuries. Yet instability reigned for much of the Seventeenth century, not only in long destructive wars in European and Asian states, but in the very nature of the changing dynamics of society and economics. This “General Crisis”, first defined and characterized in the mid-20th century by Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper, represented a fundamental rift in people’s pockets and in their ideals. It was a world in violent flux as old centers of power buckled and collapsed and countries tore themselves apart over the very nature of society.

Financial shifts in the global economy, especially in the slow death of the Ming Dynasty and the overabundance of Spanish Silver from South America rippled throughout the world in the early years of the century and led to massive inflation and economic stagnation in Europe and Asia, with prices rising at an astonishing rate. The effects of this downturn were felt from the cities of Germany to the ports of India. Compounding the economic hardship was a shift in the earth’s temperatures and a cooling that wrought agricultural havoc in societies that were still overwhelmingly agrarian. The ugly spectre of famine, unaided by the advances of the agricultural methods of the next century and without modern fertilizer and pesticide, hung about the heads of populations across the globe.

The financial shifts also were compounded by endemic warfare, which marks the seventeenth as one of the most violent centuries in history. Developments in the power and organization of centralized states for war was driven by its almost continual and increasingly destructive nature; France was never at peace from 1630 onwards to the end of the century, and the Thirty Years War dragged nearly every European State into what began merely as a Religious Revolt in Bohemia (The modern day Czech Republic). At the beginning of the century the business of war was still very much in the hands of contractual soldiers of fortune who raised, paid, and supplied the armies out of their own subsidies and pockets, and because of this concentration of war-making ability in the hands of individuals divorced from the actual apparatus of political goals, armies obeyed commanders and followed regimental flags rather than monarchs or nations. Entire armies shifted service from State to State, and even though semi-national armies existed (particularly French and Swedish), they were always supplemented or even surpassed by mercenary soldiers. And with agriculture failing and urban economies stagnating, a steady stream of available manpower, despite faltering population levels, was never lacking.

The necessity of manning large garrisons and the rates of disease meant men were always needed, and the conditions of service, often with ineffectual supply and lagging pay, led to war taking on a brutal and desperate character. In areas devastated by the march of unwieldy armies unconcerned with national welfare, victory or defeat was more a question of maintaining enough food and plunder to keep the army from simply melting away, and the weak discipline of the soldiering classes and their relatively strong position over local farmers and townspeople led to large bands roaming the countryside on foraging missions, inspiring stories of atrocity and savagery that haunt the popular imagination even today. Until recently, and in some cases still, the Thirty Years War consistently ranked in opinion polls as the most destructive event in German History, beating out the First and Second World Wars.


Jacques Callot’s series of etchings entitled “Les Grandes Misères de la guerre”, reflected the horrors implicit in the wars of the Seventeenth Century.

From the brutality and this inefficiency came the rise of bureaucracies to manage the resources of the state for war, and while this also came to symbolize the professionalization of armies and eventually the expansion of state power in the domain of civil authority, its main purpose was to allow states to wage warfare on grand scales without succumbing to economic disaster. Hegemonic states came to pieces over the cost of war. Despite being enriched by the wealth of its large American holdings, Spain’s government numerously defaulted on the massive costs of preserving its position of strategic power, and the Hapsburg dynasty of Spain, weakened by familial inbreeding and unable to permanently secure its gains, did not last the century.

