Limited urban populations, with growth linked closely to trade; hence most large cites were great centers of trade, like Amsterdam in Holland (115,000 in 1630), Naples in northern “Italy” (300,000 in 1600). Cities were centers of commerce and of artisan-based manufacturing.
Artisan production was based on skilled craftsmen, who owned their own tools, and had learned their skilled trades through years of apprenticeship, then a period as “journeymen.” The artisan generally did all stages of production non a good, from the start to the finish. In addition to owning his (or, more rarely, her) own tools, the artisan owned the raw materials (purchased from a merchant or another tradesman). Because he owned the tools and the materials and did all stages of the work, the artisan had a great deal of control over the pace of his labor. Artisans generally took on apprentices and journeymen, who lived as part of the artisan's household, often under strict disciple.
In the middle ages, a system of “trade guilds” had emerged that regulated production in the artisan trades. These were centered in cities. To enter a guild, and artisan had to produce a “masterpiece” that proved his skill in the craft. The guilds had legal monopolies over the production of specific goods, which had two functions: it ensured high quality production, by limiting production to master craftsmen; and it kept prices high by limiting the number of producers, and this the number of goods on the market.
With expansion of the power and functions of the centralizing state, the capital cities of major states also grew in population, e.g., London in England (674,000 in 1700), Paris in France, Berlin in Prussia, St. Petersburg in Russia, Madrid in Spain, etc. We will return to the issue of the growth of the centralizing state in the next lecture.
Most cities were “organic,” with little formal planning; often overwhelmingly crowded, no sanitation (open sewers, garbage and filth in streets, little light or air, etc.), in addition to high levels of poverty, led to the rapid spread of epidemic diseases—e.g., the “black death.” [There is some debate over epidemiological nature of “plague”--some recent historians have argued (with solid evidence) that the Black Death was not the same illness as the Bubonic Plague].
More rapid growth of cities (“urbanization”) would come after 1750, as the general population began growing dramatically.
A demographic “revolution”?
As noted already, starvation and deadly epidemics loomed over Europe in this era. Also, there was a direct relationship between nutrition, disease, and fertility.
High birth rates in rural society (often ten or more children born to a women in her lifetime), but also very high rates of infant mortality (in Russia, for instance, about 4 of every 10 children died in infancy). This was product of poor nutrition, poor sanitation, wide-spread epidemics, and limited state of medical/sanitary knowledge; all these factors also produced high death rates among adolescents and adults.
Early modern family “strategy” was late marriage (mid-to-late 20s), to decrease number of children and “maximize” resources.
By the 1750s, though, generalized increase in population, which continued even more rapidly in the 1800s. France, for example, went from 20 million in 1700 to about 30 million in 1800.
Causes of changes are complex: climate change—warming of climate--introduction of new crops (such as corn and potatoes) and systems of farming, improvements in transportation, and the growth of agricultural markets all led to higher agricultural yields and a larger amount of grain available to the population, which meant better nutrition, reduced risk of disease, lower infant mortality rates, etc.
Marriage patterns among the urban poor and rural populations began to shift, so that marriage at a younger age became more common (this was especially true in Eastern Europe). Marrying younger increased the potential number of children a women might have, with helped to increase birth rates at the same time that death rates were falling, The result was population growth.
Population growth had a wide range of cultural, social and economic consequences. Among these were that villages became “overpopulated” and a growing number of peasants across Europe moved to towns and cities in search of work (fueling urbanization). Among the social problems linked to this phenomenon was the growing incidence of child abandonment, which became “epidemic” in cities like London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. In economic terms, a growing population meant growing markets for goods such as clothing, and thus was tied closely to the growth of the new, increasingly capitalist, market economy.
Early modern capitalism and the policy of “mercantilism”
The expansion of markets for agricultural and manufactured goods—which was linked to issues like population growth, shifts in agriculture, the productivity of the putting out system, the establishment of over-seas empires, etc.—involved changes in the economy that had a huge effect on the lives of ordinary people, particularly in Western Europe, where the commercial, Capitalist economy was developing most rapidly.
Capitalism: one way of defining this system of economic (and social) organization is to say that capitalism involves the production, distribution, and sale of goods by individuals/businesses (or “private” property owners--in contrast with the state as owner), with the aim of making a profit. Generally based upon the principle of private property, controlled by a capitalist (also called an "entrepreneur") who (at least theoretically) takes upon him or herself the risk of making an investment in an enterprise in the expectation of profit.
