323 Europe XII Absolutely Nations

Hobbes argued that only an all powerful ruler could do what was required to protect the people and preserve property, and for that the loss of individual liberty was worth paying. I’m not going to lie to you – the 17th C does rather support the theory.

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The Map of Europe – at the time of the 30 Years War


Ok so another general theme in the 17th century history of Europe is the continuing growth of the nation state, as the unity of the middle ages was cast headlong, flaming from the ethereal sky, down to the bottomless perdition that is the pizza of the nation state. It is a pizza which lets us throw on it, ladies and gentlemen, the ham of the military revolution and the pineapple chunks of absolutism. We have probably spoken of this enough, but expenditure of military technology grew increasingly and ruinously expensive; in our period here in particular the cost of fortifications were enormous in Europe, the trace itallienne fortress with star shapes and thick, thick walls designed to nullify the increasingly powerful artillery; the growing use of mobile artillery on the battlefield, the cost of mercenaries, arms and armour. It is worth noting that while the conversation tends to focus on armies, the same expense and technological development applied very much also to sleevies, sorry, to navies, to those countries for whom this was important; and to specific countries like the Dutch Republic and France the cost of change was multiplied with the growth of warfare that integrated both naval and land forces – though probably that’s best left to the 18th century as a topic – something to look forward to. Europe was of course, as the rest of the world was increasingly finding out, famously warlike, fractious and aggressive, and many rulers might have agreed with Machiavelli’s dictum that

War should be the only study of the Prince. He should look upon peace only as a breathing space which…gives him the means to execute military plans

Though I am told that in so quoting, I am perpetuating Machiavellian myths. My apologies to Niccolo.

The result was an increasing need to squeeze more money from the state, and generally speaking the technique adopted might be to centralise administration as much as possible, to try and remove local customs and liberties where possible, to stress the rights of the monarch to tax their subjects. At which point I should probably move straight on to French Absolutism and the age of absolutism, we can talk about Versailles and the Sun King and I’ll be in heaven. This after all is the era of Richelieu and Mazarin in France, centralising away like busy bees, and the likes of James I and VI in Britain declaring

“the state of Monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: For kings are not only God’s Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods.”

Maybe that’s the origin of the Gog calls me God gag used by the super powerful. Huh, houdi elbow. However, it would be a little early, though we are maybe in the foothills, and Louis XIV’s long reign of 1643-1715 will be time enough to speak of it. But it is probably worth mentioning one Thomas Hobbes at this point, since although he was English, his writings would be influential in supporting Absolutism, though Jacques Bossuets would be equally influential in France. Now I’ve always thought us Brits are slightly embarrassed about Thomas Hobbes; oh we love talking about Locke and his ideas of toleration and government, and David Hume, though we’ve been reminded both have blotted copybooks in the areas of slavery and racism, but the political and historical stuff, yes, we are keen. Old Hobbsey – well that’s a bit more tricky. Because Leviathan, published in 1651 was out and out a plea for supreme power of the ruler. Hobbes’ thesis essentially was that a strong ruler was absolutely essential to maintain order and prevent death and chaos; and that the subjects effectively give their unconditional approval to the ruler to do whatever they liked to maintain order and protect the state – and when I say unconditional, that’s it, once given you’ve had your lot, no arguing or any this this tripe about resistance theory. Any immaterial things like I don’t know, natural rights – PAH! Elderberries the lot of them, hogwash, pointless, immaterial tripe. There’s a super famous image from the frontispiece of Leviathan which has the image of a prince holding the sword of state, his body made of people who have climbed aboard to construct his body. Maintaining peace and order that was the job of the ruler, everything else was secondary, thirdary, zillionary. Hobbesy was a Wiltshire lad as it happens, and should have been a dyed in the wool royalist; So when Leviathan came out in 1651, effectively handing Oliver Cromwell carte blanche, royalists and those grieving for the death of their beloved martyr king Charles and nursing the hankies dipped in the royal blood were horrified. But Hobbes had no apologies to make the only thing that matters was order

