Geography, climate, population, economy, society

Geography, climate, and trade


Europe is a large peninsula sticking off the end of Asia; it is just a quarter the size of Asia and a third the size of Africa; but its climate and geography made it especially habitable.

The Gulf Stream makes Northern Europe mild and wet, while Southern Europe is warmer.

European climate is temperate in the west, while in the center and east there is a more Continental climate, with chilly winters and hot summers; extreme hot or cold temperatures are much rarer in Europe than in Asia, Africa, or America.
Much of Europe is taken up by the Great European Plain which stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Ural Mountains (the border between Europe and Asia).

Some natural features create barriers in the Plain: the great rivers Rhine and Danube, and forested mountains like the Ardennes (eastern France) and the Harz Mountains (central north German).

But mostly, the Plain consists of rich, flat land which is easily crossed – and easily attacked. To defend your turf, you needed to fight – and Europeans became good at fighting. Some of the best fighters wisely chose to wage war not on their home territory but on other people’s land. Two favorite locations for warfare are Flanders and the Ukraine.
At the southern end of the Plain is a chain of mountains stretching from Spain to the Balkans: the Pyrenees dividing (Spain and France), Alps (France, Switzerland, Austria), and Carpathians (Transylvania); the chain stretches down Italy as the Appenines.
Mountainous territory was difficult for central government to control and (semi-) independent peoples and cultures (and languages) have been able to survive there: e.g. the Welsh in mountainous Wales, and the Basques in the western Pyrenees (DNA suggests that the Basques are Europe’s oldest natives).
The mountains might be ruggedly independent but they were not prosperous. The areas that flourished economically were those within reach of good farming territory, and of trade routes.

Until very recent times, water routes (the sea, canals and navigable rivers) were much more efficient than roads. In the later Middle Ages the center of Europe’s economic gravity lay in Northern Italy and along the Rhine to the Netherlands.

Prosperous traders included the northern Hanseatic League (centered on Lübeck), and the merchants of Venice. Long-distance trade brought goods from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and vice versa. In an age that lacked refrigeration, spices (pepper, cloves, ginger etc.) were very important for preserving and flavoring meat; they were brought by Middle Eastern merchants from the Spice Islands off the Malayan peninsula to the eastern Mediterranean coast, and then shipped around Europe, especially by the Venetians.

Turkish Horseman
A Turkish horseman
Albrecht Duerer

But in the 1400s and 1500s the power of the Ottoman Turks expanded in the Mediterranean, reducing the power of the Venetians and disrupting their trade. Then, late in the 1400s a sea route round Africa was opened – allowing direct trade with the Spice Islands, India, and beyond. Routes were also opened to America.
Long-distance trade in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific was pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese. In the seventeenth century, these routes became increasingly important, and the Spanish and Portuguese encountered stiff competition from the French and especially the Dutch and the English.

Though Europe’s economic center of gravity shifted northeast to the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, the Mediterranean and the Baltic continued to be important trading areas. Products exported from Baltic included lumber, iron, and copper from Sweden, and grain from Northeast Germany and Poland. The Hanseatic League declined in the late Middle Ages, and in the seventeenth century much of the trade of the Baltic was in Dutch hands.
An important feature of the Baltic is the Danish Sound. Much of the Baltic freezes in the winter, but one deep channel very rarely does – just three times in history. The Channel lies between the Danish island of Zealand (not to be confused with Zeeland in the Netherlands!) on which is the capital, Copenhagen, and the Danish province of Scania (in the south of what is now Sweden but was part of Denmark until 1658); this channel is called the Sound and is just 2 and a half miles wide, so the Danes were able to force ships which passed through there to pay a toll. This toll was an important source of money for the Danish kings in the early seventeenth century - and also of friction with their neighbors, who wanted (and sometimes got) exemptions from the toll.



(a)     The “Little Ice Age”

The Thames frozen in 1677


Though European climate is generally moderate, it has fluctuated slowly over the centuries, and in the seventeenth was unusually cold. Historians sometimes call this “the Little Ice Age.” In 1608 and repeatedly later the Thames froze over at London which it never does now. In 1658 the Baltic sea froze over even at Copenhagen, allowing the Swedes to besiege the Danish capital.
Europe in the seventeenth century relied on a generally inefficient agriculture to feed its population. Even a small deterioration in climatic conditions could have an appreciable effect in worsening the harvest and leading to famine, reducing the population


Population and the economy

The precise population of Europe in the seventeenth century is not known, for there were no censuses and the surviving evidence is patchy. For some countries, such as England and France, reasonable estimates can be made from archival sources, although even in these countries records of marriages, births and deaths were only erratically kept and not all survive. A possible total for Europe (excluding Russia) in 1600 is 77.9, with a fall to 74.45 by 1650, and a rise to 83.5 by 1700. England's population in 1600 was a little over 4 million but by 1650 it was rather more than 5 million, and it remained at that level until 1700. France's population was around 20 in 1600, 20.5 in 1650, and up to 22 million in 1700 (despite very hard times in the 1690s).
For other countries - particularly those of Eastern Europe - evidence is poor. However, it is clear that population rose sharply across most of Europe during the sixteenth century. 
During the seventeenth century the increase leveled off, and in some places (such as Germany, beset by the Thirty Years War) the population fell from about 16 million to 12 in 1650, but went up again to 15 in 1700.


The decline in population was not uniform across the country - some parts suffered far worse than others; armies (and disease) concentrated in key strategic areas.

