The General Crisis

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The Thirty Years' War devastated much of Europe 1618–1648 and was one of the many political upheavals during the General Crisis.

The "General Crisis" is the term used by some historians to describe the period of widespread global conflict and instability that occurred from the early 17th century to the early 18th century in Europe and in more recent historiography in the world at large.[1] The concept is much debated by historians; there is no consensus.

The term was coined by Eric Hobsbawm in his pair of 1954 articles entitled "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in Past and Present.


As a historiographic concept, the place of the general crisis was cemented by Hugh Trevor-Roper in a 1959 article entitled "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in the same journal. Hobsbawm discussed an economic crisis in Europe; Trevor-Roper saw a wider crisis, "a crisis in the relations between society and the State".[2] Trevor-Roper argued that the middle years of the 17th century in Western Europe saw a widespread breakdown in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, religious, economic and political problems. In the "general crisis", various events such as the English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the climax of the Thirty Years' War in the Holy Roman Empire and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia were all manifestations of the same problem. The most important cause of the "general crisis",[3] in Trevor-Roper’s opinion, was the conflict between "Court" and "Country"; that is between the increasingly powerful centralising, bureaucratic, sovereign princely states represented by the court, and the traditional, regional, land-based aristocracy and gentry representing the country. He saw the intellectual and religious changes introduced by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation as important secondary causes of the "general crisis".

There were various controversies regarding the "general crisis" thesis between historians. Some simply denied the existence of any such crisis. For instance, Hobsbawm saw the problems of 17th-century Europe as being social and economic in origin, an emphasis that Trevor-Roper would not concede. Instead, he theorised that the 'General Crisis' was a crisis of state and society, precipitated by the expansion of bureaucratic offices in the Sixteenth century.[4]

Subsequent historians interested in the General Crisis include Geoffrey Parker, who has authored multiple books on the subject.[5]

Global patterns[edit]

Many historians have argued the 17th century was an era of crisis.[6][7][8][9] Many other historians have rejected the idea.[who?] Today there are historians who promote the crisis model,[10] arguing it provides an invaluable insight into the warfare, politics, economics,[11] and even art of the seventeenth century.[12] The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) focused attention on the massive horrors that wars could bring to entire populations.[13] The 1640s in particular saw more state breakdowns around the world than any previous or subsequent period.[7][page needed][8][page needed] The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest state in Europe, temporarily disappeared. In addition, there were secessions and upheavals in several parts of the Spanish Empire. In Britain there were rebellions in every part of the Stuart monarchy (Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Scotland, Kingdom of Ireland, and British America). Political insurgency and a spate of popular revolts seldom shook the foundations of most states in Europe and Asia. More wars took place around the world in the mid-17th century than in almost any other period of recorded history. The crises spread far beyond Europe—for example Ming China, the most populous state in the world, collapsed.[14]

China's Ming dynasty and Japan's Tokugawa shogunate had radically different economic, social, and political systems. However, they experienced a series of crises during the mid-17th century that were at once interrelated and strikingly similar to those occurring in other parts of the world at the same time.[15] Frederic Wakeman argues that the crisis which destroyed the Ming dynasty was partly a result of the climatic change as well as China's already significant involvement in the developing world economy. Bureaucratic dishonesty worsened the problem. Moreover, the Qing dynasty's success in dealing with the crisis made it more difficult for it to consider alternative responses when confronted with severe challenges from the West in the 19th century.[16]

Climate change[edit]

The General Crisis overlaps fairly neatly with the Little Ice Age whose peak some authorities locate in the 17th century. Of particular interest is the overlap with the Maunder Minimum, El Niño events and an abnormal spate of volcanic activity. Climatologists such as David Rind and Jonathan Overpeck have hypothesised that these three events are interlinked.[17] Across the Northern Hemisphere, the mid-17th century experienced almost unprecedented death rates. Geoffrey Parker has suggested that environmental factors may have been in part to blame, especially the global cooling trend of this period.[18] David D. Zhang et al provide a detailed analysis here.[19]

Demographic decline[edit]

During this period there was a significant decline in populations particularly in Europe and China. The cause for this demographic decline is complicated and significantly unproven; but, war, climate change and migration are the main factors that contributed to this population crisis. War ravaged Europe for almost the entirety of the century with no major state avoiding war in the 1640s. Some states saw very few years of peace; for example Poland only saw 27 years of peace, the Dutch Republic 14, France 11, and Spain only 3.[20] An example of the impact of war on demography in Europe is Germany, whose population was reduced by approximately 15% to 30% in the Thirty Years' War.[21] Another factor for the demographic decline in Europe was the spate of climatic events that dramatically affected the food supply and caused major crop failure in the marginal farmland of Europe. During this period there was a drop of 1–2 °C, which coincides with the Maunder Minimum and frequent, large spates of volcanism which acted to drop temperatures enough to cause crop failures in Europe.[22][23] Crop failures were met with a wave of urban migration that perpetuated unsustainable urban populations and caused in some areas a Malthusian crisis. Although in some areas the early stages of the subsistence crises were not necessarily Malthusian in nature, the result usually followed this model of agricultural deficit in relation to population.[24]

