Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Crisis of the Seventeenth Century

Study of a musketeer presenting arms, with a smaller sketch of the same pose and of his hands
Pen and brown ink
Verso: A musketeer standing with his gun over his shoulder, another soldier kneeling at r
Pen and brown ink, over black chalk
Picture: British Museum
The mid seventeenth century saw a tremendous flourishing of the visual arts. Rembrandt, Velazquez and Poussin were creating some of their greatest masterpieces and mega-collectors like Charles I and Philip IV were competing to buy the most celebrated old masters. But this was against a calamitous backdrop of famine, disease and war. The picture above is a drawing by Stefano della Bella in the British Museum. Stefano is one of relatively few seventeenth century artists who depicted military subjects. Guard scenes were a popular genre among Dutch, French and Italian artists, but they show none of the horror of war. Battle scenes by artists like Wouwermans are rather stylised and elegant, giving little sense of the brutal and bloody reality. Rubens painted allegories of war, and Rembrandt painted arms manufacturers, but you don't get a visual record of the profound trauma of the period. There was no seventeenth century Otto Dix, for example.

I've just read three excellent recent books on aspects of the 'crisis of the seventeenth century', as it's controversially been described, so please indulge my foray from art history to history.
Picture: Amazon
Lauro Martines Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 Bloomsbury 2013 £20

Charles Tilly famously said, "war made the state, and the state made war". In the early modern period the need to establish and equip armies forged belligerents to implement administrative changes that gave rise to the modern state. At one level, that's the theme of this book, and it's a rather familiar and uncontroversial thesis. But its real merit is in the fascinating neglected details about early modern war - how soldiers were recruited and how they experienced war, the impact of war on civilian victims and on government and statecraft, the conduct of sieges and consequences of sacking cities. This is mainly a book of reportage, with a sub-text that chides historians for their neglect of the lived experience behind their theses.

To call an academic book 'reportage' sounds like critique, but it shouldn't. Martines is one of the most interesting historians of Renaissance and early modern Europe; his Power and Imagination is a particularly good account of the Italian city states. And this book is sophisticated and learned and rhetorically brilliant. Rather than citing specific debates and engaging directly with other historians, he simply fills the lacunae in their narratives. That makes for a more interesting book for the general reader, but a no less valuable contribution for the specialist.
Picture: Amazon
Derek Croxton Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace Palgrave Macmillan 2013 £70

The massively destructive Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) ended with the Peace of Westphalia, signed at Münster and Osnabrück in 1648. It's one of the most famous peace treaties in history, and is widely regarded as codifying the modern notion of state sovereignty. This book is about the peace treaty, and it's fascinating. Croxton emphasises continuity rather than rupture, setting it in a context of early modern diplomacy. His account of the mechanics of seventeenth century negotiation is enthralling - from vexed questions of protocol and precedence to the nitty-gritty of transport between Münster and Osnabrück and the difficulty of communication with home governments.

Much of the detail is fairly obscure (though no less interesting for that) given its narrow subject. But it worried me when famous details that I did know were incorrect - most conspicuously Rome was sacked in 1527, not 1525 (p. 24). I thought he missed a trick by sticking to the historical literature. His challenge to the claim that Westphalia was the rupture that established the modern sovereign state is more pertinent in political theory and international relations, but he doesn't cite those debates. Still, this is an excellent book of more general interest than its title might imply. It's a work of immense scholarship that also tells a great story.
Picture: Amazon
Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century Yale 2013 £29.99

This is a mammoth study by a great historian that links the crisis of the seventeenth century to climate change. The 'little ice age' saw harvest failure, extreme weather and disease, causing tumult and conflict globally. Although Parker pays close attention to climate, and to the differential impact of climate change on different regions, the argument is never over-determined. It is background to the contingent actions of human agents. His accounts of conflicts in different regions - including Mughal India and Ming China - stand as individual masterpieces of historical synthesis. Taken as a whole this is an immensely important book and a compelling read.

To make one small art historical criticism, Parker thinks that winter landscapes were mainly painted in the late seventeenth century, but artists like Avercamp and Cabel and various Brueghels were creating some of the most celebrated winter scenes at the very start of the century - which means art history illustrates his point better than he realised. But that's a trivial footnote; this is one of the best history books I've read in years. 


  1. Thanks for this interesting post and you don't seem grumpy at all. :)

    1. I'm only grumpy reviewing the books I don't like!

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for reviewing my book. All I can say about the sack of Rome is...oops. I'm embarrassed that mistake made it past me, but I don't think you'll find many others.

    I made a "visual supplement" linking to the images (mostly art) that I would have included if I had been famous enough to warrant a publisher paying for a fully illustrated book: http://acuriouslittleblog.blogspot.com/2013/07/chapter-1-p.html. (I only linked to the images to avoid any copyright issues.) As an art historian, you probably know the paintings, but others with less background in the period might find them interesting.

    1. Thank you - great images, and a real shame that your book wasn't published with illustrations. University presses seem unconscionably biased towards academic celebrities these days. Such a shame your book didn't come out in an affordable paperback from Princeton UP or similar - it's a great book that deserves a wider audience.

  3. We do have to learn about history. I know that in the 17th century there was the economic crisis which is so great. But the war did not solve the problem, but it makes the problem itself.
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