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12

What caused the crisis of the seventeenth century?

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What caused the crisis of the seventeenth century?

I like to bring up the crisis of the seventeenth century with my students because it's really a great opportunity to show them how one's views of a complex historical event can be shaped by the kinds of questions that you ask. The crisis of the seventeenth century was a real crisis. Between 1550 and 1650 you had civil conflict, religious conflict, terrible religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in France and the Netherlands. You had a civil war in England that resulted in the execution of the king and, to top it all off, you had the devastation caused by the 30 Years War in central Europe, which involved all the major powers and was an extremely devastating war that decimated the population.

Religious historians will take the conflict of the seventeenth century and say that it tells us something about the power of ideas, religious ideas in particular. It was impossible for communities in early modern Europe to tolerate religious dissent in their midst, to tolerate religious difference because they believed that tainted the sacred nature of the world community that they possessed as Catholics or as Protestants. Any they might use this to explain the severity of violence, why a religious dissident or a witch would need to be expelled or burned or literally eliminated from the community with extraordinary violence.

Political historians would say that of course religion matters but there are all sorts of calculations of self interest that are going on here. When a German prince decides to side with Luther and break with Rome, there are calculations about finding some room to maneuver when it comes to the Holy Roman Empire or maybe some financial calculations. Most famously, of course, is Henry VIII who breaks with Rome and creates an Anglican church in England because he wants to divorce his wife, marry someone else, and produce a male heir.

Social historians look at this and say that they can explain a lot by asking why specific social groups in European society respond to one or the other religious idea. Why is it that artisans in German towns seem to be particularly attracted to some of the more radical forms of Protestant belief? Why is it that the aristocracy in southern France seems to be attracted to Protestantism? Why is it that the gentry in England, lower forms of the gentry, seem to be attracted to more austere forms of Calvinism?

Finally, social and demographic historians say that there is a deeper level to this. Politics and religion and social questions pertaining to the two are also influenced by a profound crisis that emerges from something much more basic: the relationship of the European population to the resources available to it to survive. They point out that by the late 1500's, the European population had increased from its low point after the Black Death and was really reaching its ecological limits. The increase in population meant that wages were going down because there were many more workers clamoring for work and competition was terrible. The slowness with which agricultural production could respond to these increases in population meant that food prices were going up. Then there was the coinciding factor, really just an accident of history, that just at this moment a large amount of silver was arriving from the Spanish colonies in the New World. This further devalued the currency and drove prices up and creates a crisis amongst the political regimes because in order to maintain their revenues, simply to keep them at the same level, they had to raise taxes even further.

This toxic mix of wage decreases, increasing prices, and increasing taxes creates tremendous tension in a society and has to be understood as a major contributing factor to the crisis of the seventeenth century.