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Global Crisis

Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 904
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  • Book Info
    Global Crisis
    Book Description:

    Revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, regicides, government collapses-the calamities of the mid-seventeenth century were unprecedented in both frequency and extent. The effects of what historians call the "General Crisis" extended from England to Japan, from the Russian Empire to sub-Saharan Africa. The Americas, too, did not escape the turbulence of the time.

    In this meticulously researched volume, master historian Geoffrey Parker presents the firsthand testimony of men and women who saw and suffered from the sequence of political, economic, and social crises between 1618 to the late 1680s. Parker also deploys the scientific evidence of climate change during this period. His discoveries revise entirely our understanding of the General Crisis: changes in prevailing weather patterns, especially longer winters and cooler and wetter summers, disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests. This in turn brought hunger, malnutrition, and disease; and as material conditions worsened, wars, rebellions, and revolutions rocked the world.

    Parker's demonstration of the link between climate change, war, and catastrophe 350 years ago stands as an extraordinary historical achievement. And the implications of his study are equally important: are we adequately prepared-or even preparing-for the catastrophes that climate change brings?

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18919-3
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Plates
    (pp. None)
  5. Prologue: Did Someone Say ‘Climate Change’?
    (pp. xv-xx)

    Climate change has almost extinguished life on earth on three occasions. Some 250 million years ago, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia caused rapid changes in the earth’s atmosphere that wiped out 90 per cent of its species. Next, 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck what is now Mexico and created another atmospheric catastrophe that eliminated 50 per cent of the earth’s species (including the dinosaurs). Finally, some 73,000 years ago, the volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia caused a ‘winter’ that lasted several years and apparently killed off most of the human population.¹

    No subsequent...

  6. Introduction: The ‘Little Ice Age’ and the ‘General Crisis’
    (pp. xxi-xxx)

    In 1638, from the safety of his Oxford college, Robert Burton informed readers of his best-selling book,The anatomy of melancholy, that ‘every day’ he heard news of

    War, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions; of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turky, Persia, Poland, etc; daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times affoord; battels fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwracks and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums.

    Four years later, the English Civil War started and a group of London merchants lamented that ‘All trade and commerce...


    • [PART I. Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      The French philosopher and author Voltaire was the first to write about a Global Crisis in the seventeenth century. HisEssay on the customs and character of nations, and on the principal facts of history from Charlemagne to Louis XIII, composed in the 1740s for his friend, the Marquise du Châtelet (who, although an eminent mathematician, found history boring), set the wars and rebellions a century earlier within a global framework. Thus, after describing the murder of an Ottoman sultan in 1648, Voltaire immediately noted:

      This unfortunate time for Ibrahim was unfortunate for all monarchs. The Holy Roman Empire was...

    • 1 The Little Ice Age
      (pp. 3-25)

      In 1614 Renward Cysat, botanist, archivist and town historian of Luzern, Switzerland, began a new section of his chronicle entitled ‘The Seasons of the Year’, because ‘the past few years have seen such a strange and wondrous succession of changes in the weather’. He decided to

      Record the same as a service and a favour to future generations because, unfortunately, on account of our sins, for some time now the years have shown themselves to be more rigorous and severe in the recent past, and we have seen deterioration amongst living things, not only among mankind and the animal world...

    • 2 The ‘General Crisis’
      (pp. 26-54)

      Most of those who lived through the seventeenth-century crisis identified war rather than climate as the principal cause of their misfortunes – and with good reason: more wars took place around the world than in any other era before the Second World War. The historical record reveals only one year entirely without war between the states of Europe in the first half of the century (1610) and only two in the second half (1670 and 1682) (Fig. 4). In 1641 the prevalence of conflicts led the Italian warrior and man of letters Fulvio Testi to claim that ‘This is the...

