Archive for July, 2013


European History Pt. 17 — The East

Up until this point, we have stayed heavily in western Europe, looking at Spain, France, the English, and the Dutch. In these countries, commerce was creating novel political institutions along with a commercial class and various classes of society.

Eastern europe was very different. Here, centralized power was lacking and a landlord class controlled all of the power, containing an entire political universe within them. The book I’m using, A History of the Modern World, now turns to the developments of the failing empires in the east, the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

Holy Roman Empire 

We’ve looked at the Holy Roman Empire before, but we now pick up its story after the peace of Westphalia in 1648. At this point, the HRE, largely germanic countries, have been devastated by the 30 years’ war. They are backwater (e.g. they develop a stock market 50+ years after western european states).

The key thing to remember is that the HRE was divided into a mess of small kingdoms. These kingdoms had relative autonomy and sparred with each other using deceipt, marriage, threats, and commerce. The situation was fluid. No one knew where centralization would occur and who would aggrandize themselves by bringing together the little people. It was out of these fluid little states that Prussia and Austria would be born.

Republic of Poland

I have no experience with Poland as empire and so it was hard for me to get  a feel for its character. It was Catholic, there was no middle class, but there were Jews who had been given shelter by the toleration of the Poles. The official and political language was LATIN! Anyway, the point is that the Polish  king had no power, no taxes, and no army. His revenue was about 1/75th the income of Louis XIV at this time. Poland was spread thin, over territory with a rebellious aristocracy who were kings in their own castles. The time was ripe for consolidation, and it would happen chiefly by other powers.

Ottoman Empire

In 1529, Suleiman the magnificent invaded western europe and almost took Austria. He was repulsed, and the Ottoman empire looked largely the same as it had under him.

An interesting fact. Since taxes were higher for religious minorities, the Turks had NO desire to convert them to Islam or to assimilate them, because they drew more income from Christians if they REMAINED christians.

The book doesn’t make it clear exactly why the Ottoman empire was weakening at this time and in fact, it would last longer than the Holy Roman Empire and Polish Republic. At the time, the Ottoman empire was on friendly terms with the French and gave them privileges when French (usually Catholics) needed religious adjudication that was not Islamic.


European History Pt. 16 — French Wars

Last time I looked at French sophistication and power in the 17th century. This time I’m going to look at France’s military endeavors.

There are a lot. In fact, I won’t cover them all in detail because basically, starting in 1667 (after Louis XIV took the throne in 1661) he continually tried to expand the French empire, most noticeably in Spanish territory (since Spain was now ruled by the weak Charles II). He took advantage of Turkish aggression to keep the Austrian Hapsburgs subdued while he plotted the takeover of the Spanish Hapsburg holdings.

The big war came in 1686 in which an  enormous alliance, the League of Augsburg, waged war against Louis XIV. The League was made up of the usual opponents to Louis, the Dutch and English and the Hapsburgs, but even protestants from Germany got involved because Louis had recently revoked the edict of nantes, which gave rights to protestants in France.

However, an even bigger war was brewing, the War of Spanish Succession. Trouble began  when both Austria Emperor and France’s king could claim, by marriage to a sister of Charles II, inheritance of the Spanish possessions. It was thought that this difficulty could be solved by dividing the territories; parceling them out. But in Charles’ will there was a bombshell. He was going to give  EVERYTHING to France. Wow! Specifically, the Spanish holdings would go to Louis’ grandson. Everyone else hated that idea and so began the war of Spanish succession. It was basically France and Spain against everyone else.

The alliance against France was the Grand Alliance, and I’ll just go through everyone’s motivations.

The Dutch wanted to keep France out of Belgium and retain control of the river Scheldt. The English were fighting to preserve the glorious revolution (remember they suspected rightly that France would restore James II). Austria fought to keep Bavaria off its back and to extend influence to the alps and most obviously to keep the Hapsburg house unified (and so to be united with Spain). Austria succeeded in invading Spain which sparked a civil war there.

Peace was made at Utrecht and Rastadt. England got gibraltar from Spain and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland from France. Austria got the Spanish Mediterranean holdings (naples, Milan, etc.) as well as Belgium, which went from being called the Spanish Netherlands to being the Austrian Netherlands. Louis XIV’s grandson became Philip V of Spain on the understanding that no single person should be king of Spain and France at the same time.

The treaty of Utrecht marked the decline of the Dutch in world affairs, and the ascendancy of Sardinia and Brandenburg, whose rulers were named kings. Eventually these territories would help create Germany and Italy.


