The General Crisis
The General Crisis is the term used by some historians to describe the period of widespread 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. The concept is much debated by historians and there is no consensus.
What was the "General Crisis"?
The term was coined by English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his pair of 1954 articles entitled "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in Past and Present, and cemented by his contemporary, 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". Trevor-Roper argued that the middle years of the 17th century in Western Europe saw a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, religious, economic and political problems. In this "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", in Trevor-Roper’s opinion, was the conflict between "Court" and "Country"; that is between the increasingly powerful centralizing, bureaucratic, sovereign princely states represented by the court, and the traditional, regional, land-based aristocracy and gentry representing the country. In addition, the intellectual and religious changes introduced by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were important secondary causes of the "general crisis". The "general crisis" thesis generated much controversy between those, such as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who believed in the "general crisis" thesis but saw the problems of 17th-century Europe as being more social and economic in origin than Trevor-Roper would allow, and those who simply denied there was any "general crisis". Current historians interested in the General Crisis include Geoffrey Parker, who has authored a book on the subject.
Many historians have argued the 17th century was an era of crisis.[page needed][page needed] Many other historians have rejected the idea.[who?] Today there are historians who promote the crisis model, arguing it provides an invaluable insight into the warfare, politics, economics, and even art. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) focused attention on the massive horrors that wars could bring to entire populations.[page needed] The 1640s in particular saw more state breakdowns around the world than any previous or subsequent period.[page needed][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, the world’s first global empire. In Britain the entire Stuart monarchy (Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Scotland, Kingdom of Ireland, and British America) rebelled. Political insurgency and a spate of popular revolts seldom equaled 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.
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. 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.
Conflicts and Wars
Examples which have been given for general crisis and state breakdown during this period include:
- The Thirty Years War in Germany (1618–48)
- The Economic Crisis in the Holy Roman Empire (1619–23)
- The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–51), The Protectorate (1653–59), and the Glorious Revolution (1688) in Britain and Ireland
- The collapse of the Ming Dynasty and rise of the Qing Dynasty in China (1644–62)
- The Fronde in France (1643–68)
- Revolts against the Spanish crown in Naples, Portugal, and Catalonia
- The climax of the Dutch Revolt and related conflicts (ends in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia)
- Numerous internal revolts in the Ottoman Empire (especially 1622)
- The disintegration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Deluge
- The beginning of Sakoku in Japan and the Shimabara Uprising (1638)
- The Char Bouba War in Mauritania (1644–74)
- The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14)
Precious metals from newly discovered deposits in America, especially silver from Potosí in modern Bolivia and from Mexico, were shipped by Spain to China as well as to Europe. Silver was less prevalent in China than in Europe and consequently more valuable. The continuous flow of silver from the New World caused a continuous flow of wealth from China to Spain. The silver imports also caused general price inflation throughout Europe. Rapid population growth until the mid-decades of the seventeenth century also initially contributed to inflation in some areas.
For those who extend the General Crisis outside Europe, one symptom is dramatic population decline. For example, with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty the population of China fell by approximately 50 million between 1600 and 1644, a decrease of over 30%. Likewise, Germany's population was reduced by approximately 15% to 30% in the Thirty Years War. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also lost about a third of its population. Many theories have been proposed as to why population dropped so rapidly during this period. Renowned economist Robert Malthus proposed the theory of population limitation as a result of carrying capacity. In his theory, food supplies simply did not grow as fast as population. As such, the subsistence gap between food and population created a check on the population. In applying this theory to the demographic crisis of this period, much focus has been placed on the growth and expansion of the "new" monarchies of late medieval Europe. These newly centralized and bureaucratized monarchies with their greater demands for war placed greater demands on the populaces of their realms. The previously mentioned climatic change also helped to exacerbate these new problems of war.
The General Crisis overlaps fairly neatly with the Little Ice Age which some authorities locate in the 17th century. Of particular interest is the overlap with the Maunder Minimum. 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.
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