THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES--CHANGES,
CHAOS, AND A SEARCH FOR ORDER
(Partly edited and
reorganized--1/15/04 and 8/22/17)
You have probably heard the saying that
the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In
this class, we are going to be (at least metaphorically) travelling
thousands of miles. We'll be doing some time travelling as well,
and we're about to take the first step along our more than 400 year
journey. But, if we're going to have a good trip, it's useful to
know just where we are going.
convenience sake, historians
divide history into three major
overlap--there are no sharp breaks between
these different periods, though there are some broad
general differences. The ancient period of history, for instance,
is dominated by polytheistic societies, while the medieval period sees
the rise of monotheistic civilizations.
- Ancient history (3000 BC--AD 476)
- Medieval history (AD 325--1500)
- Modern history (AD 1350--Present)
Note also that
history has for us a
beginning: roughly 3000 BC.
There were people on earth before that time, and the anthropologists
and archaelogists can tell us some things about them and their
societies. However, until the emergence of writing (roughly 5000
years ago), we can't investigate the kinds of questions historians
really care about. We don't know people's religious beliefs or
their laws. Most of all, we can't know anything about
individuals, their choices and the consequences of those choices.
period of history saw the beginnings of many great civilizations.
We don't cover
ancient history in this course: that's a topic for History 121.
- Civilizations of the Ancient Near East including
Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Israel.
- Civilizations of the Ancient Far East including India and
- The First European Civlizations including Ancient Greece and
medieval period covers, among other things, the emergence of three
great monotheistic civilizations including Byzantium (the Eastern Roman
Empire), Islam, and the beginnings of Western European
Civilization. Again, that's not a period we cover in this
class. That's in History 121.
Also in History 121, we cover the earliest subdivisions of
history including the Renaissance (1350-1600) and the
That's a lot of material to cover: 4500 years of human history in a
semester--and, quite early in my teaching career, I realized that this
wasn't the best starting place for first-semester freshmen. So,
quite deliberately, I decided that I would teach all my History 121
classes in the Spring and all my History 122 classes in the Fall.
We'll only be covering 400 years of history in this class. Still
a lot, but easier.
I've devided the class into three sections. In the first 1/3 of
the class, I'll be focusing on the 17th century (the 1600's), though
I'll have to sometimes have to go back to the 16th century to add a bit
of necessay background. We'll then have a "midterm" exam covering
that material. In the next 1/3 of the class, I'll talk
about the 18th and 19th centuries. We will then have another
"midterm" exam covering that material. After the 2nd midterm,
we'll be talking about the 20th and 21st centuries, and the final exam
will cover that material.
With each period we cover in the class, I will have a general theme,
one big idea that most of the material will relate to. For the
1st 1/3 of the class, the general theme is change. What I want
you always to remember about the 16th and 17th centuries is
that it was an age of change. The period began on the brink of
chaos. Just about everything taken for granted in earlier
had changed, was changing, or was about to change. We will be
looking at these changes and how Europeans eventually adjusted to those
changes, bringing a certain amount of order to what had been a chaotic
Now there is some change during all historical periods, but changes in
the 16th and 17th century were particularly rapid. One reason for
this, the discoveries made by Christopher Columbus.
Most of you are familiar with basic story of Columbus, the
Genoese explorer who though he could find an easier route to China and
India by sailing westward across that Atlantic. You probably know
that, eventually, he found backing from the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand
and Isabella and that, rathering than finding the better trade-routed
he had hoped for, discovered what--to Europeans--was a new world.
You probably discussed in school some of the positives of Columbus's
discovery, things like interchange of crops that ultimately
benefited both Europe
the Americas and the introduction of European technology which also was
of some benefit to the benefit to New World.
But you proably also know that Columbus' discovery meant disaster for
native populations in
He and successors brought diseases like smallpox to the New
World. Many natives had no
resistance to these diseases, and perhaps 80% of the population
died--many having never even met a white man!
Columbus discovery also brought major changes to Europe, including
1. A changed economy
Because of Columbus' discovery, trade routes shifted. Trade
across the Atlantic rather than the traditional Mediterranean trade
routes became the most important ticket to wealth. This
meant economic growth first for Spain and Portugal, then later for
England, the Netherlands, and France. This meant a shift of
also a shift in the cultural center of Europe. As Italy lost its
preeminence, it also lost also its cultural preeminence. Artists,
musicians go where the money is, and that meant England, France, and
the Netherlands eclipsing Italy in terms of cultural importance.
