One of the significant debates among students of early modern history has centered on the so-called General Crisis, especially as related to European history, which posits that there was a series of interconnected reasons why there were so many rebellions and wars in the mid-17th century, including tumult not only in the European heartlands of France, Italy, the Low Countries and the German-speaking lands, but also in more geographically peripheral areas like Iberia, Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, the Balkans and Russia. Historians have also given some attention to the impact of the Little Ice Age of the 17th century, when general global cooling and climatic extremes wreaked havoc on many lands and peoples.
Geoffrey Parker, a renowned early modern historian, has produced an exhaustive (and, at almost 900 pages, somewhat exhausting) account of this troubled century that incorporates these two major themes. He includes some significant current historiographical trends, especially an emphasis on global history environmental and climate history, and so-called history from below, which examines how the masses or average people influenced and were in turn influenced by the economic, social, political and religious changes of their times.
Parker contends that while historians have examined many aspects of both the political and environmental disasters that occurred throughout much of the 17th century, they have often failed to see the interconnectedness of these developments and have not produced a truly synoptic account, which he does here in a fairly persuasive tour de force.
He proceeds to examine what he refers to as the natural and human archives of this period. The former include tree rings, ice cores and pollen deposits, while the latter include a wide range of written records on contemporary political and social conditions as well as reports on climate change and related, often extreme, environmental factors. Parker argues that it was this often unique combination of natural and human disasters that produced a plethora of crises and catastrophes from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries, with the mid-17th century being a particularly devastating time in many places. Thus, he focuses here on the years 1618 to 1688, with some coverage of related events on either side of these particularly troubled decades.
Based probably on both his own areas of specialization in early modern European history and the frequent convergence of natural and human disasters on the continent, it is not surprising that Parker focuses a good deal of attention on Europe. Part of what gives this book such persuasive power, however, is its often global reach.
There is considerable discussion of events in east Asia, especially China and Japan, although Mughal India and other parts of Eurasia are also incorporated into the discussion. There are, in addition, some references to developments in various parts of Africa, the Americas and Australia. While one would wish for more data from these latter lands, part of the problem is that the human archives for many of these areas are limited or almost nonexistent. Still, because of the wide-ranging, often intercontinental, effects of various climatic events like El Niño and major volcanic eruptions, the author is not amiss in suggesting that this extensive environmental, political and social disruptions across much of Europe and Asia likely had significant impacts elsewhere as well. To mention but a few of the weather extremes of the century: there were two “years without a summer” (1628 and 1675); the flood waters of the Nile fell to perhaps their lowest levels ever recorded in mid- to late century; and evidently for the only time in recorded history, the Bosporus froze over (1620) and China’s Grand Canal dried up (1641).
In light of current concerns and debates about climate change and global warming—as opposed to global cooling in the 17th century—Parker’s narrative and analysis manage to be relevant without being “presentist” or an example of simplistic climate determinism. In fact, the dynamic reality of contingency is front and center here, with the author stressing that as dramatic as climatic and environmental factors were in many places, human agency could and sometimes did ameliorate or, more often, exacerbate these threats.
The latter was more likely to occur in “composite states” including the Spanish Habsburg Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Chinese Empire, where monarchs and their courts ruled over peoples of often wide-ranging ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Therefore, the complex crises of the 17th century were frequently the result of a “fatal synergy of human and natural factors,” in which revolts and wars, in tandem with environmental and agricultural disasters, produced demographic decline, sometimes of catastrophic proportions. While global estimates are to some extent guesswork, the overall population may have been reduced by a third, with some areas suffering the loss of half or more of their pre-crisis peaks.
Yet there were a few exceptions to this general demographic disaster, especially in Japan, New England and New France. In the case of Japan, some astute leaders learned from their recent past and built improved infrastructure and granaries as well as avoiding foreign wars, thereby shepherding precious resources that were then available in times of shortage. In the New World, New England and New France had the advantages of being relatively under-populated areas that also had extensive resources. Within Europe, cumulative demographic declines were generally more severe in southern versus northern Europe, resulting in the relative decline of the previously ascendant Mediterranean lands. On a global scale, Parker argues that the 17th-century Global Crisis contributed significantly to the so-called Great Divergence, whereby northern and especially northwestern Europe emerged from the crisis with better long-term economic, technological and other resources and strategies that enabled countries like Britain to outpace traditional powers in other parts of the world, China being a particular case in point.
In sum, this is a brilliant and multifaceted approach to the global 17th century. If at times tendentious, it nevertheless goes a long way toward demonstrating the connections between dramatic climate changes and widespread demographic and political crises, especially when and where governments squandered their resources on internecine and seemingly interminable wars instead of marshalling their human and financial capital to confront the onslaught of Mother Nature.