Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Seventeenth-century Europe: an overview

Above is the Hendrick Avercamp's Winter with ice-skating (1608). Click to enlarge. The seventeenth-century
‘stands in transition between on the one hand the relatively prosperous and dynamic sixteenth century, with its major religious debates, its overseas expansion and economic growth…and on the other hand, the more relaxed and expansive eighteenth century…where many intellectual and cultural trends came together in the Enlightenment. Boxed in by the Muslim world in the Mediterranean, threatened by recurrent warfare both amongst the European powers and overseas, and at times overwhelmed by disease and starvation…seventeenth-century Europe was under siege. Thomas Munck, Seventeenth-Century Europe (2005).
Yet by the end of the century there had been significant changes:
  1. The witchcraft scare had virtually ended.
  2. Science had been revolutionized.
  3. Europe had re-oriented commercially away from the Mediterranean and towards the north west.
  4. England and the United Provinces (Holland) had become imperial powers.
  5. France had replaced Spain as the dominant land power.
  6. Religion remained important but wars were now fought for trade and dynastic rather than religious reasons.
For the poor, however, the century was part of a longue durée. Life changed hardly at all. If anything, it became worse because of a deteriorating climate (at least in the middle years of the century), known as the Little Ice Age. Population It is extremely difficult to estimate the size of the population in this period. Only advanced cities like Venice and Rome had anything resembling censuses. In most of Europe the level of literacy was too low and the bureaucracy too undeveloped for proper estimates of population to be made. The available sources are parish registers and taxation records. Unlike the 16th and 18th centuries, there was no long-term increase. By 1700 the population of Europe has been estimated at: France 21 million The Low Countries 3.5 million The British Isles 9 million Scandinavia 3 million The Italian peninsula 13 million The Iberian peninsula less than 9 million (and falling) The German lands 12-15 million (a decline from the 16th century) The Habsburg lands more than 15 million Food Population was affected by the food supply. The winters of 1659-60 and 1709-10 were exceptionally harsh, the subsequent harvests were poor, and people’s resistance to disease was consequently lowered. Many Europeans were in a state of chronic malnutrition. During the ‘little ice age’, the Alpine glaciers were further advanced than they are now and the Thames and the Baltic Sound froze regularly. The basic diet in northern and central Europe was based on barley and rye, in southern and western Europe wheat. Potatoes did not become a major part of the diet until the 18th century. Pulses and dairy products often took the place of meat. Only the Dutch were seriously trying innovative farming (drainage schemes crop rotation, winter feeding of cattle). Dutch expertise was exported to England when Cornelius Vermuyden came over to drain the fens. This was achieved (temporarily) at great human cost. Death and Disease The precise cause of most early-modern deaths remains uncertain, mainly because diagnosis was primitive and the precise role of a disease in causing a person’s death is often unclear. In northern countries the winter and early spring months saw the heaviest mortality, with a peak in March and April. In winter airborne respiratory diseases wrought the greatest havoc, but in the summer people died from diseases of the digestive tract such as dysentery. The most feared disease was the plague (probably not the bubonic plague), which was endemic in Europe in this period. One of the most beautiful churches in Venice, Baldassare Longhena's Santa Maria della Salute, was built in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague. Other diseases included influenza, typhoid fever, typhus, smallpox, infantile diarrhoea and dysentery. Smallpox was the most feared killer of the 17th century. Dwellers in fens, marshes and low-lying areas were prone to vivax malaria, popularly known as ague. It was the disease that killed Oliver Cromwell. He could have contacted it from his native Fens or from his campaign in Ireland. Chronic maladies blighted many lives. These included pulmonary tuberculosis, syphilis, kidney or bladder stones, and gout. War was the great carrier of death and disease. Between 20 and 25% of soldiers in the French armies of the 17th century died in service, though often through disease rather than combat. It has been estimated that nearly 85,000 died in England and Wales during the Civil War. Occupations 90% of the population worked on the land. Industry (forges, mills, looms) was usually located in vlllages. The great industry was textiles. In the Netherlands by the 1620s machines with 12 shuttles could be worked by one weaver. Mining was the second major industry. By 1700 Sweden supplied half the iron ore used in England.