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The Early Modern Period


Jonathan Dewald

Few historical labels conceal so much uncertainty as "early modern Europe." The authors of fifteen late-twentieth-century texts whose titles include the phrase date the beginning of the period variously between 1350 and 1650, with 1500 the plurality choice, and its end between 1559 and 1800. The three-century difference of opinion over when the period begins equals the length of the period itself, as most of these historians understand it; one historian sees the period ending almost a century before another's starting point. The present article defines the period as extending from 1590 to 1720. Thus envisioned, it starts with the last spasms of Europe's religious wars; these opened a period of extreme political violence across the continent, and coincided with a variety of other disruptions of Europeans' daily lives. The early eighteenth century brought this period of instability to a close. By 1720 religion had declined as a factor in European politics, and the Enlightenment's critique of organized religion had begun. The last of Louis XIV's great wars ended in 1713, opening a period of relative peace, and by happy coincidence Europe's most frightening disease, the plague, disappeared from the Continent after 1720. A series of other changes in European social organization added to the sense of relative security that would characterize the eighteenth century. Divergences of this order partly reflect historians' use of "early modern" as a handy catch-all term for a confusing period, whose contours shift according to national and thematic perspectives; but they also result from important interpretive differences.


Historians' understanding of the early modern period has been affected by their different views of modernity itself, whose foundations are commonly seen to have been established at some point between the Renaissance and the French Revolution; differences of periodization reflect different ideas about the crucial moments in modernity's unfolding. Such uncertainties are the less easily resolved in that seventeenth-century men and women already believed in their own modernity. In 1687 the French writer and architect Charles Perrault launched the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns" with the claim that recent artists and writers had advanced far beyond anything achieved in the ancient world. His claims with regard to the arts stimulated hot debate, but by that time recent advances had made modernism self-evidently persuasive in the domains of science and philosophy.

Especially since World War II, historians of the early modern period have interested themselves in a second set of interpretive concerns, in some tension with this interest in finding the roots of modernity. Europeans' own experiences of industrialization and their interest in economic development elsewhere encouraged historians to reflect on the break between preindustrial and industrial societies, and to see in industrialization the crucial difference between modern and premodern worlds. Such interpretations set the early modern period within a much larger premodern era, and indeed suggested that the break between medieval and early modern mattered far less than the historical changes of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the early phase of the industrial revolution.

During the 1960s and 1970s, European historians working within several independent national traditions offered interpretations of this kind, seeing in the age of industrial and political revolutions around 1800 a break in human history more important than any since the invention of fixed agriculture. In France Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie used the phrase "immobile history" to suggest that society changed little between the mid-fourteenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries. Stagnant agricultural technology underlay this immobility, for food production set the limits to economic enterprise of all kinds. Population rose in good times, eventually approaching the limit of society's ability to feed itself; since food prices rose with population, discretionary income that might have been spent on industrial products or long-term investments disappeared. Famine, war, and disease (often conjoined) eventually cut population back, freeing resources and according the survivors a temporary prosperity, before the whole cycle of growth and crisis began again. Le Roy Ladurie was concerned mainly with France, but his work coincided with similar ideas that were developed in Germany by such historians as Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck. By comparison with the momentous changes around 1800, differences such as that between medieval and early modern periods could have little importance. During the same years, the English historian Peter Laslett likewise developed a vision of the early modern period as sharply set off from modernity, a "world we have lost" (in his famous phrase), governed by specific forms of social and familial organization, and therefore marked by specific worldviews as well.

Although these French, German, and British approaches to the early modern period differ in significant ways, if only because they deal mainly with their own national histories, they share an emphasis on the gap between the early modern period and our own and see that difference as extending to the most fundamental experiences of human life. Another feature common to all three approaches is an interest in the biological constraints on early modern lives. Muscle-power, whether human or animal, set the basic limits to agricultural and industrial production, and people had limited protection against either microbes, which brutally cut back population, or their own reproductive drives, which in good times led to rapid population growth. For these reasons, historical demography was a crucial companion science to the social history written in the 1960s and 1970s, promising insights into the workings of premodern social structures.