Another key aspect of Capitalism as a system is the wage-labor system in which workers “exchange” their labor power in return for payment. Theoretically, the “cost” of wages, like the cost of goods, is a function of the market—if labor is in short supply and demand is high, technically, wages should rise; if the supply of labor exceeds the demand, then wages “should” fall. (This is part of what Adam Smith called the “Law of Supply and Demand”)
The question of the origins of capitalism is a much-debated topic among historians. Some form of exchange similar to "capitalism" had existed since the ancient world (e.g., in Rome), but the dominant form of economic organization in previous "developed" societies had been based either upon slavery or upon serfdom. What we recognize as capitalism emerged in the trade centers of Europe in the late Middle Ages and the early modern era, in places like Venice and Naples and Amsterdam.
Typically, the capitalist in early modern Europe was a member of the "merchant class," someone who specialized in the purchase and sale of goods ("by cheep, sell high"); the traditionally ruling class—the nobility—seldom participated directly in the operations of the capitalist economy (although they would make use of the merchants).
Despite their growing wealth, what the French called the "bourgeoisie"--the merchant and the businessman and the various professions, like the practice of law, that grew up around business--did not exercise direct political power (although this varied from place to place—in Holland, for instance, the merchants had far greater power and influence than in Russia).
As the market economy expanded (along with population growth, changes in agriculture and transportation, etc), the merchant-capitalist came to play an increasingly important role in daily life not only in the cities (organizing production and trade, including international trade, as well as banking), but also in the countryside, where merchants organized the purchase and transport and milling of grain, for example, and organized various forms of manufacturing based upon the "putting out" system.
While merchants across Europe often aspired to become, or at least to live like, members of the nobility, a new urban-based "middle class" culture began to emerge in the 1600s and 1700s. In general, this new emerging middle class culture (which involved "professionals" as well as business people) valued thrift and savings, and considered literacy and other forms of "practical" knowledge of greater significance than did the nobility. But in most of Europe this rising Middle Class would not really start asserting its own cultural and political influence until the era of the French Revolution.
In the 1600s and early 1700s, the dominant theory of how a state's economy should function was not based upon the culture of capitalism, though; it was based upon the idea of "Mercantilism."
Mercantilism was a way of thinking about the government, society, and relationship between the government and the economy. In a sense, it was a new way of thinking about State power—in that it de-emphasized the religious basis and aims of the state and put great stress upon the State’s freedom to pursue its own interests. It was based on the principle that the entire populace and all of its resources and talents was part of a single economic “machine,” guided and controlled by the ruler of the State (the King, the Prince, etc.), who would use to the benefit and glory of the State.
A key element of mercantilist thinking was the idea that only a fixed amount of wealth existed in the world. The State had to base its policies on the supposition that it had “x” amount of total wealth. The goal was to increase this wealth by exporting as many goods as possible (thus bringing in wealth) while importing as little as possible (so that you don’t have to pay out and loose wealth)—in other words, success meant having a positive trade balance and being as self-sufficient as possible. (You bring money in but you don’t ship money out—which means that you build up wealth and power.)
While the degree to which states in the 1600s and 1700s followed mercantilist policies varied, this thinking clearly had a strong influence on the rulers of every country, from Britain in the West to the Russian Empire in the East, from Sweden in the North to the Italian city states in the South.
Based upon mercantilist principles, states followed a number of policies:
1) Many rulers conceived of their populations as “resources” to be “mobilized” for the good of the state. (An example would be Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, who established state-run industries and issued decrees “assigning” serf labor to these industries) In this sense, mercantilism often was closely related to Absolutism (see below).
Policies to promote certain industries, increase the amount of grain collected from the countryside, encourage population growth, keep wages low, etc., were all seen as ways that the government could use the “human resources” at its disposal for the good of the State. (For example—the rulers of Poland-Lithuania encouraged the immigration of Jewish merchants and “tax-farmers” who they hoped would expand trade and increase the efficiency of tax collection in the countryside.)