European History Pt. 15 — French Absolutism

Last time we checked in with Europe, we were in England, charting its transition to a a parliamentary state (but one that would be ruled by an aristocracy and brutally repressive toward the Irish).

This time we finally arrive at France, at the palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV who dominated the second half of the 17th century (which is the 1600s remember).

The French were developing a form of modern statecraft, with rule by a powerful king who at the time, centralized and held together an array of disparate somewhat medieval towns, counties, and bodies of various types. He did not abolish these lower levels of government but merely made them obey, and this crude type of unity eventually resulted in tension.

Absolutism got its start with the Fronde, which was an abortive revolution led by the same factions that would successfully bring about the French revolution — the parlements and the aristocracy. At the time though, the two groups could not work together and in the aftermath, the French people were happy to have a strong king. Absolutism became the term of art at the time, and it referred to the king’s power to make policy without being legally bound to other political entities.

To gain an absolutist power, Louis XIV seized and systematized the army. This is important because as the book makes clear, armies didn’t really exist before Louis XIV. There were only bands of officers commissioned by governments to have men-at-arms. Wars were kind of drunken brawls without any control exercised over when they would stop and start.

Taxes were the Achilles’ heel of Louis XIV. The tax system was outdated and inefficient  and he was reluctant to impose taxes on the nobles, because then he would be indebted to them. In the long term, France’s archaic revenue system would lead to significant difficulty in its rivalry with England as time went on.

Religiously, Louis XIV believed in French Catholicism as a tool of nation building. He embarked on a program of conversion for Protestants and he revoked Henry IV famous EDICT OF NANTES from 1598. in 1685, Louis XIV revoked this decree of toleration and many mobile protestants fled to the Netherlands. This too would have a negative effect on France’s long term commercial prospects.


European History Pt. 14 — Restoration

Last time, I looked at the brief spell of English history in which Oliver Cromwell ruled the country as Puritan dictator. It didn’t go very well.

After 1660,  the monarchy was restored in Charles II, but its crucial to point out that the PARLIAMENT was also restored. It soon took on a crucial new powers by changing property so that it more closely resembled modern property. Landowners were not burdened with feudal fees and dues. As a response to this change, they agreed to pay taxes (at a somewhat high amount) so that the country (the king) had a flexible source of money. The book makes it clear that this decision by parliament allowed wealthy landowners to completely run the country for about a century and a half. Also, the backlash against puritans took place and the Anglican church was reestablished with new power.

Of course, all of this harmony didn’t last long. Charles was thought to be inclined toward Catholicism — and indeed he was. Unknown to most people, in 1670, he formed the secret treaty of Dover with Louix XIV. He was to help him in the war against the Dutch and then afterward possibly return to the Catholic Church. Parliament responded to the war with the Dutch with the Test Act of 1673, which forbade Catholics from serving in a variety of public roles. Some, the exclusionists, wanted to keep James II (Charles II’s brother and lawful successor) from becoming King. His avowed Catholicism was the reason.

Test Act 1673 — Prevented Catholics from entering public office. When combined with the discrimination against dissenter (puritans), Anglicans ran the government almost exclusively.

Whigs: Those who liked the test act, and who were suspicious of the French and of Catholics.

Tories: those who supported the King. They were tolerant of the Catholics, but were most excited, religiously, by Anglicanism.

James II became king anyway, and as predicted, he upset everyone, especially when he had a son and baptized him Catholic. So, whigs and tories united and went to Mary, married to William III of the Netherlands. He agreed to become king of England in return for English aid against Louis XIV. William then invaded (but with written invitations from many English nobles). This was in 1689. In 1690, at the battle of Boyne river, James II was defeated and William became king. Of course, Louis XIV gave aid to James and maintained him at his court, hoping to plant him back on the throne.

Crucially, the parliament, as a condition of giving William the throne, imposed a series of restrictions on royal power. The king could not suspend laws, could not maintain taxes without parliamentary consent, etc. This was the beginning of the true parliamentary era in English politics. The book also makes the point that religious tensions, while still officially under a cloud of discrimination against the dissenters (puritans) and Catholics (test act), became quite tolerant, and that people of all religions could find a place in government through backchannels.

In 1707, Scotland was merged with England, and the two became a “United Kingdom” and British became used to refer to the English and the Scots.


European History Pt. 13 — Cromwell

Last time we saw the opening moves of the English civil war. Now we pick up the thread.

Charles I and the parliament came to open war in 1642. Parliament agreed to pass the solemn league and Covenant which made all of the United Kingdom Presbyterian. The Scots supported parliamentary forces because of this.

