Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

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VIII
EUROPEAN EXPANSION AND CAPITALISM: 1450-1650

Fernand Braudel

The period 1450-1650 in Europe was a glorious era characterized by a great economic and demographic expansion and by the victory of Europe in organizing the first world-wide economy, which, however fragile at first, proved itself capable of resisting future trials. The early history of the economic system that was later to develop into modern capitalism -- the principal concern of this essay -- took place before new and expanding horizons. It will be our task to retrace as clearly as possible complicated destinies, sometimes influencing each other directly, but often unfolding independently, side by side.

In surveying this terrain, which is more often familiar in its details than in its general contours, it will be useful to make clear from the first the distinction between those long-term considerations and short-term phenomena recognized by economists, which must not be confused with each other any more than scarlet fever with bubonic plague, to borrow a lively expression from Ernst Wagemann.

In history nothing is truer, and great historians have always known it: an actor, be he prince, monarch, or mere businessman, may win in the short term only to lose in the long run; ephemeral victories such as Pyrrhus' have become proverbial. The historian is not surprised if the landscape he is reconstructing inevitably changes radically when he pretends to judge it by whole centuries instead of counting time year by year and decade by decade. Here, as elsewhere, the scale that he adopts will determine everything. If one considers the two centuries that stretch from 1450 to 1650 as a single entity, as will be attempted below, a long-term history emerges, working out its effects slowly but powerfully. The details are obliterated in sketching the outlines of the major evolution.

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