2) Related to this, governments saw it as their proper role to intervene in the workings of the economy, to promote certain new industries, establish state-owned industries, and grant special monopolies to companies and merchants whose activities would increase production and trade—the idea being that any increase in production and trade created more income (revenue) for the State. (An example, for instance, was the British East India Company, to which the British crown granted a monopoly of trade between England and its colonial territories in India).
3) Mercantilist thinking promoted colonial expansion, in pursuit of new resources that would be under the State’s control (and thus not require the expenditure of monies outside the realm under the ruler’s power).
Spain, for instance, sought to control resources in the “New World”—especially gold and silver-- to supplement its very limited domestic resources. Once Spain conquered territories in the New World, it required that these colonies trade only with the “mother country” (Spain)—this was supposed to create a “closed system”: Spain gets resources from its colonies to sell to other countries and to use in Spain (so that Spain doesn’t have to buy these resources from other countries--money in, but no money out); also, the colonies can only buy and sell with Spain, so no revenue is “lost” in the trade.
4) Mercantilism had a strong influence on international relations—the goal of countries was not only to increase their own wealth, but the take away the trade and resources available to other countries. Here is the idea of the “zero-sum game”: since there is (supposedly) only “x” amount of wealth in the world, any wealth that YOU have is wealth that is denied to ME. My goal is to increase my own share of the wealth, and that means that I must decrease YOUR share. So access to resources and trade routes, as well as efforts to increase production and trade, were matters of national and international importance. (This is why, for instance, Queen Elizabeth in England encouraged and supported pirates who attacked Spanish and Portuguese shipping).
The expansion of the commercial, capitalist economy in the era of mercantilism
The growth of commercial agriculture was linked to the expansion of the capitalist economy as a whole: as agricultural prices gradually rose, landowners and enterprising farmers increased production for the market. (This was true not only in western Europe, but also in the East—in Russia, for instance, nobles responded to the “price revolution” by increasing the demands on their serfs, so that the nobles could collect more grain for sale in the European market...in this way, the same dynamics that stimulated capitalist farming in Western Europe also stimulated the serf economy in Russia.) Increased production for a rising market meant more profit—and thus more capital available for investment elsewhere. (Except where the profits were in the hands of nobles, who used their income entirely for consumption of luxury goods, as in Russia.)
The expansion of the commercial economy depended upon the hard work of tens of thousands of ordinary people—the peasants, the artisans, the sailors, etc., whose work produced food and goods and moved it from place to place.
But at an organizational level, it was the entrepreneur and the banker who drove forward this new kind of economy. Privately owned banks, as well as new “State” banks (e.g., in England in the 1690s) provide credits (loans) to merchants and companies (which allowed them to purchase inventory, build up capital stock, etc.), and also invested directly in enterprises. (And also loaned monies to governments, to finance wars and other major projects.) New banking practices allowed for a greater volume of business at the national and international level, by increasing the availability of credit and investment capital at a reduced risk to the investor.
At the same time, new forms of business organization also increased the amount of capital available to businesses while reducing the risk to individual investors: probably the most important of these was the “joint-stock” company—where an investor contributes money to but a share of a business, and them receives a share of the profits. (Initially, the value to the investor came in the pay off based upon the venture’s profit; as the system evolved, however, the share of stock itself became a commodity, to be bought and sold—the basis of our current stock market.)
Both the transformation of banking and the rise of the joint stock company involved the increased use of money--of coins made of precious metals and of paper “bills” that were “backed” by precious metal (in other words, could be exchanged for a certain value in gold, silver, etc., or for an equivalent value in goods). It was only in the 1600s and early 1700s that governments began to standardize their systems of money—so that a certain coin was understood to have “x” value everywhere within the boundaries of the state’s power. This made business much more predictable, stable, and profitable. But it did not reduce the volubility that came from sudden changes in the value of gold or silver as more or less precious metal was available on the market (if a bill is worth an ounce of silver, and the value of silver drops because there is much “new” silver on the market, then the value and buying power of the bill falls).
These changes in state policies, banking, business organization, and money systems made possible a relatively rapid growth of European commerce. Much of this growth, as you probably know from colonial US history, came through the exploitation of new colonial resources in the Americas and from trade with Africa and Asia. The text discusses Spanish, English, French, and Dutch colonialism in the Americas (but not much about the Portuguese!), and we don’t have time to deal with this explicitly in lecture; what I want to emphasize here is that if you think about the principles of mercantilism that I’ve just outlined, then look back at the discussion of colonies in the text, and especially the discussion of the “triangular trade” involving sugar and slaves, and the relationship between the colonial policies and mercantilism should be clear...
