Introduction to Seventeenth Century European History

Government, religion, and ideas


(1) Government:

(a) Republics:

Doge of Venice at a state banquet

Most 17th Century European states were monarchies. The major exceptions were the United Provinces, Venice, and the Swiss Cantons.
Although republics, these were not democracies - a few wealthy citizens and aristocrats effectively controlled affairs. The tendency was for these oligarchies to become more exclusive. (The Swiss Peasant Revolt of 1653 was in part provoked by this movement to a closed aristocracy).
The United Provinces was a federation of largely independent states, each ruled by its own representative Estates. A central body, the States General, controlled matters involving the whole federation. Both the local and the central assemblies were dominated by an elite of wealthy townsmen and merchants. The office of stadholder (held by the family of Orange for most of the century) added a monarchical element to the constitution. It also led to political conflict. The stadholder was supported by the poor and the Calvinist clergy, whilst rich merchants and religious minorities rallied behind the republican cause. On three occasions (1618-19, 1650, and 1672) political conflict between Orangists and republicans erupted into open violence.

(b) Limited Monarchies:

At the opening of the 17th Century, Poland, Denmark and Sweden were elective monarchies that placed significant restrictions on royal power.

Sweden had deposed and replaced unacceptable kings in 1569 and 1599. Gustavus Adolphus agreed to restrictions on his power when he acceded in 1611, and Queen Christina had to bow to popular pressure about her extravagance even before her abdication in 1654. However, after the riksdag of1680, the Swedish monarch's powers were extended considerably and thereafter Sweden was an absolute, rather than a limited, monarchy.
Queen Christina surrounded by advisors and intellectuals
Denmark too began the century as a state where the King had to accept aristocratic advice in many areas. Swedish military victory over Denmark (1658-60) swung power in the king's favor, for the mass of the population blamed the nobility for their defeat. Clergy and commons joined in breaking aristocratic power and making Denmark effectively an absolute monarchy.
In England, the process moved in the opposite direction. The early Stuart monarchs held extensive powers but these were greatly limited after the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By 1700 English monarchs could neither make law nor tax their subjects without parliamentary consent.
Polish coronation sword
The monarchs of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania were not only elected by large numbers of independently-minded noblemen (about 10,000 -15,000 of them) but could also be deposed by them if unsatisfactory. The king had very few powers over the many nobles, Szlachta, and the consent of the Sejm (the Polish representative assembly) was necessary to make law and policy decisions. The requirement from 1652, that this consent be unanimous effectively rendered firm government impossible.


(c) Absolute monarchies: limited in practice:

The Hapsburg lands - Austria, Bohemia and royal Hungary - began the century with powerful representative bodies (Estates) keen to limit central authority in the areas of taxation and legislation. They also urged toleration for Protestants. During the Thirty Years War, the Hapsburgs defeated the moves towards religious toleration and extended the powers of central government. However, the Estates did survive, albeit with diminished rights.
In France, provincial estates continued to meet and endorse legislation throughout the 17th Century, but after 1614-15, the national Estates General did not meet (until the French Revolution). The kings of France (especially Louis XIV) are generally regarded as the most absolutist in Europe.

The town house built by
Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641)
with the profits of office

The monarchy's powers were limited by the absence of a professional civil service and police force to impose central policy. The kings were forced to rely upon the landowning aristocracy and the urban elites to implement their decisions. Venality of offices also acted as a check on royal power both by reducing efficiency (since office-holders were not necessarily skilled or industrious) and, especially in the case of hereditary offices, by limiting the monarch's freedom of choice.

The Paulette (named after Charles Paulet) was introduced in 1604. Before 1604, if you bought an office, you could transfer it to someone else (usually your heir), provided that you did so at least forty days before your own death. So, if you were ill but thought you would recover, it made sense to hang on to the office. But if you guessed wrong and died less than forty days before transferring the office, it did not go to your heir but reverted to the crown. The Paulette did away with the forty-day rule, and replaced it with an annual tax (of one sixtieth of the purchase price of the office); if you paid this tax, the office became hereditary.

To counteract the consequences of a venal, office-holding caste, Richelieu, Mazarin and Louis XIV sent intendants (directly responsible to the crown) to supervise the local civil and military administration. Even so, the independence of local elites effectively curbed royal power in practice.


(2) Religion

Patriarch Nikon (1605-81)

17th Century Europe was overwhelmingly Christian, such that "Europe" and "Christendom" were commonly equated.
Greek, Russian and many Balkan Christians were Orthodox. The Russian Patriarch, Nikon's attempts after 1653 to "reform" Russian ecclesiastical ritual produced a split in the Church. The Old Believers refused to accept the changes and the Czar Alexis suppressed their revolt by force. From 1684, joining the Old Believers was a criminal offence punishable by death.
In the Balkan lands occupied by the Turks, all non-Muslims had to pay additional taxation, and this placed considerable pressure on (at least the male heads of households) to convert to Islam. Nonetheless, most of the population remained Greek Orthodox.
The rest of Europe was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In addition, Jewish communities lived in the Netherlands and Poland-Lithuania (c. 450,000).