During the time when men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in that condition which is called war…where every man is enemy to every man. In such condition there is no place for industry…no navigation…no arts, no letters, no society and…continual fear of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short

But also it’s worth noting that Europe is in no way a monolithic story of Absolutism, and the range of governmental systems was far wider than phrases like ‘the Age of Absolutism’ suggests. At one end of the scale sits the totally republican and decentralised Switzerland and at the other end of the scale the out and out autocracies of Russia, the Papal States and the Ottoman Empire. There are republics like Venice, the UP and even Lithuania-Poland; constitutional monarchies of varying degrees at various times in Scotland, England, Sweden. Absolutist states flourished in France, Austria and Spain, possibly Prussia; the Holy Roman Empire – well, take your pick depending where you look. There were miniature city states to boot. So really, while centralisation and the attempt to maximise revenue for war and growth are without doubt common, it is not necessary to equate that directly and simply with absolutism.

However, hang on to that theme of centralising and warfare, since as a parting shot it might be good to mention commerce as part of the role of the state and its success. Mercantilism is a late 18th century term, but many of the principles that would drive it, and that Adam Smith would complain about, were in place by then. So it was the role of the state to do everything possible to allow it’s commerce to succeed – regulations, penalising imports, encouraging exports, bringing in foreign experts to encourage home manufacturing; it’s true that the approaches varied, from a very state led approach to a purely private approach in the Dutch Republic, and something in between in England. But economic growth was a core measure of success, along with bullionism, the perceived importance of amassing gold and silver. War might form part, then, of these goals, to seize trade opportunities. Sir Thomas Mun was a writer on matters economics in Blighty, who died in 1641, and is described as one of the early mercantilists. He wrote

The ordinary means to increase our wealth and treasure is by foreign trade wherein we must ever observe this rule: to sell more to strangers than we consume of theirs in value

It’s a competitive business then, a zero sum game you might say, not the glories of free trade and mutual benefit and eternal growth, like blowing up a balloon, until it bursts of course, but enough of that.

The economic and social context for all of this is one of a sort of pause. The price revolution, continuous inflation in the 16th century continued for the first 20 or thirty years of the 17th century, but then paused. Until it did, grain riots were a common occurrence; particularly in regions where grain was transported to large cities, like Paris or Rome; in the 1640s a riot in the papal states to stop grain going to Rome turned violent and led to the burning down of the papal governor’s palace. Population growth, pretty much universal through Europe in the 16th century all but stopped, and this accounted to a degree for the slowing of inflation. In many areas of Europe, rural crafts became more common, prompted by population growth of the last century; it didn’t occur everywhere but did particularly in the Netherlands, Belgium, England, the Rhineland, and in northern France rural industry became not just part of families’ income, but a replacement for it. The German Sebastian Franck noted as he travelled with wonder that

“Not only women and maids, but also men and boys, spin. One sees contradictions; they work and gossip like women, yet are still vigorous, active, strong and quarrelsome people, the kind any area would want to have.”

The growth of rural industry promoted what some historian somewhere came to label ‘proto industrialisation’ – the growth of a proletarian workforce that would be one of the factors to enable industrialisation, and without wanting to summarise too horribly, the greater availability of credit and money that fuelled early capitalism – which was without doubt far from being simply a British phenomenon. But the impact was very varied depending on the part of Europe you were in; so whereas these early economic changes promoted social mobility in Northwest Europe, particularly in England and the Netherlands, the particular politics and economics of Central and eastern Europe led very much the other way, with the re-imposition of serfdom in areas of Germany and in Russia for example. But we’ve not yet come to the great age of agricultural revolution, so a detailed discussion of Jethro Tull and whether or not he invented the seed drill and drill husbandry, and indeed whether there was the traditional increase in productivity at will have to wait. I am sorry, I know how much you want it.