In many ways the historiography undertaken by Le Roy Ladurie and his contemporaries still sets the agenda for studies of the early modern period; but since 1975 historians' interpretive stances have again shifted significantly in response to changes in several fields of research. Neither the industrial revolution nor the French Revolution seems so absolute a break as it once did. Economic historians have lowered their estimates of nineteenth-century economic growth, rendering images of economic "take off" inappropriate and drawing attention to the continuing importance of preindustrial modes of production into the twentieth century. Revisionist historians have similarly reevaluated the French Revolution of 1789, which they present as having far less impact on European society than was once believed. While these scholars have downplayed the extent of change at the end of the early modern period, others have found evidence of more change within the period itself than was once thought to have occurred. Historians have become more aware that even the period's most powerful biological forces were mediated through complex mechanisms of social and cultural organization. As a result, the concept of a technological ceiling on early modern economic development has lost much of its persuasiveness, for early modern society operated far below whatever that ceiling may have been. Revisions and queries like these have made the early modern period seem more complex and much less static than it did to earlier historians.


To historians of the French school, inspired especially by Le Roy Ladurie, social crisis dominated the period 1590 to 1720. Even historians who question his neo-Malthusian interpretation find crisis an important theme in the period, for early modern Europeans had frequent and horrific experiences of famine, disease, and war. Plague, which had reappeared in Europe in 1348 after several centuries' absence, remained endemic and virulent, producing major epidemics in most regions every generation or so. The Milan epidemic of 1630–1631 killed 60,000 people, 46 percent of the city's population; the London epidemic of 1664–1665 killed 70,000. For reasons that remain mysterious, however, the disease receded after the 1660s, and after a last, terrible epidemic in 1720–1722, centering on the French port city of Marseilles, it disappeared from Europe altogether. The history of famine followed a roughly similar chronology. Food shortages led to actual starvation as late as the mid-seventeenth century in England, and still later in France: the great famine of 1693–1694 is estimated to have reduced French population by 10 percent. Food shortages continued in the eighteenth century, and a last great subsistence crisis came in the mid-nineteenth century; but Europeans' experiences of food shortage after 1710 were essentially different from that of the seventeenth century. Before 1710, for instance, French food prices might triple or quadruple in years of harvest failure; eighteenth-century crises led to a doubling of prices, still a serious burden for consumers, but far less likely to bring outright starvation. Freed from the experience of starvation and plague (though certainly not from many other natural catastrophes), eighteenth-century Europeans could view the world with significantly more confidence than their early modern predecessors.

An abrupt decline in military violence after 1713 meant that eighteenth-century Europeans also had a fundamentally different experience of warfare. Organized violence had marked the early modern period to an unprecedented degree, with conflicts extending across the Continent from west to east and south to north. With truce only between 1609 and 1621, Spain and the northern Netherlands fought from 1566 until 1648, a conflict that also touched Spanish Italy (where troops were recruited and organized) and parts of Switzerland (through which they had to march to reach the northern battlefields). Spanish troops also attempted to invade England in 1588, assisted the Catholic side during the French Wars of Religion in 1589–1594, and invaded northern France in 1597; after some skirmishing in the 1620s and 1630s, Spain and France returned to all-out war between 1635 and 1659. Meanwhile the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) embroiled central Europe in the most destructive of the century's conflicts. The small German states fought one another, their overlord the Austrian Habsburg emperors, and a series of outside powers—Denmark, Sweden, France, and Spain—that had joined in to secure territorial gain and to defend the European balance of power.

Relative peace prevailed during the mid-seventeenth century, despite the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 1650s and 1660s and French territorial expansion in the 1660s. But Louis XIV's invasion of the Netherlands in 1672 opened a new round of Europewide conflict, which continued with only short breaks until 1713. Louis's armies were larger than any Europe had previously seen, and even the ethics of war seemed to have deterioriated. Under orders from Versailles, French armies systematically devastated the Palatinate in 1689, suggesting to horrified contemporaries that pillaging had become a tool of state policy, rather than a crime of angry soldiers. The financial, demographic, and psychological effects were so exhausting that most of Europe remained at peace for a generation thereafter. Only in 1740 did the principal European powers resume their warlike habits, and then, though armies remained large and destructive, newly effective military discipline protected civilians from their worst effects. Thus 1713 marked a genuine turning point in European social history.

Measuring the social effects of seventeenth-century warfare has proven a complex historical problem. In central Europe the destructiveness was enormous and clearly visible. Over the course of the Thirty Years' War, historians have estimated, the German population dropped by 40 percent in the countryside, and 33 percent in the cities; in some regions the losses were still greater. This war was the century's greatest military disaster, but even local conflicts might have comparable consequences: troop movements around Paris during the Fronde of the Princes in 1652–1653 brought a threefold increase in the region's death rates. Combatants died in great numbers (studies of one Swedish village during the Thirty Years' War show a survival rate after twenty years of 7 percent among conscripted troops); further deaths were caused by the spread of epidemic diseases. But war did much more damage by disrupting already fragile economies, as soldiers took food and livestock for themselves, destroyed farms and other capital, and disrupted trade circuits.

