The 17th Century Economic and Political Crises Compared

The problem with the debate around ‘the general crisis of the 17th century’ arose as soon as the phrase was put to paper, it’s the same problem that plagues debates over ‘brexit’, the central term is nebulous. Historians must decide for themselves what ‘general’ refers to, which causes great conflict like that we see between Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper. It’s inevitable you will produce different paintings when you aren’t working from the same palette. We will hardly, therefore, draw fair conclusions by simply comparing the two articles, we must look for more useful approaches to this debate. Historians such as Roger B. Merriman have answered this by drawing the conclusion that the crisis did not exist, if there is no central understanding of its existence, how can it? However, this, although logical, is side-stepping the problem rather than tackling it, invalidating all previous discussion is counter-productive. Contributing constructively will be to accept the existence of a general crisis but to create a definitive core idea of what the crisis consisted of. This will allow fair debate and comparative historical writing on this topic. How will we achieve this? The answer is simple; by studying articles on the crisis and finding the key events that bind them together. Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper are excellent initial candidates for this as they approach the debate from such antithetical positions that finding commonalities in their arguments is certain to reveal the core of this crisis.

Hobsbawm’s Marxist interpretation is that the crisis is centrally economic whereas Trevor-Roper regards the crisis as primarily political, his viewpoint is concertedly ‘anti-Marxist’. These are such disparate standings that their articles seem bound to draw diametrically opposite conclusions. Indeed, Trevor-Roper’s article is even antagonistic towards the Marxist interpretation. However, their articles are not so divergent, in fact, they complement each other on the import of several key areas. These are: the expansion of empire in the 1500s, the multiplication of crown ‘offices’, the 1620 ‘decay of trade’ and the 30 years’ war (1618-48). These are our first key commonalities that we can use to definitively construe this crisis. So why, if the two articles agree on so much, would Trevor-Roper preface his article with a critique of Hobsbawm’s? Directly put, Trevor-Roper vehemently opposed how Hobsbawm utilised the crisis to justify the Marxist idea of inevitable progression from feudalism to capitalism. This anti-Marxism even went so far as to cause private hostility between Trevor-Roper and Hobsbawm. We can therefore safely write off Trevor-Roper’s initial attack on Hobsbawm as too personally motivated to be taken seriously as a critique. We can focus on what’s important accordingly; the arguments that the two historians forward regarding ‘the general crisis of the 17th century’.

So how do they agree as wholly as is being implied if they attribute the crisis to different causes? Contrary to first impressions, these two lines of argument are not incompatible but work in tandem, there was both political and economic (alongside social and cultural) attributes to the crisis. Indeed, Hobsbawm himself recognises this commonality of purpose in a following article, remarking that their views “are complementary rather than competitive.”.  As is always the case with history there is a web of causation and no single factor lies withstanding from all others. The two historians are, of course, aware of this but in arguing the significance of their own chosen factor they have overlooked the importance of others.

Both argue the importance of the expansion of empire during the 1500s. Hobsbawm describes it as “large and expanding markets… of the later 15th and 16th centuries” that had reached “the limits… of feudal or agrarian society”, and now, “when (they) encountered them, (they) entered a period of crisis”. These “limits” that Hobsbawm refers to are the limits of a feudal/manorial society that had little need for trade. In new, large empires, and with movements like the agricultural revolution which was facilitating trade, feudalism was proving ineffective and causing crisis as countries struggled to maintain the trade levels required to sustain themselves. Feudalism wasn’t an aggressive enough system, unlike the more competitive systems that would replace it. Trevor-Roper argues the same point: “The expansion of Europe (created) greater markets” and these “vast new empires (were) vaster than they (could) contain for long without internal change”. This is the same economic argument that Hobsbawm contends; that the economies of these countries had grown too large to be supported by a feudal system of commerce.

Trevor-Roper furthers this economic point by adding a parallel political factor: “The political structures of Europe are not changed in the sixteenth century: they are stretched to grasp and hold new empires”. By ‘stretching’ he means a “multiplication of ever more costly offices (that) outran the needs of state”. The crowns of Europe were selling bureaucratic ‘offices’ in abundance and were letting the country pick up most of the cost, in Britain, 75% fell on the country: “this was an indirect, if also a cumbrous and exasperating way of taxing the country” Trevor-Roper argues “So ‘the Renaissance State’ consisted, at the bottom, of an ever-expanding bureaucracy which… had by the end of the sixteenth century become a parasitic bureaucracy.” These economic and political arguments are closely related; as the economy begins to hit its “limits” at the end of the 16th century it is pushing the crown to expand a “parasitic” bureaucracy which makes money for them in the short term. However, longer term it is further damaging the economy as the superfluous expenses continue to increase.

Another significant factor the two historians point to is the universal depression of 1620, what Trevor-Roper refers to as the “decay of trade”. Hobsbawm describes it as “a general balance of rising and declining trade (that) would produce export figures which did not rise significantly between 1620 and 1660”. As you may imagine, this caused recession in the new societies of trade and empire and was caused by the debasement of currency in the early 1600s. This was the end of great economic expansion and it brought the frivolous expenditure of the 16th century into sharp clarity. The rise of puritanism during this time clearly shows that people were sick of the “gilded merry-go-round”, this is when the weight of the crown offices and the limits of feudalism began to show themselves, having been previously masked by a boom economy.  

Both also concur over the significance of the 30 years’ war. Trevor-Roper arguing that the war “undoubtedly prepared the groundwork for revolution” and Hobsbawm that it “intensified the crisis”. The war made the illnesses of Europe’s economy acute, estimates are as high as 50% for national expenditure on the war, from all parties. It’s also important in how it diminished the influence of the pope, allowing puritanism to spread at an unusually fast rate and animosity toward traditional structures of power with it. It’s noteworthy that both historians don’t place as much emphasis on the war as you might expect. They present it as a more minor force that furthered the ‘greater’ change brought by political and economic factors. This can certainly be attributed to the fact that it neither falls strictly under economic or political history, but military history. As such the effects of the war in causing the general crisis are somewhat overlooked. However, the fact that it’s in both articles yet in neither historians’ chosen field proves its significance.

In the interests of brevity, we will not discuss factors that Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper have not spoken on: the expansion of the middle class, intellectual revolution, famine, disease, and many others. What’s clear is that more research needs to be done into these factors that straddle the multitudinous accounts on the crisis. But here we have the start, it’s not so that Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper disagree, whatever their own thoughts on the matter. The political and the economic crises, specifically linked to the expansion of empire and the multiplication of ‘offices’, are two sides of the same coin and two of these ‘base factors’ that can be used to build a cohesive understanding on this crisis. They work alongside factors such as the decay of trade and the 30 years’ war to create separate crises in different countries which produce a sum-total of general crisis in the 17th century.

Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 05th of April 2017

Last Modified: 15th of May 2017 (Grammar Corrections)

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