The expansion of colonial trade, which fed into the power of states both on the decline (Spain) and on the rise (England, Holland), was another aspect of the more general spread of a commercial economy.
More and more, people’s lives were touched by the buying and selling of goods, the production of goods explicitly for the market, and the organization of government and business to facilitate trade.
Let’s take an “imaginary” example that is based upon plenty of real historical evidence: Who was touched by the Dutch share of world-wide trade? Merchants, bankers, and investors who made money from trade in sugar from the Caribbean (which involved the triangular slave trade), from the trade in spices and luxury goods imported from Asia, and from the sale of woolens, porcelain, and other goods manufactured in Holland.
But also carpenter-shipbuilders in Amsterdam, whose jobs depended upon the growth of the merchant fleet; potters in the city of Delft, who made goods purchased by the new middle class throughout Holland; painters like Rembrandt, whose sold their work to the newly wealthy; thousands of “carters” in Dutch cities who moved goods like carpets and crates of imported tea to and from warehouses; small tenant farmers in Holland who raised sheep for their wool, then sold it to merchants; and peasants spun or wove that wool to supplement their earnings.
But also serfs in Russia who toiled on the land of noble landowners, and those noble landowners who used serfs to produce an agricultural surplus that they (the nobles) could sell to the grain to merchants and use the money to buy Dutch goods that were now “necessary” if they were going to keep up with the “westernizing” fashions of the nobles in their country; cattle herdsmen in western Africa, whose villages were raided by rival tribes that took captives as slaves and then sold them to Dutch slave traders; slaves who died in the terrible crossing of the Atlantic on the slave ships slaves who toiled on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, etc., etc., etc.
Changes in European economy in the 1600s and 1700s—the “commercial revolution” and the growth of Capitalism, touched the lives of nearly everyone in Europe, no matter how remote from the great centers of trade and industry, and also influenced the lives of people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
One aspect of this social economic change to which we will return in more detail later is the rise of the new middle class of business people and trained professionals that exhibited new values and a new culture. In creating new social classes and new modes of live and thought, the emerging social system of capitalism would help to undermine the “Old Order” (“The Ancien Regime”) of society and power in Early Modern Europe.
That leads us to the topic of “Politics” and State power, and in particular, Absolutism.
In the period between 1650 and the French Revolution (of 1789), the rulers of Europe adopted a new way of thinking about the power of Kings. This new approach to power, called “Absolutism,” was closely linked to the ideas of mercantilism. Both grew out of the “intellectual-spiritual crisis” that gripped Europe after the horrible wars of religion in the 1500s and early 1600s (between Catholic and Protestant lands and between Catholic and Protestant factions within lands).
Mercantilism put the interests of the State (not the church, the nobility, etc.) at the center of economic policy and treated the entire people and country as one economic “machine” to be mobilized by the State in the interest of the State.
Absolutism rested on the idea that the Ruler had the power to “use” this machine without being limited in his actions by the Church, or the nobility, or any kind of national assembly, or any other “corporate” body. To use a family (instead of machine) metaphor, the King was imagined as a stern but benevolent father who ruled the family (his kingdom) with absolute power, based upon God’s will (thus the king’s “divine right” to rule). Absolutism was part of a new way of thinking called “politique,” which put “reasons of State” above all other priorities in policy making and governance, and which made the monarch the center point of all “politique.”
Before we continue, we need to recognize:
That things were never as “clear cut” as they seem when we make broad generalizations.
That the practice of Absolutism was different in different countries.
That not every country was governed by Absolutist monarchs
And that the nature of Absolutism was fluid, and was different at different times within the same country).
Tools and methods of Absolutism:
To rule “absolutely,” the King had to “tame” the Church. In the Protestant countries, this was not such a problem, since generally the official “state” Protestant church in ac country depended upon the support of the monarchy. In Orthodox Russia, Tsar Peter the Great subordinated the Church hierarchy to the State by establishing the state office of “Holy Synod.” In Catholic France, Spain, and Austria, the monarchies established new agreements (“concordats”) with the Papacy, which gave Kings the power to appoint high church officials.
