The Generalising Crisis of the 17th Century

‘The mid-seventeenth century experienced a “general crisis” in which a wave of economic, social and political upheavals swept over many parts of the northern hemisphere’ (Parker, 2001, p.20)

To accurately assess this statement, it is necessary to first define the term ‘general crisis’. For the purposes of this article the definition used herein has been devised from a plain amalgam of ‘crisis’ and ‘general’. Crisis being defined as ‘a decisive stage in the progress of anything… applied esp. to times of difficulty’ and general as ‘approximately universal within implied limits’. Therefore, we define ‘general crisis’ as:

“A period of decisive change that affects a significant proportion of the global population, commonly caused by times of difficulty.”

By this definition, the ‘general crisis’ theory is not controversial, it is commonplace. Difficulty resulting in change is what you may simply term, “history”, and by extension, historiography itself, the study of change. Certainly the 17th century is no exception to this rule and Parker’s own contribution illustrates this convincingly. His figures on state-breakdowns, popular revolts, wars, and mortality rates are both global and numerous and his use of historiographical metrics gives a clear framework for what is meant by ‘general crisis’. Indeed, this clarity is what makes Parker’s argument superior to the efforts of many who preceded him, including the efforts of two highly influential crisis historians; Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Hobsbawm’s crisis emphasises trade depression and methods of production whereas Trevor-Roper’s describes a societal and political crisis based on unwieldy bureaucracy. These are fine premises but lack precision, never fully circumscribing ‘general crisis’ in the manner Parker manages. Their lack of empirical clarity has been widely criticised, particularly Trevor-Roper, who was heavily belied in a responding review. Therein, J.H Hexter asserts that ‘Trevor-Roper paints his picture… with such bold strokes and so broad a brush that he occasionally obscures rather than clarifies’.

The Problem with The Crisis Theory

However, no matter if we accept the crisis theory, we cannot avoid the debates’ wider issue for which I conclude that the term must be abandoned. Why do we find so many articles on the crisis that begin with a definition rather than a proposition? It is because the ‘crisis’ is no one instance, it is a theoretical grouping of events, the problem being that these events aren’t known quantities. What counts as the ‘general crisis’? Everybody will inevitably reach unique conclusions on this matter because there are no boundaries to choosing what constitutes ‘general crisis’. As we have seen, historians may include whatever they please.

This results in a debate which keeps returning to definitional matters, an intellectual vacuum in which agreement is unattainable as we continue to talk at cross purposes. The ‘general crisis’ debate is therefore detracting from other possible 17th century discussion, generalising all debate on the period under the uncertain theme of ‘crisis’. To learn further from the 17th century then, we must change the game, because currently we’re all playing by different rules.

The 17th century is unique in befalling this ‘generalising crisis’ because it lacks identity. The century has ‘Renaissance and Reformation on the one side, Enlightenment and Revolution on the other’, appearing inconspicuous in comparison to its neighbours. Naturally, we wish to seek what defines the 17th century as well. What the ‘general crisis’ theory did, and why it became so popular, was give the 17th century an identity. Unfortunately, this identity was not one that grew from the history, but was imposed upon it. Eric Hobsbawm devised the crisis to suit a Marxist historiography, the purpose always being to “show” a transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy. Such histories encourage cherry picking evidence to serve a conformation bias. This may have been inconsequential had it remained within Marxist historiography, but its subsequent envelopment of 17th century writing has led to an eternally skewed approach to the century, we lack the balance of differing approaches. The reality has become that we are writing within a framework that was purposefully designed to limit our scope.

That said, this does not mean we may simply discount all generalist historiography. Contrariwise, most of this work is valid in identifying important 17th century occurrences and their origins. The problem lies only in how these events are then interpreted as we attempt to integrate them into a flawed theorem.

New Approaches to the 17th Century

Understanding this, we can examine further these ‘economic, social and political upheavals’ and explore several ways in how we can better understand the 17th century without this ‘generalising crisis’ obscuration.