Roman Catholicism.

The Jesuit, Mateo Ricci, in China

The largest Christian group was the Roman Catholics. After 1517, Protestant ideas had spread rapidly, particularly in Northwest Europe. But in the later 16th Century, the Counter-Reformation regained much lost ground. Its doctrines settled by the Council of Trent and its clergy stiffened by highly trained Jesuits, the Catholic Church went on the offensive against "heresy". Ferdinand II, Maximilian of Bavaria, Louis XIII, and Richelieu were a few of the secular statesmen who supported the Counter Reformation because they regarded Protestant minorities as a threat to political order and unity.

At this period, both Catholics and Protestants wanted religious uniformity, and thought that trouble would result from permitting different religious beliefs in the same state.

Roman Catholics acknowledged the authority of the Pope in matters of doctrine and church government, but his rights over secular states and local churches were debated. The French "Gallicans", supported by Louis XIV,  fiercely defended the particular rights of the French Church, and the Hapsburgs also came into conflict with the Papacy on occasion.

The early 17th Century was a time of progress for Catholicism, especially in Eastern and Central Europe where it won many converts. During the seventeenth century, Roman Catholics were also the most active group in proselytizing in Asia, Africa and the New World.



Luther had begun the Reformation and his ideas spread rapidly in sixteenth century Europe. Lutheranism established itself firmly in Northern Germany and Scandinavia, but in France, Switzerland and England it was supplanted by Calvinist ideas in the later part of the century.


Lutherans were often as suspicious of Calvinists as they were of Catholics, and suffered from internal divisions in the later sixteenth century.

When combined with the establishment of Lutheranism, the growth of Calvinism and the resurgence of Catholicism produced a patchwork quilt of confessional allegiances in Germany during the early seventeenth century.




Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor at Geneva

John Calvin systematized his beliefs in sixteenth-century Geneva. His stress on predestination and the Presbyterian organization he developed made Calvinism attractive to many and it became a formidable force in Europe, spreading to the Netherlands, the French Huguenots, the Scottish Kirk, parts of Germany (especially Brandenburg and the Palatinate) and in some of its aspects to England.

Calvinists tended to be zealous, committed, and intolerant. Many adopted millenarian beliefs (the expectation that Christ would soon return to Earth) and were problematical subjects for secular rulers.


Philip Jacob Spener, the father of Pietism
Other Protestant splinter groups emerged in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These included the Baptists and the Quakers, who tended to be drawn from the less wealthy (though not the poorest) sectors of society and were regarded with much suspicion as social revolutionaries. Socinians (who believed that religion should be subject to reason, and who rejected the Trinity) were also persecuted throughout Europe; only in Poland (temporarily) and later in the Dutch Republic did they find a refuge. Socinian ideas influenced the thought of many prominent intellectuals, including Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and John Locke (1632-1704). In the later seventeenth Century, Pietism a religious movement stressing moral purity and exhaustive self-examination grew to great importance in Germany.


Catholicism too, developed some fringe movements. Quietism, founded by Miguel de Molinos, flourished in France, especially amongst the wealthy. Mystical and ascetic, it stressed the importance of a personal relationship with the divine, and was suppressed by Louis XIV who saw it as a threat to religious and political uniformity. The Jansenists adopted an Augustinian form of Catholicism, which stressed predestination and moral probity. Its supporters included Blaise Pascal. Jansenists became identified with opposition to absolutism and were intermittently persecuted into the next century.


(3) Ideas

The scientific and intellectual revolution of the 17th Century was closely linked with an attack on Aristotle's philosophy. Aristotelian ideas were deeply embedded in scholasticism - the basic framework for knowledge in medieval Christian Europe.

It is easy to see seventeenth century as science as battling the superstitious ignorance of religious zealots, but the scientific thinking of the day was itself deeply pervaded by Cabalistic and Hermetic notions. (Cabalism revolved around esoteric and mysterious methods of interpreting Scripture; Hermetic theory traced its mythical origins to ancient Egypt and posited a universal harmony of existence based on the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. Both are without foundation in scientific fact.)
John Napier and Isaac Newton were two of the greatest scientists of their day, yet both devoted inordinate amounts of time and effort to their attempts to interpret the prophecies about the Second Coming and other matters, contained in the Books of Revelation and Daniel. Jean Bodin was an acute and informed political scientist, but believed in the climacteric, witches, and werewolves.


The late 16th and early 17th centuries were a great age of witchcraft persecution. Between 1400 and 1700, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 witches were killed. Fewest witches were executed in Spain and Portugal, where the Inquisition protected those accused by insisting on due process and proper proof. Most were killed in Germany, Switzerland and France, where local, secular magistrates were easily persuaded by popular panics to execute detested misfits.

Most of those executed were women (about 15% were men), but the witch craze was not "gynocide". The overwhelming majority of women were never suspected of witchcraft and were as active as men in trying to bring witches to justice.

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