To rule in an “absolute” manner, the King also had to “tame” the Nobility—in much of Europe, the feudal tradition had recognized the nobles as lords over their own lands, with the King as their “overlord”; moreover, in much of Europe the nobles saw their role at court and in noble assemblies as “advising” the King and helping to make policy.
In France, which is the classic example, King Louis 14th “co-opted” the power of the nobles by luring them into the expensive, luxurious life of his court at his palace at Versailles, just outside Paris. French nobles competed and schemed for access to the King and his court and the status and prestige that it brought (see the text's discussion of the rituals of the court), often spending themselves into poverty; in the meantime Louis steadily wore away their traditional political powers—the King, for instance, reduced the power of the noble law courts in the provinces (the parliaments) and suspended meetings of the Estates Generals, a sort of traditional national assembly. (But, as we will see when we talk about the origins of the French Revolution, the process was not completely successful.)
The French model did not apply to the relationship between King and noble everywhere: In Russia, for example, where one element of political tradition was that nobles, like all the Tsar’s subjects, were “slaves of the Tsar,” Peter the Great forced nobles to serve the state by making noble status contingent on service to the state.
In general, though, Absolutist monarchs were able to link the interests of the nobles to the interest of the state, by “bribing” the nobility, or appealing to its desire for status or honor, or most commonly by demonstrating that nobles could do very well for themselves by working for the interests of the State as defined by the monarchy. (Even in Russia, the relationship between the nobles and the state changed relatively quickly: soon after Peter’s death, the nobility steadily won concessions from his successors, and by the 1760s had won “emancipation” from obligatory state service.)
Another task necessary to wielding “absolute” power was creation of a state bureaucracy, which would serve as the eyes, ears, and hands of the King. If the country was like a big machine that the King used in the interest of the State, how could the King know what the country’s resources were and how could a King mobilize distant resources effectively? The answer is, by centralizing power and creating a bureaucracy of government officials, whose status and living depended upon service to the King.
Again, the classic example is France, where Louis 14th divided the country into administrative districts (generalites, later called departments) for the taxation and governance, and appointed hand-picked administrators for each district (the intendants)—chosen mostly from the new “middle class” (which valued thrift, efficiency, and business-like operations) and with loyalties to the King and not to the nobles of “their” district. These administrators reported regularly to the King on conditions in the provinces, so that the “central” government had a sense of what was going on in the country and of the resources at its disposal; they also implemented royal policies and proved more effective at collecting new taxes (like the head tax and the salt tax) than had been the old system of noble authority and tax-farming.
Other absolutist monarchs also sought to centralize power and built up state bureaucracies. In Brandenburg-Prussia in the mid-1600s, Fredrich Wilhelm strengthened the power of the state by creating a massive army (in which the nobles, or Junkers, served as officers—another of one of the “trade-offs” for power noted above), but also by creating a strong centralized state bureaucratic machine in which officials appointed by the King collected taxes and implemented royal law.
Similarly, in Russia, Peter, and then Catherine the Great after him, sub-divided the country into provinces (gubernii) and counties (uezdy) for purposes of administration and taxation. As I have already mentioned, Peter the Great made noble status contingent on service to the state and built an extensive bureaucracy, so that in the 1700s the bureaucracy in Russia was staffed almost exclusively by nobles (there was no equivalent in Russia to the bourgeois intendants in France).
But Russia and Habsburg Austria had to contend with problems unlike those in France—both, for instance, were sprawling multi-national empires in which the state had to deal with the competing interests of various ethnic noble elites.
Also, factors like regional political “cultures” also influenced the nature of absolutism in different states.
In Russia, the Tsar had traditionally claimed power as a “patrimonial ruler”—in other words, in the Russian tradition, the Tsar “owned” the country and all his subjects were “slaves of the Tsar.” (In practice, this was not necessarily the way the Tsarist system worked; there is debate among Russian historians over the extent and limits of the Tsar’s power in the 16th and 17th centuries). Peter the Great, who assumed the throne in Moscow at the end of the 17th century and ruled until 1725, sought to exercise “Absolute” power to “westernize” his country along lines similar to those being followed in Western and Central Europe, but did so in the context of this patrimonial political culture. At the same time that Peter saw himself as the “first servant of the State,” as the “Captain of the ship of state,” who would make his State stronger by forcing it to “modernize”; he also acted in manner even more brutal and seemingly arbitrary than other monarchs, and declared himself the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” a ruler who stood above the law.