Looking through prior crisis articles we find the important economic events of the 17th century to be: the trade depression of the 1620s to 1650s, the “tulipomania” of the 1630s, the economic independence of colonies, the multiplication of costly offices, and the thirty years’ war, due to estimates being as high as 50% for national expenditure upon it. A generalist historian must value these factors on how they conform to their crisis thesis, but we can assess them purely on individual merit.

To begin, we consider how these are exclusively European occurrences, not global. Further to this, we notice that these problems stem categorically from imperialist nations. The ‘tulipomania’ contained to a Dutch economic bubble, the expanding office bureaucracy concentrated within Britain. An increased independence of European colonies factoring toward a European trade depression. The thirty years’ war being motivated by imperialism as much as devoutness. Abandoning a generalist perspective reveals not a ‘Crisis of the European Economy’ generically, but an issue within European empire specifically. We see the economic costs of maintaining empire; particularly how increased economic independence of colonies leads to a long-term desire for political independence, as with North America. We also see a short-term impact of economic depression, all of which can be exacerbated by large-scale war, as with the thirty years’ war.

Hobsbawm’s article comes almost to this conclusion, describing how ‘large and expanding markets’ brought economic downturn, but his focus on ‘crisis’ leads him toward the irrational conclusion of ‘transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy’. He misses the angle on empire, the maintenance of it, and the effects of war upon it. It becomes evident that allowing economic independence for colonies, especially during wartime, can hurt your economy even more greatly than may first appear. For Britain particularly, this helps us understand the economic roots of the decline of empire in the 20th century. Britain may well have handled its colonies with greater tact during the first and second world wars had it been aware of the consequences that may occur from neglect during wartime. As it was, we see events such as the Bengal famine of 1943 leading to an increased desire for political independence in colonies, one that felt additionally earned due to their efforts in the world wars.

Politically, the 17th century was defined by a weakening of nobility as a result of a consolidation of power toward the crown as well as an expanding bureaucracy, as before mentioned in economic terms. Despite seeing this across the ‘northern hemisphere’ in both the east and west, and contrary to a generalist view, we only find political crisis on account of this in the west. Quite adversely, the Tokugawa period in Japan (1600-1868) and the Ming dynasty in China (1364-1644) have been determined to be unusually stable leaderships, the Ming dynasty especially, described as ‘one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history’. What can we learn from this? We learn that political events cannot be a central factor toward causing crisis. The multitudinous revolts, breakdowns and wars cannot have been politically driven, at least in majority, otherwise we would have seen greater political instability in the east than we do. However, we do still see a degree of volatility in the east, an example being the Shimabara rebellion of 1637-8, so we must search for other factors that may have caused this.

Social factors haven’t been explored as thoroughly as others when it comes to the general crisis. This is most likely due to the locality of social trends of the time. Very unlike the globality of politics and economy in the 17th century, social movements were far more localised, with only a handful of countries having postal services. Thus, social factors don’t fit well into the ‘general crisis’, because they weren’t very general. However, it is still clear to see the dominating social force in Europe in the 17th century: Religion. The thirty years’ war is a prime example of this but we can also point to the rise of religious polemics like Jonathan Swift, the glorious revolution, the eighty years’ war, and the abolition of the edict of Nantes. Here we do spot a consistency with the east, despite rebellions being rare the Shimabara rebellion of 1637-8 was directly a result of religious tension. Additionally, this was a European-exported tension as the conflict was between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Roman Catholics. Also in the east, we see the rise of the Sabbatean movement. One conclusion here may be that Europe managed to export its religious troubles to the east and this is why we see some social parallel between the two continents.

Centrally, this article explores the benefits of approaching the 17th century without thinking of ‘general crisis’. There is a far richer history to be found if you are prepared to cast the century in different lights, the surface of which we have not even scratched in this article. You may disagree with some, or many, of my conclusions, and that’s great. There is no lens through which you must view the 17th century, approach it in a manner which is logical to your interests.

Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 05th of April 2017

Last Modified: 05th of April 2017

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