Visual History of the World





From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
I. Prehistory
II. First Empires
III. The Ancient World
IV. The Middle Ages
V. The Early Modern Period
VI. The Modern Era
VII. The World Wars and Interwar Period
VIII. The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists







History of Europe

Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Metal Ages
Greeks, Romans, and barbarians

The Middle Ages
The Renaissance
The emergence of modern Europe, 1500–1648
The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789
Revolution and the growth of industrial society, 1789–1914
European society and culture since 1914


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Order from disorder
By the 17th century there was already a tradition and awareness of Europe: a reality stronger than that of an area bounded by sea, mountains, grassy plains, steppes, or deserts where Europe clearly ended and Asia began—“that geographical expression” which in the 19th century Otto von Bismarck was to see as counting for little against the interests of nations. In the two centuries before the French Revolution and the triumph of nationalism as a divisive force, Europe exhibited a greater degree of unity than appeared on the mosaic of its political surface. With appreciation of the separate interests that Bismarck would identify as “real” went diplomatic, legal, and religious concerns which involved states in common action and contributed to the notion of a single Europe. King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden saw one aspect when he wrote: “All the wars that are afoot in Europe have become as one.”

A European identity took shape in the work of Hugo Grotius, whose De Jure Belli et Pacis (1625; On the Law of War and Peace) was a plea for the spirit of law in international relations. It gained substance in the work of the great congresses (starting with those of Münster and Osnabrück before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) that met not only to determine rights and frontiers, taking into account the verdict of battle and resources of states, but also to settle larger questions of justice and religion. By 1700 statesmen had begun to speak of Europe as an interest to be defended against the ambitions of particular states. Europe represented an audience for those who wrote about the great issues of faith, morals, politics, and, increasingly, science: Descartes did not write only for Frenchmen, nor Leibniz for Germans. The use of Latin as the language of diplomacy and scholarship and the ubiquity, alongside local systems and customs, of Roman law were two manifestations of the unity of Christendom.

As a spiritual inheritance and dynamic idea greater than the sum of the policies of which it was composed, “Christendom” best represents Europe as envisaged by those who thought and wrote about it. The existence of vigorous Jewish communities—at times persecuted, as in Poland in 1648, but in places such as Amsterdam secure, prosperous, and creative—only serves to emphasize the essential fact: Europe and Christendom were interchangeable terms. The 16th century had experienced schism, and the development of separate confessions had shredded “the seamless robe,” but it had done so without destroying the idea of catholicism to which the Roman church gave institutional form. The word catholic survived in the creeds of Protestant churches, such as that of England. Calvin had thought in catholic, not sectarian, terms when he mourned for the Body of Christ, “bleeding, its members severed.” Deeper than quarrels about articles of belief or modes of worship lay the mentality conditioned by centuries of war against pagan and infidel, as by the Reconquista in Spain, which had produced a strong idea of a distinctive European character. The Renaissance, long-evolving and coloured by local conditions, had promoted attitudes still traceable to the common inheritance. The Hellenic spirit of inquiry, the Roman sense of order, and the purposive force of Judaism had contributed to a cultural synthesis and within it an article of faith whose potential was to be realized in the intellectual revolution of the 17th century—namely, that man was an agent in a historical process which he could aspire both to understand and to influence.

By 1600 the outcome of that process was the complex system of rights and values comprised in feudalism, chivalry, the crusading ideal, scholasticism, and humanism. Even to name them is to indicate the rich diversity of the European idea, whether inspiring adventures of sword and spirit or imposing restraints upon individuals inclined to change. The forces making for change were formidable. The Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformations brought passionate debate of an unsettling kind. Discoveries and settlement overseas extended mental as well as geographic horizons, brought new wealth, and posed questions about the rights of indigenous peoples and Christian duty toward them. Printing gave larger scope to authors of religious or political propaganda. The rise of the state brought reactions from those who believed they lost by it or saw others benefit exceedingly from new sources of patronage.

Meanwhile, the stakes were raised by price inflation, reflecting the higher demand attributable to a rise in the population of about 25 percent between 1500 and 1600 and the inflow of silver from the New World; the expansion of both reached a peak by 1600. Thereafter, for a century, the population rose only slightly above 100 million and pulled back repeatedly to that figure, which seemed to represent a natural limit. The annual percentage rate of increase in the amount of bullion in circulation in Europe, which had been 3.8 in 1550 and 1 in 1600, was, by 1700, 0.5. The extent to which these facts, with attendant phenomena—notably the leveling out from about 1620, and thereafter the lowering, of demand, prices, and rents before the resumption of growth about 1720—influenced the course of events must remain uncertain. Controversy has centred around the cluster of social, political, and religious conflicts and revolts that coincided with the deepening of the recession toward mid-century. Some historians have seen there not particular crises but a “general crisis.” Most influential in the debate have been the Marxist view that it was a crisis of production and the liberal political view that it was a general reaction to the concentration of power at the centre.

Any single explanation of the general crisis may be doomed to fail. That is not to say that there was no connection between different features of the period. These arose from an economic malaise that induced an introspective mentality, which tended to pessimism and led to repressive policies but which also was expressed more positively in a yearning and search for order. So appear rationalists following René Descartes in adopting mathematical principles in a culture dominated by tradition; artists and writers accepting rules such as those imposed by the French Academy (founded 1635); statesmen looking for new principles to validate authority; economic theorists (later labeled “mercantilists”) justifying the need to protect and foster native manufactures and fight for an apparently fixed volume of trade; the clergy, Catholic and Protestant alike, seeking uniformity and tending to persecution; witch-hunters rooting out irregularities in the form of supposed dealings with Satan; even gardeners trying to impose order on unruly nature. Whether strands in a single pattern or distinct phenomena that happen to exhibit certain common principles, each has lent itself to a wider perception of the 17th century as classical, baroque, absolutist, or mercantilist.

There is sufficient evidence from tolls, rents, taxes, riots, and famines to justify arguments for something more dire than a downturn in economic activity. There are, however, other factors to be weighed: prolonged wars fought by larger armies, involving more matériel, and having wider political repercussions; more efficient states, able to draw more wealth from taxpayers; and even, at certain times (such as the years 1647–51), particularly adverse weather, as part of a general deterioration in climatic conditions. There are also continuities that cast doubt on some aspects of the general picture. For example, the drive for conformity can be traced at least to the Council of Trent, whose final sessions were in 1563; but it was visibly losing impetus, despite Louis XIV’s intolerant policy leading to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), after the Peace of Westphalia. Puritanism, which has been seen as a significant reflection of a contracting economy, was not a prime feature of the second half of the century, though mercantilism was. Then there are exceptions even to economic generalizations: England and, outstandingly, the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Insights and perspectives gain from the search for general causes. But truth requires an untidy picture of Europe in which discrepancies abound, in which men subscribe to a common civilization while cherishing specific rights; in which countries evolved along distinctive paths; and in which much depended on the idiom of a community, on the ability of ruler or minister, on skills deployed and choices made.

Complementing the search for order and for valid authority in other fields, and arising out of the assertion of rights and the drive to control, a feature of the 17th century was the clarification of ideas about the physical bounds of the world. In 1600 “Europe” still lacked exact political significance. Where, for example, in the eastern plains before the Ural Mountains or the Black Sea were reached, could any line have meaning? Were Christian peoples—Serbs, Romanians, Greeks, or Bulgarians—living under Turkish rule properly Europeans? The tendency everywhere was to envisage boundaries in terms of estates and lordships. Where the legacy of feudalism was islands of territory either subject to different rulers or simply independent, or where, as in Dalmatia or Podolia (lands vulnerable to Turkish raids), the frontier was represented by disputed, inherently unstable zones, a linear frontier could emerge only out of war and diplomacy. The process can be seen in the wars of France and Sweden. Both countries were seen by their neighbours as aggressive, yet they were concerned as much with a defensible frontier as with the acquisition of new resources. Those objectives inspired the expansionist policies of Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV and—with the added incentives of fighting the infidel and recovering a patrimony lost since the defeat at Mohács in 1526—the reconquest of Hungary, which led to the Treaty of Carlowitz (1699). The frontier then drawn was sufficiently definite—despite modifications, as after the loss of Belgrade (1739)—to make possible effective government within its perimeter.

Another feature of the period was the drawing into the central diplomatic orbit of countries that had been absorbed hitherto in questions of little consequence. Although Henry of Valois had been elected king of Poland before he inherited the French throne (1574) and James VI of Scotland (later James I of England, 1603–25) had married Anne of Denmark, whose country had a footing in Germany through its duchy of Holstein, it was still usual for western statesmen to treat the Baltic states as belonging to a separate northern system. Trading interests and military adventures that forged links, for example, with the United Provinces—as when Sweden intervened in the German war in 1630—complicated already tangled diplomatic questions.

Travelers who ventured beyond Warsaw, Kraków, and the “black earth” area of Mazovia, thence toward the Pripet Marshes, might not know when they left Polish lands and entered those of the tsar. The line between Orthodox Russia and the rest of Christian Europe had never been so sharp as that which divided Christendom and Islām. Uncertainties engendered by the nature of Russian religion, rule, society, and manners perpetuated former ambivalent attitudes toward Byzantium. Unmapped spaces, where Europe petered out in marshes, steppes, and forests of birch and alder, removed the beleaguered though periodically expanding Muscovite state from the concern of all but neighbouring Sweden and Poland. The establishment of a native dynasty with the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613, the successful outcome of the war against Poland that followed the fateful revolt in 1648 of the Ukraine against Polish overlordship, the acquisition of huge territories including Smolensk and Kiev (Treaty of Andrusovo, 1667), and, above all, the successful drive of Peter I the Great to secure a footing in the Baltic were to transform the picture. By the time of Peter’s death in 1725, Russia was a European state: still with some Asian characteristics, still colonizing rather than assimilating southern and eastern lands up to and beyond the Urals, but interlocked with the diplomatic system of the West. A larger Europe, approximating to the modern idea, began to take shape.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The human condition » Population
For most inhabitants of Europe, the highest aim was to survive in a hazardous world. They were contained in an inelastic frame by their inability to produce more than a certain amount of food or to make goods except by hand or by relatively simple tools and machines. In this natural, or preindustrial, economy, population played the main part in determining production and demand through the amount of labour available for field, mill, and workshop and through the number of consumers. Jean Bodin (writing toward the end of an age of rising population) stated what was to become the truism of the anxious 17th century when he wrote that men were “the only strength and wealth.” The 16th century had seen the last phase in recovery from the Black Death, which had killed about a third of Europe’s people. The 1590s brought a sharp check: dearth and disorder were especially severe in France and Spain. There were particular reasons: the effect of civil wars and Spanish invasion in France, the load placed on the Castilian economy by the imperialist policies of Philip II. France made a speedy, if superficial, recovery during the reign of Henry IV, but the truce between Spain and the United Provinces (1609) presented the Dutch with an open market from which they proceeded to drive out the native producers. Meanwhile, virulent outbreaks of plague had contributed to Spain’s loss of more than a million people.

A feature of the late 16th century had been the growth of cities. Those that had flourished most from expansion of trade or government offered sustenance of a kind for refugees from stricken villages. Meanwhile, peasants were paying the price for the intensified cultivation necessitated by the 16th century’s growth in population. The subdivision of holdings, the cultivation of marginal land, and the inevitable preference for cereal production at the cost of grazing, with consequent loss of the main fertilizer, animal dung, depressed crop yields. The nature of the trap that closed around the poor can be found in the statistics of life expectancy, averaging 25 years but nearer 20 in the larger towns. It took three times as many births to maintain the level of population as it did at the end of the 20th century.

There also were large fluctuations, such as that caused by the loss of at least 5 of Germany’s 20 million during the Thirty Years’ War. The “vital revolution” is an apt description of the start of a process that has continued to the present day. Until 1800, when the total European population was about 180 million, growth was modest and uneven: relatively slow in France (from 20 to 27 million), Spain (from 7 to 9 million), and Italy (from 13 to 17 million) and nonexistent in war-torn Poland until 1772, when the first of three partitions anticipated its demise as a political entity. Significantly, the rise in population was the most marked in Britain, where agriculture, manufacturing, and trade benefited from investment and innovation, and in Russia, which was technologically backward but which colonized near-empty lands. Among the causes were improvements in housing, diet, and hygiene.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The human condition » Climate
Given man’s dependence on nature, the deterioration of the climate during the Little Ice Age of the 17th century should be considered as a demographic factor. The absence of sunspots after 1645 was noted by astronomers using the recently invented telescope; the aurora borealis (caused by high-energy particles from the Sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere) was so rarely visible that it was thought ominous when it did appear; measurement of tree rings shows them to be relatively thin in this period but containing heavy deposits of radioactive carbon-14, associated with the decline of solar energy; snow lines were observed to be lower; and glaciers advanced into Alpine valleys, reaching their farthest point about 1670. All of these phenomena support plentiful anecdotal evidence for a period of unfavourable climate characterized by cold winters and wet summers. A decrease of about 1 percent in solar radiation meant a growing season shorter by three weeks and the altitude at which crops would ripen lowered by 500 feet. With most of the population living near subsistence level and depending upon cereal crops, the effect was most severe on those who farmed marginal land, especially on northerners for whom the growing season was already short. They were not the only ones who suffered, for freakish conditions were possible then as now. Around Toledo—where until the late 17th century the plains and sierras of New Castile provided a bare living from wheat, vines, and olives—disastrous frosts resulted in mass emigration. Drought also brought deprivation. During 1683 no rain fell in Andalusia until November; the cattle had to be killed, the crops were dry stalks, and thousands starved. In the great winter of 1708–09, rivers froze, even the swift-flowing Rhône, and wolves roamed the French countryside; after late frosts, which killed vines and olive trees, the harvest was a catastrophe: by December the price of bread had quadrupled.

Less spectacular, but more deadly, were the sequences of cold springs and wet summers. From the great mortalities such as those of 1647–52 and 1691–95 in France the population was slow to recover; women were rendered infertile, marriages were delayed, and births were avoided. They were times of fear for masters and shameful resort to beggary, abortion, and infanticide for the common people. It was also a hard time for the government and its tax-collectors. The disastrous harvest of the previous year was the direct cause of the revolt of the Sicilians in 1648. The connection between the outbreak of the Fronde in the same year and harvest failure is less direct: some revolt would probably have occurred in any case. There is a clear link, however, between the wet Swedish summer of 1649 and the constitutional crisis of the following year.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The human condition » War
The period between the revolt of Bohemia (1618) and the peace of Nystad (1721), which coincides with the check to growth and subsequent recession, also saw prolonged warfare. Developments within states and leagues between them made possible the mustering of larger armies than ever before. How important then was war as an influence on economic and social conditions? The discrepancy between the high aspirations of sovereigns and the brutal practice of largely mercenary soldiers gave the Thirty Years’ War a nightmarish character. It is, however, hard to be precise about the consequences of this general melee. As hostilities ended, rulers exaggerated losses to strengthen claims for compensation; refugees returned, families emerged from woods and cellars and reappeared on tax rolls; ruined villages were rebuilt and wastelands were tilled; a smaller population was healthier and readily procreative. The devastation was patchy. Northwestern Germany, for example, was little affected; some cities, such as Hamburg, actually flourished, while others, such as Leipzig and Nürnberg, quickly responded to commercial demand. The preindustrial economy proved to be as resilient as it was vulnerable. Yet the German population did not rise to prewar levels until the end of the 17th century.

The causes of this demographic disaster lie in the random nature of operations and the way in which armies, disciplined only on the battlefield, lived off the land. Casualties in battle were not the prime factor. In the warfare of the 17th and 18th centuries, mortal sickness in the armies exceeded death in action in the proportion of five to one. Disease spread in the camps and peasant communities deprived by pillage of their livelihood. The cost to the home country of operations abroad could be comparatively small, as it was to Sweden, at least until 1700 and the Great Northern War, which developed into a struggle for survival. Special factors—notably naval and commercial strength, the ability to prey on the enemy’s commerce and colonies, and immigration from the occupied south—enabled the United Provinces to grow richer from their wars against Spain (1572–1609 and 1621–48). By contrast, those living in the main theatres of war and occupation were vulnerable: the Spanish southern provinces of the Netherlands, Lorraine (open to French troops), Pomerania and Mecklenberg (to Swedish troops), and Württemberg (to Austrian and French) were among those who paid the highest bills of war.

The ability of states to bring their armies under control meant that operations after 1648 were better regulated and had less effect on civilians. Lands were ravaged deliberately to narrow a front or to deprive the enemy of base and food: such was the fate of the Palatinate, sacked by the French under Marshall René Tessé in 1689. Meanwhile, warfare in the north and east continued to be savage, largely unrestrained by conventions that were gaining hold in the west. The war of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) ran parallel with the Great Northern War (1700–21) and the war of Austria (allied with Venice and sometimes Poland) against the Turks, which had begun with the relief of Vienna in 1683 and continued intermittently until the peace of Passarowitz in 1718. In brutal campaigning over the plains of Poland and Hungary, the peasants were the chief sufferers. For the Hungarians, long inured to border war, liberation by the Habsburgs meant a stricter landowning regime. In one year, 1706, the Swedes gutted 140 villages on the estates of one of Augustus II’s followers. The Russians never subscribed to the stricter rules that were making western warfare look like a deadly game of chess. The later years of Frederick the Great were largely devoted to the restoration of Prussia, despoiled during the Russian occupation of 1760–62.

Such exceptions apart, it seems that most people were little affected by military operations after 1648. The Flemish peasant plowed the fields in peace within miles of Marlborough’s encampments; his uniformed troops received regular pay and looting was punished. That was the norm for armies of the 18th century. This improvement was a factor in the rise of population in that century, but not the main one. At worst, war only exacerbated the conditions of an underdeveloped society.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The human condition » Health and sickness
By the dislocation of markets and communications and the destruction of shipping, and by diverting toward destructive ends an excessive proportion of government funds, war tended to sap the wealth of the community and narrow the scope for governments and individuals to plan and invest for greater production. The constructive reforms of the French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the 1660s, for example, would have been unthinkable in the 1640s or ’50s; they were checked by the renewal of war after 1672 and were largely undone by the further sequence of wars after his death. War determined the evolution of states, but it was not the principal factor affecting the lives of people. Disease was ever present, ready to take advantage of feeble defense systems operating without the benefit of science. The 20th-century French historian Robert Mandrou wrote of “the chronic morbidity” of the entire population. There is plenty of material on diseases, particularly in accounts of symptoms and “cures,” but the language is often vague. Christian of Brunswick was consumed in 1626 “by a gigantic worm”; Charles II of Spain, dying in 1700, was held to be bewitched; men suffered from “the falling sickness” and “distemper.”

There are no reliable statistics about height and weight. It is difficult even to define what people regarded as normal good health. The average person was smaller than today. Even if courtiers flattered Louis XIV, deemed to be tall at five feet four inches, the evidence of portraits and clothes shows that a Frenchman of six feet was exceptionally tall; the same goes for most southern and central Europeans. Scandinavians, Dutch, and North Germans were generally larger; protein in meat, fish, and cheese was probably as important as their racial stock. Even where there were advances in medicine, treatment of illness remained primitive. The majority who relied on the simples or charms of the local wise woman may have been no worse off than those for whom more learned advice was available. Court doctors could not prevent the death of the Duke de Bourgogne, his wife, and his eldest son in 1712 from what was probably scarlet fever; the younger son, the future Louis XV, may have been saved by his nurse’s removing him from their ministrations.

The work of William Harvey, concerning the circulation of the blood; of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, observing through his microscope blood circulating in minute capillaries or spermatozoa in water; of Francesco Redi, developing by experiment (in a book of 1668) Harvey’s principle that “all living things come from an egg”; or of Hermann Boerhaave, professor of chemistry, medicine, and botany at Leiden, carrying out public dissections of human bodies, reveals the first approaches to modern knowledge and understanding. A striking example of what could be achieved was the efficacy of vaccine against the rampant smallpox after the discoveries of Edward Jenner and others, but vaccination was not much used until the beginning of the 19th century. As in other scientific fields, there was a long pause between pioneering research and regular practice. Trained by book, taking no account of organic life, envisaging illness as a foreign element lodged in the sick person’s body, even tending to identify disease with sin, doctors prescribed, dosed, and bled, leaning on pedantic scholarship blended with primitive psychology. Therapy was concerned mainly with moderating symptoms. For this purpose mercury, digitalis, ipecac root, and, especially, opium were used; the latter was addictive but afforded relief from pain. The wisest navigators in this frozen sea were those who knew the limitations of their craft, like William Cullen, an Edinburgh physician who wrote: “We know nothing of the nature of contagion that can lead us to any measures for removing or correcting it. We know only its effects.”

