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What was the "General Crisis"?
The term was coined by English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his pair of 1954 articles entitled “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” published in Past and Present, and cemented by his contemporary, Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a 1959 article entitled “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” published in the same journal. Hobsbawm discussed an economic crisis in Europe; Trevor-Roper saw a wider crisis, “a crisis in the relations between society and the State”.Trevor-Roper argued that the middle years of the 17th century in Western Europe saw a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, religious, economic and political problems. In this “general crisis”, various events such as the English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the climax of the Thirty Years' War in the Holy Roman Empire and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia were all manifestations of the same problem. The most important cause of the “general crisis”,
in Trevor-Roper’s opinion, was the conflict between “Court” and “Country”; that is between the increasingly powerful centralizing, bureaucratic, sovereign princely states represented by the court, and the traditional, regional, land-based aristocracy and gentry representing the country. In addition, the intellectual and religious changes introduced by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were important secondary causes of the “general crisis”. The “general crisis” thesis generated much controversy between those, such as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who believed in the “general crisis” thesis but saw the problems of 17th-century Europe as being more social and economic in origin than Trevor-Roper would allow, and those who simply denied there was any “general crisis”. Current historians interested in the General Crisis include Geoffrey Parker, who has authored a book on the subject.
Many historians have argued the 17th century was an era of crisis. Many other historians have rejected the idea.Today there are historians who promote the crisis model, arguing it provides an invaluable insight into the warfare, politics, economics,and even art.The Thirty Years War (1618–48) focused attention on the massive horrors that wars could bring to entire populations.The 1640s in particular saw more state breakdowns around the world than any previous or subsequent period. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest state in Europe, temporarily disappeared. In addition, there were secessions and upheavals in several parts of the Spanish Empire, the world’s first global empire. In Britain the entire Stuart monarchy (Kingdom of England, Kingdom of Scotland, Kingdom of Ireland, and British America) rebelled. Political insurgency and a spate of popular revolts seldom equaled shook the foundations of most states in Europe and Asia. More wars took place around the world in the mid-17th century than in almost any other period of recorded history. The crises spread far beyond Europe—for example Ming China, the most populous state in the world, collapsed
China’s Ming dynasty and Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate had radically different economic, social, and political systems. However they experienced a series of crises during the mid-17th century that were at once interrelated and strikingly similar to those occurring in other parts of the world at the same time. Frederic Wakeman argues that the crisis which destroyed the Ming dynasty was partly a result of the climatic change as well as China’s already significant involvement in the developing world economy. Bureaucratic dishonesty worsened the problem. Moreover, the Qing dynasty’s success in dealing with the crisis made it more difficult for it to consider alternative responses when confronted with severe challenges from the West in the 19th century.