For this very reason, however, the impact of war might vary with the strength of the local economies that it touched. Since the thirteenth century, the Low Countries and northern France had included some of Europe's great battlefields, and—as they formed the border between the Habsburg and Bourbon empires—they witnessed almost continuous war during the early modern period. Yet these regions prospered, despite terrible destruction in specific regions and at specific moments. Even Spanish Flanders, which lost considerable population in the turmoil of the later sixteenth century, recovered amid the warfare of the seventeenth, and the highly vulnerable agriculture of the region continued to develop and innovate. Political organization also played an important role in this resiliency; Dutch garrisons were so well disciplined (in contrast to those of other states) that communities actually welcomed them as an economic resource. Conversely, peace was no guarantee of prosperity. Seventeenth-century Castile had almost no direct experience of war, but its economy stagnated and the region lost even its ability to feed itself. War's effects depended on its social context.

Violence probably also mattered less in the long run than war's secondary, indirect effects, particularly on state organization. The early modern period was the critical point in the process that historians have called "the military revolution," a series of changes that began with the application of gunpowder to warfare in the fourteenth century. The implications of this military technology unfolded slowly and unevenly, but by 1600 they were everywhere apparent. Armies had to be much larger and better trained, fortifications more substantial, military hardware more abundant and more carefully designed and managed. Warfare had to be better organized, with more efficient lines of command and greater subordination of individuals to collective purposes—in short something of a science. Ideally the warrior himself was to become a trained element within a bureaucratic system rather than the autonomous hero of feudal myth. The French peacetime army had numbered 10,000 in 1600; in 1681 it numbered 240,000, and during the last wars of Louis XIV it reached about 395,000.

Changes of this scale, in a period of constant international competition, required heavy governmental expenditures, and taxes rose with the size of armies. In France the nominal tax burden tripled within five years of Louis XIII's entry into the Thirty Years' War, though actual collection rates were much lower. Taxation at these levels was a heavy burden for most economies and an important cause of the economic stagnation that marked the period. After 1672 even the United Provinces, which had prospered amid the violence of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, found the costs of fighting Louis XIV so overwhelming as to drive their economy into long-term decline. Well before then, Spain's international ambitions had exhausted it. Faced with such pressures, governments tended to reduce some forms of social privilege, notably the protections against taxation enjoyed by most nobles and many commoners. Spain's chief minister Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimental, Count-Duke Olivares (1587–1645) sought to end the fiscal exemptions enjoyed by the outlying provinces of Aragon and Catalonia—with politically disastrous consequences, for the regions rebelled in 1640 and retained their exemptions until the eighteenth century. In France Louis XIV established a form of taxation that hit nobles as hard as commoners. Efforts like these would receive full implementation only by the enlightened despots of the later eighteenth century, when tax immunities were challenged all across Europe, but state challenges to inherited social distinctions had already begun before 1700.

Rapidly rising taxation was the principal cause of a second form of violence that gave the early modern period its air of crisis, the wave of rebellions that extended into the 1670s. Both ordinary people and elites participated in these movements, in ways that historians have found difficult to disentangle. Low levels of popular discontent, producing assaults on tax collectors or other governmental agents, were commonplace, but the period was also marked by much larger movements, with elaborate ideological plans. In France the Catholic League, a movement dominated by middle-class city dwellers, took over Paris and several other cities between 1589 and 1594 and called for radical social reforms, including an end to hereditary nobility and the institution of parliamentary controls on royal power. The 1640s witnessed rebellions across Europe, most dramatically in England, France, Catalonia, Portugal, and Naples, again mixing popular and upper-class participation and generating widespread calls for significant political change. The example of England, where revolutionaries finally toppled the monarch, tried him in Parliament for political crimes, and publicly executed him, provided an especially frightening example of how far rebellion might lead. Even the Dutch Republic, an apparent oasis of political calm in the seventeenth century, experienced some of the political violence characteristic of the age: in 1618—1619 the overthrow and political execution of the seventy-two-year-old Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, and in 1672 the mob lynching of the brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt, whose policies were thought to have led to Louis XIV's invasion. Seventeenth-century men and women had a powerful awareness of society's explosiveness. Even the most apparently stable positions might be temporary, and ordinary people might turn savagely on once-respected leaders.