To peer in imagination into the hovels of the poor or to walk down streets with open drains between houses decayed into crowded tenements, to visit shanty towns outside the walls, such as London’s Bethnal Green or Paris’ Faubourg Saint-Marcel, to learn that the latter city’s great open sewer was not covered until 1740, is to understand why mortality rates among the poor were so high. In town and country they lived in one or two rooms, often under the same roof as their animals, sleeping on straw, eating with their fingers or with a knife and spoon, washing infrequently, and tolerating lice and fleas. Outside, dung and refuse attracted flies and rodents. Luckier people, particularly in the north, might have had glass in their windows, but light was less important than warmth. In airless rooms, thick with the odours of dampness, defecation, smoke, and unwashed bodies, rheumatic or bronchial ailments might be the least of troubles. Deficient diet in childhood could mean rickety legs. Crude methods of delivery might cause permanent damage to both mothers and children who survived the attentions of the local midwife. The baby who survived (one in four died in the first year of life) was launched on a hazardous journey.

Some diseases, such as measles, seem to have been more virulent then than now. Typhus, spread by lice and fleas, and typhoid, waterborne, killed many. Tuberculosis was less common than it was to become. Cancer, though hard to recognize from contemporary accounts, was certainly rare: with relatively little smoking and with so many other diseases competing for the vulnerable body, that is not surprising. There were few illnesses, mental or physical, of the kind today caused by stress. Alcoholism was less common, despite the increase in the drinking of spirits that debauched city dwellers: cheap gin became a significant social problem in William Hogarth’s London. Abnormalities resulting from inbreeding were frequent in mountain valleys or on remote coasts.

Syphilis had been a growing menace since its introduction in the 16th century, and it was rife among prostitutes and their patrons: it was a common cause of blindness in children. Women, hapless victims of male-dominated morality, were frequently denied the chance of early mercury treatment because of the stigma attached to the disease. Scrofula, a gangrenous tubercular condition of the lymph glands, was known as “the king’s evil” because it was thought to be curable by the king’s touch: Louis XIV practiced the ceremony conscientiously. Malaria was endemic in some swampy areas. Though drainage schemes were taken up by enlightened sovereigns, prevention awaited inexpensive quinine. Nor could doctors do more than let smallpox take its course before the general introduction of vaccines. The plague, chiefly an urban disease that was deadliest in summer and dreaded as a sentence of death, could be combated only by measures of quarantine such as those enforced around Marseille in 1720, when it made its last appearance in France. Its last European visitation was at Messina in 1740. Deliverance from plague was not the least reason for Europeans of the Enlightenment to believe that they were entering a happier age.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The human condition » Poverty
Though its extent might vary with current economic trends, poverty was a constant state. It is hard to define since material expectations vary among generations, social groups, and countries. If those with sufficient land or a wage large enough to allow for the replacement of tools and stock are held to be above the poverty line, then at least a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants were below it. They were the bas peuple whom the French engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban observed in the 1690s, “three-fourths of them . . . dressed in nothing but half-rotting, tattered linen”; a century later the philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet described those who “possess neither goods nor chattels [and are] destined to fall into misery at the least accident.” That could be illness or injury to a breadwinner, the failure of a crop or death of a cow, fire or flood, or the death or bankruptcy of an employer. Sometimes poverty showed itself in a whole community demoralized through sickness—as by malaria in Italy’s Pontine Marshes and goitre in Alpine valleys—or through the sapping of vitality when the young left to find work. Factors could be the unequal struggle with a poor soil or the exactions of a landowner: so the agricultural writer Arthur Young, at Combourg, wondered that the seigneur, “this Monsieur de Chateaubriant, . . . has nerves strung for such a residence amidst such filth and poverty.” Many were victims of an imprisoning socioeconomic regime, such as Castilian latifundia or Polish serfdom. A trade depression, a change of fashion, or an invention that made traditional manufacturing obsolete could bring destitution to busy cities such as Leiden, Lyon, Florence, or Norwich or to specialized communities such as the silk weavers of 18th-century England’s Spitalfields.

Taxes, on top of rents and dues, might be the decisive factor in the slide from sufficiency to destitution. A member of the Castilian Cortes of 1621 described the results: “Numerous places have become depopulated and disappeared from the map. . . . The vassals who formerly cultivated them now wander the roads with their wives and children.” Some had always been beyond the reach of the collector of taxes and rents, such as the bracchianti (day labourers) described by a Mantuan doctor as “without a scrap of land, without homes, lacking everything except a great brood of children . . . with a humble train of a few sheep and baggage consisting of a tattered bedstead, a mouldy cask, some rustic tools and a few pots and pans.”

Moneylenders were pivotal figures in village society. In southern Italy, merchants advanced money on wheat in contratti alla voce (oral agreements). The difference between the arranged price and that at harvest time, when the loan was repaid, represented their profit. Throughout Europe, land changed hands between lender and borrower: foreclosure and forfeit is an aspect of primitive capitalism often overlooked in the focus on trade and manufacturing. Society, even in long-settled areas, revealed a constant flux. As the 20th-century French historian Marc Bloch pointed out, hierarchy was always present in some degree, even in districts where sharecropping meant dependence on the owner’s seed and stock. In the typical village of western Europe, there were gradations between the well-to-do farmer, for whom others worked and whose strips would grow if he continued to be thrifty, and the day labourer, who lived on casual labour, hedging, ditching, thatching, repairing terraces, pruning vines, or making roads.

Urban poverty posed the biggest threat to governments. The situation became alarming after 1750 because the rise in population forced food prices up, while the employers’ advantage in the labour market depressed wages. Between 1730 and 1789, living costs in France rose by 62 percent; in Germany the price of rye for the staple black bread rose by up to 30 percent while wages fell. In Italian cities the poor depended on the authorities’ control of markets, prices, and food supplies. The riots of Genoa in 1746 show what was liable to happen if they failed. The causes of riots varied. In England, in 1766, grievances included the Irish, Roman Catholics, the press-gang, and gin taxes. The source was almost invariably poverty measured against a vague conception of a “fair wage,” fanned by rumours about hoarding and the creating of false prices. Paris was not uniquely dangerous. Before 1789, when the fury of the mob acquired political importance, the Gordon Riots (1780) had shown the way in which London could be taken over by a mob. The problem originated in rural poverty. Improvements in agriculture, such as enclosure, did not necessarily provide more work. Where there were no improvements or old abuses continued—such as the short-term leases of southern Italy, which encouraged tenants to over-crop and so exhaust the soil—the city provided the only hope. Naples, with the greatest profusion of beggars in the streets, was the most swollen of cities: at 438,000 in 1797, the population had risen by 25 percent in 30 years.

The typical relationship of mutual support was between poor hill country and large town; Edinburgh or Glasgow provided support for the Scots Highlanders, Vienna or Marseille for the Alpine poor. In Marseille a settled population of 100,000 supported 30,000 immigrants. Younger sons from the European fringes went for bread to the big armies: Croats to the Austrian, Finns to the Swedish, Scots and Irish everywhere. Women were usually left behind with the old men and children to look after the harvest in areas of seasonal migration. Domestic service drew many girls to towns with a large bourgeois population. Certain other occupations, notably lacemaking, were traditionally reserved for women. Miserably paid, young Frenchwomen risked their eyesight in fine work to earn enough for dowry and marriage. In a society where contraception was little known, except through abstinence, and irregular liaisons were frowned upon, the tendency to marry late was an indication of poverty. Almost half the women of western Europe married after 25; between 10 and 15 percent did not marry at all. The prevalence of abortion and infanticide is painfully significant: it was clearly not confined to unmarried couples. In 18th-century Brussels, more than 2,000 babies were abandoned annually to be looked after by charitable institutions. Repairs to a drain in Rennes in the 1720s revealed the tiny skeletons of 50 babies. Every major city had large numbers of prostitutes. There were approximately 20,000 in Paris, and, more surprisingly, in staid, episcopally governed Mainz, it was estimated that a third of the women in the poorer districts were prostitutes. Victims and outcasts, with the beggars and derelicts of crowded tenements, they helped create the amoral ambience in which criminals could expect tolerance and shelter.

Naturally associated with poverty, crime was also the product of war, even the very maintenance of armies. Desertion led to a man’s living an outlaw’s life. Despite ferocious penalties (having the nose and one ear cut off) the Prussian army lost 30,000 deserters between 1713 and 1740. The soldier’s life might not equip a man for settled work. It was hard, in unsettled times, to distinguish between overtly treasonous acts, as of leaders in revolts, and the persistent banditry that accompanied and outlasted them. Another gray area surrounded the arbitrary actions of officials—for example, billeting troops, sometimes, as in the dragonnades employed by Louis XIV against the Huguenots, for political reasons. Tax collection often involved violence and chicanery. The notorious Mandrin, whose prowess Tobias Smollett recorded, had also been a tax collector. Leader of a gang of some 500, he used his knowledge of the system to construct a regime of extortion. Eventually betrayed and broken on the wheel, he remained a local hero.

Banditry was a way of life on the Cossack and Balkan marches, but it was not only there that roads were unsafe. Barred by magistrates from the towns, gangs of beggars terrorized country districts. Children, pursuing victims with sorry tales, were keen trainees in the school of crime, picking pockets, cutting horsetails, soliciting for “sisters,” and abetting smuggling. The enlargement of the role of the state, with tariffs as the main weapon in protectionist strategies, encouraged evasion and smuggling. Just as few country districts were without robbers, few coasts were without smuggling gangs. A Norman seaman could make more by one clandestine Channel crossing than by a year’s fishing. Only the approval of the poor could make romantic figures of such criminals as Dick Turpin or Marion de Fouet.

The savagery of punishments was in proportion to the inadequacy of enforcement. To traditional methods—hanging, dismemberment, flogging, and branding—the possession of colonies added a new resort toward the end of the 18th century, that of transportation. By then, notably in the German and Italian lands of the Habsburg brothers Joseph II and Leopold II, who were influenced by arguments of reason and humanity, crime was fought at the source by measures to liberate trade, moderate punishments, and increase provision for the poor.

A central theme in Christian teaching was the blessed state of the poor. Holy poverty was the friars’ ideal; ardent reformers ensured that some returned to it. The ascetic Father Joseph, personal agent of Cardinal Richelieu, and Abraham Sancta Clara, preacher at the court of Leopold I, were representative figures. With the acceptance of poverty went awareness of a Christian’s duty to relieve it. Alms for the poor figured largely in wills and were a duty of most religious orders. Corporate charity had a larger place in Counter-Reformation Catholicism than in the thinking of Protestants, who stressed private virtues and endowments. The secularization of church property that accompanied the Reformation reduced levels of relief. However, meticulous church elders in Holland and parish overseers in England were empowered to raise poor rates. In Brandenburg a law of 1696 authorized parishes to provide work for the deserving poor and punishment for others. In Denmark the government pronounced in 1683 that the pauper had the legal right to relief: he could work in land reclamation or road building. Different was the approach of Vincent de Paul (1581–1660), whose instructions to the Sisters of Charity, founded to help “our lords the poor,” were both compassionate and practical. His idea of the hôpital général, a privately funded institution for the aged, crippled, and orphaned, was taken over in 1662: an edict commended the institution of hôpitaux throughout the land. Care for the poor was tinged with concern for their souls: beggars and prostitutes were carefully segregated.

With emphasis on the rights of the individual, the French Revolution did not lead to improvement in poor relief but to the reverse. Nor was the record of the Enlightenment impressive in this area. Impatient with tradition and anticlerical, the philosophes tended to be more fluent in criticism of existing systems than practical in proposals for better ones. The new breed of economists, the physiocrats, were opposed to any interference with the laws of nature, especially to any support that did not show a productive return. The threat of social disorder did alarm the upper class, however, and contributed to the revival in Britain of Evangelical religion, which stressed elementary education for the poor, reform of prisons, and abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Meanwhile, the Holy Roman emperor Joseph II had harnessed new funds for orphanages, hospitals, medical schools, and special institutions for the blind and the insane. In 1785 the Vienna General Hospital had 2,000 beds. There was provision for deprived children of all sorts. Graduated charges and free medical care for paupers were among features of a policy that represented the utilitarian spirit at its most humane.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The organization of society » Corporate society
The political history of Europe is inevitably the history of privileged minorities. In states of the eastern and northern fringes, “the political nation”—comprising those individuals who had some notion of loyalties beyond the parish and civil duties, if only at a local level, at the occasional diet, or in the army—hardly extended beyond the ranks of the gentry. Where they were numerous (a tenth of the population in Poland, for example), many would maintain themselves as clients of a magnate; even when theoretically independent, they would be likely to envisage the state in terms of sectional interest. The political life of England and Holland and the growing administration of France, Spain, and some German states opened doors to more sophisticated citizenship. Generally, however, political concerns were beyond the ken of peasants or ordinary townspeople for whom the state existed remotely, in the person of the prince, or directly, in that of the tax collector or billeting officer. It does not follow that it is futile to portray the people as a whole. First, however, it is necessary to identify certain characteristics of their world.

It was a Christian society which accepted, in and over the animist world where magic held many in thrall, the sovereignty of God and his laws. A priest might use folklore to convey the Christian message and expect allegiance so long as he endorsed paramount loyalties to family and parish. He might lose them if he objected too strongly to vendetta, charivari, and other forms of collective violence or simply to his parishioners’ preference for tavern over church. Catholic or Protestant, he might preach against superstition, but he was as likely to denounce the witch as to curb her persecutors. He might see no end to his war against ignorance and sin; and he might falter in assurance of the love of God for suffering humanity. No more than any layperson was he immune to doubt and despair. But the evidence is unambiguous: the framework was hardly shaken. It was Christian doubt or Christian pessimism, all under the judgment of God. The priest in the confessional or the Protestant minister, Bible in hand, could look to that transcendent idea to support his vision of heaven’s joys or hell’s torments, of the infinite glory of God and the angels as portrayed by artists in the new Baroque style and of the machinations of the Devil and his minions.

The churches were the grandest expression of the corporate ideal, which shaped life at all levels and which can be seen in the Christian rites invariably used to enforce rules and cement fellowship. It also informed the guilds, corporations, and colleges that served the needs of craftsmen and tradesmen, inhabitants of cities, and scholars. The idea that society was composed of orders was given perhaps excessively precise form by the lawyer Charles Loyseau in his Traité des Ordres (1610), but it serves to stress the significance of precedence. It was assumed that society was hierarchical and that each order had divine sanction. Wherever man found himself, at prayer or study, under arms or at work, there were collective rights and duties that had evolved as a strategy for survival. With them went the sense of belonging to a family of mutual obligations that had been a civilizing aspect of feudal society.

Feudalism, as a set of political arrangements, was dead by 1600. But aspects of feudal society survived, notably in the countryside. Various forms of personal service were owed by peasants to landowners and, in armies and courts, assumption of office and terms of service reflected the dealings of earlier times when power lay in the ownership of land. At the highest, providing cohesion in the intermediate phase between feudal and bureaucratic regimes, the patron-client relationship contained an idea of service that was nearer to medieval allegiance than to modern contract. Liveries might be out of use, but loyalty was owed to “my lord and master”: a powerful man such as Richelieu could thus describe his service to a greater patron, Louis XIII, and would expect the same from his dependents. Envisaging such a society, the reader must dismiss the idea of natural rights, which was not current until the last decades of the 18th century. Rights accrued by virtue of belonging, in two ways: first, as the subject of a prince or equivalent authority—for example, magistrates of a free town or the bishop of an ecclesiastical principality; second, as the member of a community or corporation, in which one had rights depending on the rank into which one was born or on one’s craft or profession. Whatever the formula by which such rights were expressed, it would be defended with tenacity as the means of ensuring the best possible life.

Christian, corporate, feudal: each label goes only some way to defining elusive mentalities in preindustrial society. The elements of organization that they represent look artificial unless the domestic basis is taken into account. The family was the lifeblood of all associations, giving purpose and identity to people who were rarely in crowds and knew nothing like the large, impersonal organization of modern times. To stress the family is not to sentimentalize it but to provide a key to understanding a near-vanished society. The intimacies of domestic life could not anesthetize against pain and hunger: life was not softened and death was a familiar visitor. Children were especially vulnerable but enjoyed no special status. Valued as an extra pair of hands or deplored as an extra mouth to feed, the child belonged to no privileged realm of play and protection from life’s responsibilities. The family might be extended by numerous relations living nearby; in Mediterranean lands it was common for grandparents or brothers and sisters, married or single, to share a house or farm. Especially in more isolated communities, inbreeding added genetic hazards to the struggle for life. Everywhere the hold of the family, and of the father over the family, strengthened by laws of property and inheritance, curtained life’s narrow windows from glimpses of a freer world. It affected marriage, since land, business, and dowry were customarily of more weight than the feelings of the bride and groom. But into dowries and ceremonies long saved for would go the display required to sustain the family name. Pride of family was one aspect of the craving for office. Providing status as well as security in a hierarchical society, it was significantly weaker in the countries, notably the United Provinces and England, where trading opportunities were greatest.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The organization of society » Nobles and gentlemen
Between persistent poverty and the prevailing aristocratic spirit several connections can be made. The strong appeal of noble status and values was a force working generally against the pursuit of wealth and the investment that was to lead, precociously and exceptionally in Britain, to the Industrial Revolution. In France a nobleman could lose rank (dérogeance) by working, which inhibited him from engaging in any but a few specified enterprises. The typical relationship between landed gentleman and peasant producer was still feudal; whether represented by a range of rights and dues or by the more rigorous form of serfdom, it encouraged acceptance of the status quo in agriculture. Every state in Europe, except some Swiss cantons, recognized some form of nobility whose privileges were protected by law. Possession of land was a characteristic mark and aspiration of the elites.

The use of the two terms nobleman and gentleman indicates the difficulty of definition. The terms were loosely used to mark the essential distinction between members of an upper class and the rest. In France, above knights and esquires without distinctive title, ranged barons, viscounts, counts, and marquises, until the summit was reached with dukes and princes of the blood. In Britain, by contrast, only peers of the realm, whether entitled duke, marquess, earl, or baron, had corporate status: numbering under 200, they enjoyed few special privileges beyond membership of the House of Lords. The gentry, however, with assured social position, knighthoods, armorial bearings, and estates, were the equivalent of Continental nobles. With the nobility, they owned more than three-quarters of the land: in contrast, in France by 1789 the nobility owned barely a third. In northern and eastern Europe, where the social structure was generally simpler than in the west, nobles—dvoriane in Russia, szlachta in Poland and Hungary—were numerous. In these countries, many of those technically noble were in reality of little importance and might even, like the “barefoot szlachta,” have no land.

Such differences apart, there were rights and privileges that most Continental nobles possessed and values to which most subscribed. The right to wear a sword, to bear a crested coat of arms, to retain a special pew in church, to enjoy such precedence on formal occasions as rank prescribed, and to have if necessary a privileged form of trial would all seem to the noble inherent and natural. As landowner he enjoyed rights over peasants, not least as judge in his own court. In France, parts of Germany, Italy, and Spain, even if he did not own the land, he could as lord still benefit from feudal dues. He could hope for special favours from his sovereign or other patron in the form of a pension or office. There were vital exemptions, as from billeting soldiers and—most valuable—from taxation. The effectiveness of governments can be measured by the extent to which they breached this principle: in France, for example, in the 18th century by the dixième and vingtième taxes, effectively on income; belatedly, in Poland, where nobles paid no tax until the chimney tax of 1775. Generally they could expect favourable treatment: special schools, privileges at university, preferment in the church, commissions in the army. They could assume that a sovereign, while encroaching on their rights, would yet share their values. Richelieu’s policy exemplifies such ambivalence. A noble himself, Richelieu sought to promote the interests of his class while directing it toward royal service and clipping the wings of the over-powerful. Frederick II the Great of Prussia was not concerned about faction. Since “most commoners think meanly,” he believed that nobles were best suited to serve in the government and the army. Such admiration for noble virtues did not usually extend to the political role. The decline of Continental estates and diets, with the growth of bureaucracies, largely recruited from commoners, did not mean, however, even in the west, that nobility was in retreat before the rise of the bourgeoisie. Through social preeminence, nobles maintained—and in the 18th century even tightened—their hold on the commanding heights in church and state.