So why don’t we turn to some of those nation states and find out how the ebb and flow of political history affected their fortunes? I was wondering what way to go in terms of order. Forgive me my prejudice, but just as the 16th century feels very much like a Spanish century in European terms, the 17th, and indeed 18th feel like French centuries. This is evidently a mindless prejudice and not very historical, but that’s way it is for me. So, just to be contrary let me start with Eastern Europe and then work my way over and we can finish up with France, which we won’t get to until next week. Just to repeat the standard apology everything will be super minimalist and there is a map on the website.

Ok, here’s a quiz question to start off with. What was the largest state in Europe in territorial terms in 1600. Fingers on buzzers…and takers? Poland Lithuania is apparently the answer. This is a fab fact that I have from a pretty reputable source – Norman Davies’ History of Europe – but simply no way of checking so I offer it up to you for what it is worth, and later in my reading I managed to find a different answer, so you know, don’t put it into the village pub quiz.

I think in our first section, I shall talk generally about Eastern Europe, but chuck into that pot Sweden. Now I know that getting it wrong, and describing a place as Eastern Europe when It’s really in Central Europe is a crime, similar to describing someone Welsh as English, so apologies for any errors – and as to the inclusion of Sweden, well it’s just that they get involved. Generally speaking, I am talking Poland-Lithuania, Prussia, and Muscovy here. And generally across these kingdoms the social trend is towards the dominance of the nobilities – with varying levels of partnership with their monarch, but essentially even where monarchical power was absolute, as in Russia, monarchs co-opted the nobility into the state, despite conflicts along the way. Economic and legal privileges of the nobility were extended, posts and jobs provided in the bureaucracy and army, provisions passed hindering competition for the nobility from the towns or other means of production. Going back to that question then, of who paid the price of this co-operation – the answer is clear; it was the peasantry. In the 16th century serfdom had been re-introduced in many places and the trend continued into the 17th century – particularly in Muscovy, embedded in 1649 in the Legal Code of that year. The code contained over a thousand articles, and perpetuated and systematised serfdom.

Repression of serfs meant that many peasants tried to find new lives on the thinly populated borders, notably among the Cossacks living north of the Crimea. In 1670 and 1671 resentment flared up into open Rebellion as Sten’ka Razin led a revolt marked by hideous atrocities and equally hideous repression, and which led to Stenka’s execution in Moscow. Cossacks would form a crucial part in the history of Eastern Europe in the period – the name comes from the Turkish word for robber or adventurer.

Muscovy generally then might be said to have achieved its identity through the period. In the 16th century Ivan IV, the Dreadful Cad or the Terrible as he is alternatively known, had established the Muscovite state accompanied with a deal of slaughter, including a blood bath at Novgorod, and establishing a proud Russian tradition of a state secret police force, this first iteration known as the oprichnina. He took on the Boyars, the high nobility, and rewarded the lesser nobility for service to his monarchy. Then by setting up the Patriarch of Moscow, he established the dependant nature of the Russian Orthodox church, dependent on the Muscovite state that is. He also extended Muscovy’s borders and annexed the Khanate of Kazan in 1552, capturing Kazan amidst great slaughter of garrison and citizens, as is practically obligatory, and sensitively raising a great Orthodox Cathedral there for the edification of the Muslim Tartars and in celebration of victory.

After the party, the possibly inevitable reaction, and the period of the early 17th century known as the Time of Troubles. During a period of instability and a search for the true ruler, Muscovy suffered an unholy combination of civil war, peasant uprising, Cossack raids and invitations to invade offered to Swedes, Poles and Tartars – at one stage Moscow was occupied by a Polish claimant to the throne who was also a scion of the Swedish royal family – Wladyslaw Vasa. From the crucible of an uprising and destruction of the Polish garrison, finally emerged Russia’s last dynasty – the Romanovs, in the form of Mikhail Romanov. From 1619 Muscovy slowly but surely re-established itself and its independence after its troubles, particularly successfully by Alexei Mikhailovitch in the mid 17th century. Two things are particularly important before the arrival of Peter the Great on the stage of History; Russia acquired the left bank area of the Ukraine from Poland Lithuania, at the Truce of Andrusovo in 1667; and the importance of the acquisition was central in providing Russia with the economic powerhouse that would fund its rise as a great Power. And secondly, the great expansion of Russia pushed exploration from Siberia all the way to the Pacific.