In this regard, too, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries represented a significant break that paralleled the more secure living conditions and international peace that followed Louis XIV's reign: In the late seventeenth century, the wave of great rebellions came to an end. Governments had become much more effective in controlling crowd violence and had begun to treat their subjects somewhat more fairly, for example, by spreading tax burdens more evenly. At the same time, experiences like the English revolution and the Fronde had frightened elites everywhere. They were much more ready to obey governments and more wary of encouraging popular discontent. In the German states governments consciously involved even leading peasants in the powers and profits of government. During the eighteenth century local disorders remained common, especially in moments of food shortage, but contemporaries no longer viewed the social order as constantly subject to violent overturning. When violence returned with the French Revolution of 1789, it came as a devastating surprise to contemporaries.


Alongside its instabilities and sufferings, the seventeenth century also showed signs of important social advances. These begin with the typical European household itself, which at some point in the later sixteenth century appears to have settled definitively into what historians have termed the "European marriage pattern": late marriage for both men and women, nearly equal ages at marriage, limited numbers of children, autonomous households for most married couples, and, outside of marriage, substantial rates of lifelong celibacy. The pattern reached its fullest development in the later seventeenth century, with couples in many regions marrying only in their later twenties, and with about 10 percent of women never marrying. This set early modern Europe apart from most other preindustrial societies, and also from medieval Europe itself, which had been dominated well into the sixteenth century by early marriage and large, multigenerational households. Historians have noted both demographic and social effects of the European marriage pattern. It effectively limited births by reducing the number of childbearing years for many women and by excluding altogether many men and women from reproducing. Controlling natality through the social customs of marriage in turn gave European society an unusual capacity for saving, even during crisis-ridden periods like the seventeenth century, since society was not using all its resources on subsistence. As important, the European marriage pattern accentuated the economic and social freedom of the individual household at the expense of the community and the larger patriarchal family; marrying as mature adults, with the presumption of autonomy from their parents, couples formed highly flexible economic units, far more able than in medieval society to arrange both work and consumption to suit new circumstances.

Closely related to changes in household organization were increasing investments in human capital, especially in formal education. The seventeenth century was among Europe's great eras for school foundation, as Catholic and Protestant churches competed to form educated, articulate believers. The number of Jesuit schools increased from 144 in 1579 to more than 500 by 1626, and more than 800 in 1749; and male literacy reached impressive levels, 70 percent in Amsterdam in the 1670s, 65 percent in the small cities near Paris. In England, the historian Lawrence Stone has estimated, a higher percentage of the male population attended university in the seventeenth century than at any time before World War I. This upsurge in education probably contributed to a change that scholars have noted in several European countries: by the end of the seventeenth century, Europeans of all social classes were becoming more skeptical about magical practices that had long been customary and more ready to accept the worldviews proposed by physicians and natural philosophers.

A third critical change concerned the organization of space. At varying speeds, seventeenth-century governments succeeded in pacifying their realms, controlling local banditry and civil war, and starting the process of disciplining armies. In this as in many other seventeenth-century changes, the Dutch Republic led the way, establishing in the early seventeenth century forms of social discipline that other regions would still be trying to emulate a century later. England also moved quickly to control brigandage and (in the Puritan armies of the Civil War) to discipline soldiers. Castile had been largely freed of brigandage by the mid-seventeenth century, though other parts of Spain were pacified more slowly.

Such political successes had important social implications, for they allowed people, goods, cash, and information to circulate more freely, cheaply, and predictably, even without improvements in technology. But the technology for dealing with distance did improve in these years as well. Again, the most dramatic example is the Dutch Republic, where by the mid-seventeenth century an elaborate series of canals made movement throughout the country cheap and easy, and a regularly scheduled system of canal boats allowed people and goods to travel freely. Other regions had neither the social resources nor the geographic advantages that allowed the Netherlands this success, but these handicaps make seventeenth-century efforts all the more striking. Significant canals were dug in England and France, and land transport improved there as well. Road-building became a major preoccupation of the French government, starting with the appointment of Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, in 1599 as head of a government road-building service; such projects received further impetus from Jean-Baptiste Colbert's interest in highways. New carriages, with steel springs, allowed people to travel these roads in relative comfort and speed; in the sixteenth century most people had had to travel on horse or mule.