Parliament was represented by the Puritans who fought under the religious zeal of Oliver Cromwell. After Charles was defeated, parliament was unsure about what to do with him. Cromwell stepped in, intimidated the parliament in what was known as Pride’s purge, and initiated the regicide of Charles I.

Cromwell declared England a republic, but had to resubjugate all of its parts. For instance, the Scots were outraged by the regicide and became royalists again even despite the Solemn League and Covenant, which was designed to earn their support. Cromwell’s resubjugation is also what created a ruling protestant class in Ireland against the wishes of its largely Catholic people.

Radical religious and social groups arose during this time, most importantly the Quakers founded by George Fox, who preached for equality of all types. Quakers encouraged women to preach and have revelations — a practice that threatened the existing religious power structure.

Throughout all of this, Cromwell continued to try to govern, finally abolishing even the rump parliament and ruling as lord protector. He did in 1658, and the proof that his ideals did not gain widespread support is that the son of Charles I, Charles II, was immediately crowned as King of England and Scotland.

Interestingly, the book makes it sound like political activism in England disappeared for 100 years. People were just fed up with the wars and standing armies, and religious extremism. Their solution was to abandon all democratic ideals as “levelling” (after the radical and discredited levellers). The lower classes would remain largely silent in England’s affairs going forward. The ideas of this time though were not destroyed. Rather, they migrated to the new world, where we know that they would gain second life (and of course England would become much more democratized with time as well).




European History Pt. 12 — British!

Last time we looked at the Dutch position in the world after Westphalia. Now we’ll look at the British.

England largely escaped the wars of religion, as its civil war during the 1640s was relatively mild. However, its religious conflicts with Ireland were of course, just as bloody as anything on the continent.

A History of the Modern World also reminds us that England was not present at the Congress of Westphalia. The only nation west of Poland not represented. Wow!

Around this time, England was prosperous but not nearly to the extent of the Dutch. However, the difference that would ultimately make a difference is that England had much more land and so more commercial options than the Dutch. Indeed, in the 1600s, England’s seafaring was not completely developed and so most of its wealth was tied up in land.

Politically, the book points out that England was quasi unique. Whereas on the continent, the reduction of kingly power came along with anarchy and disorganization, the subjection of kingly power to parliament resulted in a strong government. For this reason, England was poised to play a role in spreading democracy across the world.

It was James I (successor to Elizabeth, a Stuart) who rocked the boat. He wanted more money while at the same time proclaiming the divine right of kings. He wanted to rule without parliament.

The demographics and organization of parliament was also unique. Unlike elsewhere, England only had one gathered deliberative body. There were no city or local parliaments. Just big “P” parliament. Furthermore, parliament had become largely secular and inhabited by property owners, both small and great.

James passed on, but his son Charles I continued aggravating parliament by trying to raise money for a navy in 1629 in what became the ship-money dispute. The dispute nicely crystallizes the issue of the time. Usually, coastal towns payed for a navy because they most needed a navy to be safe, but Charles wanted everyone to pay a share of raising a navy. In the past, the inland areas thought that it was no big deal  if coastal towns were sacked or captured, but Charles wanted to unify England so that every Englishman would be considered under threat if the coasts were occupied. When Charles dissolved the parliament when they refused to help him raise money to defeat the rebellion, the same representatives were returned and they sat from 1640-1660 and was known as the long parliament.

Next time is Cromwell.


European History Pt. 11 — The Dutch!

The book I’m using for these posts A History of the Modern World is fairly simple, but I like how it unearths the various themes you find in history. There is a risk of over simplification, but nuance is a luxury that a causal browser cannot always afford.

Last time we saw how as Spanish dominance waned, the thirty years’ war shifted power to France. After the 30 years’ war, the French got their shot at universal supremacy in Europe.

Starting in 1661, Louis XIV assumed control of French affairs. The check to Louis XIV’s ambitions largely turned out to be the Dutch.

For some reason, the book starts with the Dutch, who are described as a bourgeois people. As a nation they were incredibly urban and wealthy for the times. They were also a republic, which was a consequence of their long struggle with Spain. Their fierce independence was reflected in their constitution. Starting in 1600, the Dutch were dominant traders and bankers, and their culture and  scientific achievements flourished in the 1600s — think Vermeer, Grotius, Leeuwehoek, and Swammerdam.

1667 —  Louis begins his era of aggression in Europe, after ruling for only 6 years.

1651 — Navigation act initiates a trade war and then real war between British and Duth from 1652 — 1674. This is when New Amsterdam became New York.

1689 — William III of Orange becomes King of England.