The conflict with the other party at Andrusovo, Poland Lithuania, might be said to have defined the future of Eastern Europe. Poland Lithuania itself had come into being in 1569, under the pressure of expansion of Muscovite Russia; the two parties, the Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland came together to become equal partners in one new state, a Commonwealth. The form of government was very much not the Absolutist approach in Russia – though it certainly benefited the nobility. Through regional assemblies which controlled a central Diet the nobility, or szlachta if I have pronounced that anywhere near correctly, controlled taxation and military affairs. The coronation oath they imposed on their kings and their legal right of resistance meant they could control their monarchs like managers on a contract – I can feel Charles I and Louis XIV turning angrily in their graves. For 80 years Poland Lithuania basically negotiated the potential beartraps – managing to extricate itself from the Time of Troubles in Muscovy; managing the stresses and strains of the Counter Reformation with relatively little violence; Baltic trade grew, it avoided being sucked into the 30YW, its monarchy, despite its elective nature generally retained its authority. Often kings came from the younger scions of the Swedish house of Vasa, which could be a problem with sort of family conflicts resulting with the old country. But essentially despite the later chaotic 18th century, the Commonwealth was a success.

So, the chaos of John Casimir Vasa’s reign came as something of a shock, and erupted on the unhappy inhabitants from a relatively cloud free sky in 1648. Initially, the disaster came from the east of Poland Lithuania where lived its own Cossacks. The Cossacks living along the River Dnieper felt aggrieved and put upon; under religious pressure from the Catholic counter reformation that threatened Orthodox practice; and the complication of a large Jewish population, who were often leaseholders of powerful, landowning Polish nobles. In line with the general trend in Eastern Europe, those Polish landowners were putting increasing economic pressure on the peasant Cossack classes, working through the often Jewish tenants. The result again was Rebellion.

The Cossack rebellion was blood soaked, leaving a trail of murdered Catholics and Jews across Polish Ukraine. There are disputes about motivation, whether religious, economic and political or all, and of course many disputes about the numbers; but the number of Jews killed probably numbered tens of thousands in the Cossack rebellion, and maybe rose as high as 100,000 in the wars that followed. When they were on their last legs and close to being supressed, the Cossacks appealed to the Muscovites for support, and the Muscovite invasion of 1654-1667 brought 13 years extra destruction to Lithuania and Ukraine. It also put the wind firmly up the Kingdom of Sweden, and opened the eyes to an interesting opportunity of a German prince, the elector of Brandenburg Prussia.


Sweden as we have heard had a close connection to Lithuania Poland through its ruling house of Vasa; and of course was also one of its competitors for supremacy of the Baltic, which Sweden aimed to dominate. Sweden was a very different political proposition; a Protestant state by the start of the 17th century, and a well supported monarchy, which had bought noble support by transferring to it legal privileges and church lands. Uniquely, though, Sweden’s political set up including an estate of the peasantry, and its government rather oscillated between attempts to impose Absolutism, and constitutional monarchy, such as the so-called ‘time of Freedom’ at the start of the 18th century.

In 1611, one of Sweden’s most famous monarchs came to the throne – Gustavus Adolphus. He and his talented Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna created a more systematic bureaucracy, opened primary and secondary schools supported by the government, and promoted trade and shipping; but also entered the 30 years war, and was a winner in that brutal conflict, and took crucial territory from Lithuania Poland, dominating the Baltic. So in the 1650s, its king Charles X was seriously worried by the Muscovite invasion of Lithuania Poland – and intervened – in what became known as the Swedish Deluge, and brought yet more war and drove the Polish king John Casimir into exile.

