General History IX: 1600–1715
The seventeenth century is above all an age of violent and extreme contrast. The century was seared by the experience of savage and destructive mercenary armies waging thirty years of warfare at the expense of civilian populations, warfare which seemed capable of threatening the entire political, social and economic order. Yet it was also supposedly the century of ‘absolute monarchy’, shaped by powerful, centralized and triumphalist dynastic rule. European societies were characterized by the coexistence of unprecedented extremes of wealth and poverty: unparalleled conspicuous consumption amongst the élites coexisted with subsistence crises which could kill 10% of the ordinary population through hunger and disease. The great majority of peasants and townspeople existed in a state of day-to-day economic misery that would have been outside the experience of most of their great-grandparents. It was a century of unparalleled courtly grandeur, extraordinary artistic and cultural sophistication and dramatic developments in science and philosophy. Yet the baroque magnificent of church architecture or court drama, the ground-breaking thought of Descartes or Newton, occurred in societies which were for the most part violent, confessionally intolerant and economically stagnant, and whose populations were parochial, traditional and justifiably suspicious and hostile of any external authority or intervention.
Study of General History IX seeks to provide a detailed introduction to the European territories during the seventeenth century, though with considerable opportunity to extend the examination to Asia and the Americas. The aim is to provide students, whether or not they already have some familiarity with the period, with an opportunity to think extensively about major issues shaping states and societies, and about historical approaches which have been forged in this ‘century of contrasts’, and which have done much to challenge traditional interpretations of political, social and cultural history. Seventeenth-century European studies have figured largely in many of the key historiographical currents of the twentieth century, whether the methodological challenges posed by the Annales school, structuralist critiques of traditional social and cultural history, or the rejection of étatist, bureaucratic/centralizing models of political development. Thus for many tutors the study of ‘absolutism’ in seventeenth-century states provides the opportunity to encourage far-reaching reconsideration of the mechanisms of political power in the early modern state, the limitations upon central authority and the persistence of societies based upon localized power and privilege. Similarly detailed studies of war and society can raise fundamental questions about the Weberian paradigm linking expanding military demands with bureaucratic rationalization and state development. Elsewhere, studies of the imposition of the catholic and protestant reformations, repression of crime and the treatment of minorities and those on the margins of society allow the student to make use of extensive recent work calling into question dichotomies such as ‘popular’ and ‘élite’, and exploring concepts such as acculturation and syncretism as alternatives to simplified models of ‘top-down’ imposition. The great age of baroque and classicism also offers students the possibility of pursuing both seventeenth-century and modern debates about the relationship between art and patronage, about the projection of power through art and wider cultural manifestations. It is equally possible to slant the course towards economic history, examining profound shifts in patterns of trade, the rapid development of commercial colonialism, the ascendancy of mercantilist doctrines and their political and social impact.
You will encounter a significant number of these broad themes during the course. While this may be in the form of tutorial assignments examining large-scale, Europe-wide topics – peasant revolts, witchcraft persecution, political theory, the spread of baroque art – many tutors and students choose to focus on the experience of political, social, economic or cultural issues in particular territorial contexts, whether within or outside Europe, building up a number of individual case studies from which comparisons can be made and broader patterns extrapolated. This combination of broad thematic questions and those focusing on territorially specific problems is reflected both in the lecture coverage for General History IX, and in the examination papers. The course is an obvious complement for either Further Subject 11, ‘Society and Government in France, 1610-1715’, or 12, ‘Court Culture and Art in Early Modern Europe’, or for Special Subject 11, ‘The Scientific Movement in the Seventeenth Century’.