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Europe in Crisis: Social Disintegration, War, and Revolution (1560-1650)

From 1560 to 1650, Europe witnesses severe economic and social crises, as well as political upheaval. The so-called price revolution was a dramatic rise in prices (inflation) that was a major economic problem in all of Europe in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. What caused this price revolution? The great influx of gold and silver from the New World was one factor. Perhaps even more important was an increase in population in the sixteenth century. A growing population increased the demand for land and food and drove up prices for both. The price revolution also had benefits, as rising prices and expanding markets led to economic expansion and prosperity. This inflation-fueled prosperity of the sixteenth century, however, showed signs of declining by the beginning of the seventeenth century. An economic slowdown was soon evident in some parts of Europe. As imports of silver from the Americas dwindled, economic decline increased, especially in the Mediterranean area. Spains economy, which has grown dependent on imported silver was seriously failing by the decade of the 1640s. Italy, once the financial center of Europe in the age of the Renaissance, was also becoming an economic backwater. Population figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reveal Europes worsening conditions. The sixteenth century was a period of growing population, possibly due to a warmer climate and increased food supplies. The population of Europe probably increased from 60 million in 1500 to 85 million by 1600. However, it leveled off by 1620 and even began to decline by 1650, especially in central and southern Europe. Only the Dutch, English, and French grew in number in the first half of the seventeenth century. Europes longtime enemieswar, famine, and plaguecontinued to affect population levels. Another little Ice Age in Europe after the middle of the sixteenth century brought a fall in average temperatures. This hurt harvests and gave rise to famines. Europes problems created social tensions that were evident in the witchcraft craze.

The Witchcraft Craze


Hysteria over witchcraft affected the lives of many Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although witchcraft was not new. Its practice had been part of traditional village culture for centuries. However, in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had connected witches to the activities of the devil, making witchcraft into a heresy that had to be wiped out. By the thirteenth century, people were being accused of a variety of witchcraft practices. They were often turned over to state authorities for burning at the stake or hanging. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many people became hysterical about witchcraft. Neighbors accused neighbors of witchcraft, which led to widespread trials of witches. Perhaps more than 100,000 people were prosecuted throughout Europe on charges of witchcraft. As more and more people were brought to trial, the fear of witches

grew, as did the fear of being accused of witchcraft. Larger cities were affected first, but the trials also spread to smaller towns and rural areas as the hysteria lasted well into the seventeenth century. Common peopleusually those who were poor and without propertywere the ones most often accused of witchcraft. Indeed, where lists are given, those mentioned most often are milkmaids, peasant women, and servant girls. In the witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over 75 percent of those accused were women. Most of them were single or widowed. Many were over fifty years old. The accused witches usually confessed to a number of practices, most often after intense torture. Many said that they had sworn allegiances to the devil and attended sabbats, or nightly gatherings where they feasted and danced. Others admitted using evil spells and special ointments and powders to bring harm to their neighbors, such as killing their livestock. Why did the witchcraft crazy become so widespread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Religious uncertainties clearly played some part. Many witchcraft trials took place in the areas, such as southwestern Germany, where conflicts between Protestants and Catholics still raged. As hatreds grew, charges of being in league with the devil became common on both sides. The witchcraft hysteria may also have emerged from the problems of a society in turmoil. This was a time when the old values that stressed working together for the good of the community were declining. Property owners became alarmed at the growing numbers of poor among them and referred to them as agents of the devil. Old women were particularly open to suspicion. Many of them could no longer depend on the local charity found in traditional society and survived by selling herbs, potions, or secret remedies for healing. When problems arose, these same people were the most likely to be accused of being witches. That women should be the chief victims of witchcraft trials was hardly accidental. Indeed, since the Middle Ages, writers on witchcraft had argued that there was a direct link between witchcraft and women. According to these writers, women were inferior to men both mentally and morally. Womens moral weaknesses made them especially open to temptation and hence especially vulnerable to the allures of Satan. These beliefs were repeated in virtually all of the witchcraft treatises written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A witchcraft judge in France, for example, found it not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, i.e., witches, should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex. Of course, not only witch hunters held these low estimates of women. Most theologians, lawyers, and philosophers in early modern Europe believed in the natural inferiority of women and thus would have found it plausible that women would be more susceptible to witchcraft. By the mid-seventeenth century, the witchcraft hysteria began to lessen. The destruction caused by more religious wars led many people to become more tolerant. This tolerance, in turn, caused religious passions to subside. Moreover, as governments grew stronger after the period of crisis, fewer officials were willing to disrupt their societies by the trials of witches. Finally, by the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, as science became more widespread, more and more people were questioning their old attitudes toward religion. They found it unreasonable to believe in the old view of a world haunted by evil spirits.