Within all countries there was a distinction between higher and lower levels within the caste: in some, not only between those who were titled and the rest but, as in Spain and France, between titulos and grandees, a small group upon which royal blood or the achievement of some ancestor conferred privileges of a self-perpetuating kind. “The grandeeship of the counts of Lemos was made by God and time,” observed the head of the family to the new Bourbon king Philip V. No less pretentious were the Condés or the Montmorencys of France. There was a tendency everywhere to the aggrandizement of estates through arranged marriage, a sovereign’s favour, or the opportunities provided by war, as in Bohemia after the suppression of the revolt of 1618 or in England with the rise of the Whig families of Russell and Cavendish. In Britain, the principle of primogeniture ensured succession to the eldest son (promoting social mobility as younger sons made their way in professions or trades). Peter I the Great of Russia legislated for the entail (1714), but without success: it was abandoned by Anna (1731) in favour of the traditional law of inheritance. However, mayorazgo in Castile and fideicommissum in parts of Italy kept vast estates together. Where the colonization of new lands was not restrained by central government, families like the Radziwiłłs and Wiśniowieckis of Poland acquired huge estates. The szlachta of Hungary also cherished privileges as descendants of warriors and liberators. There, Prince Miklós Esterházy, patron of a private orchestra and of Joseph Haydn, excelled all by the end of the 17th century with his annual revenue of 700,000 florins. In Russia, where wealth was measured in serfs, Prince Cherkanski was reckoned in 1690 to have 9,000 peasant households.

Status increasingly signified economic circumstances. In France, where subtle nuances escaped the outsider, one trend is revealing. The old distinction between “sword” and “gown” lost much importance. Age of title came to mean more for antiquarians and purists than for men of fashion who would not scorn a mésalliance if it “manured the land.” Most daughters of 18th-century tax farmers married the sons of nobles. The class was open to new creations, usually through purchase of an office conferring nobility. When, in a regulation of 1760, the year 1400 was made a test of antiquity, fewer than 1,000 families were eligible. The tendency was toward the formation of a plutocracy. Nobles came to dominate the church and the army, even to penetrate government, from which it had been the policy of the early Bourbons to exclude them. The noble order numbered about 120,000 families by 1789. By then the nobles, particularly those of the country who seldom came to court, had brought their rearguard action to a climax to preserve their privileges—for example, by Ségur’s ordinance of 1781, reserving army commissions to nobles of at least four generations. This “feudal reaction” contributed to the problems of government in the years before the Revolution. In Russia, at the height of the conservative reaction that had already secured the abolition (1762) of the service obligation imposed by Peter I, Catherine II the Great was forced to abandon liberal reforms. The Pugachov rising (1773–74) alerted landowners to the dangers of serfdom, but it was reckoned that three-fifths of all landowners owned fewer than 20 serfs. The census of 1687 showed that there were half a million nobles in Spain. But hidalguia might mean little more than a Spaniard’s estimation of himself. Without a substantial señorio (estate), the hidalgo was insignificant.

When “living nobly” meant not working and hidalgos or szlachta attached themselves to a great house for a coat and a loaf, faction became more dangerous and aristocratic interests more resistant to change. It took courage for a sovereign to tackle the entrenched power of nobility in diets, as did the Habsburg queen Maria Theresa (1740–80) in her Austrian and Bohemian lands. Nowhere in Europe did nobles take themselves more seriously, but they were the readier to accept curtailment of their political rights because they enjoyed a healthy economic position. Vienna’s cosmopolitan culture and Baroque palaces were evidence of not only the success of the regime in drawing nobles to the capital but also the rise in manorial rents. Nobles played a decorative role in the most ceremonious court in 18th-century Europe. Charles VI (1711–40) had provided 40,000 posts for noble clients. Maria Theresa, concerned about expense, reduced the number of chamberlains to 1,500. It was left to her son Joseph II to attack noble privileges at every point, right up to the abolition of serfdom. There was a correlation between the advance of government and the curtailment of noble privilege. Inevitably it was an uneven process, depending much on the resolution of a ruler. In Sweden it was to the poor gentlemen, a high proportion of its 10,000 nobles, that Charles XI had appealed in his successful promotion of absolutist reforms in the 1680s. After 1718 the same conservative force militated against royal government. The aristocratic reaction of the age of liberty saw the reassertion of the traditional principle that the nobility were the guardians of the country’s liberties. So the Swedish upper class arrived at the position of their British counterparts and obtained that power, not divorced from responsibility, which was envied and extolled by the philosophes who regretted its absence from France and sought consolation in the works of Montesquieu. A central idea of his L’Esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of Laws) was that noble privilege was the surest guarantee of the laws against despotism. That could not be said of Prussia, although a Junker’s privilege was wedded to a subject’s duty. In exchange for the loss of political rights, Junkers had been confirmed in their social and fiscal privileges: with the full rigour of serfdom (Leibeigenschaft) and rights of jurisdiction over tenants went a secure hold over local government. Under the pressure of war and following his own taste for aristocratic manners, Frederick II taught them to regard the army or civil service as a career. But Frederick disappointed the philosophes who expected him to protect the peasantry. The nobles meanwhile acquired a pride in militarism that was to be potent in the creation of the 19th-century German state. The class became more numerous but remained relatively poor: Junkers often had to sell land to supplement meagre pay. Frederick’s working nobility sealed the achievements of his capable predecessors. The price paid indicates the difficulties inherent in any attempt to reconcile the interests of the dominant class to the needs of society.

Nobility also had a civilizing role. Europe would be immeasurably poorer without the music, literature, and architecture of the age of aristocracy. The virtues of classical taste were to some extent those of aristocracy: splendour restrained by formal rules and love of beauty uninhibited by utilitarian considerations. There was much that was absurd in the pretensions of some patrons; illusions of grandeur are rarely the best basis for the conceiving of great art. The importance of bourgeois patronage should not be overlooked, otherwise no account would be taken of Holland’s golden age. Where taste was unaffected by the need for display (as could not be said of Louis XIV’s Versailles) or where a wise patron put his trust in the reputedly best architect, art could triumph. Civilizing trends were prominent, as in England, where there was a free intellectual life. New money, as lavished by the Duke of Chandos, builder of the great house of Canons and patron of the composer George Frideric Handel, could be fruitful. Also important was the fusion of aristocratic style with ecclesiastical patronage, as could occur where noblemen enjoyed the best preferment and abbots lived like nobles: the glories of the German Baroque at Melk, Ottobeuren, and Vierzehnheiligen speak as much of aristocracy as of the Christian Gospel.

In contrast with Sweden, where, in the 18th century, talent was recognized and the scientists Carolus Linnaeus and Emanuel Swedenborg were ennobled, or France, where the plutocracy encountered the Enlightenment without discomfort, the most sterile ground for aristocratic culture was to be found where there was an enforced isolation, as in Spain or Europe’s poor marches and remotest western shores. Visitors to Spain were startled by the ignorance of the men and the passivity of the women. Life in Poland, Hungary, and Ireland resolved itself for many of the gentry into a simple round of hunting and carousing. The urban aspect of noble culture needs stress, which is not surprising when its classical inspiration is recalled. Even in England, where educated men favoured country life and did not despise the country town, society would have been poorer without the intense activity of London. All the greater was the importance of the capital cities—Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Budapest, and Dublin—in countries that might not otherwise have generated fine art or architecture.

The aristocratic spirit transcended frontiers. For the nobleman Europe was the homeland. Italian plasterers and painters, German musicians, and French cabinetmakers traveled for high commissions. There were variations reflecting local traditions: the Baroque style was interpreted distinctively in Austria, Italy, Spain, and France. But high style reveals certain underlying principles and convictions. The same is true of the intellectual life of Europe, reflecting as it did two main sources, French and English. It was especially to France that the two most powerful rulers of eastern Europe, Frederick II and Catherine II, looked for mentors in thought and style. The French language, deliberately purified from the time of Richelieu and the foundation of the Academy, was well adapted to the clear expression of ideas. The salons stimulated the discussion of ideas and engendered a distinctive style. Feminine insights there contributed to a rational culture that was also responsive to the claims of sensibility.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The organization of society » The bourgeoisie
The European bourgeoisie presents faces so different that common traits can be discerned only at the simplest level: the possession of property with the desire and means to increase it, emancipation from past precepts about investment, a readiness to work for a living, and a sense of being superior to town workers or peasants. With their social values—sobriety, discretion, and economy—went a tendency to imitate the style of their social superiors. In France the expectations of the bourgeoisie were roused by education and relative affluence to the point at which they could be a revolutionary force once the breakdown of royal government and its recourse to a representative assembly had given them the voice they had lacked. Everywhere the Enlightenment was creating a tendency to be critical of established institutions (notably, in Roman Catholic countries, the church), together with a hunger for knowledge as a tool of progress.

Such dynamic characteristics, conducive to social mobility, should not obscure the essential feature of bourgeois life: conservativism within a corporate frame. In 1600 a town of more than 100,000 would have been thought enormous: only London, Paris, Naples, Seville, Venice, Rome, and Constantinople came into that class. Half in Asia but enmeshed in the European economic system, Constantinople was unique: it was a megalopolis, a gigantic consumer of the produce of subject lands. London’s growth was more significant for the future: it was a seaport and capital, but with a solid base in manufacturing, trade, and finance. Like Naples, it was a magnet for the unemployed and restless. In 1700 there were only 48 towns in Europe with a population of more than 40,000; all were regarded as important places. Even a smaller city might have influence in the country, offering a range of services and amenities; such was Amiens, with 30,000 inhabitants and 36 guilds, including bleachers, dyers, and finishers of the cloth that was woven in nearby villages but sent far afield. Most towns had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, and a fair number only about 1,000; most towns remained static or declined. Some grew, however: between 1600 and 1750 the proportion of the population living in towns of more than 20,000 doubled from 4 to 8 percent, representing about half the total urban population.

A universal phenomenon was the growth of capital cities, which benefited from the expansion of government, particularly if, as was usual, the court was within the city. Growth could acquire its own momentum, irrespective of the condition of the country: besides clients and servants of all kinds, artisans, shopkeepers, and other providers of services swelled the ranks. Warsaw’s size doubled during Poland’s century of distress to stand at 120,000 by 1772. St. Petersburg, in 1700 a swamp, acquired 218,000 inhabitants by 1800. Berlin, the simple electoral capital of some 6,000 inhabitants in 1648, rose with the success of the Hohenzollerns to a population of 150,000 by 1786. By then the population of Vienna—home of the imperial court, a growing professional class, a renowned university and other schools, and hospitals—had reached 220,000. The population of Turin, capital of relatively small Savoy, also doubled in the 18th century. Rome did not suffer too obviously from the retreat of the popes from a leading political role, but the Holy City (140,000 inhabitants in 1700) was top-heavy, with little in the way of manufacturing. All these cities owed their growth to their strategic place in the government rather than to their economic importance.

Other cities grew around specialized industries or from opportunities for a wider trade than was possible where markets were limited by the range of horse and mule. Growth was likely to be slow where, as in Lyon, Rouen, and Dresden, production continued to be along traditional lines or, in ports such as Danzig, Königsberg, or Hamburg, where trading patterns remained essentially the same. Enterprise, by contrast, brought remarkable growth in Britain, where Manchester and Birmingham both moved up from modest beginnings to the 100,000-population mark during the 18th century. Atlantic ports thrived during the same period with the increase in colonial trade: into this category fall Bordeaux, Nantes, Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Marseille recovered quickly from the plague of 1720 and grew on the grain import trade; more typical of Mediterranean cities were stagnant Genoa, Venice, and Palermo, where Austrian policy in the 18th century, favouring Milan, was an adverse factor.

A typical urban experience, where there was no special factor at work, was therefore one of stability. The burgher of 1600 would have felt at home in the town of his descendant five generations later. There might have been calamities along the way: at worst, siege or assault, plague, a particularly serious recession, or a fire, such as destroyed Rennes in 1720. Some building or refacing of houses would have occurred, mainly within the walls. In more fortunate cities, where there was continuing economic stability or strong corporate identity—as in the siege victims La Rochelle (1628) or Magdeburg (1631)—recovery even from the worst of war experiences could be rapid. The professions, notably the church and law, were tough, having large interests in the town and in the property in and around it. Guild discipline, inhibiting in fair years, was a strength in foul ones. Not all towns were so resilient, however. Some Polish towns never recovered from the effects of the Great Northern War; others throughout northern and eastern Europe were victims of the rise of the self-sufficient estate, which supplied needs such as brewing that the town had previously offered. Some Italian and Spanish towns, such as Cremona, Toledo, and Burgos, were affected by the decline of manufacturing and the shift of trade to the Atlantic economies.

It was possible for a town that had a special importance in the sphere of church or law (Angers, Salzburg, or Trier, for example) to enjoy a quiet prosperity, but there was a special kind of deadness about towns that had no other raison d’être than to be host to numerous clergy. Valladolid contained 53 religious houses “made up principally of consumers” according to a report of 1683. Most numerous were the quiet places that had never grown from their basic function of providing a market. England’s archaic electoral system provided graphic evidence of such decay, leaving its residue of “rotten boroughs.”

Between these extremes lay the mass of towns of middling size, each supervised by a mayor and corporation, dignified by one large church and probably several others serving ward or parish (and, if Catholic, by a religious house of some kind), and including a law court, guildhall, school, and, of course, market. With its bourgeois crust of clerics, lawyers, officials, merchants, and shopkeepers and master craftsmen catering for special needs—fine fabrics, clothing, hats, wigs, gloves, eyeglasses, engravings if not paintings, china, silver, glassware, locks, and clocks—the city was a world apart from the peasant. The contrast was emphasized by the walls, the gates that closed at night, the cobbles or setts of the roads, the different speech and intonation, the well-fed look of some citizens, and above all the fine houses, suggesting as much an ordered way of life as the wealth that supported it. The differences were blurred, however, by the pursuits of the urban landowners; by ubiquitous animals, whether bound for market or belonging to the citizens; by the familiar poverty and filth of the streets and the reek of the tannery and the shambles.

It is easier to recreate the physical frame than the mentalities of townspeople. Letters, journals, government reports and statistics, wills, and contracts reveal salient features. The preference for safe kinds of investment could be exploited by governments for revenue, as notably by the French: in 1661 Colbert found that, of 46,000 offices of justice and finance, 40,000 were unnecessary. There was an inclination to buy land for status and security. Around cities like Dijon, most of the surrounding land was owned by the bourgeois or the recently ennobled. Custom and ceremony were informed by a keen sense of hierarchy, as in minutely ordered processions. The instinct to regulate was stiffened by the need to restrain servants and journeymen and to ensure that apprentices waited for the reward of their training. Religion maintained its hold more firmly in the smaller towns, while the law was respected as the mainstay of social order and the road to office in courts or administration even where, as in Italy, it was palpably corruptible. There were certain communal dreads, military requisitioning and billeting high among them. There was generally a resolve to ward off beggars, to maintain grain stores, to close the gates to the famished when crops failed, and to enforce quarantine.

Within towns, popular forms of government were abandoned as power was monopolized by groups of wealthy men. This process can be studied in the Dutch towns in the years after 1648 when regents gained control. Everywhere elites were composed of those who had no business role. Among other labels for this period, when a profession seemed to be more desirable than trade, “a time of lawyers” might be appropriate. Trained to contend, responsive to new ideas, at least dipping into the waters of the Enlightenment, those lawyers who were cheated, by sheer numbers, of the opportunity to rise might become a dissident element, especially in countries where political avenues were blocked and the economy was growing too slowly to sustain them. Sometimes the state moved in to control municipal affairs, as in France where intendants were given wide powers toward the end of Louis XIV’s reign. In Spain, towns came into the hands of local magnates.

A more serious threat to the old urban regime lay in another area where discontents bred radicalism: the guilds. Not until the French Revolution and the radical actions of Joseph II of Austria were guilds anywhere abolished. They had long displayed a tendency to oligarchic control by hereditary masters. They became more restrictive in the face of competition and growing numbers of would-be members and so drove industries, particularly those suited to dispersed production, back to the countryside. For this reason, such cities as Leiden, Rouen, Cologne, and Nürnberg actually lost population in the 18th century. To compensate for falling production, masters tended to put pressure on the relatively unskilled level, where there were always more workers than work. Journeymen’s associations sought to improve their situation, sometimes through strikes. The building trade was notorious for its secret societies. The decline of the guilds was only one symptom of the rise in population. Another was the rise in urban poverty, as pressure on resources led to price increases that outstripped wages. In late 18th-century Berlin, which was solidly based on bureaucracy, garrison, and numerous crafts, a third of the population still lacked regular work. The plight of the poor was emphasized by the affluence of increasing numbers of fellow citizens. However class conflict is interpreted, it is clear that its basic elements were by that time present and active.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The organization of society » The peasantry
In 1700 only 15 percent of Europe’s population lived in towns, but that figure concealed wide variations: at the two extremes by 1800 were Britain with 40 percent and Russia with 4 percent. Most Europeans were peasants, dependent on agriculture. The majority of them lived in nucleated settlements and within recognized boundaries, those of parish or manor, but some, in the way characteristic of the hill farmer, lived in single farms or hamlets. The type of settlement reflected its origins: pioneers who had cleared forests or drained swamps, Germans who had pressed eastward into Slav lands, Russians who had replaced conquered Mongols, Spaniards who had expelled the Moors. Each brought distinctive characteristics. Discounting the nomad fringe, there remains a fundamental difference between serfs and those who had more freedom, whether as owners or tenants paying some form of rent but both liable to seigneurial dues. There were about one million serfs in eastern France and some free peasants in Russia, so the pattern is untidy; but broadly it represents the difference between eastern and western Europe.

The Russian was less attached to a particular site than his western counterparts living in more densely populated countries and had to be held down by a government determined to secure taxes and soldiers. The imposition of serfdom was outlined in the Ulozhenie, the legal code of 1649, which included barschina (forced labour). One consequence was the decline of the mir, the village community, with its fellowship and practical services; another was the tightening of the ties of mutual interest that bound tsar and landowner. Poles, Germans (mainly those of the east and north), Bohemians, and Hungarians were subject to a serfdom less extreme only in that they were treated as part of the estate and could not be sold separately; the Russian serf, who could, was more akin to a slave. Russian state peasants, an increasingly numerous class in the 18th century, were not necessarily secure; they were sent out to farm new lands. Catherine the Great transferred 800,000 serfs to private ownership. The serf could not marry, move, or take up a trade without his lord’s leave. He owed labour (robot) in the Habsburg lands for at least three days a week and dues that could amount to 20 percent of his produce. The Thirty Years’ War hastened the process of subjection, already fed by the west’s demand for grain; peasants returning to ruined homesteads found that their rights had vanished. The process was resisted by some rulers, notably those of Saxony and Brunswick: independent peasants were a source of revenue. Denmark saw an increase in German-style serfdom in the 18th century, but most Swedish peasants were free—their enemies were climate and hunger, rather than the landowner. Uniquely, they had representation in their own Estate in the Riksdag.

Through much of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal there was some form of rent or sharecropping. Feudalism survived in varying degrees of rigour, with an array of dues and services representing seigneurial rights. It was a regime that about half of Europe’s inhabitants had known since the Middle Ages. In England all but a few insignificant forms had gone, though feudal spirit lingered in deference to the squire. Enclosures were reducing the yeoman to the condition of a tenant farmer or, for most, a dependent, landless labourer. Although alodial tenures (absolute ownership) ensured freedom from dues in some southern provinces, France provides the best model for understanding the relationship of lord and peasant. The seigneur was generally, but not invariably, noble: a seigneury could be bought by a commoner. It had two parts. The domaine was the house with its grounds: there were usually a church and a mill, but not necessarily fields and woods, for those might have been sold. The censives, lands subject to the seigneur, still owed dues even if no longer owned by him. The cens, paid annually, was significant because it represented the obligations of the peasant: free to buy and sell land, he still endured burdens that varied from the trivial or merely vexatious to those detrimental to good husbandry. They were likely to include banalités, monopoly rights over the mill, wine press, or oven; saisine and lods et ventes, respectively a levy on the assets of a censitaire on death and a purchase tax on property sold; champart, a seigneurial tithe, payable in kind; monopolies of hunting, shooting, river use, and pigeon rearing; the privilege of the first harvest, for example, droit de banvin, by which the seigneur could gather his grapes and sell his wine first; and the corvées, obligatory labour services. Seigneurial rule had benevolent aspects, and justice in the seigneurial court could be even-handed; seigneurs could be protectors of the community against the state’s taxes and troops. But the regime was damaging, as much to the practice of farming as to the life of the peasants, who were harassed and schooled in resistance and concealment. To identify an 18th-century feudal reaction—as some historians have called the tendency to apply business principles to the management of dues—is not to obscure the fact that for many seigneurs the system was becoming unprofitable. By 1789 in most provinces there was little hesitation: the National Assembly abolished feudal dues by decree at one sitting because the peasants had already taken the law into their own hands. Some rights were won back, but there could be no wholesale restoration.