    • 3 ‘Hunger is the greatest enemy’: The Heart of the Crisis
      (pp. 55-76)

      In one of his celebratedEssays, published early in the seventeenth century, the English politician and philosopher Francis Bacon warned rulers to ensure that their subjects, unless ‘mowen downe by wars,doe not exceed the stock of the kingdome that should maintain them’, because a prolonged imbalance between the production and consumption of food sooner or later produces famine, disruption and revolt.¹

      Subsequent writers agreed. In 1640 a historian ‘embedded’ with the army of Philip IV as it passed through the drought-parched fields of Catalonia noted ominously: ‘Amid the distress to which human misery reduces us,there is almost nothing...

    • 4 ‘A third of the world has died’: Surviving in the Seventeenth Century
      (pp. 77-110)

      The dramatic reduction in food supply in the mid-seventeenth century, whether through human or natural agency, forced many human communities to take urgent and extreme measures to reduce their food consumption. The easiest and most effective way to do this was to reduce the number of mouths to feed; and although this process took different forms in different parts of the globe, almost everywhere the population fell steadily from the 1620s until a new equilibrium emerged between supply and demand for basic resources – often not until the 1680s.

      The exact scale of demographic contraction is hard to document. In...


    • [PART II. Introduction]
      (pp. 111-114)

      In a seminal article, Sir John Elliott pointed out that the ‘epidemic of revolutions’ in the 1640s ‘was not, after all, unprecedented’, and he listed not only eight rebellions in western Europe between 1559 and 1569 but also contemporary statements deploring the ubiquity of those upheavals. Thus the Protestant Reformer John Knox warned the ruler of turbulent Scotland in 1561 that ‘Your realm is in no other case at this day than all the other realms of Christendom are’; while John Calvin thought he discerned‘Europae concussio: the shaking of Europe’ – precisely the same metaphor used by Jeremiah Whittaker...

    • 5 The ‘Great Enterprise’ in China, 1618–84
      (pp. 115-151)

      In 1645, depressed by the suicide of the last Ming emperor to rule from Beijing, a gentleman-scholar named Xia Yunyi decided to dictate his memoirs before he killed himself:

      In agony and wrath at the emperor’s death, my reason to live has ended … So what more is there to say? I just fear that, regarding the rise and fall of the state, the advance and retreat of worthy and base men, the origins and ends of bandits, and the sources of arms and provisions, those who instruct later generations will miss the realities. Is what I remember worth putting...

    • 6 ‘The great shaking’: Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1618–86
      (pp. 152-184)

      In September 1618 troops commanded by the Polish Crown Prince Władysław Vasa stormed Moscow. Although the assault failed, Tsar Michael Romanov agreed to the truce of Deulino, by which he relinquished all Russian lands conquered over the previous decade by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which now became the largest state in Europe, twice the size of France. The tsar had little choice: 20 years of famines, rebellions, civil wars and invasions by both Sweden and Poland had reduced Russia’s population by perhaps one-quarter. In some areas more than half the villages and even entire towns had been abandoned. The intervening period...

    • 7 The ‘Ottoman tragedy’, 1618–83
      (pp. 185-210)

      In the early seventeenth century the Ottoman empire overawed European visitors. A Venetian consul marvelled that it had acquired ‘like a lightning bolt’ so much territory that it ‘included 8,000 miles of the circuit of the world’ and ‘a great part’ of three continents, namely Asia, Africa and Europe; while an English traveller considered it ‘the greatest [empire] that is, or perhaps that ever was’. Such awe was justified: the sultan ruled over 20 million subjects and 1 million square miles. Although Istanbul lay more than 700 miles from Vienna, and 1,000 miles from Baghdad, thanks to the empire’s efficient...

    • 8 The ‘lamentations of Germany’ and its Neighbours, 1618–88
      (pp. 211-253)

      In 1962 the regional government of Hessen sent out a questionnaire that asked respondents to place in rank order the ‘seven greatest catastrophes’ ever suffered by Germany. Most respondents mentioned the Black Death, defeat in the Second World War and the Third Reich, but the Thirty Years War topped the list. It is easy to understand why: the loss and displacement of people were proportionately greater than in the Second World War, the material and cultural devastation caused were almost as great; and both the catastrophe and its aftermath lasted far longer. Germany not only experienced these misfortunes, however, it...