Also, the influx of gold and silver from New World meant rapid
a drop of real wages throughout Europe. Inflation is always a
particular problem for working
class people as their real wages go down and the outlook for
generations doesn't look good. This leads to the kind of
that may make for revolution.
2. Increasing social and political tension
In addition to working -class discontent, there was discontent
elsewhere in European society. The Bourgeoisie (the merchants,
bankers and traders) were able
take advantage of new economic conditions and make for themselves great
fortunes. Generally, though, they had no say in political
This made them unhappy, since government decisions affect a
line. Bourgoise discontent also might contribute to civil war or
Further, many nobles were unhappy. They were losing economic
preeminence to the bourgoisie, and polical power to the kings. They are
still wealthy and powerful, but not as
wealthy or powerful. This makes them discontent, and possible
to revolution or civil war.
Columbus' discoveries also aggravated tension between
making war even more likely than at earlier times. Why? The
struggle over the control of New World colonies made international
realations a very
Tensions in Europe were aggavated by increasiing religious
division. Until 1517, Europeans were generally united
by their allegiance to the Roman
faith, but by end of 16th century, the religious map of Europe had
Anglicans, Anabaptists, Catholics, etc. all fervently wanted *their*
version of Christianity dominant or at least tolerated. The
conflicts of this perioed ended up more
intense because they were often religious wars as well. The
period from 1517-1688 is
often called "The Age of Religious Wars," and there's a lot of truth to
meant that Europe was a powder keg wating to explode--and sometimes it
did explode. Perhap the best example of the disasters created by
these tensions: The Thirty
The Thirty Year's War was faught mostly within what wa called
the Holy Roman Empire. This Holy Roman Empire (not to be confused with
the Roman Empire of Augustus, Nero, Constantine, etc.) was created by
Otto the Great in
The empire included much of Italy, much of Eastern Europe, and most of
the German speaking areas of Europe. The emperors for a time had
been successful and powerful, but, in time, they had become mere
And the nobles liked it that way!
But Around 1500, a new dynasty of emperors (the Hapsburgs)
powerful. They controlled Spain, Netherlands, Germany, much
of eastern Europe, and a lot of colonies in the New World.
They had enough power to become true emperors, not just figureheads,
the nobles didn't like it. Looking for an excuse to resist the
power of the Hapsburgs, many nobles turned to Lutheranism. This
to a round of religious wars within the HRE, wars settled by he Peace
Augsburg (1555). This treaty allowed nobles to choose the
of the people in their domains.
This agreement broke down in 1618 when the King of Bohemia
Ferdinand (a Hapsburg, soon to be HR emperor) was chosen to replace
Hoping to unite all his dominions, he insisted that the Bohemians leave
the Protestant churches and embrace Catholicism.
This made the people of Prague (the Bohemian capital) furious, and they
threw Ferdinands messengers out a window in protest. This event is
Defenestration of Prague," and, although Ferdinand's representative
weren't hurt, Ferdinand was angry. He sent troops to wipe out
Protestantism in Bohemia.
Bohemians under their new leader Frederick hired mercenaries to protect
but the mercenaries sold them out. Ferdinand gained the upper
hand in Bohemia, and then hired more mercenaries so he could get rid of
throughout the HRE.
All this led to 30 years of bloody war. France
Catholic!) and Sweden aided the Protestants, and the war dragged on and
It was finally settled by Peace of Westphalia. This allowed the
nobles of each region to decide the religion of their subjects.
Basically, this meant back to the same terms as Peace
Augsburg! But while the war changed nothing as far as the
religious situation in the Holy Roman Empire, there was a real winner
and a real loser to the war. France was the "winner" of the war,
emerging as the most
country in Europe. The German people (both Protestant and
were the losers. The war left 1/3 of the German population dead
the German economy. When it comes to the crimes, follies, and
misfortunes of mankind, the Thirty Years' War ranks near the top--but
not at the top. Stick around: it will get worse.