Besides priest or minister, the principal authority in most peasants’ lives was that of the lord. The collective will of the community also counted for much, as in arrangements for plowing, sowing, and reaping, and even in some places the allocation of land. The range of the peasant’s world was that of a day’s travel on foot or, more likely, by donkey, mule, or pony. He would have little sense of a community larger than he could see or visit. His struggle against nature or the demands of his superiors was waged in countless little pockets. When peasants came together in insurgent bands, as in Valencia in 1693, there was likely to be some agitation or leadership from outside the peasant community—in that case from José Navarro, a surgeon. There needed to be some exceptional provocation, like the new tax that roused Brittany in 1675. After the revolt had been suppressed, the parlement of Rennes was exiled to a smaller town for 14 years: clearly government understood the danger of bourgeois complicity. Rumour was always potent, especially when tinged with fantasy, as in Stenka Razin’s rising in southern Russia, which evolved between 1667 and 1671 from banditry into a vast protest against serfdom. Generally, cooperation between villages was less common than feuding, the product of centuries of uneasy proximity and conflict over disputed lands.

The peasant’s life was conditioned by mundane factors: soil, water supplies, communications, and above all the site itself in relation to river, sea, frontier, or strategic route. The community could be virtually self-sufficient. Its environment was formed by what could be bred, fed, sown, gathered, and worked within the bounds of the parish. Fields and beasts provided food and clothing; wood came from the fringe of wasteland. Except in districts where stone was available and easy to work, houses were usually made of wood or a cob of clay and straw. Intended to provide shelter from the elements, they can be envisaged as a refinement of the barn, with certain amenities for their human occupants: hearth, table, and benches with mats and rushes strewn on a floor of beaten earth or rough stone. Generally there would be a single story, with a raised space for beds and an attic for grain. For his own warmth and their security the peasant slept close to his animals, under the same roof. Cooking required an iron pot, sometimes the only utensil named in peasant inventories. Meals were eaten off wood or earthenware. Fuel was normally wood, which was becoming scarce in some intensively cultivated parts of northern Europe, particularly Holland, where much of the land was reclaimed from sea or marsh. Peat and dried dung also were used, but rarely coal. Corn was ground at the village mill, a place of potential conflict: only one man had the necessary expertise, and his clients were poorly placed to bargain. Women and girls spun and wove for the itinerant merchants who supplied the wool or simply for the household, for breeches, shirts, tunics, smocks, and gowns. Clothes served elemental needs: they were usually thick for protection against damp and cold and loose-fitting for ease of movement. Shoes were likely to be wooden clogs, as leather was needed for harnesses. Farm implements—plows (except for the share), carts, harrows, and many of the craftsman’s tools—were made of wood, seasoned, split or rough-hewn. Few possessed saws; in Russia they were unknown before 1700. Iron was little used and was likely to be of poor quality. Though it might be less true of eastern Europe where, as in Bohemia, villages tended to be smaller, the community would usually have craftsmen—a smith or a carpenter, for example—to satisfy most needs. More intricate skills were provided by traveling tinkers.

The isolated villager might hear of the outside world from such men. Those living around the main routes would fare better and gather news, at least indirectly, from merchants, students, pilgrims, and government officials or, less reputably, from beggars, gypsies, or deserters (a numerous class in most states). He might buy broadsheets, almanacs, and romances, produced by enterprising printers at centres such as Troyes, to be hawked around wherever there were a few who could read. So were kept alive what became a later generation’s fairy tales, along with the magic and astrology that they were not reluctant to believe. Inn and church provided the setting for business, gossip, and rumour. Official reports and requirements were posted and village affairs were conducted in the church. The innkeeper might benefit from the cash of wayfarers but like others who provided a service, he relied chiefly on the produce of his own land. Thus the rural economy consisted of innumerable self-sufficient units incapable of generating adequate demand for the development of large-scale manufactures. Each cluster of communities was isolated within its own market economy, proud, and suspicious of outsiders. Even where circumstances fostered liberty, peasants were pitifully inadequate in finding original solutions to age-old problems but were well-versed in strategies of survival, for they could draw on stores of empirical wisdom. They feared change just as they feared the night for its unknown terrors. Their customs and attitudes were those of people who lived on the brink: more babies might be born but there would be no increase in the food supply.

In the subsistence economy there was much payment and exchange in kind; money was hoarded for the occasional purchase, to the frustration of tax collectors and the detriment of economic growth. Demand was limited by the slow or nonexistent improvement in methods of farming. There was no lack of variety in the agricultural landscape. Between the temporary cultivation of parts of Russia and Scandinavia, where slash-and-burn was encouraged by the extent of forest land, and the rotation of cereal and fodder crops of Flanders and eastern England, 11 different methods of tillage have been identified. Most common was some version of the three-course rotation that Arthur Young denounced when he traveled in France in 1788. He observed the subdivision and wide dispersal of holdings that provided a further obstacle to the diversification of crops and selective breeding. The loss of land by enclosure pauperized many English labourers. But the development in lowland England of the enclosed, compact economic unit—the central feature of the agrarian revolution—enabled large landowners to prosper and invest and small farmers to survive. They were not trapped, like many Continental peasants, between the need to cultivate more land and the declining yields of their crops, which followed from the loss of pasture and of fertilizing manure. Without capital accumulation and with persisting low demand for goods, economic growth was inhibited. The work force was therefore tied to agriculture in numbers that depressed wage rates, discouraged innovation, and tempted landowners to compensate by some form of exploitation of labour, rights, and dues. Eighteenth-century reformers condemned serfdom and other forms of feudalism, but they were as much the consequence as the cause of the agricultural malaise.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The economic environment » Innovation and development
Every country had challenges to overcome before its resources could be developed. The possession of a coastline with safe harbours or of a navigable river was an important asset and, as by Brandenburg and Russia, keenly fought for; so were large mineral deposits, forests, and fertile soil. But communications were primitive and transport slow and costly even in favoured lands. Napoleon moved at the same speed as Julius Caesar. By horse, coach, or ship, it was reckoned that 24 hours was necessary to travel 60 miles. In one area, however, innovation had proceeded at such a pace as to justify terms such as “intellectual” or “scientific” revolution; yet there remained a yawning gap between developments in theoretical science and technology. In the age of Newton the frontiers of science were shifting fast, and there was widespread interest in experiment and demonstration, but one effect was to complete the separation of a distinctive intellectual elite: the more advanced the ideas, the more difficult their transmission and application. There was a movement of thought rather than a scientific movement, a culture of inquiry rather than of enterprise. Only in the long term was the one to lead to the other, through the growing belief that material progress was possible. Meanwhile, advances were piecemeal, usually the work of individuals, often having no connection with business. Missing was not only that association of interests that characterizes industrial society but also the educational ground: schools and universities were wedded to traditional courses. Typical inventors of the early industrial age were untutored craftsmen, such as Richard Arkwright, James Watt, or John Wilkinson. Between advances in technology there could be long delays.

As those names suggest, Britain was the country that experienced the breakthrough to higher levels of production. The description “Industrial Revolution” is misleading if applied to the economy as a whole, but innovations in techniques and organization led to such growth in iron, woolens, and, above all, cotton textiles in the second half of the 18th century that Britain established a significant lead. It was sustained by massive investment and by the wars following the French Revolution, which shut the Continent off from developments that in Britain were stimulated by war. Factors involved in the unique experience of a country that contained only 1 in 20 of Europe’s inhabitants expose certain contrasting features of the European economy. The accumulation of capital had been assisted by agricultural improvement, the acquisition of colonies, the operation of chartered companies (notably the East India Company), trade-oriented policies of governments (notably that of William Pitt during the Seven Years’ War), and the development of colonial markets. There existed a relatively advanced financial system, based on the successful Bank of England (founded 1694), and interest rates were consistently lower than those of European rivals. This was particularly important in the financing of road and canal building, where large private investment was needed before profit was realized. Further advantages included plentiful coal and iron ore and swift-flowing streams in the hilly northwest where the moist climate was suited to cotton spinning. The labour force was supplemented by Irish immigrants. A society that cherished political and legal institutions characteristic of the ancien régime also exhibited a free and tolerant spirit, tending to value fortune as much as birth. Comparison with Britain’s chief rival in the successive wars of 1740–48, 1756–63, and 1778–83 is strengthened by the consequences of those wars: for France the slide toward bankruptcy, for Britain a larger debt that could still be funded without difficulty.

Yet the French enjoyed an eightfold growth in colonial trade between 1714 and 1789, considerably larger than that of the British. The Dutch still had the financial strength, colonies, trading connections, and at least some of the entrepreneurial spirit that had characterized them in the 17th century. Enlightened statesmen such as the Marquês de Pombal in Portugal, Charles III of Spain, and Joseph II of Austria backed measures designed to promote agriculture and manufacturing. The question of why other countries lagged behind Britain leads to consideration of material and physical conditions, collective attitudes, and government policies. It should not distort the picture of Europe as a whole or obscure the changes that affected the demand for goods and the ability of manufacturers and traders to respond.

The mercantilist theory—which still appealed to a statesman like Frederick the Great, as it had to his great-grandfather—was grounded on the assumption that markets were limited: to increase trade, new markets had to be found. Mobility within society and increased spending by common folk, who were not expected to live luxuriously, were treated as symptoms of disorder. Mercantilists were concerned lest the state be stripped of its treasure and proper distinctions of status be undermined. The moral context is important: mercantilism belongs to the world of the city-state, the guilds, and the church; its ethical teaching is anchored in the medieval situation. By 1600 the doctrine that usury was sinful was already weakened beyond recovery by evasion and example. Needy princes borrowed, but prejudice against banks lingered, reinforced by periodic demonstrations of their fallibility, as in the failure of John Law’s Banque Générale in Paris in 1720. Productive activity was not necessarily assumed to be a good thing. Yet it is possible, throughout the period, to identify dynamic features characteristic of capitalism in its developed, industrial phase.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The economic environment » Early capitalism
Two broad trends can be discerned. The shift from the Mediterranean and its hinterlands to the Atlantic seaboard continued, although there was still vigorous entrepreneurial activity in certain Mediterranean regions; Venice stood still, but Marseille and Barcelona prospered. More striking was the growing gap between the economic systems of the east, where capital remained largely locked up in the large estates, and the west, where conditions were more favourable to enterprise. With more widespread adoption of utilitarian criteria for management went a sterner view of the obligation of workers. Respect for the clock, with regular hours and the reduction of holidays for saints’ days (already achieved in Protestant countries), was preparing the way psychologically for the discipline of the factory and mill. Handsome streets and squares of merchants’ houses witnessed to the prosperity of Atlantic ports such as Bordeaux, Nantes, and Bristol, which benefited from the reorientation of trade. Above all, Amsterdam and London reflected the mutually beneficial activity of trade and services. From shipbuilding, so demanding in skills and raw materials, a network of suppliers reached back to forests, fields, and forges, where timber, iron, canvas, and rope were first worked. Chandlering, insurance, brokerage, and credit-trading facilitated international dealing and amassing of capital. Fairs had long counteracted the isolation of regional economies: Lyon on the Rhône, Hamburg on the Elbe, and Danzig on the Vistula had become centres of exchange, where sales were facilitated by price lists, auctions, and specialization in certain commodities. Retailing acquired a modern look with shops catering to those who could afford coffee from Brazil or tobacco from Virginia; unlike earlier retailing, the goods offered for sale were not the products of work carried out on the premises. The dissemination of news was another strand in the pattern. By 1753 the sale of newspapers exceeded seven million: the emphasis was on news, not opinion, and price lists were carried with the news that affected them. Seamen were assisted by the dredging of harbours and improved docks and by more accurate navigational instruments and charts. In 1600 there were 18 lighthouses on or off the shores of Europe; in 1750 there were 82. The state also improved roads and made them safe for travelers; by 1789 France had 7,500 miles of fine roads, built largely by forced labour. By 1660 nearly every Dutch city was linked by canals. Following their example, Elector Frederick William in Brandenburg and Peter the Great in Russia linked rivers to facilitate trade. In France Colbert’s plan for the Languedoc canal (completed 1682) involved private as well as state capital. England’s canal builders, notably the Duke of Bridgewater, had to find their own resources: consequently, capital was applied to the best effect to serve mines and factories. The general survival of tolls and the resistance of interested parties to their removal imposed constraints on most governments. The abolition of internal customs was therefore a priority for enlightened reformers such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in France and Joseph II in Austria. Germany’s many princes had taken advantage of weak imperial authority to impose the tolls, which produced revenue at the cost of long-distance trade. Numerous external tariffs remained an obstacle to the growth of trade. Radical action, however, could be dangerous. Turgot’s attempt to liberate the grain trade in France led to shortages, price rises, and his own downfall. The free trade treaty of 1786 of the French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, also had unfortunate consequences: France was flooded by cheap English textiles, peasant weavers were distressed, and the ground was prepared for the popular risings of 1789.

One important development was the adoption in western Europe of the existing Italian practice of using bills of exchange as negotiable instruments; it was legalized in Holland in 1651 and in England in 1704. Bankers who bought bills, at a discount to cover risk, thereby released credit that would otherwise have been immobilized. The other aspect of the financial revolution was the growth of banking facilities. In 1660 there had been little advance in a century, since princes and magnates, after raising money too easily, had reneged on debts and damaged the fragile system. Great houses, such as the Fuggers, had been ruined. The high interest rates demanded by survivors contributed to the recession of the 17th century. There were some municipal institutions, such as the Bank of Hamburg and the great Bank of Amsterdam, which played a crucial part in Dutch economic growth by bringing order to the currency and facilitating transfers. They provided the model for the Bank of England, which was founded in 1694 as a private company and was soon to have a relationship of mutual dependence with the state. The first state bank was that founded in Sweden in 1656; to provide a substitute for Sweden’s copper currency, it issued the first bank notes. Overproduced and not properly secured, they soon lost value. Law’s ambitious scheme for a royal bank in France foundered in 1720 because it was linked to his Louisiana company and its inflated prospects. After its failure tax farmers resumed their hold over state finance, and as a result interest rates remained higher than those of Britain because there was no secure central agency of investment. Law’s opponents were shortsighted: in Britain, where a central bank was successful, a large expansion of private banking also took place.

Meanwhile silver, everywhere the basic unit of value, remained in short supply. One-sided trade with the east meant a continuous drain. Insufficient silver was mined; declining imports from the New World did not affect only Spain. Governments tried to prevent the clipping of coins and so revalued. The deficiency remained, providing evidence for mercantilist policies. Negotiable paper in one form or other went some way to meet the shortage of specie. Stock exchanges, commercial in their original function, dealt increasingly in government stocks. Joint-stock companies became a common device for attracting money and spreading risk. By the mid-18th century the operations of commerce, manufacturing, and public finance were linked in one general system; a military defeat or economic setback affecting credit in one area might undermine confidence throughout the entire investing community.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The economic environment » The old industrial order
Operations of high finance represented the future of capitalist Europe. The economy as a whole was still closer in most respects to the Middle Ages. Midland and northern England, a belt along the Urals, Catalonia, the Po valley, and Flanders were scenes of exceptionally large-scale operations during the 18th century. The mines, quarries, mills, and factories of entrepreneurs such as Josse van Robais, the Dutch industrialist brought in by Colbert to produce textiles in Abbeville, only emphasized, by contrast, the primitive conditions of most manufacturing enterprise. Technology relied on limited equipment. Peter the Great saw it at its most impressive when he visited Holland in 1697. In villages along the Zaan River were lumber saws powered by 500 windmills and yards equipped with cranes and stacked with timber cut to set lengths to build fluitschips to a standard design.

The typical unit of production, however, was the domestic enterprise, with apprentices and journeymen living with family and servants. The merchant played a vital part in the provision of capital. When metalworkers made knives or needles for a local market, they could remain their own masters. For a larger market, they had to rely on businessmen for fuel, ore, wages, and transport. In textiles the capital and marketing skills of the entrepreneur were essential to cottagers. This putting-out system spread as merchants saw the advantages of evading guild control. When the cotton industry was developed around Rouen and Barcelona, it was organized in the same way as woolen textiles. In the old industrial order, output could be increased only in proportion to the number of workers involved. In England the new order was evolving, and ranks of machines in barracklike mills were producing for a mass market. The need to produce economically could transform an industry, as in Brabant, where peasants moved into the weaving side of the linen trade and then established bleaching works that ruined traditionally dominant Haarlem. It also altered the social balance, as in electoral Saxony where, between 1550 and 1750, the proportion of peasants who made most of their living by industry rose from 5 to 30 percent of the population. With such change came the dependence on capital and the market that was to make the worker so vulnerable.

Inevitably the expansion of domestic manufactures brought problems of control, which were eventually resolved by concentration in factories and by technical advances large enough to justify investment in machinery. Starting with the Lombe brothers’ silk mills, their exploitation of secrets acquired from Italy (1733), and John Kaye’s flying shuttle, British inventions set textile production on a dizzy path of growth. Abraham Darby’s process of coke smelting was perhaps the most important single improvement, since it liberated the iron founder from dependence on charcoal. The shortage of timber, a source of anxiety everywhere except in Russia and Scandinavia, proved to be a stimulus to invention and progress. Technical development on the Continent was less remarkable. The nine volumes of the Theatrum Machinarum (1724), Jakob Leupold’s description of engineering, records steady development reflecting the craftsman’s empirical outlook. Improvement could be modest indeed. A miller could grind 37 pounds (17 kilograms) of flour each day in the 12th century; by 1700 it might have been 55 pounds. In some areas there were long intervals between theoretical advances and technological application. Galileo, Evangelista Torricelli, Otto von Guericke, and Blaise Pascal worked on the vacuum in the first half of the 17th century, and Denis Papin later experimented with steam engines; however, it was not until 1711 that Thomas Newcomen produced a model that was of any practical use despite the great need for power. Mining, already well advanced, was held back by difficulties of drainage. In the Rohrerbuhel copper mines in the Tyrol, the Heiliger Geist shaft, at 2,900 feet (886 metres), remained the deepest in the world until 1872; a third of its labour force was employed in draining. Increases in productivity were generally found in those manufacturing activities where, as in the part-time production of linen in Silesia, the skills required were modest and the raw material could be produced locally.

Specialized manufacturing, evolving to meet the rising demand generated by the enrichment of the upper classes, showed significant growth. Wherever technical ingenuity was challenged by the needs of the market, results could be impressive. Printing was of seminal importance, since the advance of knowledge depended on it. Improvements in type molds and founding contributed to a threefold increase between 1600 and 1700 in the number of pages printed in a day. The Hollander, a pulverizing machine (c. 1670), could produce more pulp for paper than eight stamping mills. The connection between technical innovation and style is illustrated by improvements in glassmaking that made possible not only the casting of large sheets for mirrors but also, by 1700, the larger panes required for the sash windows that were replacing the leaded panes of casements. Venice lost its dominant position in the manufacture of glass as rulers set up works to save expensive imports. A new product sometimes followed a single discovery, as when the Saxons Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger successfully imitated Chinese hard paste and created the porcelain of Meissen. A way of life could be affected by one invention. The pendulum clock of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens introduced an age of reliable timekeeping. Clocks were produced in great numbers, and Geneva’s production of 5,000 timepieces a year was overtaken by 1680 by the clockmakers of both London and Paris. With groups of workers each responsible for a particular task, such as the making of wheels or the decoration of dials, specialization led to enhanced production, and in these elegant products of traditional craftsmanship the division of labour appeared.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Sovereigns and estates
Among European states of the High Renaissance, the republic of Venice provided the only important exception to princely rule. Following the court of Burgundy, where chivalric ideals vied with the self-indulgence of feast, joust, and hunt, Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII acted out the rites of kingship in sumptuous courts. Enormous Poland, particularly during the reign of Sigismund I (1506–48), and the miniature realms of Germany and Italy experienced the same type of regime and subscribed to the same enduring values that were to determine the principles of absolute monarchy. Appeal to God justified the valuable rights that the kings of France and Spain enjoyed over their churches and added sanction to hereditary right and constitutional authority. Henry VIII moved further when he broke with Rome and took to himself complete sovereignty.

Rebellion was always a threat. The skill of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) helped prevent England being torn apart by Roman Catholic and Puritan factions. Philip II (1555–98) failed to repress the continuing rebellion of what became a new state formed out of the northern Burgundian provinces. Neither Charles IX (1560–74) nor Henry III (1574–89) could stop the civil wars in which the Huguenots created an unassailable state within France. The failure of Maximilian I (1493–1519) to implement reforms had left the empire in poor shape to withstand the religious and political challenges of the Reformation. Such power as Charles V (1519–56) enjoyed in Germany was never enough to do more than contain schism within the bounds confirmed by the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555. Most of Hungary had been lost after the Turkish victory at Mohács in 1526. Imperial authority waned further under Maximilian II (1564–76) and Rudolf II (1576–1612). The terms of Augsburg were flouted as further church lands were secularized and Calvinism gained adherents, some in restless Bohemia. In these ways the stage was set for the subsequent wars and political developments.