Increased freedom of movement addressed what had been a critical weakness in the European economy, its fragmentation into a collection of nearly autonomous, self-sufficient local societies, dependent mainly on what they themselves produced. Such enclaves might be very small, given the difficulties of transportation and the uncertainties of relying on distant suppliers. Breaking down localism was an important step in economic development, for exchange over large areas allowed specialization and efficiency. The process of economic integration—and consequent gains in specialization—would continue through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and include much more dramatic technological advances than the seventeenth century could display. Yet it can be argued that the seventeenth century represented a critical phase in this long process. The economic historian Jan de Vries has demonstrated that Europe first acquired an integrated system of cities in the seventeenth century, with cities for the first time fitting into clear hierarchies of scale according to local, regional, or national functions—functional specialization that reflected the era's increasingly effective networks of communication. Europe's ruling elites also first acquired national rather than regional orientations in these years, as capital cities and courts became the normal sites for at least part of their yearly routines. Yet another indicator of the same process was the seventeenth century's obsession with news. Europe's first daily newspaper, the London Daily Courant, appeared only at the end of the period, in 1702, but many other news products, like the weekly Parisian Gazette, founded in 1621, had preceded it.

Political stability and improving communications underlay two other critical changes that marked the seventeenth century as a period of decisive social advance. First, nearly everywhere capital cities grew dramatically, approaching modern dimensions that would have been unthinkable in the medieval world. By 1700 both London and Paris had more than 500,000 inhabitants, Amsterdam 200,000. As E. A. Wrigley has argued in regard to London, the very existence of such cities had important effects beyond their boundaries. Many more people had some experience of this urban life than population statistics alone indicate, because these cities were sites of continual population turnover, with rapid in- and out-migration. These very large concentrations of people also focused demand for products of all kinds, encouraging economic activities that expensive transportation rendered impossible in the more scattered, isolated economy of the sixteenth century.

Second, the seventeenth century witnessed the development of new institutions for mobilizing resources, again in ways not previously possible. The Amsterdam stock market opened in 1611, selling shares in the Dutch East India Company. The stock exchange was one of several Dutch institutions that mobilized the wealth of those outside the narrow world of commercial specialists toward economically productive, even adventurous purposes. The Dutch model spread slowly, but by the end of the period similar systems were in place in England and France, allowing both countries to experience stock-market booms and then collapses in 1720, England with the South Sea Bubble, France with the John Law affair.


The ethics of economic life. The seventeenth century was an especially competitive era that divided winners from losers in fierce, unpredictable ways. The fields of social action had widened, depriving actors of the protections that localism once afforded against distant rivals, while political and social tumults disrupted even the most sensible economic plans, destroying capital and closing markets, but also opening opportunities for the aggressive or lucky. After the mid-seventeenth century, awareness of competition became widespread among European intellectuals, and ethical restraints on it diminished sharply. Changing views of lending money at interest illustrate this shift. During the Middle Ages, theorists taught that fellow economic actors should be treated first as Christians, to whom assistance should be freely offered, without payment of interest. In the seventeenth century both Protestant and Catholic theorists came instead to accept the idea that commercial transactions had their own laws that could not be subject to moral regulation, and condemnation of more basic moral failings was weakening as well. English writers after 1660 regularly argued that pride, greed, self-interest, and vanity formed necessary underpinnings of a successful economy. Still more dramatically, the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), in his The Fable of the Bees (1714), summarized the argument that private vices would produce public prosperity, further eroding moral restraints on individuals' actions in the social realm. On the Continent even the Catholic moralist Pierre Nicole (1625–1695) argued that self-interest rather than altruism formed the basis of public life. Cultural changes conjoined with political and economic circumstances to intensify the era's economic and social competitiveness.

The rural social order. The period from 1590 to 1720 witnessed significant reshufflings of the social order. Peasants experienced these changes most brutally, an important fact given that they constituted the vast majority of seventeenth-century Europe's population, fewer than two-thirds of the total only in the Dutch Republic, at least three-fourths in most other regions. This group experienced a dramatic change in its relations to the most basic means of production, the land itself, essentially amounting to a process of expropriation. The process varied significantly from one region to another because medieval landowning patterns themselves varied. In England, most land belonged to nobles and gentry, but peasants enjoyed relatively secure long-term leases; in France and Germany peasants had direct ownership of most land, subject to loose feudal overlordship. Whatever the initial arrangements, large landowners everywhere took much more direct control of the land during the early modern period, with the crucial change coming at its outset, between about 1570 and 1630. Other changes accompanied and magnified these changes in ownership. Real wages diminished, partly as a result of sixteenth-century population growth, and agricultural leases became more expensive; in central and eastern Europe working conditions deteriorated, with landowners exercising increasing control over peasants' movements and requiring of them several days of unpaid labor each week. The mid-sixteenth-century countryside had been dominated by nearly independent peasants, able more or less to survive from the produce of their own land. By 1650 most regions were dominated instead by large landowners and their economic allies, the large-scale tenant farmers who managed the actual business of farming and marketing. Most peasants had become essentially wage laborers, owning cottages and small amounts of land, but needing to work for others in order to survive.