At his side was a Hohenzollern, who was both the Elector of Brandenberg and Duke of Prussia. Prussia had been part of the old Teutonic state, which had lost its mission when the pagans of Lithuania converted to Christianity. In the 16th century Albrecht von Hohernzollern of Brandenberg made Prussia a fief of Poland and dismissed the Teutonic order; and then purchased the legal reversion of Prussia, so that the Hohenzollerns of Brandenberg would inherit Prussia, which turned out to be a clever move, and came to fruition in 1618. From 1640, Brandenberg Prussia was ruled by Frederick William who would become known as the Great Elector. The Great Elector saw in the Swedish Deluge an opportunity, whether to make himself king of Poland, or achieve the independence of his Duchy from its Polish overlord; having backed the right side, obviously a key talent for any leader, in 1655 he was in physical control of Warsaw.

All this sounds terrible news for Poland Lithuania; but by 1660 rather remarkably, she had re-asserted itself; the muscovites and Swedes were expelled, and a Treaty was concluded at Oliva in 1660 which brings our story to an end. True enough Lithuania Poland had survived and re-established itself; but it had lost much of Ukraine to Moscow you might remember. It was much economically weakened; plus it now had a much more powerful neighbour on its eastern borders. Just to add fuel to the fire, It now also had a new powerful and aggressive neighbour in Brandenberg Prussia, and Sweden was the most powerful nation in Northern Europe. Strategically, you wouldn’t pick it in a computer game I don’t think, and indeed, the 18th century would not be kind to Poland.

Now you know when I said that Lithuania Poland was the largest country in Europe in territorial terms, according to Norman Davies? Well, I now read that this is in fact disputed and that crown should in fact be given to the Ottoman Empire. After all it stretched into the Balkans, east to Persia and along the North African coast. So – Answers on a postcard and all that. In the last Europe episode, back in the mists of time when small furry creatures were still and all that, I think we talked about the 16th century surge in the Ottoman Empire, which took their conquests through the Balkans to partition Hungary, and to the very walls of Vienna; which extended their power through Mediterranean, seemly sweeping all before them – although Venice clung grimly to Crete, and Malta famously resisted siege; and although the Spanish naval victory at Lepanto in 1571 prevented the Med becoming a Turkish lake it did not stop the Ottoman advance – Tunis finally fell to the Turks in 1574.

The success of the Ottomans had been built on, amongst other things, a superb bureaucracy, mighty economy, and military innovation, supported by extraordinarily efficient logistics. And in the late 17th century their enemies in the East, the Safavids of Persia would collapse, and once more the famous Jannissaries and Sultan’s army would threaten the security of central Europe. Ottoman success led to Christian nations beating a path to their door – notably England, looking for allies against Spain, but also France looking for allies also against the Hapsburgs. Turkish culture was all the rage, and there was a craze for Turkish styles and artefacts – Europe’s first round of Orientalism. Istanbul was one of the two biggest cities in the world around 700,000 – I await your guesses for the other candidate for biggest world city with interest.

But although it might be hindsight, by the 17th century cracks were starting to appear. The Sultans had become increasingly remote from reality, and rarely left the confines of their court; there was no clear line of inheritance in Islamic law, which led to a vicious scuffle for power every time a sultan died, and since the extended family of the sultan was all kept within the confines of the Porte, new Sultans had little experience of rule. As a result, real power and decision making lay with the Grand Visier, a post that became heritable; and political as well as military power moved to the military powerhouse of the Jannissaries. As time went by the magnificent bureaucracy became increasingly corrupt, with regional officials ruling their provinces as personal satrapies rather than part of the whole. The ambitions of the vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha to revive the Ottoman conquest of the Central European Hapsburg lands would face a major challenge.

As far as the Imperial Hapsburgs themselves were concerned, the central European branch of the family that is rather than the Spanish version, the earlier 17th century was dominated and consumed by the 30YW so let’s just hold on to that thought. Under Rudolf II, the Emperor from 1576 to 1612, (I do hope you are enjoying the blizzard of dates by the way, a traditional complaint of school children), the imperial court at Prague was one of the cultural centres of Europe – he assembled a massive art collection, and a dream team of talent in Kepler, Bruno, Brahe, and one Arcimboldo of whom I had not heard, but who I am told is the founder of surrealist painting – fancy. And there was also a famous opera designer and inventor Cornelius Drebbner. None the less the tradition that the Hapsburg Empire was a poorly politically integrated bag of bits was not far in the future; an entity held together mainly by culture than political unity.




