17th Century Europe was a ‘Golden Age’ of art, science and progress. However, it was also a time when Europe tore itself apart. It was a black age of religious persecution, slaughter, famine, disease and destruction. As a result, more than half the population perished in parts of Germany. Bohemia saw worse. The civil wars that raged within England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales remain the bloodiest conflict in British history. They caused even greater loss of life than The Great War of 1914-18. We now understand the Little Ice Age to be a cause of these wars and The General Crisis of the 17th Century.
The Little Ice Age and The General Crisis
Over-population in the 17th Century led to huge disparity of wealth and living conditions. But it was climate change that tipped the balance. The Little Ice Age only changed temperatures by a few degrees. But it devastated agriculture. Crops failed. Agrarian based economies collapsed. Famine, disease and war followed. Living standards plummeted and societies imploded. In England, life expectancy of the poor dropped to 30 years. This was significantly worse than a century earlier.
The 17th Century saw more wars than any other century in global history. These were not just confined to Europe. Violence swept the globe in the 1640s. It stretched from Japan to the Americas. The Ming dynasty in China collapsed in a wave of rebellion. Insurection struck the Maya and Aztec civilisations. It ravaged the population of Mexico. Entire Native American cultures were destroyed across North America. This period of global unrest is now known as The General Crisis.
Religious Reformation, Intellectual and Political Change
This was a period of extraordinary upheaval and change. It marks the birth of the modern world in Europe. A secular, materialistic world based on rational, scientific thinking and the independence of man. But, change was not sudden or universal. Faith in medieval practices and the centrality of God remained fundamental parts of life for most. Many clung to ancient beliefs, superstitions and local lore. As they do in many parts of the world today.
The medieval world no longer provided adequate spiritual, moral or societal answers to maintain stability. This was a period of fundamental intellectual change. The ideas of William Gilbert (1544-1603) and Kepler (1571-1630) irrevocably challenged the medieval world order. As did Galileo (1564-1646), Descartes (1596-1650), Newton (1642-1726) and John Locke (1632-1704). Ultimately, mathematical calculation replaced faith as the basis for science and advancement.
The need for change may have been clear. But, there was no agreement on the direction of change. Some saw a strong centralised state as essential. Others believed in the natural rights of man and a ‘levelling’ of society. Many sought answers in religion, in glorifying or appeasing God. Some turned to religious extremism. A few believed an End of Times was imminent.
The Thirty Years War, Wars of Religion and British Civil Wars
Ultimately, the 17th Century was one of violence. In Europe, the Thirty Years War was accompanied by the endless Wars of Religion. Together they ravaged the continent. These were brutal religious and political struggles. They saw the destruction of large areas of Germany, Bohemia, Lorraine and the Low Countries. Callot’s Miseries of War provide a glimpse of the horrors of this conflict. To this day, the Thirty Years War remains a deep scar in the European psyche.
Huge numbers of Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh soldiers fought in these wars. Many of them joined the Imperial armies and the Catholic League. Others fought for the Protestant Cause. A few served Russia or fought against the Ottoman Empire. We should not view the British Civil Wars in isolation. They were part of a wider European conflict.
Within this history of conflict are the stories of individual struggles. Real people fought to live, love and die with dignity. They did so in the chaos, mud, disease and savagery of the 17th Century. Their stories remain sharply relevant today. It is these stories that are the inspiration for God’s Vindictive Wrath and the Divided Kingdom series of books.
I hope you found this article on the Little Ice Age and General Crisis of the 17th Century useful. You can read more about the English Revolution and Great Rebellion of 1642 within this website.
You may want to read about 17th Century Military Theory. This article explains the clash between Dutch and Swedish military doctrines at Edgehill in 1642. There are more articles on the battles of Edgehill, Aylesbury and Brentford at Notes and Maps.
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