Both the well-to-do farm managers and the agricultural laborers had been forcibly inserted into a market economy, with enormous attendant insecurities. The laborers now had to purchase their food on the open market and sell their labor, while the large tenant farmers had to market their produce and assemble the cash needed to pay rents and taxes. Indeed, the expropriation of the peasantry tended to advance fastest in regions that were especially open to commercial currents. These facts produced a seeming paradox in some regions of Europe. Precisely where capitalist and modernizing influences were strongest, around cities and in areas (such as east-Elbian Germany) especially open to international trade, peasants were most vulnerable to the era's extraeconomic shocks, notably to its harvest failures. During the seventeenth century starvation was more common in the most advanced regions of France, those nearest Paris, than in regions of poorer land and more backward agricultural technique.

Jan de Vries has drawn attention to a second paradox in this history, the fact that expropriation and declining wages accompanied a steady growth in the number and range of consumer goods that villagers purchased. By 1720 death inventories across Europe reveal villagers' purchases of coffee, tobacco, brightly printed cloths, even books and prints. De Vries explains this paradox by what he calls the "industrious revolution," a readiness to take on (or insist that familial dependents take on) paid work of all kinds so as to orient the household as fully as possible toward the marketplace and its money-making possibilities, thereby diminishing the share of household effort devoted to domestic life. Businessmen responded to this widening of the rural labor pool by bringing some of their manufacturing work to the countryside, especially such easily transportable work as textile manufacturing. By the late seventeenth century, rural manufacturing had become commonplace in France, England, and parts of Germany. Europe remained overwhelmingly a rural society, with about the same percentage of urbanites in 1700 as in 1600, but manufacturing had acquired considerable importance. It counted for about one-fourth of French economic activity in 1700, and much more in England and the United Provinces.

Business and the cities. More intense competition came to characterize the world of urban business as well. Seventeenth-century business was especially vulnerable to the period's instability, for at its highest levels business was inextricably bound up with systems of political power. The connection was most direct in the case of state finance, among the most profitable sectors of early modern business. Governments had been poor credit risks since the early fourteenth century, and as a result soldiers, military suppliers, and other creditors would accept only cash; governments also had difficulty in moving money across long distances (necessary in an era of international warfare) and in assuring the regular flow of money over time (necessary since tax collections did not coincide with expenditures). Businessmen with established credit could meet all these needs, and their indispensability assured them enormous profits. The Dutch banker Louis de Geer (1587–1652) exemplified these possibilities when he took over large sectors of the Swedish economy, in exchange for lending money to Gustavus Adolphus (ruled 1611–1632). But the same governmental untrustworthiness that made the financiers' fortunes regularly unmade them as well, for governments had little hesitation about defaulting on loans as soon as competing bankers offered alternative sources of cash. In France these tacit bankruptcies were often accompanied by show trials in which financiers were prosecuted for their excess profits. After the most famous of these in 1661, the financier and official Nicolas Fouquet barely escaped with his life, and was condemned to lifelong imprisonment in an isolated fortress.

Faced with these risks, the business class could never cut itself off from leading aristocrats and officials, who supplied the political protection and introductions that bankers needed in such tumultuous times. Governments relinquished their reliance on such financiers at very different rates. In the Netherlands reliable state finances were established in the mid-seventeenth century, and the English followed their model. The Bank of England (created in 1694) placed state loans on reliable foundations and diminished the need for the great financiers. France on the other hand continued to need their services until the revolution in 1789.

Power and commerce mixed in other ways during the seventeenth century, most directly in the exploitation of Europe's colonial empires. Already in the sixteenth century Spain and Portugal had organized imperial systems that sustained important mercantile networks. For the rest of Europe, however, profit-making imperialism was essentially a seventeenth-century creation. The first Dutch efforts to trade with the Far East came in 1595; in 1600 the monopoly Dutch East India Company began operations, with permission from the state to undertake such essentially political tasks as establishing a military and diplomatic presence in the regions where it traded. The company used these rights to the fullest, so that by the 1630s it held a string of fortresses and permanent trading centers across the Indian Ocean and had forced Asian rulers into a series of advantageous trade agreements. England attempted to keep up with its own monopoly East India Company, but above all launched concerted efforts to profit from the Americas. Until 1661 French efforts were much less impressive. Thereafter, Jean-Baptiste Colbert channeled state support to imperial ventures as well, financing a large French navy and encouraging French efforts in Canada, India, and the Caribbean.