With the tendency, characteristic of the Renaissance period, for sovereigns to enlarge their authority and assume new rights in justice and finance, went larger revenues, credit, and patronage. Princes fought with as little regard for economic consequences as their medieval precursors had shown. Ominously, the Italian wars had become part of a larger conflict, centring on the dynastic ambitions of the houses of Habsburg and Valois; similarly, the Reformation led to the formation of alliances whose objectives were not religious. The scale and expertise of diplomacy grew with the pretensions of sovereignty. The professional diplomat and permanent embassy, the regular soldier and standing army, served princes still generally free to act in their traditional spheres. But beyond them, in finance and government, what would be the balance of powers? From the answer to this question will come definition of the absolutism that is commonly seen as characteristic of the age.

The authority of a sovereign was exercised in a society of orders and corporations, each having duties and privileges. St. Paul’s image of the Christian body was not difficult for a 17th-century European to understand; the organic society was a commonplace of political debate. The orders, as represented in estates or diets, were, first, the clergy; second, the nobility (represented with the lords spiritual in the English House of Lords); and, third, commoners. There were variations: upper and lower nobles were sometimes divided; certain towns represented the Third Estate, as in the Castilian Cortes; in Sweden, uniquely, there was an estate of peasants, whose successful effort to maintain their privilege was one component of Queen Christina’s crisis of 1650. When, as in the 16th century, such institutions flourished, estates were held to represent not the whole population as individuals but the important elements—the “political nation.” Even then the nobility tended to dominate. Their claim to represent all who dwelled on their estates was sounder in law and popular understanding than may appear to those accustomed to the idea of individual political rights.

In the empire, the estates were influential because they controlled the purse. Wherever monarchy was weak in relation to local elites, the diet tended to be used to further their interests. The Cortes of Aragon maintained into the 17th century the virtual immunity from taxation that was a significant factor in Spanish weakness. The strength of the representative institution was proportionate to that of the crown, which depended largely on the conditions of accession. The elective principle might be preserved in form, as in the English coronation service, but generally it had withered as the principle of heredity had been established. Where a succession was disputed, as between branches of the house of Vasa in Sweden after 1595, the need to gain the support of the privileged classes usually led to concessions being made to the body that they controlled. In Poland, where monarchy was elective, the Sejm exercised such power that successive kings, bound by conditions imposed at accession, found it hard to muster forces to defend their frontiers. The constitution remained unshakable even during the reign of John Sobieski (1674–96), hero of the relief of Vienna, who failed to secure the succession of his son. Under the Saxon kings Augustus II (1697–1733) and Augustus III (1734–63), foreign interference led to civil wars, but repeated and factious exercise of the veto rendered abortive all attempts to reform. It required the threat—and in 1772, the reality—of partition to give Stanisław II August Poniatowski (1764–95) sufficient support to effect reforms, but this came too late to save Poland.

At the other extreme were the Russian zemsky sobor, which fulfilled a last service to the tsars in expressing the landowners’ demand for stricter laws after the disorders of 1648, and the Estates-General of France, where the size of the country meant that rulers preferred to deal with the smaller assemblies of provinces (pays d’états) lately incorporated into the realm, such as Languedoc and Brittany. They met regularly and had a permanent staff for raising taxes on property. With respect to the other provinces (pays d’élection), the crown had enjoyed the crucial advantage of an annual tax since 1439, when Charles VII successfully asserted the right to levy the personal taille without consent. When Richelieu tried to abolish one of the pays d’état, the Dauphiné, he met with resistance sufficient to deter him and successive ministers from tampering with this form of fiscal privilege. It survived until the Revolution: to ministers it was a deformity, to critics of the régime it provided at least one guarantee against arbitrary rule. The zemsky sobor had always been the creature of the ruler, characteristic of a society that knew nothing of fundamental laws or corporate rights. When it disappeared, the tsarist government was truly the despotism that the French feared but did not, except in particular cases, experience. When, in 1789, the Estates-General met for the first time since 1614, it abolished the privileged estates and corporations in the name of the freedom that they had claimed to protect. The age of natural human rights had dawned.

The experience of England, where Parliament played a vital part in the Reformation proceedings of Henry VIII’s reign and thus gained in authority, shows that power could be shared between princes and representative bodies. On the Continent it was generally a different story. The Estates-General had been discredited because it had come to be seen as the instrument of faction. Religious differences had stimulated debate about the nature of authority, but extreme interpretations of the right of resistance, such as those that provoked the assassinations of William I the Silent, stadtholder of the Netherlands, in 1584 and Henry III of France in 1589, not only exposed the doctrine of tyrannicide but also pointed to the need for a regime strong enough to impose a religious solution. One such was the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which conceded to the Huguenots not only freedom of worship but also their own schools, law courts, and fortified towns. From the start the Edict constituted a challenge to monarchy and a test of its ability to govern. Richelieu’s capture of La Rochelle, the most powerful Huguenot fortress and epicentre of disturbance, after a 14-month siege (1627–28) was therefore a landmark in the making of absolute monarchy, crucial for France and, because of its increasing power, for Europe as a whole.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Major forms of absolutism » France
Certain assumptions influenced the way in which the French state developed. The sovereign held power from God. He ruled in accordance with divine and natural justice and had an obligation to preserve the customary rights and liberties of his subjects. The diversity of laws and taxes meant that royal authority rested on a set of quasi-contractual relationships with the orders and bodies of the realm. Pervading all was a legalistic concern for form, precedence, and the customs that, according to the French jurist Guy Coquille, were the true civil laws. The efforts of successive ministers to create the semblance of a unitary state came less from dogma than from the need to overcome obstacles to government and taxation. Absolutism was never a complete system to match the philosophy and rhetoric that set the king above the law, subject only to God, whom he represented on earth. For 60 years after the Fronde there was no serious challenge to the authority of the crown from either nobles or parlement. The idea of divine right, eloquently propounded by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet and embodied in the palace and system of Versailles, may have strengthened the political consensus, but it did little to assist royal agents trying to please both Versailles and their own communities. Absolutism on the ground amounted to a series of running battles for political control. In the front line were the intendants (administrative officials), first used extensively by Richelieu, then, after their abolition during the Fronde, more systematically and with ever-widening responsibilities, by Louis XIV and his successors until 1789.

Throughout the ancien régime the absolutist ideal was flawed, its evolution stunted through persisting contradictions. The fiscal demands of the crown were incompatible with the constant need to stimulate trade and manufacturing enterprise; and only a resolute minister operating in peacetime, such as Colbert in the 1660s and Philibert Orry in the 1730s, could hope to achieve significant reforms. There was tension between the Roman Catholic ideal of uniformity and pragmatic views of the state’s interest. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, a harsh if logical resolution of the question. It was what his Catholic subjects expected of him, but it proved damaging to the economy and to France’s reputation. A further contradiction lay between measures to overcome the hostility of the nobles to the aggrandizement of the state and the need not to compromise state authority by conceding too much. Richelieu’s actions, including the execution of the Duke of Montmorency for treason (1632), taught the lesson that no subject was beyond the reach of the law. Louis XIV’s brilliant court drew the magnates to Versailles, where social eminence, patronage, and pensions compensated for loss of the power for which they had contended during the Fronde. It merely fortified the regime of privilege that defied fundamental reform to the end. There was another side to the politically advantageous sale of office. Capital was diverted that might better have been employed in business, and there was a vested interest in the status quo. For the mass of the nobility the enlargement of the army, quadrupled in the 17th century, provided an honourable career, but it also encouraged militarism and tempted the king and ministers to neglect the interests of the navy, commerce, and the colonies. When France intervened in the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741, the economic consequences undermined the regime. The achievements of the Bourbon government, with able ministers working in small, flexible councils, were impressive, even when undermined by weak kings such as Louis XV (1715–74) and Louis XVI (1774–92). In the 18th century, France acquired a fine network of roads, new harbours were built, and trade expanded; a lively culture was promoted by a prosperous bourgeoisie. It is an irony that the country that nurtured the philosophes was the least affected by the reforms they proposed, but it would have been a remarkable king who could have ruled with the courage and wisdom to enable his servants to overcome obstacles to government that were inherent in the system.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Major forms of absolutism » The empire
The character of Austrian absolutism was derived from a dual situation: with the exception of Maria Theresa, who was debarred by the Salic Law of Succession, the head of the house was also Holy Roman emperor. He directly ruled the family lands, comprising different parts of Austria stretching from Alpine valleys to the Danubian plain, which were mainly Roman Catholic and German; Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, which were mainly Slavic in race and language; a fraction of Hungary after the reconquest following the failure of the Turkish Siege of Vienna (1683); and Belgium and Milan (by the Peace of Rastatt in 1714). Each region provided a title and rights pertaining to that state, with an authority limited by the particular rights of its subjects. As an elected emperor, his sovereignty was of a different kind. In effect, the empire was a German confederation, though Bohemia was in and Prussia was outside it; the Mantuan succession affair (1627–31), when the emperor sought to arbitrate, recalls an obsolete Italian dimension. Each German state was self-governing and free to negotiate with foreign powers. Princes, both ecclesiastical and secular, enjoyed the right of representation in the Reichstag. The first of the three curiae in the Reichstag was the college of electors, who elected the emperor; the second comprised princes, counts, barons, and the ecclesiastical princes; and the third, the imperial free cities. The 45 dynastic principalities had 80 percent of the land and population; the 60 dynastic counties and lordships comprised only 3 percent. Some of the 60 imperial free cities were but villages. A thousand imperial knights, often landless, each claimed rights of landlordship amounting to sovereignty and owed allegiance only to the emperor in his capacity as president of the Reichstag. Numbers varied through wastage or amalgamation, but they convey the amorphous character of a confederation in which the emperor could only act effectively in concert with the princes, either individually or organized in administrative circles (Kreis). Bound by weak ties of allegiance and strong sentiment of nationality, this empire represented the world of medieval universalism with some aspects of the early modern state, without belonging wholly to either. Religious schism had created new frontiers and criteria for policy, such as could justify the elector palatine’s decision to accept the crown of Bohemia from the rebels who precipitated the Thirty Years’ War. The failure of the emperor Ferdinand II to enlarge his authority or enforce conformity led to the settlements of Westphalia in which his son, Ferdinand III, was forced to concede again the cuius regio, eius religio principle. Thereafter he and his successor, Leopold I, devoted their energies to increasing their authority over the family lands. It would be wrong, however, to assume that they, or even the 18th-century emperors, were powerless.

The political climate in which the empire operated was affected by the way universities dominated intellectual life and by trends within universities, in particular the development of doctrines of natural law and cameralism. German rulers respected the universities because the majority of their students became civil servants. With earnest religious spirit went an emphasis on the duty to work and obey. Even in Catholic states the spirit of the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) was pious and practical. Exponents of natural law, such as the philosopher-scientist Christian Wolff, advocated religious toleration but saw no need for constitutional safeguards: the ideal ruler was absolute. Such commitment to civic virtue explains both the development of the German state and the survival of the empire as a working institution. Territorial fragmentation meant a prince’s combining his executive role with that of representative within the Reich: there could be no stimulus to the development of constitutional ideas. The German associated political liberty with the authority of his ruler. He was loyal to his own state, which was the “fatherland”; “abroad” was another state. When judgment was required, the prince would still go to the imperial court, the Reichskammergericht. There were limits to his loyalty. The emperor was expected to lead but could not always do so. So the authorities were ineffective, for example, in the face of Louis XIV’s seizure of Strasbourg in 1681. Yet Louis found that German opinion was not to be underestimated; it contributed to his defeat in the War of the Grand Alliance.

Religious animosities persisted into the age of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), but his rational approach and quest for religious unity corresponded to the popular yearning for stability. When interests were so delicately balanced, arbitration was preferable to aggression. The mechanism of the Reichskammergericht saved the counties of Isenburg and Solms from annexation by the ruler of Hesse-Darmstadt. More than a court of law, the Reichskammergericht functioned as a federal executive in matters of police, debts, bankruptcies, and tax claims. Small states such as Mainz could manage their affairs so as to turn enlightened ideas to good use, but it was the rulers of the larger states who held the keys to Germany’s future, and they took note of the emperor; thus his ambivalent position was crucial. Frederick William I of Prussia accepted the ruling of Emperor Charles VI, confirming his right of succession to Berg. In return, the king guaranteed the Pragmatic Sanction, asserting the right of the emperor’s daughter to succeed. Charles repudiated Prussia’s claim, however, in 1738 when he made a treaty with France. In 1740, when both sovereigns died, Frederick II made Austria pay for this slight to his father. The War of the Austrian Succession followed his invasion of Silesia; that valuable Bohemian province remained at the heart of the Austro-Prussian conflict. Its final loss taught Maria Theresa and her advisers, notably Friedrich Haugwitz and Wenzel von Kaunitz, that they must imitate what they could not defeat. She created, in place of separate Austrian and Bohemian chancelleries, a more effective central administration based on the Direktorium, which her son Joseph (coruler from 1765, when he became emperor; sole ruler 1780–90) would develop in ruthless fashion. Maria Theresa respected the Roman Catholic tradition of her house, even while curtailing the powers of the church. Joseph pursued his mother’s interests in education and a more productive economy and was concerned with equality of rights and the unity of his domains. Yet he joined in the partition of Poland for the reward of Galicia and showed so little regard for the rules of the empire that he was challenged by Frederick II over the Bavarian succession, which he had sought to manipulate to his advantage. After the ensuing Potato War (1778), the empire’s days were numbered, though it required the contemptuous pragmatism of Napoleon to abolish it (1806).

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Major forms of absolutism » Prussia
Frederick II had inherited a style of absolute government that owed much to the peculiar circumstances of Brandenburg-Prussia as it emerged from the Thirty Years’ War. Lacking natural frontiers and war-ravaged when Frederick William inherited the electorate in 1640, Brandenburg had little more than the prestige of the ancient house of Hohenzollern. The diplomacy of Jules Cardinal Mazarin contributed to the acquisition (1648) of East Pomerania, Magdeburg, and Minden, and war between Sweden and Poland brought sovereignty over East Prussia, formerly held as a fief from Poland. A deal with the Junkers at the Recess of 1653, which secured a regular subsidy in return for a guarantee of their social rights, was the foundation of an increasingly absolute rule. He overcame by force the resistance of the diet of Prussia in 1660: as he became more secure economically, militarily, and bureaucratically, he depended less on his diets. So was established the Prussian model: an aristocracy of service and a bureaucracy harnessed to military needs. The Great Elector’s son became King Frederick I of Prussia when he pledged support to the emperor’s cause (1701). His son, Frederick William (1713–40), completed the centralization of authority and created an army sustained by careful stewardship of the economy. Personally directing a larger army in wars of aggression and survival, Frederick the Great (1740–86) came close to ruining his state; its survival testifies to the success of his father. Of course Frederick left his own impress on government. He should not be judged by his essays in enlightened philosophy or even by new mechanisms of government, but by the spirit he inspired. He lived out his precept that the sovereign should be the first servant of the state. All was ordered so as to eliminate obstacles to the executive will. Much was achieved: the restoration of Prussia and the establishment of an industrial base, in particular the exploitation of the new Silesian resources. Legal rights and freedom of thought were secure so long as they did not conflict with the interest of the state. A monument to his reign, completed five years after his death in 1786, was the Allgemeine Landrecht, the greatest codification of German law. Perhaps his greatest civil achievement was the stability that made such a striking contrast with the turbulence in Habsburg lands under Joseph II.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Sweden
In Sweden the Konungaförsäkran (“King’s Assurance”), which was imposed at the accession of the young Gustav II Adolf in 1611 and which formally made him dependent for all important decisions on the Råd (council) and Riksdag (diet), was no hindrance to him and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, in executing a bold foreign policy and important domestic reforms. Queen Christina, a minor until 1644, experienced a constitutional crisis (1650) in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, from which Sweden had gained German lands, notably West Pomerania and Bremen. She extricated herself with finesse, then abdicated (1654). Charles X sought a military solution to the threat of encirclement by invading Poland and, more successfully, Denmark, but he left the kingdom to his four-year-old son (1660) with problems of political authority unresolved. When he came of age, Charles XI won respect for his courage in war and established an absolutism beyond doubt or precedent by persuading the Riksdag to accept an extreme definition of his powers (1680). Then he carried out the drastic recovery of alienated royal lands. With novel powers went military strength based on a corps of farmer-soldiers from the recovered land. Tempting authority awaited Charles XII (1697–1718), but there was also a menacing coalition. Perhaps decline was inevitable, for Sweden’s greatness had been a tour de force, but Charles XII’s onslaughts on Poland and Russia risked the state as well as the army which he commanded so brilliantly. Even after the Russian victory at Poltava (1709) and Charles’s exile in Turkey, Sweden’s resistance testified to the soundness of government. When Charles died fighting in Norway, Sweden had lost its place in Germany and a third of its adult population. An aristocratic reaction led to a period of limited monarchy. Decisions were made by committees of the Riksdag, influenced by party struggle, like that of the Hats and Caps at mid-century. Gustav III carried out a coup in 1774 that restored greater power to the sovereign, but there was no break in two great traditions: conscientious sovereign and responsible nobility.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Denmark
Denmark also had turned in the absolutist direction. Enforced withdrawal from the Thirty Years’ War (in 1629) may not have been a disaster for Denmark, but the loss of the Scanian provinces to Sweden (1658) was—loss of control of the Sound was a standing temptation to go to war again. Events in Denmark exemplify on a small scale what was happening throughout Europe when princes built from war’s wreckage, exploiting the yearning for direction and benefiting from the decay of a society that no longer provided good order. The smaller the country, the stronger the ruler’s prospect of asserting his will. As if responding to Hobbes’s formula for absolute monarchy, the estates declared King Frederick III supreme head on earth, elevated above all human laws (1661). Reforms followed under the statesmen Hannibal Sehested and Peter Schumacker: a new code of law was promulgated; mercantilist measures fostered trade; and Copenhagen flourished. Danes accepted with docility the autocratic rule of the house of Oldenburg, but the peasantry suffered from the spread of a German style of landownership. Frederick IV cared much about their souls, and his son Christian VI provided for their schooling, but a decree of 1733 tied peasants to their estates from the age of 14 to 36. Frederick V was fortunate to have capable ministers, notably Andreas Bernstorff, who was mainly responsible for the acquisition of long-disputed Schleswig and Holstein. His son Christian VII ruled until 1808; yet his reign is best known for his confinement under Johan Struensee and for the latter’s liberal reforms. In the two years before his downfall in 1772, more than 1,000 laws were passed, including measures that have left their mark on Danish society to this day. The episode showed the perils as well as benefits of enlightened absolutism when a king or his subject acquired the power to do as he pleased.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Spain
The Iberian Peninsula provides further illustration of the absolutist theme. Historians do not agree about the nature or precise extent of Spain’s decline, but there is agreement that it did occur, that it was most pronounced at mid-century, and that its causes may be traced not only to the reign of Philip II (1556–98), the overextended champion of Roman Catholic and Spanish hegemony, but also to the social and political structure of the Spanish states of Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Milan, Naples, the Netherlands, and Franche-Comté. The constitutions of these states reflected the personal nature of the original union of crowns (1479) and of subsequent acquisitions. Castile received the largest share of the prosperity that came with silver bullion from the New World but suffered the worst consequences when Mexico and Peru became self-sufficient. Bullion imports fell sharply; trade with the rest of Europe was severely imbalanced; and the weight of taxation fell largely on Castile. The effort of Philip IV’s chief minister, the Count de Olivares, to ensure greater equality of contribution through the union of arms was one factor in the revolts of Catalonia and Portugal (1640). In 1659 Spain had to cede Roussillon, Cerdagne, and Artois to France; and in 1667–68 the Flemish forts could put up no fight against the invading French. Despite a partial recovery in the 1680s under the intelligent direction of the Duke de Medinaceli and Manuel Oropesa, Spain was the object of humiliating partition treaties. In 1700 Charles II had bequeathed the entire inheritance to Philip of Anjou, Louis XIV’s grandson. A foundation for recovery was laid early in the reign of Philip V, when outlying provinces lost their privileges and acquired a tax system based on ability to pay and a French-style intendente to enforce it. The pace of reform accelerated with the accession of Charles III in 1759. He was no radical, but he backed ministers who were, such as the Count de Floridablanca and the Count de Campomanes. A national bank, agricultural improvements, and new roads, factories, and hospitals witnessed to the efforts of this benevolent autocrat to overcome the Spanish habit of condemning everything new.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Portugal
Neighbouring Portugal acquired independence in 1668 after revolt and war protracted by the stubborn determination of Philip IV to maintain his patrimony. This small country had suffered since 1580 from its Spanish connection. Resentment at the loss of part of Brazil and most of its Far Eastern colonies had been a major cause of the revolt. The Portuguese did not see their interests as lying with Spain’s in partnership with Austria and war against France and Holland. The reorientation of foreign policy and alliance with England by the Methuen Treaty (1703) brought respite rather than restoration. When Sebastien Pombal became the virtual dictator of Portugal as chief minister of Joseph I, he instituted drastic change. If the rebuilding of Lisbon after the great earthquake of 1755 is his memorial, he is also remembered for his assault on the Jesuits; Spain, France, and Austria followed his lead in expelling the powerful religious order, whose grip on education seemed to “enlightened” minds to obstruct progress.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Britain
The Marquês de Pombal was inspired by what he had seen in London, and it was in Great Britain (as it became after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707) that the entrepreneurial spirit was least restricted and most influential in government and society. By the accession of James I in 1603, there had already been a significant divergence from the Continental pattern. The 17th century saw recurring conflict between the crown—more absolute in language than in action—and Parliament. Elected on a narrow, uneven suffrage, it represented privileged interests rather than individuals; it was much concerned with legal precedents and rights. Charles I tried to rule without Parliament from 1629 to 1639, but he alienated powerful interests and, by trying to impose the Anglican prayer book on Scotland, blundered into a civil war that resulted in his overthrow and subsequent execution (1649). Experiments in parliamentary rule culminated in the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell; after his death (1658), Charles II was restored (1660) on financial terms intended to restrict his freedom of maneuver. After a crisis (1678–81) in which the Whigs, led by Lord Shaftesbury, exploited popular prejudice against Roman Catholicism and France to check his absolutist tendency, he recovered the initiative. However, the brief reign of James II (1685–88) justified the fears of those who had sought to exclude him. Policies designed to relieve Roman Catholics antagonized the leaders of the monarchist Anglican church as well as the families who thought that they had the right to manage the state. The Glorious Revolution brought the Dutch stadtholder to the throne as William III (1689–1702). The intense political struggle left a fund of theory and experience on which 18th-century statesmen could draw. There was, however, no written constitution and only a few statutory limitations. Monarchy retained the power to appoint ministers, make foreign policy, and to manage and direct the army. The Bill of Rights (1689) effectively abolished the suspending and dispensing powers, but William III pursued his European policy with an enlarged army, funded by a new land tax and by loans. Conflict grew between the Whigs and Tories, intensified by the controversy over “Marlborough’s war” in the reign of Queen Anne (1702–14). The Triennial Act (1694) ensured elections every three years, and the Act of Settlement (1701) sealed the supremacy of the common law by limiting the king’s power to dismiss judges. The accession of George I in 1714 did not lead immediately to stability. The union with Scotland (1707) had created strains; and Jacobitism remained a threat after the defeat of James Edward Stuart’s rising of 1715—until the defeat of his son Charles Edward at Culloden in 1746, it was a focus for the discontented. But investors in government funds had a growing stake in the survival of the dynasty.

