The European Dynastic States, 1494-1660

By Richard Bonney | Go to book overview

6
THE RISE OF EUROPEAN ABSOLUTISM

IT has been argued that on at least three occasions in the period 1494- 1660 there was a general European crisis which was characterized by uprisings in several parts of the Continent. The critical years are said to be the 1560s, the 1590s and the 1640s, years when political upheavals were marked in some cases by changes of regime. Contemporary commentators were struck by certain similarities in the troubles of these years, especially those of the 1640s. The Dutchman Lieuwe van Aitzema compared the Naples uprising of 1647 with the Moscow revolt of 1648; the Italian count Birago Avogadro, drawing upon newspaper reports, published in 1653 a volume of studies on the uprisings in Catalonia, Portugal, Sicily, England, France, Naples and Brazil in the previous decade. The troubles of the 1640s have been given a Marxist interpretation; the conjunction of important political and social upheavals with a fundamental economic change has been viewed as a decisive moment in the transition from 'feudalism' to capitalism in Europe. However, not only has the original formulation of the argument been subjected to criticism, but also its underlying assumption: were economic and social conditions the prime determinants of political change? There are enough differences between each episode to defy any search for a common pattern. Certainly there was political instability in early modern Europe, but this was not new: it was a frequent feature of public life.

Several modern historians have attempted to analyse the more general causes of these European crises and some common features have been perceived, such as for example 'a crisis in the relations between society and the state'.1 It has been argued that the growth of government -- perhaps even the rise of absolutist states -- combined with other social and economic developments within society to produce intolerable tensions in the 1560s, 1590s and 1640s. As evidence for this interpretation, some historians have cited the development of the idea of the secular state in political theory, the changing relations of rulers with representative bodies such as parliaments or estates, the new complexity of royal administration, and the growing military power of states, accompanied by an increasing fiscal burden. Undoubtedly certain rulers and ministers made

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