Which brings us to Italy. Now one of the historical arguments about 17th century Europe is whether or not it could be considered a century of crisis; economic and population slowdown, religious conflict and division, persistent plague, a never ending stream of wars including the big one, the 30YW. The debate runs back and forth, and the concept is often sometimes still used, or a competing framework that sees the century as a search for stability. I’m never sure whether these general frameworks are useful, because they are rarely able to incorporate everything, but the concept of a crisis does seem to have some resonance – especially with regards to Italy. For a long time it seems to me we have been used to thinking of Italy as the European powerhouse of culture, philosophy, industry, international trade; Florence, Venice, Rome, Genoa, Milan darling, these are the names that conjure up so many of the glories of Europe.

Now I’m not saying that is at an end – far from it, this is after all the age of Bernini who I am told was a character not entirely without talent. But already the centre of power in Europe had moved westwards, and was moving swiftly northwards too, to Spain, and France and the Dutch republic. Why that should happen is up for grabs and probably too complicated to debate here – though once again I am not sure how useful general frameworks are; and religion has been advanced as an explanation before but I believe is generally now considered a busted flush; the growth of international colonial empires is another more convincing one. But either way, the 17th century was hard for the Italian peninsula. Economic slowdown was marked in what had been the powerhouse of European industry; although silk remained a growth industry in Italy most others struggled; wool manufacture fell by 50% in the first decades and had all but disappeared by 1650; the putting out system and growth of rural industry was not taken up to the extent that it was in North western Europe, or at least not outside Lombardy. Guild restrictions, higher labour costs, high taxation and greater competition crippled Italian industry to a low point by 1650. Economic downfall and serious plagues meant population fell in major cities – by up to 50% in big cities such as Milan, Naples, and Genoa. In the south, over exploitation of land badly depleted soil fertility and led to deforestation; Spanish involvement in the 30 YW sucked taxation and resources from the kingdom – the king of Spain also being the king of Naples  and Sicily of course.

Just to continue the catalogue of woes, although the church seems to have increased its influence over social and economic life in Italy, its temporal lands in the Papal States were controlled by rival Italian families away from papal control. But more, the catholic church’s influence over European political and even ecclesiastical affairs was a shadow of its medieval memory; Gallicism, the desire from France to control its own clergy ate away at Papal influence, and Louis XIV would ignore papal pleas not to persecute the Huguenots; the papacy sat by unable to really influence events in the thirty years war.

Even mighty Venice began to slip from view; constant conflict on the Med, the Adriatic and Northern Italy led to rising cost of investments in business and decreasing income. The expansion of the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch colonial Empires gave an alternative supply route to the east, and prices of its staple money earners of spices began to fall. The English ambassador to Venice in 1600 saw the writing on the wall:

In the matter of trade, the decay is so manifest that all men conclude within twenty years space the city will all but collapse

He remarked that the huge thousand ton merchant ships once so common in Venice were now no longer to be seen. Before the end of the century, Italy would be famous more for western travellers completing the Grand Tour, coming to marvel at the wonders of the classic and medieval world of Italy, buying artifacts and taking them back home to create collections such as the British museum, the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge and Ashmolean at Oxford.

While we are on the rather depressing side of affairs, we should turn to Spain and Portugal. When we left Spain, Phillip III had taken over and started vigorously pursuing the war against his recalcitrant subjects in the Dutch United Provinces; it was a symbol of things to come that it did not go well and his ambitions to start with a big win started with a whimpery loss. At the time people would probably have had no idea just what was about to happen; afterall, Spain and Portugal seemed at the top of the world, looking, in the words of Karen, down on the creation, all the wealth of the New World and the magnificence of the royal court and Europe’s most powerful dynasty. Spain’s fall from power and European pre-eminence was fast, and so thorough that Spaniards were given to wonder if the short period of their triumph was nothing more than illusion. With hindsight of course the signs were there, with Philip II’s continual bankruptcies which went on through the 17th century; and with the divisive dominance of Castile over the other Spanish regions which they resented