When George I gave up attending Cabinet meetings, he cleared the way for the Privy Council’s displacement by the small cabinet council, and the evolution, in the person of Robert Walpole, first lord of the Treasury from 1721 to 1742, of a “prime minister.” Relations between minister and king amounted to a dialogue between the concepts of ministerial responsibility and royal prerogative. Ministers exercised powers legally vested in the monarch; they also were accountable to Parliament. Yet the king could still appoint and dismiss them. Inevitably tensions resulted. The prime minister’s right to select fellow ministers did not go unchallenged, but the reluctance of both George I and George II to master the intricacies of patronage, and the skill of Walpole and Newcastle in political management, ensured that the shift in the balance of power in 1688 was irreversible. A centralized legislature coexisted with a decentralized administration. The theme of centre versus provinces, characteristic of other countries, took on a new form as court patronage became the prime element in political management. Most legislation was concerned not with legal or moral principles but with administrative details. Policy tended to emerge from agreement between king and ministers. The royal veto on legislation was never employed after 1708, no government lost a general election, and nearly every Parliament lasted its full term. Locke’s dictum that government has no other end but the preservation of property was an apt text for the British ancien régime, which was dominated by the church and the aristocracy. Even those 200,000 Englishmen who had the vote could be disfranchised by the common practice of an arranged election. In 1747 only three county and 62 borough elections were contested. The tone was set by the Septennial Act (1716), which doubled the life of Parliaments and the value of patronage.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Holland
The English ambassador Sir George Downing in 1664 described the constitution of the United Provinces as “such a shattered and divided thing.” Louis XIV assumed wrongly, in 1672, that the mercantile republic would prove no match for his armies. Experience had taught the English to respect Dutch naval strength as much as they envied its commercial wealth. Foreign attitudes were ambivalent because this small state was not only the newest but also the richest per capita and quite different from any other. The nation of seamen and merchants was also the nation of Rembrandt, Huygens, and Spinoza; culture and the trading empire were inseparable. After 1572 the Dutch proved that they could hold their own in war. Criticism of the structure of government seems therefore to be wide of the mark. In the development of Amsterdam, private enterprise and civic regulation coexisted in creative harmony; so too the state was effective without impinging on the quality of individual lives. The federal republic, so the Dutch believed, guarded religion, lands, and liberties. The price was paid by the Spanish southern provinces, which were drained of vitality by emigration to the north, and by the decay of the trade and manufacturing that had given Antwerp a commanding financial position.

The constitution of the United Provinces reflected its Burgundian antecedents in civic pride and its concern for form and precedence. Sovereignty lay with the seven provinces separately; in each the States ruled, and in the States the representatives of the towns were dominant. Since action required a unanimous vote, issues were commonly referred back to town corporations. Only in Friesland did peasants have a voice. The States-General dealt with diplomatic and military measures and with taxes. Its members were ambassadors, closely tied by their instructions. Like contemporary Poles and Germans, the Dutch were separatists at heart, but what was lacking in those countries existed in the United Provinces—one province to lead the rest. Holland assumed, and because of its wealth the rest could not deny, that right. War was again the crucial factor.

One side of the balance was represented by the house of Orange. Maurice of Nassau (1584–1625) and Frederick Henry (1625–47) controlled policy and military campaigns through their virtual monopoly of the office of stadtholder in separate provinces. Monarchs without title, they intermarried with the Protestant dynasties: William III, the grandson of Charles I of England and great-grandson of Henry IV of France, married Mary Stuart and became, with her, joint sovereign of England in 1689. The other side, vigilant for peace, trade, and lower taxes, was represented at its best by Johan de Witt, pensionary of Holland (1653–72). He was murdered during the French invasion of 1672, which brought William III to power. Enlightened oligarchy had little appeal for the poor or tolerance for the Calvinist clergy. Such violence exposed underlying tensions. In 1619 the veteran statesman Johann van Oldenbarneveldt was executed, as much because of the political implications of his liberal stance as for his Arminian views. Holland’s open society depended on the commercial values of a magistracy versed in finance and state policy. In 1650 the young stadtholder William II attempted a coup against Amsterdam, the outcome of which was uncertain. His sudden death settled the issue in favour of a period of rule without stadtholders. In 1689 William III’s elevation led to consolidation of the republican regime. In 1747, William IV enjoyed popular support for a program of civic reform. As stadtholder of all seven provinces he had concentrated powers, but little was achieved. Not until 1815 was the logical conclusion reached with the establishment of William I as king.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » Absolutism » Variations on the absolutist theme » Russia
Successive elective kings of Poland failed to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the state, and the belated reforms of Stanisław II served only to provoke the final dismemberments of 1793 and 1795. Russia was a prime beneficiary, having long shown that vast size was not incompatible with strong rule. Such an outcome would not have seemed probable in 1648, when revolt in the Ukraine led to Russian “protection” and the beginning of that process of expansion which was to create an empire. The open character of Russia’s boundless lands militated against two processes characteristic of Western society—the growth of cherished rights in distinct, rooted communities and that of central authority, adept in the techniques of government. The validity of the state depended on its ability to make the peasant cultivate the soil. If the nobility were to serve the state, they must be served on the land. Serfdom was a logical development in a society that knew nothing of rights. The feudal concept of fealty, the validity of contract, and the idea of liberty as the creation of law were unknown. German immigrants found no provincial estates, municipal corporations, or craft guilds. Merchants were state functionaries. Absolutism was implicit in the physical conditions and early evolution of Russian society. It could only become a force for building a state comparable to those of the West under a ruler strong enough to challenge traditional ways. This was to be the role of Alexis I (1645–76) and then, more violently, of Peter I (1689–1725).

When the Romanov dynasty emerged in 1613 with Tsar Michael, the formula for continued power was similar to that of the Great Elector in Brandenburg: the common interest of ruler and gentry enabled Alexis to dispense with the zemsky sobor. The great code of 1649 affirmed the rights of the state over a society that was to be frozen in its existing shape. The tsars were haunted by the fear that the state would disintegrate. The acquisition of the Ukraine led directly to the revolt of Stenka Razin (1670), which flared up because of the discontent of the serfs. The Russian people had been driven underground; their passivity could not be assumed. There was also a threatening religious dimension in the shape of the Old Believers. Rallying in reaction to the minor reforms of the patriarch Nikon, they came to express a general attachment to old Russia. This was as dangerous to the state when it inspired passive resistance to change as when it provoked revolt, such as that of the streltsy, the privileged household troops, whom Peter purged in 1698. Peter’s reforms of Russian government must be set against the military weakness revealed by the Swedish victory at Narva (1700), the grotesque disorder of government as exercised by more than 40 councils, the lack of an educated class of potential bureaucrats, and a primitive economy untouched by Western technology. His domestic policies can then be seen as expedients informed by a patchy vision of Western methods and manners. Catherine II studied his papers and said, “He did not know what laws were necessary for the state.” Yet, without Peter’s relentless drive to create a military power based on compulsory service, Catherine might have been in no position to carry out any reforms herself. His Table of Ranks (1722) graded society in three categories—court, government, and army. The first eight military grades, all commissioned officers, automatically became gentry. Obligatory service was modified by later rulers and abolished by Peter III (1762). By then the army had sufficient attraction: the officer caste was secure.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy exemplified the style of a military police. The uniformed official, rule book in hand, was typical of St. Petersburg government until 1917. Peter’s new capital, an outrageous defiance of Muscovite tradition, symbolized the chasm that separated the Westernized elite from the illiterate masses. It housed the senate, set up in 1711, and the nine colleges that replaced the 40 councils. There also was the oberprokuror, responsible for the Most Holy Synod, which exercised authority over the church in place of the patriarch. Peter could control the institution; to touch the souls or change the manners of his people was another matter. A Russian was reluctant to lose his beard because God had a beard; a townsman could be executed for leaving his ward; a nobleman could not marry without producing a certificate to show that he could read. With a punitive tax, Peter might persuade Russians to shave and adopt Western breeches and jacket, but he could not trust the free spirit that he admired in England nor expect market, capital, or skills to grow by themselves. So a stream of edicts commanded and explained. State action could be effective—iron foundries, utilizing Russia’s greatest natural resource, timber, contributed to the country’s favourable trade balance—but nearly all Peter’s schools collapsed after his death, and his navy rotted at its moorings.

After Peter there were six rulers in 37 years. Two of the predecessors of Catherine II (1762–95) had been deposed—one of them, her husband Peter III, with her connivance. Along with the instability exemplified by the palace coup of 1741, when the guards regiments brought Elizabeth to the throne, went an aristocratic reaction against centralist government, particularly loathsome as exercised under Anna (1730–40). Elizabeth’s tendency to delegate power to favoured grandees encouraged aristocratic pretension, though it did lead to some enlightened measures. With the accession of the German-born Catherine Russians encountered the Enlightenment as a set of ideas and a program of reforms. Since the latter were mostly shelved, questions arise about the sincerity of the royal author of the Nakaz, instructions for the members of the Legislative Commission (1767–68). If Catherine still hoped that enlightened reforms, even the abolition of serfdom, were possible after the Commission’s muddle, the revolt of Yemelyan Pugachov (1773–75) brought her back to the fundamental questions of security. His challenge to the autocracy was countered by military might, but not before 3,000,000 peasants had become involved and 3,000 officials and gentry had been murdered. The underlying problem remained. The tired soil of old Russia would not long be able to feed the growing population. Trapped between the low yield of agriculture and their rising debts, the gentry wanted to increase dues. The drive for new lands, culminating in the acquisition of the Crimea (1783), increased the difficulties of control. Empirical and authoritarian, Catherine sought to strengthen government while giving the gentry a share and a voice. The Great Reform of 1775 divided the country into 50 guberni. The dvoriane were allowed some high posts, by election, on the boards set up to manage local schools and hospitals. They were allowed to meet in assembly. It was more than most French nobles could do: indeed, French demands for assemblies were a prelude to revolution. But as in the case of towns, by the Municipal Reform (1785), she gave only the appearance of self-government. Governors were left with almost unbounded powers. Like Frederick the Great, Catherine disappointed the philosophes, but the development of Russia took place within a framework of order. European events in the last years of Catherine’s life and Russian history, before and since, testify to the magnitude of her achievement.

Absolute monarchy had evolved out of conflicts within and challenges outside the state, notably that of war, whose recurring pressures had a self-reinforcing effect. The absolutist ideal was potent, and the rhetoric voiced genuine feeling. The sovereign who envisaged himself as God’s Lieutenant or First Servant of the State was responding to those who had found traditional constitutions wanting and whose classical education and religious upbringing had schooled them to look for strong rule within a hierarchical system. For more than 150 years, the upper classes of continental Europe were disposed to accept the ethos of absolutism. They would continue to do so only if the tensions within the system could be resolved and if the state were to prove able to accommodate the expectations of the rising bourgeoisie and the potentially unsettling ideas of the Enlightenment.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was both a movement and a state of mind. The term represents a phase in the intellectual history of Europe, but it also serves to define programs of reform in which influential literati, inspired by a common faith in the possibility of a better world, outlined specific targets for criticism and proposals for action. The special significance of the Enlightenment lies in its combination of principle and pragmatism. Consequently, it still engenders controversy about its character and achievements. Two main questions and, relating to each, two schools of thought can be identified. Was the Enlightenment the preserve of an elite, centred on Paris, or a broad current of opinion that the philosophes, to some extent, represented and led? Was it primarily a French movement, having therefore a degree of coherence, or an international phenomenon, having as many facets as there were countries affected? Although most modern interpreters incline to the latter view in both cases, there is still a case for the French emphasis, given the genius of a number of the philosophes and their associates. Unlike other terms applied by historians to describe a phenomenon that they see more clearly than could contemporaries, it was used and cherished by those who believed in the power of mind to liberate and improve. Bernard de Fontenelle, popularizer of the scientific discoveries that contributed to the climate of optimism, wrote in 1702 anticipating “a century which will become more enlightened day by day, so that all previous centuries will be lost in darkness by comparison.” Reviewing the experience in 1784, Immanuel Kant saw an emancipation from superstition and ignorance as having been the essential characteristic of the Enlightenment.

Before Kant’s death the spirit of the siècle de lumière (literally, “century of light”) had been spurned by Romantic idealists, its confidence in man’s sense of what was right and good mocked by revolutionary terror and dictatorship, and its rationalism decried as being complacent or downright inhumane. Even its achievements were critically endangered by the militant nationalism of the 19th century. Yet much of the tenor of the Enlightenment did survive in the liberalism, toleration, and respect for law that have persisted in European society. There was therefore no abrupt end or reversal of enlightened values.

Nor had there been such a sudden beginning as is conveyed by the critic Paul Hazard’s celebrated aphorism: “One moment the French thought like Bossuet; the next moment like Voltaire.” The perceptions and propaganda of the philosophes have led historians to locate the Age of Reason within the 18th century or, more comprehensively, between the two revolutions—the English of 1688 and the French of 1789—but in conception it should be traced to the humanism of the Renaissance, which encouraged scholarly interest in classical texts and values. It was formed by the complementary methods of the Scientific Revolution, the rational and the empirical. Its adolescence belongs to the two decades before and after 1700 when writers such as Jonathan Swift were employing “the artillery of words” to impress the secular intelligentsia created by the growth in affluence, literacy, and publishing. Ideas and beliefs were tested wherever reason and research could challenge traditional authority.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » Sources of Enlightenment thought
In a cosmopolitan culture it was the preeminence of the French language that enabled Frenchmen of the 17th century to lay the foundations of cultural ascendancy and encouraged the philosophes to act as the tutors of 18th-century Europe. The notion of a realm of philosophy superior to sectarian or national concerns facilitated the transmission of ideas. “I flatter myself,” wrote Denis Diderot to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, “that I am, like you, citizen of the great city of the world.” “A philosopher,” wrote Edward Gibbon, “may consider Europe as a great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation.” This magisterial pronouncement by the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) recalls the common source: the knowledge of classical literature.

The scholars of the Enlightenment recognized a joint inheritance, Christian as well as classical. In rejecting, or at least reinterpreting, the one and plundering the other, they had the confidence of those who believed they were masters of their destiny. They felt an affinity with the classical world and saluted the achievement of the Greeks, who discovered a regularity in nature and its governing principle, the reasoning mind, as well as that of the Romans, who adopted Hellenic culture while contributing a new order and style: on their law was founded much of church and civil law. Steeped in the ideas and language of the classics but unsettled in beliefs, some Enlightenment thinkers found an alternative to Christian faith in the form of a neo-paganism. The morality was based on reason; the literature, art, and architecture were already supplying rules and standards for educated taste.

The first chapter of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV specified the “four happy ages”: the centuries of Pericles and Plato, of Cicero and Caesar, of the Medicean Renaissance, and, appositely, of Louis XIV. The contrast is with “the ages of belief,” which were wretched and backward. Whether denouncing Gothic taste or clerical fanaticism, writers of the Enlightenment constantly resort to images of relapse and revival. Typically, Jean d’Alembert wrote in the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopédie of a revival of letters, regeneration of ideas, and return to reason and good taste. The philosophes knew enough to be sure that they were entering a new golden age through rediscovery of the old but not enough to have misgivings about a reading of history which, being grounded in a culture that had self-evident value, provided ammunition for the secular crusade.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The role of science and mathematics
“The new philosophy puts all in doubt,” wrote the poet John Donne. Early 17th-century poetry and drama abounded in expressions of confusion and dismay about the world, God, and man. The gently questioning essays of the 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, musing on human folly and fanaticism, continued to be popular long after his time, for they were no less relevant to the generation that suffered from the Thirty Years’ War. Unsettling scientific views were gaining a hold. As the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo, with its heliocentric view, was accepted, the firm association between religious beliefs, moral principles, and the traditional scheme of nature was shaken. In this process, mathematics occupied the central position. It was, in the words of René Descartes, “the general science which should explain all that can be known about quantity and measure, considered independently of any application to a particular subject.” It enabled its practitioners to bridge gaps between speculation and reasonable certainty: Johannes Kepler thus proceeded from his study of conic sections to the laws of planetary motion. When, however, Fontenelle wrote of Descartes, “Sometimes one man gives the tone to a whole century,” it was not merely of his mathematics that he was thinking. It was the system and philosophy that Descartes derived from the application of mathematical reasoning to the mysteries of the world—all that is meant by Cartesianism—which was so influential. The method expounded in his Discourse on Method (1637) was one of doubt: all was uncertain until established by reasoning from self-evident propositions, on principles analogous to those of geometry. It was serviceable in all areas of study. There was a mechanistic model for all living things.

A different track had been pursued by Francis Bacon, the great English lawyer and savant, whose influence eventually proved as great as that of Descartes. He called for a new science, to be based on organized and collaborative experiment with a systematic recording of results. General laws could be established only when research had produced enough data and then by inductive reasoning, which, as described in his Novum Organum (1620), derives from “particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all.” These must be tried and proved by further experiments. Bacon’s method could lead to the accumulation of knowledge. It also was self-correcting. Indeed, it was in some ways modern in its practical emphasis. Significantly, whereas the devout humanist Thomas More had placed his Utopia in a remote setting, Bacon put New Atlantis (1627) in the future. “Knowledge is power,” he said, perhaps unoriginally but with the conviction that went with a vision of mankind gaining mastery over nature. Thus were established the two poles of scientific endeavour, the rational and the empirical, between which enlightened man was to map the ground for a better world.