By the end of the period, colonial products—tobacco, sugar, cotton cloth from India—had become crucial goods of European commerce. In the French case especially, state encouragement of imperial commerce was only part of a larger program of state economic intervention, designed to serve the state's political needs by ensuring success in overseas markets. This mercantilist program involved both state investment in factories and infrastructure like roads and canals and the close regulation of private business. Colbert established a group of commerce inspectors to ensure the quality of French goods, essential, he believed, for sustaining sales. The Dutch East India Company relied much less on state support, its strength lying ultimately in the vitality of Dutch commercial life, but even it owed something to political calculations. Dutch leaders encouraged its development and accorded it extensive powers partly in hopes of undermining Iberian monopolies in Asia and Brazil, an important advantage in the Eighty Years' War with Spain.

The seventeenth century thus offered extraordinary new opportunities to the minority of businessmen who enjoyed governmental connections. Contemporaries believed that they had never seen so much wealth, or wealth so conspicuously displayed, as that of the era's great financiers and merchants. Farther down the commercial hierarchy, however, the business atmosphere of the seventeenth century was much more difficult. Stagnant population and widening competition threatened what had once been comfortable markets, and cities suffered as trades shifted to the countryside, with its relatively cheap labor and freedom from regulation. For shopkeepers and artisans, the result was a contraction of business and a tendency for established families to protect their situations by every available means. In many regions this meant an enthusiastic turn to an institution inherited from the Middle Ages, the guilds. These organizations regulated activity within specific trades, controlling the entry of newcomers, setting prices and wages, and determining standards of training and work. The French government chartered a long series of new guilds in the later seventeenth century, partly for its own fiscal reasons (guild positions could be sold), but also in response to businessmen's eagerness for protection. For ordinary urban workers, this rise of regulation meant a significant worsening in conditions and a widening of class differences within the workshop. The movement of workers into masterships became significantly more difficult, as the guild structure hardened and new masterships were reserved mainly for those who already had familial connections within the trade. Workers who lacked these supports were likely to remain in subordinate positions throughout their lives, forming a permanent and often resentful working class.

The new bourgeoisie and traditional ruling elites. For embattled businessmen, an appealing response to the difficult times was flight from the marketplace into social realms that promised more stability. Land offered one such option, and the early modern period witnessed a rapid increase in land purchases by the urban rich. The later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries apparently were the focal point for such purchases, for after 1650 falling rents made landowning much less attractive, and new forms of safe investment had become more readily available. By that point, however, leading bourgeois in most European cities controlled substantial shares of the surrounding territories. A second possibility fitted well with this option, that of acquiring positions in the growing bureaucracies of the period. Civil services expanded everywhere during the early modern period, giving bourgeois at all levels opportunities to abandon the uncertainties of commerce for the reliable income and social prestige of public office.

France, where public positions were bought and sold, demonstrates in quantitative terms the allure of this mode of life: Between 1600 and 1660, office prices there rose about fivefold, as monied families sought to secure for their sons the tranquil security of officialdom. Though less easily measured, there seems to have been similar enthusiasm for office in the other European states. Most of these new landowners and officials continued to reside in the cities, but they now resembled Europe's traditional elites, its military nobilities, and at their highest levels they began to claim noble status. At the French Estates General of 1614–1615, royal officials had sat with the commoners, but by 1650 the leading judges and officials were generally recognized as nobles, with the full range of noble privileges. In Spain, England, and the German states as well, society generally agreed that such figures counted among the gentlemen, whether the title was formal (as in most of Europe) or informal (as in England).