    • 9 The Agony of the Iberian Peninsula, 1618–89
      (pp. 254-290)

      At his accession in 1621, aged 16, Philip IV governed an empire on which (as his spin doctors put it) ‘the sun never set’, comprising the Iberian Peninsula; Lombardy, Naples and Sicily; the southern Netherlands; and the colonies of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, the Philippines, Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, this global extent brought weakness as well as strength. A letter written in 1600 to Don Balthasar de Zúñiga, a senior diplomat, underlined the strategic dilemma:

      We are gradually becoming the target at which the whole world wants to shoot its arrows; and we know that no empire, however...

    • 10 France in Crisis, 1618–88
      (pp. 291-323)

      Both geographically and socially,’ wrote Lloyd Moote in 1971, the Fronde revolt in France (1648–53) ‘was the most widespread of all the rebellions in mid-seventeenth-century Europe’.² Its extent should not cause surprise, because France was the largest state in western Europe, covering almost 200,000 square miles. More striking is the extensive social support for the revolt: almost all the leading nobles defied the crown at some point, including the king’s uncle, Gaston of Orléans, as did judges and civil servants, cardinals and curates, lawyers and doctors, industrial workers and field hands. About one million French men and women died,...

    • 11 The Stuart Monarchy: The Path to Civil War, 1603–42
      (pp. 324-358)

      The history of seventeenth-century England has always attracted controversy. In 1659 John Rushworth published the first volume of a work entitledHistorical Collections or private passages of state, dedicated to Lord Protector Richard Cromwell (son of Oliver Cromwell), which charted the origins of the English Civil War from a Republican point of view. Since the 1620s, Rushworth had held a variety of appointments that enabled him to witness events and amass printed and manuscript material (Plate 13). In 1682 James Nalson, a cleric, published a royalist alternative to Rushworth, entitledAn impartial collection of the great affairs of state, dedicated,...

    • 12 Britain and Ireland from Civil War to Revolution, 1642–89
      (pp. 359-396)

      In ‘the cruel and unnatural wars fought in recent years’

      Much innocent blood of the free people of this nation hath been spilt, many families have been undone, the publick treasure wasted and exhausted, trade obstructed and miserably decayed, vast expence and damage to the nation incurred, and many parts of this land spoiled, some of them even to desolation.

      Although this bleak assessment resembled those made about Germany during and after the Thirty Years War, it formed part of the indictment read out on 20 January 1649 by John Cook, ‘Solicitor-general for the Commonwealth’ of England at the first...


    • [PART III. Introduction]
      (pp. 397-398)

      In 1623 an Italian preacher, Secondo Lancellotti, became irritated by those who complained about the unprecedented harshness of the world and set out to refute them. His best-selling bookNowadays, or how the world is not worse or more calamitous than it used to be, identified 49 ‘fallacies’ held by contemporaries whom Lancellotti calledhoggidiani– ‘whiners’ – and then listed examples in each of the 49 categories to prove them wrong. Thus ‘princes nowadays arenotmore avaricious or indifferent towards their subjects than they used to be’, while ‘human life nowadays isnotshorter, so that men do...

    • 13 The Mughals and their Neighbours
      (pp. 399-420)

      In April 1639, at the exact second determined by the imperial astrologers, a lark was sacrificed on a bluff overlooking the Jumna river near the ancient city of Delhi, and workers immediately placed the bodies of several freshly beheaded criminals around the cornerstone of the new capital of the Mughal empire, to be called Shahjahanabad: theabador city of Shah Jahan. Nine years later, Shah Jahan made his ceremonial entry and took up residence with some 10,000 followers in his palace citadel, surrounded by the huge red sandstone wall that gave the complex the name it still bears: the...