Bacon’s inductive method is flawed through his insufficient emphasis on hypothesis. Descartes was on strong ground when he maintained that philosophy must proceed from what is definable to what is complex and uncertain. He wrote in French rather than the customary Latin so as to exploit its value as a vehicle for clear and logical expression and to reach a wider audience. Cartesian rationalism, as applied to theology, for example by Nicholas Malebranche, who set out to refute the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, was a powerful solvent of traditional belief: God was made subservient to reason. While Descartes maintained his hold on French opinion, across the Channel Isaac Newton, a prodigious mathematician and a resourceful and disciplined experimenter, was mounting a crucial challenge. His Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687; Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ranks with the Discourse on Method in authority and influence as a peak in the 17th-century quest for truth. Newton did not break completely with Descartes and remained faithful to the latter’s fundamental idea of the universe as a machine. But Newton’s machine operated according to a series of laws, the essence of which was that the principle of gravitation was everywhere present and efficient. The onus was on the Cartesians to show not only that their mechanics gave a truer explanation but also that their methods were sounder. Christiaan Huygens was both a loyal disciple of Descartes and a formidable mathematician and inventor in his own right, who had worked out the first tenable theory of centrifugal force. His dilemma is instructive. He acknowledged that Newton’s assumption of forces acting between members of the solar system was justified by the correct conclusions he drew from it, but he would not go on to accept that attraction was affecting every pair of particles, however minute. When Newton identified gravitation as a property inherent in corporeal matter, Huygens thought that absurd and looked for an agent acting constantly according to certain laws. Some believed that Newton was returning to “occult” qualities. Eccentricities apart, his views were not easy to grasp; those who actually read the Principia found it painfully difficult. Cartesianism was more accessible and appealing.

Gradually, however, Newton’s work won understanding. One medium, ironically, was an outstanding textbook of Cartesian physics, Jacques Rohault’s Traité de physique (1671), with detailed notes setting out Newton’s case. In 1732 Pierre-Louis de Mauperthuis put the Cartesians on the defensive by his defense of Newton’s right to employ a principle the cause of which was yet unknown. In 1734, in his Philosophical Letters, Voltaire introduced Newton as the “destroyer of the system of Descartes.” His authority clinched the issue. Newton’s physics was justified by its successful application in different fields. The return of Halley’s comet was accurately predicted. Charles Coulomb’s torsion balance proved that Newton’s law of inverse squares was valid for electromagnetic attraction. Cartesianism reduced nature to a set of habits within a world of rules; the new attitude took note of accidents and circumstances. Observation and experiment revealed nature as untidy, unpredictable—a tangle of conflicting forces. In classical theory, reason was presumed to be common to all human beings and its laws immutable. In Enlightenment Europe, however, there was a growing impatience with systems. The most creative of scientists, such as Boyle, Harvey, and Leeuwenhoek, found sufficient momentum for discovery on science’s front line. The controversy was creative because both rational and empirical methods were essential to progress. Like the literary battle between the “ancients” and the “moderns” or the theological battle between Jesuits and Jansenists, the scientific debate was a school of advocacy.

If Newton was supremely important among those who contributed to the climate of the Enlightenment, it is because his new system offered certainties in a world of doubts. The belief spread that Newton had explained forever how the universe worked. This cautious, devout empiricist lent the imprint of genius to the great idea of the Enlightenment: that man, guided by the light of reason, could explain all natural phenomena and could embark on the study of his own place in a world that was no longer mysterious. Yet he might otherwise have been aware more of disintegration than of progress or of theories demolished than of truths established. This was true even within the expanding field of the physical sciences. To gauge the mood of the world of intellect and fashion, of French salons or of such institutions as the Royal Society, it is essential to understand what constituted the crisis in the European mind of the late 17th century.

At the heart of the crisis was the critical examination of Christian faith, its foundations in the Bible, and the authority embodied in the church. In 1647 Pierre Gassendi had revived the atomistic philosophy of Lucretius, as outlined in On the Nature of Things. He insisted on the Divine Providence behind Epicurus’ atoms and voids. Critical examination could not fail to be unsettling because the Christian view was not confined to questions of personal belief and morals, or even history, but comprehended the entire nature of God’s world. The impact of scientific research must be weighed in the wider context of an intellectual revolution. Different kinds of learning were not then as sharply distinguished, because of their appropriate disciplines and terminology, as they are in an age of specialization. At that time philomaths could still be polymaths. Newton’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—whose principal contribution to philosophy was that substance exists only in the form of monads, each of which obeys the laws of its own self-determined development while remaining in complete accord with all the rest—influenced his age by concluding that since God contrived the universal harmony this world must be the best of all possible worlds. He also proposed legal reforms, invented a calculating machine, devised a method of the calculus independent of Newton’s, improved the drainage of mines, and laboured for the reunification of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The influence of Locke
The writing of John Locke, familiar to the French long before the eventual victory of his kind of empiricism, further reveals the range of interests that an educated man might pursue and its value in the outcome: discrimination, shrewdness, and originality. The journal of Locke’s travels in France (1675–79) is studded with notes on botany, zoology, medicine, weather, instruments of all kinds, and statistics, especially those concerned with prices and taxes. It is a telling introduction to the world of the Enlightenment, in which the possible was always as important as the ideal and physics could be more important than metaphysics. Locke spent the years from 1683 to 1689 in Holland, in refuge from high royalism. There he associated with other literary exiles, who were united in abhorrence of Louis XIV’s religious policies, which culminated in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) and the flight of more than 200,000 Huguenots. During this time Locke wrote the Essay on Toleration (1689). The coincidence of the Huguenot dispersion with the English revolution of 1688–89 meant a cross-fertilizing debate in a society that had lost its bearings. The avant-garde accepted Locke’s idea that the people had a sovereign power and that the prince was merely a delegate. His Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) offered a theoretical justification for a contractual view of monarchy on the basis of a revocable agreement between ruler and ruled. It was, however, his writings about education, toleration, and morality that were most influential among the philosophes, for whom his political theories could be only of academic interest. Locke was the first to treat philosophy as purely critical inquiry, having its own problems but essentially similar to other sciences. Voltaire admired what Locke called his “historical plain method” because he had not written “a romance of the soul” but offered “a history of it.” The avowed object of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was “to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge; together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.” For Locke, the mind derives the materials of reason and knowledge from experience. Unlike Descartes’ view that man could have innate ideas, in Locke’s system knowledge consists of ideas imprinted on the mind through observation of external objects and reflection on the evidence provided by the senses. Moral values, Locke held, are derived from sensations of pleasure or pain, the mind labeling good what experience shows to give pleasure. There are no innate ideas; there is no innate depravity.

Though he suggested that souls were born without the idea of God, Locke did not reject Christianity. Sensationalism, he held, was a God-given principle that, properly followed, would lead to conduct that was ethically sound. He had, however, opened a way to disciples who proceeded to conclusions that might have been far from the master’s mind. One such was the Irish bishop George Berkeley who affirmed, in his Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), that there was no proof that matter existed beyond the idea of it in the mind. Most philosophers after Descartes decided the question of the dualism of mind and matter by adopting a materialist position; whereas they eliminated mind, Berkeley eliminated matter—and he was therefore neglected. Locke was perhaps more scientific and certainly more in tune with the intellectual and practical concerns of the age. Voltaire presented Locke as the advocate of rational faith and of sensationalist psychology; Locke’s posthumous success was assured. In the debate over moral values, Locke provided a new argument for toleration. Beliefs, like other human differences, were largely the product of environment. Did it not therefore follow that moral improvement should be the responsibility of society? Finally, since human irrationality was the consequence of false ideas, instilled by faulty schooling, should not education be a prime concern of rulers? To pose those questions is to anticipate the agenda of the Enlightenment.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The proto-Enlightenment
If Locke was the most influential philosopher in the swirling debates of fin de siècle Holland, the most prolific writer and educator was Pierre Bayle, whom Voltaire called “the first of the skeptical philosophers.” He might also be called the first of the encyclopaedists, for he was more publicist than philosopher, eclectic in his interests, information, and ideas. The title Nouvelles de la république des lettres (1684–87) conveys the method and ideal of this superior form of journalism. Bayle’s Historical Dictionary (1697) exposed the fallacies and deceits of the past by the plausible method of biographical articles. “The grounds of doubting are themselves doubtful; we must therefore doubt whether we ought to doubt.” Lacking a sound criterion of truth or a system by which evidence could be tested but hating dogma and mistrusting authority, Bayle was concerned with the present state of knowledge. He may have been as much concerned with exposing the limitations of human reason as with attacking superstition. Translated and abridged, as, for example, by order of Frederick II of Prussia, the Dictionary became the skeptic’s bible. The effect of Bayle’s work and that of others less scrupulous, pouring from the presses of the Netherlands and Rhineland and easily penetrating French censorship, could not fail to be broadly subversive.

Bayle’s seminal role in the cultural exchange of his time points to the importance of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. Because Holland contributed little to science, philosophy, or even art at the time of the philosophes, though enviable enough in the tranquil lives of many of its citizens, its golden 17th century tends to be overlooked in traditional accounts of the Enlightenment. Wealth derived from trade, shipping, and finance and the toleration that attracted Sephardic Jews, Protestants from Flanders and France, and other refugees or simply those who sought a relatively open society combined to create a climate singularly favourable to enterprise and creativity. It was urban, centring on Amsterdam, and it was characterized by a rich artistic life created by painters who worked to please patrons who shared their values. It was pervaded by a scientific spirit. Pieter de Hooch’s search for new ways of portraying light, Spinoza’s pursuit of a rational system that would comprehend all spiritual truth. Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s use of the microscope to reveal the hidden and minute, Hermann Boerhaave’s dissection of the human corpse, Jan Blaeuw’s accuracy in the making of maps or Huygens’ in the new pendulum clock—each represents that passion for discovery that put 17th-century Holland in a central position between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, with some of the creative traits of both periods. Its spirit is epitomized in the university of Leiden, which attracted students from throughout Europe by its excellence in medicine and law and its relative freedom from ecclesiastical authority.

It was fitting, therefore, that much of the writing that helped form the Enlightenment emanated from the printing presses of the Huguenot emigré Louis Elsevier at Amsterdam and Leiden. Bayle’s skepticism belongs to the time when dust was still rising from the collapsing structures of the past, obscuring such patterns of thought as would eventually emerge. There was no lack of material for them. Not only did learning flourish in the cultural common market that served the needs of those who led or followed intellectual fashions; also important, though harder to measure, was the influence of the new relativism, grounded in observable facts about an ever-widening world. It was corrosive alike of Cartesian method, classical regulation, and traditional theology. Of Descartes, Huygens had written that he had substituted for old ideas “causes for which one can comprehend all that there is in nature.”

Allied to that confidence in the power of reason was a prejudice against knowledge that might distort argument. Blaise Pascal had perfectly exemplified that rationalist frame of mind prone to introspection, which in his case—that of mathematical genius and literary sensibility in rare combination—produced some of the finest writing of his day. But the author of the Pensées (1669) was reluctant to travel: “All the ills that affect a man proceed from one cause, namely that he has not learned to sit quietly and contentedly in one room.” Again, the object of the protagonists of the prevailing classicism had been to establish rules: for language (the main role of the Académie), for painting (as in the work of Nicolas Poussin), even for the theatre, where Jean Racine’s plays of heightened feeling and pure conflict of ideal or personality gain effect by being constrained within the framework of their Greek archetypes.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » History and social thought
Order, purity, clarity: such were the classical ideals. They had dominated traditional theology as represented by its last great master, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. His Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’Écriture sainte (“Statecraft Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scriptures”) and Discours sur l’histoire universelle offered a worldview and a history based on the Old Testament. Bossuet believed in the unity of knowledge as so many branches of Christian truth. His compelling logic and magisterial writing had a strong influence. When, however, the hypotheses were tested and found wanting, the very comprehensiveness of the system ensured that its collapse was complete. Bossuet had encouraged Richard Simon when he set out to refute Protestantism through historical study of the Bible but was shocked when he saw where it led. Inevitably, scholarship revealed inconsistencies and raised questions about the way that the Bible should be treated: if unreliable as history, then how sound was the basis for theology? Simon’s works were banned in 1678, but Dutch printers ensured their circulation. No censorship could prevent the development of historical method, which was making a place for itself in the comprehensive search for truth. With Edward Gibbon (himself following the example of the 17th-century giants of church history), Jean Mabillon, and Louis Tillemont historians were to become more skilled and scrupulous in the use of evidence. The philosophes characteristically believed that history was becoming a science because it was subject to philosophical method. It also was subject to the prevailing materialist bias, which is why, scholarly though individual writers like David Hume might be, the Enlightenment was in some respects vulnerable to fresh insights about man—such as those of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who believed that human beings could be molded for their own good—and further research into the past—which, for Claude-Adrien Helvétius, was simply the worthless veneration of ancient laws and customs.

In 1703 Baron de Lahontan introduced the idea of the “noble savage,” who led a moral life in the light of natural religion. In relative terms, the uniquely God-given character of European values was questioned; Louis XIV’s persecution of the Huguenots and Jansenists offered an unappealing example. Philosophers were provided, through the device of voyages imaginaires, with new insights and standards of reference. As Archbishop Fénelon was to show in Télémaque (1699)—where the population of his imaginary republic of Salente was engaged in farming and the ruler, renouncing war, sought to increase the wealth of the kingdom—a utopian idyll could be a vehicle for criticism of contemporary institutions. A bishop and sentimental aristocrat, heir to the tradition of Christian agrarianism, might seem an unlikely figure to appear in the pantheon of the Enlightenment. But his readers encountered views about the obligations as well as rights of subjects that plainly anticipate its universalism, as in the Dialogue des morts: “Each individual owes incomparably more to the human race, the great fatherland, than to the country in which he is born.”

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The language of the Enlightenment
It is easier to identify intellectual trends than to define enlightened views, even where, as in France, there was a distinct and self-conscious movement, which had by mid-century the characteristics of a party. Clues can be found in the use commonly made of certain closely related cult words such as Reason, Nature, and Providence. From having a sharp, almost technical sense in the work of Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza, reason came to mean something like common sense, along with strongly pejorative assumptions about things not reasonable. For Voltaire, the reasonable were those who believed in progress: he lived “in curious times and amid astonishing contrasts: reason on the one hand, the most absurd fanaticism on the other.” Nature in the post-Newtonian world became a system of intelligible forces that grew as the complexity of matter was explored and the diversity of particular species discovered. It led to the pantheism of the Irish writer John Toland, for whom nature replaced God, and to the absolute doubt of Julien La Mettrie, who in L’Homme machine (1747) took the position that nothing about nature or its causes was known. In England, in the writing of Lord Shaftesbury and David Hartley, nature served the cause of sound morals and rational faith. One of the foremost theologians, Joseph Butler, author of the Analogy of Religion (1736), tested revelation against nature and in so doing erased the troublesome distinction in a manner wholly satisfying to those who looked for assurance that God could be active in the world without breaking the laws of its being. Finally, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, nature—the word that had proved so useful to advocates of an undogmatic faith, of universal principles of law or even, in the hands of the physiocrats, the “natural,” or market, economy—acquired a new resonance. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), he wrote: “We cannot desire or fear anything, except from the idea of it, or from the simple impulse of nature.” Nature had become the primal condition of innocence in which man was whole—not perfect, but imbued with virtues that reflected the absence of restraints.

Along with the new view of the universe grew belief in the idea of a benign Providence, which could be trusted because it was visibly active in the world. Writers sought to express their sense of God’s benevolent intention as manifest in creation. To the Abbé Pluche domestic animals were not merely docile but naturally loved humanity. Voltaire, equally implausibly, observed of mountain ranges that they were “a chain of high and continuous aqueducts which, by their apertures allow the rivers and arms of the sea the space which they need to irrigate the land.” The idea of Providence could degenerate into the fatuous complacency that Voltaire himself was to deride and against which—in particular, the idea that the universe was just a vast theatre for the divine message—Samuel Taylor Coleridge was memorably to rebel. Faith, wrote the English poet, “could not be intellectually more evident without being morally less effective; without counteracting its own end by sacrificing the life of faith to the cold mechanism of a worthless because compulsory assent.” So the Enlightenment can be seen to be carrying the seeds of its own disintegration. The providential idea was based on unscientific assumptions in an age in which scientists, favoured by a truce with men of religion, were free to pursue researches that revealed an untidier, therefore less comforting, world. Newton had argued, from such problems as irregularities in the orbit of planets, that divine intervention was necessary to keep the solar system operating regularly. D’Alembert found, however, that such problems were self-correcting. From being the divine mechanic had God now become the divine spectator?

No less unsettling were the findings of geologists. Jean-Étienne Guettard concluded that the evidence of fossils found in the volcanic hills of the Puy de Dôme in south-central France conflicted with the time scheme of the Old Testament. Whether, like the Count de Buffon, they attributed to matter a form of life, speculated about life as a constant, shapeless flux, or postulated a history of the world that had evolved over an immensely long time, scientists were dispensing with God as a necessary factor in their calculations. Some theologians sought compromise, while others retreated, looking to a separate world of intuitive understanding for the justification of faith. Joseph Butler pointed to conscience, the voice of God speaking to the human soul. He deplored the enthusiasm that characterized the tireless preaching of John Wesley and his message of the love of God manifested in Christ. “A true and living faith in God,” Butler declared, “is inseparable from a sense of pardon from all past and freedom from all present sins.” It was not the freedom understood by the philosophes, but it touched hearts and altered lives. Meanwhile the path of reason was open for the avowed atheism of Baron d’Holbach, who declared in his Système de la nature (1770; “The System of Nature”) that there was no divine purpose: “The whole cannot have an object for outside itself there is nothing towards which it can tend.” Another approach was taken by David Hume, author of Treatise on Human Nature (1739) and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). The notion of miracles was repugnant to reason, but he was content to leave religion as a mystery, to be a skeptic about skepticism, and to deny that man could reach objective knowledge of any kind.

These may appear to have been intellectual games for the few. It could only be a privileged, relatively leisured minority, even among the educated, who actively participated in debate or could even follow the reasoning. The impact was delayed; it was also uneven. In Dr. Johnson’s England the independence bestowed by the Anglican clergyman’s freehold and the willingness of the established church to countenance rational theology created a shock absorber in the form of the Broad Church. In Protestant countries criticism tended to be directed toward amending existing structures: there was a pious as well as an impious Enlightenment. Among Roman Catholic countries France’s situation was in some ways unique. Even there orthodox doctrines remained entrenched in such institutions as the Sorbonne; some bishops might be worldly but others were conscientious; monasteries decayed but parish life was vital and curés (parish priests) well trained. Nor was theology neglected: in 1770, French publishers brought out 70 books in defense of the faith. Of course the philosophes, endowed with the talents and the means to mount sustained campaigns, ensured that the question of religion remained high on the agenda. There was also a ready sale for writers who sought to apply the rational and experimental methods to what Hume was to call the science of man.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » Man and society
Chief among them was Charles de Secondat de Montesquieu. His presidency in the parlement of Bordeaux supported the career of a litterateur, scholarly but shrewd in judgment of men and issues. In the Persian Letters (1721), he had used the supposed correspondence of a Persian visitor to Paris to satirize both the church (under that “magician” the pope) and the society upon which it appeared to impose so fraudulently. His masterpiece, The Spirit of Laws, appeared in 22 editions within 18 months of publication in 1748. For this historically minded lawyer, laws were not abstract rules but were necessary relationships derived from nature. Accepting completely Locke’s sensationalist psychology, he pursued the line of the Sicilian Giambattista Vico, the innovative author of The New Science (1725), toward the idea that human values are the evolving product of society itself. Among social factors, he listed climate, religion, laws, the principles of government, the example of the past, and social practices and manners and concluded that from these a general spirit is formed. Montesquieu’s concern with knowledge as a factor in shaping society is characteristic of the Enlightenment. Nor was he alone in his Anglophile tendency, though it did not prevent him from misinterpreting the English constitution as being based on the separation of powers. The idea that moral freedom could be realized only in a regime whose laws were enacted by an elected legislature, administered by a separate executive, and enforced by an independent judiciary was to be more influential in the New World than in the Old. His theories reflected a Newtonian view of the static equilibrium of forces and were influenced by his perception of the French government as increasingly arbitrary and centralist; they were conceived as much as a safeguard against despotism as an instrument of progress.

