Monday, March 06, 2006

Seventeenth century crisis

In the seventeenth century, there was a profound crisis of the state-structure of almost every state in Europe. We can see the crisis in not only the obvious events of the English Civil War and the (largely German) Thirty Years' War, but also the Fronde in France, the Potop in Poland - and even in post-Gustavus Adolphus Sweden.

The essence of the crisis is the declining power of the nobility and the reaction to that. In Poland, the nobility managed to turn back the clock and reinstate the pre-modern state structure. In England, the gentry took the power from the nobility and managed to bring both nobleman and monarchs to heel. In France, the nobility also lost, but this time to the monarch, who was able to use the gentry - as the noblesse de robe to defeat the nobility and yet to co-opt them into supporters of his own power base. In Germany, the resolution of the crisis also led to absolutism, but really absolutism of the Hochadel - the territorial nobility, rather than an absolutism of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The interesting question is whether all of these are pre-determined. Could Charles I have become an absolute monarch? Could one of the Frondes have succeeded in making Louis XIV a constitutional monarch? Could a Holy Roman Emperor have prevented the Westphalian settlement?