Conflicts and wars[edit]

Examples which have been given for general crisis and state breakdown during this period include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Parker 2008.
  2. ^ Aston 1965, p. 67.
  3. ^ Robinson, Kristen, "Trevor-Roper, Hugh", The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, pp. 1204–5.
  4. ^ Aston 1965, pp. 78–95.
  5. ^ Relevant books authored or edited by Geoffrey Parker include, The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (1978), Europe in Crisis 1598-1648 (1979) and Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013)
  6. ^ Geoffrey Parker certainly promotes the idea of the Seventeenth Century as a period of crisis and has recently published a seminal piece entitled Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013).
  7. ^ a b Parker & Smith 1997.
  8. ^ a b Aston 1965.
  9. ^ Hugh Trevor-Roper was a pioneer in the academic debate over the categorisation of the Seventeenth Century as a period of crisis.
  10. ^ Shank, J. B. (2008). "Crisis: A Useful Category of Post–Social Scientific Historical Analysis?". The American Historical Review. 113 (4): 1090–1099. doi:10.1086/ahr.113.4.1090.
  11. ^ De Vries, Jan (2009). "The Economic Crisis of the Seventeenth Century after Fifty Years". Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 40 (2): 151–194. doi:10.1162/jinh.2009.40.2.151.
  12. ^ Burke, Peter (2009). "The Crisis in the Arts of the Seventeenth Century: A Crisis of Representation?". Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 40 (2): 239–261. doi:10.1162/jinh.2009.40.2.239.
  13. ^ Wilson, Peter H. (2011), The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy.[page needed]
  14. ^ Parker 2008, pp. 1053–79.
  15. ^ Atwell, William S. (1986). "Some Observations on the 'Seventeenth-Century Crisis' in China and Japan". The Journal of Asian Studies. 45 (2): 223–244. doi:10.2307/2055842. JSTOR 2055842.
  16. ^ Wakeman, Frederic E. (1986). "China and the Seventeenth-Century Crisis". Late Imperial China. 7: 1–26. doi:10.1353/late.1986.0006.
  17. ^ Rind, David; Overpeck, Jonathan (1993). "Hypothesized causes of decade-to-century-scale climate variability: Climate model results". Quaternary Science Reviews. 12 (6): 357–374. Bibcode:1993QSRv...12..357R. doi:10.1016/S0277-3791(05)80002-2.
  18. ^ Parker & Smith 2008.
  19. ^ The causality analysis of climate change and large-scale human crisis
  20. ^ Parker, Geoffrey (2013), p. 27
  21. ^ "The Thirty Years War (1618–48)". Twentieth Century Atlas. Retrieved 2008-05-24.
  22. ^ Parker, Geoffrey, (2013). pp. 15–20
  23. ^ Munck, Thomas (1990). Seventeenth Century Europe 1598–1700. London: Macmillan. pp. 83-85. ISBN 0-333-28641-3.
  24. ^ Munck, Thomas (1990), p. 83
  25. ^ Kindleberger, Charles P. (1991). "The Economic Crisis of 1619 to 1623". The Journal of Economic History. 51 (1): 149–175. doi:10.1017/S0022050700038407. JSTOR 2123055.


  • Aston, Trevor, ed. (1965), Crisis in Europe 1560–1660: Essays from Past and Present.
  • Hill, Christopher. (1961), The Century of the Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.ISBN 0393003655
  • Parker, Geoffrey; Smith, Lesley M, eds. (1997) [1978]. The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780203992609.
  • Parker, Geoffrey (2008), "Crisis and Catastrophe: The Global Crisis of the Seventeenth Century Reconsidered", American Historical Review, 113 (4): 1053–79, doi:10.1086/ahr.113.4.1053.
  • Parker, Geoffrey (2013), "Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century", Yale University Press.
  • ——— (2010), "States Make War But Wars Also Break States" (PDF), Journal of Military History, 74 (1): 11–34.
  • Rabb, Ted, ed. (1975), Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe.
  • Trevor-Roper, Hugh (1959), "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century", Past and Present, 16: 31–64, doi:10.1093/past/16.1.31.