    • 14 Red Flag over Italy
      (pp. 421-444)

      Many contemporaries expected the revolt of the Catalans in June 1640 to produce the collapse of the Spanish Monarchy. In Paris, Swedish ambassador Hugo Grotius gloated that ‘in time this flame could spread to Aragon, Valencia and Portugal’; while in London, James Howell predicted that ‘the sparkles of this fire will fly further, either to Portugal, or to Sicily and Italy; all which countries, I observed, the Spaniard holds, as one would do a wolf, by the ear’.² And, indeed, Portugal rebelled in December 1640 and Aragon came close the following year (see chapter 9 above); while rioting against conscription...

    • 15 The ‘dark continents’: The Americas, Africa and Australia
      (pp. 445-483)

      Although the human and natural ‘archives’ from the mid-seventeenth century are abundant, they relate overwhelmingly to only two continents: Europe and Asia. We lack a human archive for much of the Americas and most of Africa, because few indigenous populations left written or pictorial records that can be precisely dated; and although the natural archive (above all tree rings), supplemented by archaeological remains, indicates that global cooling afflicted both these continents, its impact on their human population remains obscure. Thus while many Europeans in North America realized that the indigenous population was declining rapidly – in New Mexico, ‘where three...

    • 16 Getting it Right: Early Tokugawa Japan
      (pp. 484-506)

      Early in the seventeenth century, the foremost Japanese chronicler of his day rejoiced that ‘In this age, there are none even among peasants and rustics, no matter how humble, who have not handled gold and silver aplenty. Our empire enjoys peace and prosperity; on the roads not one beggar or outcast is to be seen.’ A few years later one of his colleagues went even further: ‘What a marvellous age! Even peasants like me enjoy tranquillity and happiness… They dwell in the land of bliss. If this is not a [Buddhist Paradise], then how is it that I and other...


    • [PART IV. Introduction]
      (pp. 507-508)

      Many seventeenth-century writers attributed the violent disorders they saw around them to the innate defects of human nature. According to Thomas Hobbes in 1641, ‘man’s natural state, before they came together into society, was war; and not simply war, but the war of every man against every man’. In 1643, with civil war raging in England, a London pamphleteer considered that ‘we see such an eager division in all families, and it is so universal, that no county, scarce any city or corporation, is so unanimous but they have division enough to undo themselves. And it is evident enough, that...

    • 17 ‘Those who have no means of support’: The Parameters of Popular Resistance
      (pp. 509-533)

      Collective resistance was perhaps the most common human reaction to the seventeenth-century crisis. As a disgruntled English landowner observed, ‘The meaner sort of people [are] always apt to rebel and mutiny on the least occasion’ – and, indeed, the total number of food riots in England rose from 12 between 1600 and 1620 to 36 between 1621 and 1631, with 14 more in 1647–9. In Germany and Switzerland, more than half of the total of major peasant revolts recorded in the seventeenth century took place between 1626 and 1650; while in France, popular revolts peaked in the middle decades...

    • 18 ‘People who hope only for a change’: Aristocrats, Intellectuals, Clerics and the ‘dirty people of no name’
      (pp. 534-560)

      In 1644 Nicholas Fouquet, later Louis XIV’s chief fiscal officer but then his representative in Valence on the river Rhône, pondered the current unrest among the city’s inhabitants. He concluded that, although theoriginsof the disorders he faced ‘do indeed lie in the misery of the common people, theirprogressproceeds from the division that exists among the most powerful people, the ones who should oppose them’. A few years later, the marquis of Argyll, a leading protagonist in the Scottish revolution, made the same point in a different way: ‘Popular furies,’ he wrote, ‘would have no end, if...

    • 19 ‘People of heterodox beliefs … who will join up with anyone who calls them’: Disseminating Revolution
      (pp. 561-586)

      InThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big DifferenceMalcolm Gladwell evaluated the impact of Paul Revere’s ride through Massachusetts on the night of 18/19 April 1775 to spread the word that the following day British troops in Boston would try to arrest the leading American Patriots in Lexington and capture the weapons of the local militia in Concord. The ensuing hostilities on 19 April began the American Revolutionary War. A critical element in Revere’s success, according to Gladwell, was his status as a ‘connector’. His work as a silversmith and his frequent business travel had allowed Revere...