Similarly, Catherine the Great in the late 18th century aimed to “civilize” her country and create a “modern” and “enlightened” society based upon legal guidelines, yet refused to recognize any limits on the powers of the monarch. Here is one of the great contradictions of modernizing absolutism in Russia—that it sought to create a law-governed society ruled over by a ruler whose powers were not defined or limited by law.
Not all states had Absolutist monarchies. When the Dutch won their freedom from Spain in the 1500s, for instance, they had formed a Republic. In the Dutch Republic, in Switzerland, and in a handful of other states and city-states, laws (constitutions) limited the powers of the government and of the ruler.
The most significant example is England: in the mid-1600s, a revolution (some historians call it a “civil war”) in England temporarily overthrew the monarchy and led to a Republic (the Commonwealth, and then the “Protectorate” ruled by Oliver Cromwell); in 1660 the monarchy was restored, but the King’s powers were now very clearly limited by the Parliament, which now effectively limited the monarch’s power.
When the “restored” King Charles II attempted to assert powers of an Absolutist monarch in the 1670s and 1680s (in particular, when he attempted to implement laws without Parliamentary approval), the result was growing tension between the Crown and Parliament. This tension came to a head under Charles’ brother, James 2nd, whose Catholicism and “pro-Catholic” policies led to direct conflict with the Protestant parliamentary leadership. This conflict resulted in the Parliament actually inviting William (of Orange) and Mary of Holland to invade England and overthrow James II.
No battles took place: James fled, and Parliament declared William and Mary to be England’s rightful monarchs. In return, William and Mary recognized a “Bill of Rights” passed by Parliament, which not only guaranteed the civil liberties of the monarchs’ subjects, but also recognized that the powers of the monarchy were limited by law and that the Parliament would share power, in that it both controlled government finances and exercised the power to make law.
The English monarch’s function would be as “executive.” In the 1700s, though, executive functions also steadily shifted to the Parliament (and eventually became the function the Prime Minister, chosen not by the King but by the Parliament). The aristocrats and the biggest wealthy landowners who controlled Parliament (and who until the early 1800s were the only people with the right to vote) divided into political parties—the “Whigs,” who represented the interests of the “new” wealth created by commercial capitalism, and the Tories, whose power base rested with the traditional aristocracy.
Since places in the House of Commons (the lower house of Parliament—the hereditary House of Lords had more limited functions) were based upon elections, members of Parliament had to serve the interests of their local constituents (and not just the interests of the State). So the entire mode of operations of government in England was different than in the Absolutist monarchies of the Continent.
The new settlement between monarch and parliament in England was influenced by new thinking about the nature of government—in particular, the “contract” theory of John Locke (itself a reflection of the influence of the commercial mind-set on social thought). But we will put off discussion of Locke’s ideas until later, when we discuss the Enlightenment.
Finally, Absolutism as defined by monarchs in the 1700s was different in important ways from the absolutism of the 1600s. Most significantly, the justification of Absolutist rule shifted from “Divine right” to “service to the State.” When Peter the Great in the early 1720s defined his role as “first servant of the State,” he was using the “new” language of Absolutism common among the so-called “Enlightened Absolutists” of the 1700s.
“Enlightened” Absolutism did not give up the monarch’s claim to rule “absolutely.” But it did imply an intellectual “style” of Absolutist rule in which the ruler engaged the rationalist and scientific ideas of the “Enlightenment”—therefore Fredrick the Great of Prussia, for instance, abolished capital punishment as cruel and irrational, promoted religious toleration, and championed new experiments in agriculture and industry; Maria Therese and Joseph II of Austria promoted public education, relaxed censorship, and limited the powers of the Catholic Church; Catherine the Great of Russia, who befriended several major Enlightenment thinkers, worked to re-organize and rationalize state administration and embarked upon major projects to codify Russia’s laws.
Like Mercantilism, Absolutism was about increasing the power and importance of the State. In the 1600s and 1700s, it was the “interests of the State,” and not the pursuit of religious goals or the personalized rivalries of various ruling families that drove state policies.