The World Crisis: 1635–1665
Geoffrey Parker, History, The Ohio State University
Research Grant, 2001, 2002
In the mid-seventeenth century, a series of violent economic, social, intellectual and political upheavals afflicted most regions of this planet. Although not the only known global catastrophe, it was the first to leave abundant records worldwide, and its scale defies description. The economic and social crisis led to the death of millions and forced millions more to live in misery. At the same time, a worldwide wave of violence, aggression, rebellion and war toppled or threatened governments around the world. To cite just the most prominent events: in China, the last Ming emperor committed suicide when rebels seized his capital (1644) and it took forty years of civil war for a new dynasty (the Qing) to restore order. In 1648, major revolts began in both Russia and Poland while in Istanbul the Ottoman Sultan was murdered. In Britain, after seven years of civil war, rebels tried and executed King Charles I in 1649, provoking a new round of revolts in Scotland and the Anglo-Atlantic. Waves of rebellions almost overwhelmed both the French and Spanish Monarchies in the 1640s.
Coincidence cannot explain so many simultaneous eruptions of violence and revolution around the globe: what, then, were its causes and why did it affect some areas far more than others? My explanation involves a combination of five factors: a sudden episode of “global cooling”; the emergence of vulnerable areas of economic specialization; a sharp increase in religious and fiscal pressure by many (but not all) governments; the crumbling of the prevailing demographic regime; and the emergence of radical new ideologies. The interplay of these five elements produced major crises worldwide.
My explanation involves a combination of five factors: a sudden episode of "global cooling"; the emergence of vulnerable areas of economic specialization; a sharp increase in religious and fiscal pressure by many (but not all) governments; the crumbling of the prevailing demographic regime; and the emergence of radical new ideologies.
Finally, what were the consequences of the crisis and what “lessons” can we learn? Searching for contemporary “relevance” in events that occurred 350 years ago is fraught with danger; but since the mid-seventeenth century crisis was the only occasion when a sudden shift in the world’s weather seriously affected human life and left a copious record (archeological and climatic as well as historical), historians have a duty to ask these questions.
My book, which should be completed in mid-2004 and published in 2005, studies both the impact of severe climatic change on history and the ways in which specific political and economic decisions can produce war, revolution, catastrophe—and, in a few cases (such as Japan), peace.