Montesquieu’s political conservatism belonged to a world different from that of the younger generation of philosophes, for whom the main obstacle to progress was privilege; they put their trust in “the enlightened autocrat” and in his mandate for social engineering. They might fear, like Claude Helvétius, that his theories would please the aristocracy. Helvétius—a financier, amateur philosopher, and author of the influential De l’esprit (1759; “On the Mind”)—advocated enlightened self-interest in a way that found an echo in physiocratic economic theory and argued that each individual, in seeking his own good, contributed to the general good. Laws, being man-made, should be changed so as to be more useful. The spirit of the Enlightenment is well conveyed by his suggestion that experimental ethics should be constructed in the same way as experimental physics. By contrast, Montesquieu, whose special concern was the sanctity of human law, saw the problem of right conduct as one of adapting to circumstances. The function of reason was to bring about accord between human and natural law. While the objective nature of his inquiry encouraged those who trusted in the power of reason to solve human problems, it was left to those who saw the Enlightenment in more positive terms to work for change.

François-Marie Arouet, whose nom de plume Voltaire was to become almost synonymous with the Enlightenment, was a pupil of the Jesuits at their celebrated college of Louis-le-Grand; his political education included 11 months in the Bastille. The contrast between the arbitrary injustice epitomized by the lettre de cachet that brought about his imprisonment, without trial, for insulting a nobleman and the free society he subsequently enjoyed in England was to inspire a life’s commitment to the principles of reason, liberty, justice, and toleration. Voltaire at times played the role of adviser to princes (notably Frederick II) but learned that it was easier to criticize than to change institutions and laws. Like other philosophes living under a regime that denied political opportunity, he was no politician. Nor was he truly a philosopher in the way that Locke, Hume, or even Montesquieu can be so described. His importance was primarily as an advocate at the bar of public opinion. The case for the reform of archaic laws and the war against superstition was presented with passion and authority, as notably in his Philosophical Dictionary. Candide (1759) shows his elegant command of language, whose potential for satire and argument had been demonstrated by Pascal’s Provincial Letters of a century before. With astute judgment, he worked on the reader’s sensibilities. “The most useful books,” he wrote, “are those to which the readers themselves contribute half; they develop the idea of which the author has presented the seed.” He could lift an episode—the execution of Admiral Byng (1757) for failing to win a battle; of Jean Calas, seemingly, for being a Huguenot (1762); or of the Chevalier de la Barre, after torture, for alleged blasphemy (1766)—to the level at which it exemplified the injustices committed when man would not listen to the voice of reason or could not do so because of archaic laws. In Candide, he presented the debate between the optimistic Dr. Pangloss and Martin, who believes in the reality of evil, in a way that highlights the issues and is as significant now as then.

Voltaire mounted his campaigns from a comfortable base, his large estate at Ferney. He was vain enough to relish his status as a literary lion and freedom’s champion. He could be vindictive and was often impatient with differing views. In his reluctance to follow ideas through or consider their practical implications and in his patrician disregard for the material concerns of ordinary people, he epitomized faults with which the philosophes can be charged, the more because they were so censorious of others. He was generous chiefly in imaginative energy, in the indignation expressed in the celebrated war cry “Écrasez l’infâme” (literally “crush infamy,” signifying for Voltaire the intolerance of the church), and in the time he devoted to the causes of wronged individuals with whose plight he could identify. He had little to put in place of the religion he abused and offered no alternative vision. He did succeed notably in making people think about important questions—indeed, his questions were usually clearer than his answers.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The Encyclopédie
The Marquis de Condorcet, a mathematician and one of the more radical of his group, described his fellow philosophes as “a class of men less concerned with discovering truth than with propagating it.” That was the spirit which animated the great Encyclopédie, the most ambitious publishing enterprise of the century. It appeared in 17 volumes between 1751 and 1765, after checks and delays that would have disheartened anyone less committed than its publisher, André-François le Breton, or its chief editor and presiding genius, Denis Diderot. Its publishing history is rich in incident and in what it reveals of the ambience of the Enlightenment. The critical point was reached in 1759, when French defeats made the authorities sensitive to anything that implied criticism of the regime. The publication of Helvétius’ De l’esprit, together with doubts about the orthodoxy of another contributor, the Abbé de Prades, and concern about the growth of Freemasonry, convinced government ministers that they faced a plot to subvert authority. If they had been as united as the officials of the church, the Encyclopédie would have been throttled. It was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and a ban of excommunication was pronounced on any who should read it; but even Rome was equivocal. The knowledge that Pope Benedict XIV was privately sympathetic lessened the impact of the ban; Malesherbes, from 1750 to 1763 director of the Librairie, whose sanction was required for publication, eased the passage of volumes he was supposed to censor. Production continued, but without Rousseau, an early contributor, who became increasingly hostile to the encyclopaedists and their utilitarian philosophy.

Diderot’s coeditor, the mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert, had, in his preface, presented history as the record of progress through learning. The title page proclaimed the authors’ intention to outline the present state of knowledge about the sciences, arts, and crafts. Among its contributors were craftsmen who provided the details for the technical articles. Pervading all was Diderot’s moral theme: through knowledge “our children, better instructed than we, may at the same time become more virtuous and happy.” Such utilitarianism, closely related to Locke’s environmentalism, was one aspect of what d’Alembert called “the philosophic spirit.” If it had been only that, it would have been as useful as Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (1727), which it set out to emulate. Instead, it became the textbook for the thoughtful—predominantly officeholders, professionals, the bourgeoisie, and particularly the young, who might appreciate Diderot’s idea of the Encyclopédie as the means by which to change the common way of thinking. In the cause, Diderot sustained imprisonment in the jail at Vincennes (1749) and had to endure the condemnation and burning of one of his books, Philosophic Thoughts (1746). There was nothing narrow about his secular mission. Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1753) advanced the idea of nature as a creative process of which man was an integral part. But his greatest achievement was the Encyclopédie. Most of the important thinkers of the time contributed to it. Differences were to be expected, but there was enough unanimity in principles to endow the new gospel of scientific empiricism with the authority that Scripture was losing. It was also to provide a unique source for reformers. Catherine II of Russia wrote to the German critic Friedrich Melchior Grimm for suggestions as to a system of education for young people. Meanwhile, she said she would “flip through the Encyclopédie; I shall certainly find in it everything I should and should not do.”

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » Rousseau and his followers
Diderot prefigured the unconventional style that found its archetype in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his novel of the 1760s, Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot’s eccentric hero persuades his bourgeois uncle, who professes virtue, to confess to actions so cynical as to be a complete reversal of accepted values. Rousseau was close to this stance when he ridiculed those who derived right action from right thinking. He understood the interests of the people, which the philosophes tended to neglect and which Thomas Paine considered in the Rights of Man (1791). If virtue were dependent on culture and culture the prerogative of a privileged minority, what was the prospect for the rest: “We have physicians, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians and painters in plenty; but no longer a citizen among us.” Rousseau is thus of the Enlightenment yet against it, at least as represented by the mechanistic determinism of Condillac or the elitism of Diderot, who boasted that he wrote only for those to whom he could talk—i.e., for philosophers. Rousseau challenged the privileged republic of letters, its premises, and its principles. His Confessions depicted a well-intentioned man forced to become a rogue and outcast by the artificiality of society. His first essay, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750), suggested the contradiction between the exterior world of appearances and the inner world of feeling. With his view of culture now went emphasis on the value of emotions. Seminal use of concepts—such as “citizen” to indicate the rights proper to a member of a free society—strengthened signals that could otherwise confuse as much as inspire.

Dealing with the basic relations of life, Rousseau introduced the prophetic note that was to sound through democratic rhetoric. The state of nature was a hypothesis rather than an ideal: man must seek to recover wholeness at a higher level of existence. For this to be possible he must have a new kind of education and humanity a new political constitution. Émile (1762) proposed an education to foster natural growth. His Social Contract (1762) was banned, and this lent glamour to proposals for a constitution to enable the individual to develop without offending against the principle of social equality. The crucial question concerned legitimate authority. Rousseau rejected both natural law and force as its basis. He sought a form of association that would allow both security and the natural freedom in which “each man, giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody.” It is realized in the form of the general will, expressed in laws to which all submit. More than the sum of individual wills, it is general in that it represents the public spirit seeking the common good, which Rousseau defined as liberty and equality, the latter because liberty cannot subsist without it. He advocated the total sovereignty of the state, a political formula which depended on the assumption that the state would be guided by the general will. Rousseau’s good society was a democratic and egalitarian republic. Geneva, his birthplace, was to prove boundless in inspiration. Rousseau’s influence may have been slight in his lifetime, though some were proud to be numbered among admirers. His eloquence touched men of sensibility on both sides of the Atlantic.

The French writer Morelly in the Code de la nature (1755), attacked property as the parent of crime and proposed that every man should contribute according to ability and receive according to need. Two decades later, another radical abbé, Gabriel de Mably, started with equality as the law of nature and argued that the introduction of property had destroyed the golden age of man. In England, William Godwin, following Holbach in obeisance to reason, condemned not only property but even the state of marriage: according to Godwin, man freed from the ties of custom and authority could devote himself to the pursuit of universal benevolence. To the young poets William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley it was a beguiling vision; those less radical might fear for social consequences, such as the draftsmen of the Declaration of Rights of 1789, who were careful to proclaim the sacred right of property. Thomas Jefferson made the rights of man the foundation of his political philosophy as well as of the U.S. Constitution, but he remained a slave owner. The idea of “de-natured” man was as potent for the unsettling of the ancien régime as loss of the sense of God had been for the generation of Luther and Ignatius. It struck home to the educated young who might identify with Rousseau’s self-estrangement and read into the image of “man everywhere in chains” their own perception of the privilege that thwarted talent. Such were Maximilien Robespierre, the young lawyer of Arras; Aleksandr Radischev, who advocated the emancipation of Russian serfs, or the Germans who felt restricted in regimented, often minuscule states. Both the severe rationalism of Kant and the idealism of Sturm und Drang found inspiration in Rousseau. Yet Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and the sentimental hero portrayed by Goethe in his Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) mark the end of the Enlightenment. “It came upon us so gray, so cimmerian, so corpse-like that we could hardly endure its ghost,” wrote Goethe, speaking for the Romantic generation and pronouncing valediction.

In France the Enlightenment touched government circles only through individuals, such as Anne-Robert Turgot, a physiocrat, finance minister (1774–76), and frustrated reformer. The physiocrats, taking their cue from such writers as François Quesnay, author of Tableau économique (1758), advocated the removal of artificial obstacles to the growth of the natural economic order of a free market for the produce of the land. Even Adam Smith, who wrote the Wealth of Nations (1776) with a capitalist economy in mind, could see his avowed disciple William Pitt move only cautiously in the direction of free trade. Though the visionary William Blake could be adduced to show that there was powerful resistance to the new industrial society, the physician and scientist Erasmus Darwin was—with his fellow luminaries of the Lunar Society, Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton—at the heart of the entrepreneurial culture: there was no deep divide separating the English philosophes, with their sanctification of private property and individual interests, from the values and programs of government. In dirigiste France, where there was no internal common market and much to inhibit private investment, physiocratic ideas were politically naive: the gap between theory and implementation only illustrates the way in which the Enlightenment undermined confidence in the regime. Operating in a political vacuum, the philosophes could only hope that they would, like Diderot with Catherine the Great, exercise such influence abroad as might fulfill their sense of mission. In both Germany and Italy, however, circumstances favoured emphasis on the practical reforms that appealed as much to the rulers as to their advisers.


The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The Aufklärung
In Germany the Aufklärung found its highest expression in a science of government. One explanation lies in the importance of universities. There were nearly 50 by 1800 (24 founded since 1600); they were usually the product of a prince’s need to have trained civil servants rather than of a patron’s zeal for higher learning. Not all were as vigorous as Halle (1694) or Göttingen (1737), but others, such as Vienna in the last quarter of the 18th century, were inspired to emulate them. In general, the universities dominated intellectual and cultural life. Rulers valued them, and their teachers were influential, because they served the state by educating those who would serve. Leading academic figures held posts, enabling them to advise the government: the political economist Joseph von Sonnenfels was an adviser to the Habsburgs on the serf question. Lutheranism was another important factor in the evolution of the attitude to authority that makes the German Enlightenment so markedly different from the French. In the 18th century it was further influenced by Pietism, which was essentially a devotional movement though imbued with a reforming spirit. Nor was the earnest religious spirit confined to the Protestant confessions. In Maria Theresa’s Austria, Jansenism, which penetrated Viennese circles from Austrian Flanders, was as important in influencing reforms in church and education as it was in sharpening disputes with the Papacy. But there was nothing comparable, even in the Catholic south and Rhineland, to the revolt of western intellectuals against traditional dogma. Amid all his speculations, Leibniz, who more than any other influenced German thought, had held to the idea of a personal God not subject to the limitations of a material universe. It was devotion, not indifference, that made him, with Bossuet, seek ground for Christian reunion.

Leibniz’s disciple, Christian Wolff, a leading figure of the Aufklärung, was opposed to the Pietists, who secured his expulsion from Halle in 1723. Yet, though he believed that reason and revelation could be reconciled, he shared with the Pietists fundamental Christian tenets. In Halle there emerged a synthesis of Wolffism and Pietism, a scientific theology that was progressive but orthodox. Pervading all was respect for the ruler, reflecting the acceptance of the cuius regio, eius religio principle; it reduced the scope for internal conflicts, which elsewhere bred doubts about authority. In translating conservative attitudes into political doctrines, the contribution of the lawyers and the nature of the law they taught were crucial. In place of the moral vacuum in which the single reality was the power of the individual ruler, there had come into being a body of law, articulated preeminently by Hugo Grotius in On the Law of War and Peace. It was grounded not only in proven principles of private law but also in the Christian spirit, though it was strengthened by Grotius’ separation of natural law from its religious aspects. As expounded by Wolff and the historiographer Samuel Pufendorf, natural law endorsed absolutism. They did not wholly neglect civil rights, they advocated religious toleration, and they opposed torture, but, living in a world far removed from that of Locke or Montesquieu, they saw no need to stipulate constitutional safeguards. Wolff declared that “he who exercises the civil power has the right to establish everything that appears to him to serve the public good.” Such a sovereign, comprising legislative, executive, and judicial functions, was also, as defined in Wolff’s Rational Thoughts on the Social Life of Mankind (1756), a positive force, benevolent: he was Luther’s “godly prince” in 18th-century dress, serving his people’s needs. Cameralwissenschaft—the science and practice of administration—would serve the ruler by increasing the revenue and also improve the lot of the people.

Envisaging progress under the sovereign who created the schools, hospitals, and orphanages and provided officials to run them, Wolff was only one among numerous writers who contributed to the ideal of benevolent bureaucratic absolutism, or Wohlfahrstaat. Though also influenced by the local school of cameralists and 17th-century writers such as Philippe Wilhelm von Hörnigk and Johann Joachim Becher, the emperor Joseph II, having the largest area to rule and the most earnest commitment to its principles, came to exemplify the Aufklärung. By his time, however, there was a growing reaction against the soulless rationality of the natural lawyers. With the exception of the Prussian critic Johann Gottfried Herder, whose ideal Volk-state would have a republican constitution, political thought was unaffected by the emphasis of the literary giants of Romanticism on freedom and spontaneity. His contemporary Kant, an anticameralist, believed in a degree of popular participation but would not allow even the theoretical right of revolution. In Was ist Aufklärung? Kant drew a vital distinction between the public and private use of one’s reason. With Frederick the Great in mind, he advanced the paradox that can be taken as a text for the Enlightenment as well as for German history. The ruler with a well-disciplined and large army could provide more liberty than a republic.

A high degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s intellectual freedom, yet also sets up insuperable barriers to it. Conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom gives intellectual freedom enough room to expand to its fullest extent.

The great age of monarchy, 1648–1789 » The Enlightenment » The Enlightenment throughout Europe
Foreigners who came to see the monuments of Italy, or perhaps to listen to the music that they might recognize as the inspiration of some of the best of their own, were likely to return convinced that the country was backward. Its intellectual life might remain a closed book. As elsewhere, the Enlightenment consisted of small, isolated groups; measured by impact on governments, they had little obvious effect. Where there was important change, it was usually the work of a ruler, such as Leopold of Tuscany, or a minister, such as Bernardo Tanucci in Naples. The power of the church, symbolized by the listing of Galileo, a century after his condemnation, on the Index of Forbidden Books; the survival, particularly in the south, of an oppressive feudal power; and the restrictive power of the guilds were among the targets for liberals and humanitarians. Universities like Bologna, Padua, and Naples had preserved traditions of scholarship and still provided a stimulating base for such original thinkers as Giambattista Vico and Antonio Genovesi, a devout priest, professor of philosophy, and pioneer in ethical studies and economic theory. The distinctive feature of the Italian Enlightenment, however, as befitted the country that produced such scientists as Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, was its practical tendency—as if speculation were a luxury amid so much disorder and poverty. Its proponents introduced to political philosophy utilitarianism’s slogan “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” They also felt the passion of patriots seeking to rouse their countrymen. The greatest representative of the Italian Enlightenment was Cesare Beccaria, whose work included Of Crimes and Punishments (1764); in his lifetime it was translated into 22 languages. His pupils and imitators included Catherine II of Russia and Jeremy Bentham, the most influential figure in the long-delayed reform of English law. “Newtoncino,” as Beccaria was called by admirers, claimed to apply the geometric spirit to the study of criminal law. There was indeed no mystique about his idea of justice. “That bond which is necessary to keep the interest of individuals united, without which men would return to their original state of barbarity,” may recall the pessimism of Hobbes, but his formula for penalties answered to the enlightened ruler’s search for what was both rational and practical: “Punishments which exceed the necessity of preserving this bond are in their nature unjust.” So Beccaria condemned torture and capital punishment, questioned the treatment of sins as crimes, and stressed the value of equality before the law and of prevention having priority over punishment. Much of the best enlightened thought comes together in Beccaria’s work, in which the link between philosophy and reform is clearly evident.

The Enlightenment was a European phenomenon: examples of enlightened thought and writing can be found in every country. There were important reforms in late 18th-century Spain under the benevolent rule of Charles III. There was little originality, however, about the Luces and its disciples. The spirit of acceptance was stronger than that of inquiry; Spain apparently was a casebook example of the philosophes’ belief that religion stifled freedom of thought. It was a priest, Benito Feijóo y Montenegro, who did as much as any man to prepare for the Spanish Enlightenment, preaching the criterion of social utility in a society still obsessed with honour and display. Conservatism was, however, well entrenched, whether expressed in the pedantic procedures of the Inquisition or in the crude mob destroying the Marqués de Squillace’s new street lamps in Madrid in 1766. “It is an old habit in Spain,” wrote the Count de Campomanes, “to condemn everything that is new.”

So the accent in Spain was utilitarian—more Colbertiste than philosophe—as in other countries where local circumstances and needs dictated certain courses of action. Johann Struensee’s liberal reforms in Denmark (1771–72) represented, besides his own eccentricity, justifiable resentment at an oppressive Pietist regime. The constitutional changes that followed the first partition of Poland in 1772 were dictated as much by the need to survive as by the imaginative idealism of King Stanisław. Despite her interest in abstract ideals, reforms in law and government in Catherine the Great’s vast Russian lands represented the overriding imperative, the security of the state. In Portugal, Pombal, the rebuilder of post-earthquake Lisbon, was motivated chiefly by the need to restore vitality to a country with a pioneering maritime past. Leopold of Tuscany was able to draw on a rich humanist tradition and civic pride. Everywhere the preferences of the ruler had an idiosyncratic effect, as in the Margrave Charles Frederick of Baden’s unsuccessful attempt in 1770 to introduce a land tax (the impôt unique advocated by the physiocrats), or in Pombal’s campaign to expel the Jesuits (copied supinely by other Catholic rulers).

Overall it may seem as easy to define the Enlightenment by what it opposed as by what it advocated. Along with some superficiality in thought and cynical expediency in action, this is the basis for conservative criticism: When reason is little more than common sense and utilitarianism so infects attitudes that progress can be measured only by material standards, then Edmund Burke’s lament about the age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators” is held to be justified. Some historians have followed Burke in ascribing not only Jacobin authoritarianism but even 20th-century totalitarianism to tendencies within the Enlightenment. Indeed, it may be that the movement that helped to free man from the past and its “self-incurred tutelage” (Kant) failed to prevent the development of new systems and techniques of tyranny. This intellectual odyssey, following Shaftesbury’s “mighty light which spreads itself over the world,” should, however, be seen to be related to the growth of the state, the advance of science, and the subsequent development of an industrial society. For their ill effects, the Enlightenment cannot be held to be mainly responsible. Rather it should be viewed as an integral part of a broader historical process. In this light it is easier to appraise the achievements that are its singular glory. To be challenged to think harder, with greater chance of discovering truth; to be able to write, speak, and worship freely; and to experience equality under the law and relatively humane treatment if one offended against it was to be able to live a fuller life.

Geoffrey Russell Richards Treasure



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