Castile has made Spain and Castile has destroyed it

Wrote a contemporary. Under Phillip, the Aragonese had revolted, and under the continual pressure of war the pull of disintegration continued; in 1640 Portugal restored its monarchy and fought to restore its independence, in a war that went on through several stages of warfare, frontier conflict and renewed warfare until finally the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668 brought the conflict to an end. From 1640 the Spanish dealt also with a Catalan revolt, and not the last one by any means, which took until 1659 to quell and led to the loss of Spanish territory north of the Pyrenees to France. Meanwhile, the economic exhaustion and collapse evident by the end of Phillip II’s reign continued. It was not helped by the attitude of the Nobility who were resistant to the idea of commerce and the arrival of new blood into their ranks – and when new blood did arrive, they also expected to live off rents and landed income once they’d made it, rather than engage in commerce.

They were also obsessed with purity of blood – which in this context meant having no Jewish or Muslim ancestors. The same attitude led to the expulsion of between 1609 to 1611, of over 200,000 Muslims and Moriscos to North Africa. As population fell in Spain, this helped the economy not one bit.

Despite population decrease, Spain, like the rest of Europe experienced an explosion of vagabondage and what the Spanish called the Picaro, rogues and vagabonds living outside the margins of settled society, and which led to a genre of literature called the picaresque. I am guilty of appalling ignorance – I always rather assumed the picaresque was an odd way of saying picturesque, which of course is not the same thing at all.  As you probably know since you are less ignorant than I, picaresque literature celebrated the lives of brotherhoods of beggars creating their own society in the margins, the sort of rules and hierarchies we talked about in England with Upright men and the language of begging.

It’s more recently been pointed out that Spain’s decline was not quite the vertiginous collapse, beset with governmental incompetence, as has been traditionally assumed; it was once seen for example, that the kings reliance on favourites and courtiers was a sign of incompetence – now it’s recognised that one man could not cope with such a complicated empire. But nonetheless, Spain continued to get herself involved in furiously expensive international conflicts which continued to ravage its economy, in both Spain and Naples, and suck up its income from the colonies. In 1604 peace was agreed with England but the war with the Dutch wandered on until 1609 when a truce was agreed, which lasted for 11 years. A truce, because the Spanish crown had not yet given up; and although the Southern Netherlands were firmly in Spanish control, the increasing wealth of the Dutch Republic was too juicy a prospect to give up easily. So war started again in 1621 with a fresh assault from Spain.

This time it was in essence a global war. As we’ll come to a little later, the Dutch Republic had used the truce well to throw off the shackles of the Spanish blockades and both create the start of a global empire and take the war to Spain and Portugal in her colonies – this being before Portuguese independence. War was carried to the East Indies, Brazil, Macau, the Phillipines, as Europe continued to export the violence of her civilisation and society – there’s a contentious sentence we’ll come back to later. The war went badly for Spain, punctuated by events of major significance such as, at last, the capture of the entire Spanish Treasure fleet in 1638 which must have made the English absolutely green given how hard they’d tried and failed to do that very thing. But more significant, was the defeat of a Spanish Armada by Admiral Trump at the Battle of the Downs. The defeat has been seen as confirmation of the end of Spain’s status as the major Atlantic naval power.

The 80 years war between the northern provinces of the low countries and Imperial Spain finally came to an end at the Treaty of Munster in 1648, part of the series of treaties known to history as the Peace of Westphalia that brought the 30YW to an end.



2 thoughts on “323 Europe XII Absolutely Nations

  1. I’m doing my quarterly catch-up with your show and I must say I thought this was a great episode. I listen to a lot of very specific history so hearing a general sweeping over view helps put things in context. Thanks!

    1. Thank you! I do think it’s important to look up every so often, and realise that England was part of European wide trends, not a place apart

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