Early-modern warfare killed less by deaths in combat than by the famine and disease that spread in its wake. Disease and emigration played a part in causing the population of Spain and to decline from about 8.1 to 7.5 millions during the seventeenth century. The populations of Poland and Hungary fell, perhaps sharply. In the Dutch Republic and Spanish Netherlands, however, the number of people rose (to 1.9 million each, from 1.5 and 1.3 respectively).


The causes of population change

Population fell or stagnated as a result of economic problems resulting from many causes including debasement of the coinage, warfare, and bad weather. Bad economic conditions led to people marrying (and having children) later, and this reduced the population.


Population was at times sharply reduced by lethal diseases. including bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus and typhoid. Bubonic (and pneumonic, and septicaemic) plague was the most feared disease. It killed large numbers, especially in towns (which were notoriously unhygienic places).


But an attack of plague did not always reduce population for long, since by killing some people it increased economic opportunities for others. Some large towns continued to grow in the seventeenth century though they were repeatedly struck by plague. Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic lost over 10% of its population to plague in 1623-5, and again in 1635-6, and once more in 1655, and one more time in 1664. Yet the population of Amsterdam rose relentlessly in the seventeenth century (largely through immigration) from 50,000 to 200,000.
Plague became rare after 1660; the last outbreak in Northwestern Europe occurred in 1665-8, and the last major outbreak in Western Europe in 1720 (at Marseilles). Plague still existed at that period in the Ottoman Balkans, but the Hapsburgs' quarantine regulations kept it out of their territories.



Consequences of population change: enserfment of peasants in the east; proto-industrialization in the west

In the sixteenth century, population in western and southern Europe rose sharply, and in order to feed themselves people in these areas needed to import grain from the sparsely populated lands of eastern Europe (Poland; Prussia). 
In order to avoid paying high prices for imported grain, it made sense for people in densely populated parts of western Europe to improve agricultural techniques. This took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in e.g. the Dutch Republic, England, and Catalonia.
In the seventeenth century, some European lands had begun to produce food more effectively, while in others the population declined or stagnated. So demand for eastern grain slackened. It was not as easy as it had been for eastern landowners to make large profits by selling food to the west. So they had an incentive to reduce their costs by getting cheaper labor. The result was that they used their control over state power and the law to force peasants to provide them with free labor. The peasants of eastern Germany, Poland and Russia ceased to be free laborers and became serfs.
As agriculture became more efficient in the northwest, the prices of food fell. This meant that many people had more money to spend on things other than food - including industrial products. It also meant that rich people had an incentive to produce things other than food (since food production was not bringing the old profits). This developments paved the way for the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Accompanying these developments was the growth of towns in the northwest of Europe. Two which grew sharply in the seventeenth century were Paris and London, both numbering over half a million by 1700. 



Social Structure 

In medieval theory, there were three Estates or types of people: clergy (who prayed, and helped people get to heaven); nobles (who commanded in battle, and protected the land from its enemies); and commoners (who produced food).
This way of looking at things survived in the seventeenth century, but had become far too simple to explain the complexities of social structure.
Some historians have argued that the nobility in many parts of Europe suffered a crisis in the seventeenth century. This is difficult to maintain, but it is true that in some countries (e.g. France, Sweden) kings asserted increasing control over the aristocracy, and allied with non-nobles to limit the power of the nobility. Elsewhere (e.g. Brandenburg-Prussia) the ruler shared power with the nobles (Junkers in Brandenburg-Prussia) but kept the lion's share for himself. In Poland (in many ways an exceptional country in the seventeenth century), the nobles increased their power at the  expense of the king and of non-nobles.
The proportion of nobles to the general population varied sharply across Europe. In France and England about 2% were noble (the English nobility divided themselves in a higher branch which had titles, and a lower untitled one called the gentry). In Spain, the figure was over 5% and in Castile it was around 10%, as it was in Poland. In all these places, some nobles were relatively poor, while others were extremely rich and powerful.


The arms of Europe's most powerful royal family - the Hapsburgs.


There was only a small number of countries in which nobles were relatively few and unimportant; one was the Dutch Republic, though it did have a very important noble (indeed, princely) family - the House of Orange.
In some places (Castile, east Germany, Poland, and eventually Russia) only the nobles had full ownership of land. This was silly, as it discouraged the people who farmed the land (the peasants) from doing so efficiently, since they knew the landowners would take much the profit.
Also silly was the idea that anyone who worked in retail trade automatically lost noble status - an idea which prevailed in France, Spain, Portugal, and parts of Italy, but which discouraged investment in productive enterprises. The French termed this loss of status dérogeance.
In many parts of Europe, a large incentive to become noble was to enjoy privileges including tax exemptions. In England, however, nobles did pay taxes, and therefore had a good reason for joining with non-nobles in resisting the king's efforts to raise taxes.
Townsmen were difficult to fit into the old threefold structure; some were extremely poor, while others were as wealthy as all but the richest nobles.
Churchmen, too, varied in status. Those at the bottom of the church's hierarchy ranked hardly above peasants, while bishops, archbishops and abbots were the equals of nobles.


Such professionals as physicians and lawyers also claimed noble status. Lawyers were especially insistent upon this, but not everyone believed them.


Peasants (or small farmers) varied in wealth and status depending on how much land they held, and on the conditions upon which they held it. The latter was probably the more important factor. Where tenures were insecure and onerous, peasants were unproductive. Where peasants were freest they were most productive, since they were working for themselves - as in the Dutch Republic, England, and Catalonia. It was in those places that the agricultural revolution began. Wise governments protected free peasants against local lords. Prosperous peasants were able and wiling to pay higher taxes. Where this did not happen (Castile, Poland), decay was the result.


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