The transition was global as well, as political, social, and economic forces led to social unrest which toppled the powerful Ming Dynasty of China as well as cut off the head of the King of England. Power struggles over whom was to rule, what ideals would arbitrate in society, and what God and faith would ultimately govern the world and judge mankind led to civil and international strife. Wars over absolute control of the state by Dynastic families pitted them against nobles and commoners alike, and led to conflicts within and without. Companies of landless firearm-wielding Ottoman foot-soldiers ravaged Anatolia in defiance of the Knightly landowners, and firearms provided the Moroccan Sultans with the ability to destroy the great West African Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai.  The semi-transient Orthodox Cossack peasantry of Ukraine were able to challenge and defeat the overlordship of the Catholic Nobility of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, before yielding before the modernized forces of Russia in the Eighteenth Century, just as the tiny Netherlands, barely staving off the might of Spain’s economy emerged as a dominant naval power and economic centre of Europe after a century of War.  And in England and its American colonies, struggles over political consent to govern and the conception of liberty of commerce and liberty of ideas led to a Civil War between a King and his people’s representative institutions, with cries of liberty and freedom of conscious that echoed over a century later on the streets of Boston and in the print shops of Philadelphia.

The lesson to take from all this history is that the world again is on the point of a massive shift. While the flux of power and economies is in some ways never fully stable, the Seventeenth Century tells us a great deal about the way that societies expanding and evolving, strengthening and weakening state control,  and economic power shifts are going to change the world in definite and noticeable ways. The population of the world may grow by another 3 billion by 2050, shifting massive groups into urban areas in the third world incapable of handling social services for them, and hence setting the stage for new revolutions and new power brokers. Climate Change, whether you believe it or not, is capable of doing massive damage to coastal areas where many large urban centres are now concentrated. Droughts and over-precipitation can and will damage farming communities and agribusinesses, even those with the help of modern fertilizers and harvesters. Strains on goods and food due to increases in population and potential environmental fallout will be further complicated by changes in economic and wealth dynamics. China and India’s economic ascendancy is going to shift markets and flows of goods as their populations grow and expand their commodity needs, and the lessening of technological imbalances between the West and East mean it is no longer possible for a Western power to exercise control over all maritime activity in the Indian Ocean. Uncertainties in failing and weakened states in every corner of the globe creates the potential for conflict internal and external, including the re-appearance of military contractors providing services to states unable to fight their own battles, from Sierra Leone to Syria, where one can read descriptions of militias that stir images from Germany of the Thirty Years War.

Likewise, arguments over the fundamental control exercised within countries leads to conflict of ideas and actions. The struggle of Ming China’s deadlocked Confucian bureaucracy within the palace administration, paralyzed by social issues and unable to compromise to effectively govern in a time of crisis, hits very near to the mark for an American on the eve of a government shutdown. The exchange of ideas among peoples, social and economic desires cutting across borders and communities, and the uncertainty of our new global interconnectedness puts us on the edge of another age of global network expansion. We can look back and realize that the transition is going to be one of profound shake-up.

However, today, unlike the Seventeenth Century, our changes are taking place in a world subsequently revolutionized by technological, industrial, digital, and ideological leaps. The shackles of lengthy journeys by horse over unmaintained roads, relying upon power of oars and sails on inconstant winds, and the tyranny of lengthy paper correspondence between people miles and oceans away is gone. We are living in an age which runs so fast the human mind cannot keep up, and where information is suddenly available across the globe in seconds and can be analyzed by computers even faster than that. We have the ability to effect unbelievable changes, and propose revolutionary new ideas and bring them to fruition much faster than even ten years ago, and we are linked in a way which is simply increasing the speed at which we can do it. So the world is going to change, and it is going to change fast, and the patterns established may last another 300 years or they swing us into an unimaginably frenetic future.

And while we can look back at the Seventeenth Century Crisis and fear for that future, as we can look back on the last century’s cruelties and wrongs and lose hope, we can also realize that from this time of uncertainty came some of the ideas and practices that allowed human beings to innovate, explore, and interact in ways that have led to our more positive developments: expressions of personal liberties from Locke, Freedom of Speech and Press found voice in Milton’s Areopagitica, Religious Toleration and Anti-Hate Speech in the Colony of Maryland, medical innovation from William Harvey and the medical schools of the Netherlands and Italy, and understanding of sciences which move us and plant us in the cosmos from the minds of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.  From the chaos of the ever-changing comes the hope that a better order for humanity will emerge, enough to meet the challenges of our times.

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