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

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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. Spain’s 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 Europe’s 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. Europe’s longtime enemies—war, famine, and plague—continued 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. Europe’s 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

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

Nevertheless. 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. What began as a struggle over religious issues soon became a wider conflict as other European powers—Denmark. France. the great and splendid city . 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. went up in fire and smoke. played an important role in the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. What were the results of this conflict? France emerged as the dominant nation in Europe. At the same time. led by the Habsburg Holy Roman emperors. often called the “last of the religious wars. a series of rebellions and civil wars rocked Europe. . . were free to determine their own religion. . The more than three hundred states that made up the Holy Roman Empire as a political entity. most of the battles were fought on German soil. it became clear that political motives were extremely important as well. especially the struggle between a militant Catholicism and a militant Calvinism. Most especially was every one of the enemy bent on securing much booty. not religious convictions.. Unfortunately. . The war in Germany was officially ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. and murder. known as the English Revolution.Seventeenth-Century Crisis: The Thirty Years’ War(1618 to 1648) Religion. but Germany would not be united for another two hundred years. were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe. The Thirty Years’ War was the most destructive conflict the Europeans had yet experienced. monarchs tried to extend their authority at the expense of nobles who fought back.given over to the flames.” As the war dragged on. To strengthen their power. during. The Peace of Westphalia also made it clear that political motives. At first it was a struggle between Catholic forces. plundering. Germany suffered the most from the Thirty Years’ War. Especially important was the conflict between France and the rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for European leadership. and after the Thirty Years’ War.In this frenzied rage. . had become the guiding forces in public affairs. it was not the last. Seventeenth-Century Crises: The English Revolution Before. including the Calvinist ones.was now. The Peace of Westphalia stated that all German states. however. in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries. to fight their battles. and Protestant (primarily Calvinist) nobles in Bohemia who rebelled against Habsburg authority. and Spain— entered the war.Thus in a single day this noble and famous city. . . and thousands of innocent men. women and children. The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618 in the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire. . the pride of the whole country. torture. Sweden.

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

After Cromwell’s death. He then set up a military dictatorship. Cromwell and his army found it difficult to work with the Rump Parliament and finally dispersed it by force. England’s time of troubles seemed at an end.commonwealth. he shouted after them.” With the certainty of one who is convinced he is right. the son of Charles I. “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. the army leaders decided that military rule was no longer desirable. However. With the return of the monarchy. . Cromwell had destroyed both king and Parliament. As the member of Parliament departed. They restored the monarchy in the person of Charles II.