Seventeenth-Century Crisis: The Thirty Years War(1618 to 1648)


Religion, especially the struggle between a militant Catholicism and a militant Calvinism, played an important role in the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, often called the last of the religious wars. As the war dragged on, however, it became clear that political motives were extremely important as well. The Thirty Years War began in 1618 in the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire. At first it was a struggle between Catholic forces, led by the Habsburg Holy Roman emperors, and Protestant (primarily Calvinist) nobles in Bohemia who rebelled against Habsburg authority. What began as a struggle over religious issues soon became a wider conflict as other European powersDenmark, Sweden, France, and Spain entered the war. Especially important was the conflict between France and the rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for European leadership. Nevertheless, most of the battles were fought on German soil. The war in Germany was officially ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. What were the results of this conflict? France emerged as the dominant nation in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia stated that all German states, including the Calvinist ones, were free to determine their own religion. The more than three hundred states that made up the Holy Roman Empire as a political entity, but Germany would not be united for another two hundred years. The Peace of Westphalia also made it clear that political motives, not religious convictions, had become the guiding forces in public affairs. Germany suffered the most from the Thirty Years War. Some areas of Germany would have agreed with this comment by a resident of a city that had been sacked ten times: Then there was nothing but beating and burning, plundering, torture, and murder. Most especially was every one of the enemy bent on securing much booty. . . .In this frenzied rage, the great and splendid city . . .was now. . .given over to the flames, and thousands of innocent men, women and children, in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries, were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe,. . .Thus in a single day this noble and famous city, the pride of the whole country, went up in fire and smoke. The Thirty Years War was the most destructive conflict the Europeans had yet experienced. Unfortunately, it was not the last.

Seventeenth-Century Crises: The English Revolution


Before, during, and after the Thirty Years War, a series of rebellions and civil wars rocked Europe. To strengthen their power, monarchs tried to extend their authority at the expense of nobles who fought back. At the same time, to fight their battles, governments increased taxes and created such economic burdens that common people also rebelled. By far the most famous struggle was the civil war and rebellion in England, known as the English Revolution.

At the core of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century was a struggle between king and Parliament that turned into an armed conflict to determine what roles each should play in governing England. The struggle over this political issue was complicated by a deep and profound religious controversy. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the Tudor dynasty came to an end. The Stuart line of rulers began with the accession to the throne of Elizabeths cousin, the king of Scotland, who became James I of England. James understood little about the laws and customs of the English. He believed in the divine right of kings; that is, he believed that kings receive their power directly from God and are responsible to no one except God. Parliament, however, did not think much of the divine right of the kings. Over time, Parliament had come to assume that the king or queen and Parliament together ruled England. Then, too, the Puritans (those Protestants in England inspired by Calvinist ideas) did not like the kings strong defense of the Church of England. The Puritans were officially members of the Church of England. However, they were Calvinists by conviction, and they wished to reform the Church of England by making it even more Protestant. Many of Englands gentry, mostly well-to-do landowners below the level of the nobility, had become Puritans The Puritan gentry formed an important part of the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. It was not wise to alienate them. The conflict that had begun during the reign of James came to a head during the reign of his son, Charles I. Charles believed as strongly in divine-right monarchy as his father had. From the first stormy session of parliament after Charles became king, it became apparent that the problems between this king and Parliament would not be easily solved. In 1628, Parliament passed a Petition of Right, which the king was supposed to accept before granted any taxes. This petition prohibited taxes without Parliaments consent. At first Charles accepted it. He changed his mind later, realizing that it put limits on the kings power. Religious differences also added to the hostility between Charles I and Parliament. Charles tried to impose more ritual on the Church of England. To the Puritans, this was a return to Catholic practices. When Charles tried to force the Puritans to accept his religious policies, thousands of them went to the howling wildernesses of America instead. Complaints grew until England finally slipped into a civil war in 1642 between the supporters of the king (known as the Cavaliers or Royalists) and the parliamentary forces (known as Roundheads). Parliament proved victorious, due largely to the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell, the only real military genius of the war. The New Model Army was made up chiefly of more extreme Puritans, known as the Independents, who believed they were doing battle for God. As Cromwell wrote in one of his military reports, Sir, this is none other but the hand of God; and to Him alone belongs the glory. We might give some credit to Cromwell as well, because his soldiers were well disciplined and trained in the new military tactics developed in the course of the Thirty Years War. The victorious New Model Army lost no time in taking control. Cromwell purged Parliament of any members who had not supported his forces. What was leftthe socalled Rump Parliamentthen had Charles I executed on January 30, 1649. Parliament next abolished the monarchy the House of Lords, and it declared England a republic or

commonwealth. However, Cromwell and his army found it difficult to work with the Rump Parliament and finally dispersed it by force. As the member of Parliament departed, he shouted after them, It is you that have forced me to do this, for I have sought the Lord night and day that He would slay me rather than put upon me the doing of this work. With the certainty of one who is convinced he is right, Cromwell had destroyed both king and Parliament. He then set up a military dictatorship. After Cromwells death, the army leaders decided that military rule was no longer desirable. They restored the monarchy in the person of Charles II, the son of Charles I. With the return of the monarchy, Englands time of troubles seemed at an end.