    • [PART V. Introduction]
      (pp. 587-590)

      The political, social and economic upheavals known as the General Crisis largely ceased in the 1680s, yet global cooling continued for another generation. Average temperatures in 1687–1700 were 1.5°C lower than in the preceding decade; and in the Paris region, theaveragemonthly temperature fell below freezing eight times between 1691 and 1697 – a phenomenon never seen again. The 1690s saw by far the coldest period in several long runs of European temperature records, leading climatologists to christen the decade the ‘climax of the Little Ice Age’.² Although these oscillations may seem small, they were in fact enormous...

    • 20 Escaping the Crisis
      (pp. 591-611)

      Many of those who lived in the seventeenth century reacted to adversity and anxiety which they could neither explain nor avoid in much the same way as their descendants today: some killed themselves; others went to consult a therapist or a cleric; while others found solace in an absorbing pastime. All three categories are difficult to document, because they left few traces in the surviving sources. Some of those who committed suicide subsequently appeared in court records (such as the findings of the juries convened by the coroners of England) or in chronicles (like theMingmo zhonglie jishi, ‘True record...

    • 21 From Warfare State to Welfare State
      (pp. 612-641)

      Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen chose a striking image for the frontispiece of his 1668 novel,The adventures of a German simpleton: a phoenix, pointing to an open book that contains images of war (Plate 23). The verse below the engraving began:

      Like a Phoenix I was born in the fire;

      and continued with the question:

      What often grieved me, and seldom brought joy?

      What was it? I’ve written it down in this book.

      Grimmelshausen’s studied use of the past tense, and his image of a bird that rises from its own ashes, exuded confidence that the ‘fire’ was over;...

    • 22 The Great Divergence
      (pp. 642-667)

      The ‘General Crisis’, according to the eminent Sinologist Samuel Adshead in 1970, ‘marks the decisive point of divergence between the modern histories of Europe and China’. In one of the few attempts to compare the experience of two distinct regions in the mid-seventeenth century, Adshead examined economic, social and political data, and concluded that ‘European society emerged from this crisis reconstructed, more powerful and better integrated than before, while Chinese society remained relatively unchanged.’ Thirty years later another eminent Sinologist, Kenneth Pomeranz, published a powerful comparative study, entitledThe Great Divergence(a term that has subsequently gained widespread currency), that...

  12. Conclusion: The Crisis Anatomized
    (pp. 668-685)

    Crane Brinton’s classic studyAnatomy of Revolution, first published in 1938, sought ‘uniformities’ between the political upheavals in seventeenth-century England, eighteenth-century North America and France, and twentieth-century Russia. In the last chapter, Brinton asked ‘What did these revolutions really change?’, and he answered:

    Some institutions, some laws, even some human habits, they clearly changed in very important ways; other institutions, laws and habits they changed in the long run but slightly if at all. It may be that what they changed is more – or less – significant than what they did not change. But we cannot begin to decide...

  13. Epilogue: ‘It’s the climate, stupid’
    (pp. 686-697)

    Once upon a time, the history of climate was a ‘hot topic’. In 1979 the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation paid for 250 historians, geographers, archaeologists and climatologists from 30 countries to attend the first international ‘Conference on Climate and History’, hosted by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (England) – a unit sponsored by (among others) British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. Cambridge University Press later published a volume containing the most innovative of the conference papers. That same year, the...

  14. Chronology
    (pp. 698-704)
  15. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 705-708)
  16. Note on Conventions
    (pp. 709-709)
  17. Note on Sources and Bibliography
    (pp. 710-713)
  18. Abbreviations Used in the Bibliography and Notes
    (pp. 714-717)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 718-793)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 794-845)
  21. Index
    (pp. 846-872)