Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview

8
The Enlightenment

NORMAN HAMPSON


The Scale of Change

Many of the people who lived in western Europe in the first quarter of the eighteenth century probably felt that things were changing for the better in all kinds of ways. Life was becoming a little more secure, more predictable, and also more interesting. The period of general warfare that had followed a generation of civil and religious mayhem came to an end in 1715, to be followed by a generation of relative peace. There seems to have been an improvement in the physical climate, which meant better harvests and less hunger. After the final outbreak in Marseilles in 1720, there were no more visitations of plague, except in Italy. More people were born and more of them stayed alive. The broadening of European horizons that had begun with the discovery of America was now extended to embrace the entire globe. This operated at all kinds of levels. The educated began to understand that different cultures, especially that of China, had a validity of their own. The less intellectual started to drink tea and coffee and the coffee house became a new centre of sociability. Such changes in social habits could have appalling consequences, as the insatiable demand for sugar fuelled the growth of the slave trade, but it was not Europeans who paid the price and few of them devoted much thought to what was being done to Africans.

With these changes came a shift in the mental climate. If we are to appreciate the novelty of an outlook that now seems so familiar, we have to realize how things had appeared only a short time before. Cromwell's contemporaries had seen man as a tragic actor, seeking personal salvation from a jealous and punitive God, in a world where nature was a succession

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