The accession of new families to noble status was one of several changes affecting Europe's ruling elites during the early modern period. By their very presence, the new nobles brought higher levels of education and urbanity to the nobilities, and in this their impact closely paralleled the growing importance of court life for many nobles. Seventeenth-century monarchs were eager to have their greatest nobles nearby and established elaborate courts for the purpose. Louis XIV's Versailles, to which he moved permanently in 1682, was only the most dramatic example of this policy. By 1700 imitations of Versailles had sprung up all over Europe, and even the court of the Dutch Republic had acquired a new prominence. As a result, the seventeenth-century nobility in general was far more urban than its sixteenth-century predecessors. In Spain and Italy nobles had always played a prominent role in city life, but in the seventeenth century northerners too were drawn to the entertainments and elegance of the city, and urban centers responded to their needs. In the years around 1600, a number of urban development projects were undertaken in London, Paris, Madrid, and other cities so as to make these cities more attractive to this new class of resident.

Nineteenth-century historians tended to view the nobles' urbanization and their increasing focus on the court as signs of weakness, indicative of declining political power and uncertainty about their proper social role. Twentieth-century scholarship, however, has stressed the nobility's continuing vitality despite these changes, and to some extent because of them. New families of officials brought new wealth to the order and assured that aristocratic values would continue to shape governmental policies. If stronger governments eliminated some political powers that medieval nobles had exercised, they also created new ones. Nobles had numerous new positions available to them in the expanding armies and bureaucracies of the period, and they profited from the development of courts. More fundamentally, governments took their opinions seriously and tailored programs to meet their needs. Until about 1660 even economic circumstances tended to shine for the nobles. Food prices and land rents both remained high, so that nobles' estates remained profitable. There was one exception to this favorable situation, however. For Europe's poorer nobles, the early modern period represented a real social crisis—enough to provoke concerned governments into substantial policy innovations. The benefits of stronger government flowed mainly to nobles able to educate themselves for a public role, whether in the army, at court, or in the civil service. "Mere nobles," who had only their claims to high birth and privilege, could not keep up in this world, and significant numbers left the order.


By 1720 many Europeans had become aware that the Continent's center of social and economic geography had shifted from the Mediterranean to northwestern countries like England and the United Provinces. The establishment of New World colonies and Atlantic trade do not sufficiently explain the shift. A century after Columbus, Spain remained Europe's dominant political power, partly because of its control of the Atlantic, and Italy remained its leading commercial center. Genoese bankers were among the chief profiteers of the early Atlantic empires. After 1590, however, the United Provinces quickly established themselves as Europe's richest region, with a standard of living unheard of elsewhere. This wealth rested on economic modernity, a situation in which social structures encouraged entrepreneurship and innovation.

With few natural resources, the Dutch established not only the most productive agriculture in Europe—managing to export food even as Mediterranean regions experienced harvest failures—but a variety of novel industries as well. Their example suggested to contemporary observers that wealth derived from social organization, rather than nature, and that such wealth could allow surprising political successes. Despite its population of about only 1.9 million inhabitants, the Dutch Republic defeated the Spanish Empire at the height of its power and in the 1670s fought Louis XIV to a stand-off. By that point, the Republic's lead over the rest of Europe had begun to diminish, and after 1720 the Dutch fell behind England in economic activity. Yet even then the Republic remained the center of European economic innovation, and its export industries continued to develop. The eighteenth century's great economic success stories, chiefly in England, would reflect the influence of this model.

The Dutch model had social and ethical as well as economic implications, for the United Provinces represented an anomaly among European societies. They formed a republic in which cities had the decisive political voice; they tolerated multiple religions, despite occasional flare-ups of intolerant Calvinist orthodoxy; above all, they accorded higher status to commerce than to warfare or noble birth. Over the years 1590 to 1720, this combination of social arrangements seemed to have been rewarded with extraordinary success, even as Spain sank into economic troubles and French industrial development faltered. In his Persian Letters (1721), the French philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu attributed some of this contrast to Protestantism itself, arguing that their religion encouraged Dutch and English merchants in especially vigorous pursuit of worldly advantage. Late-twentieth-century scholars have been skeptical, but they have suggested that the relative freedom of the United Provinces and England was more conducive to economic enterprise than the growing authoritarianism of seventeenth-century Catholicism. Thus the weakening of religious values during the eighteenth century, following what the French literary historian Paul Hazard termed "the crisis of the European mind," made emulating the Dutch easier for elites throughout Europe. Without renouncing monarchy, nobility, or warfare, European societies would turn in fundamentally different directions after 1720.

See alsoThe World Economy and Colonial Expansion (in this volume);Absolutism; Bureaucracy; Capitalism and Commercialization; The European Marriage Pattern; Health and Disease; Land Tenure; The Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns; War and Conquest (volume 2);Moral Economy and Luddism (volume 3);The Household (volume 4);Journalism; Schools and Schooling (volume 5).


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