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Debating the Crisis of the 17th Century

Professor Julian Hoppit
15 credits

Fridays 2-4, term 1
This course considers a long-running controversy about whether there was a general crisis in mid-seventeenth-century Europe, including Britain. It mainly explores the rewards and pitfalls of making general arguments about the past, only secondarily about a period of European history. The seeds of the debate were sown by Eric Hobsbawm in 1954, alleging structural economic failings of mid seventeenth-century Europe, seeds germinated at a conference organized by the fledgling Past and Present Society in 1957. But the debate flourished when in 1959 Hugh Trevor-Roper recast the general crisis as one of political revolts and rebellions across much of Europe. Ever since, the debate has waxed and waned. To some the concept of a general crisis is an important means of making sense of the past; to others it is positively misleading. If at times its critics have claimed to have killed it, it has shown remarkable powers of recovery and adaptability, especially recently. This course explores these births and deaths, resuscitations and reformations, and what they say about wider historiographical developments since 1945. The emphasis of the course is very much upon the practice of history, of the role of concepts, generalisations, sub-disciplinary boundaries, comparative history, interdisciplinarity and verifiability.

Each week looks at a particular contribution to the debate which will be discussed in depth and in relation to relevant biographical evidence and related historiographical, methodological, and theoretical literature.

Assessment: one 4,000 word essay, to a title developed by students, but agreed in advance with the teacher.

1. Introduction

Collections of key essays

Trevor Aston, ed. Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660: essays from Past and Present (1965)

Geoffrey Parker & Lesley M. Smith, eds. The general crisis of the seventeenth century (1978; 2nd edn. 1997)

Other useful general works

Philip Benedict and Myron P. Gutmann, eds. Early modern Europe: from crisis to stability (2005)

J. H. Elliott, History in the making (2012)

The historical essays of Otto Hintze, ed. Felix Gilbert (1975)

J. H. Shennan, The origins of the modern European state, 1450-1725 (1974)

Quentin Skinner, ed. The return of grand theory in the human sciences (1985)

Charles Tilly, ed. The formation of national states in western Europe (1975)

2. E. J. Hobsbawm, Marxist history, and the birth of the concept

Class reading – pardon the pun

E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘The general crisis of the European economy in the seventeenth century’, Past and Present, 5 (1954), 33-53

E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘The crisis of the seventeenth century – II’, Past and Present, 6 (1954), 44-65

Further reading

Christopher Hill, R. H. Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Past and Present: origins and early years’, Past and Present, 100 (1983), 3–14

E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘The historians' group of the Communist Party’, Rebels and their causes, ed. M. Cornforth (1978), 21–48

E. J. Hobsbawm, Interesting times: a twentieth-century life (2002), esp. 190-1, 230-2

H. J. Kaye, The British Marxist historians: an introductory analysis (1995)

Various, ‘Seventeenth century revolutions’, Past and Present, 13 (1958), 63-72

3. H. R. Trevor-Roper, anti-Marxism, and reconstituting the crisis

Class reading

H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘The general crisis of the seventeenth century’, Past and Present, 16 (1959), 31-64

Various, ‘Discussion of H. R. Trevor-Roper, “The general crisis of the seventeenth century”’, Past and Present, 18 (1960), 8-42

Further reading

H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘Marxism and the study of history’, in Problems of communism (Sept 1956), reprinted in Trevor-Roper, Historical essays (1957), xxx

H. R. Trevor-Roper, Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, ed. R. Davenport-Hines (2006), 130-2, 249-52

Richard Davenport-Hines, ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper’, Oxford dictionary of national biography, online

Blair Worden, ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 150 (2007), 247–84

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: the biography (2010)

4. The ‘military revolution’ and the general crisis

Class reading

Michael Roberts, The military revolution (1956) reprinted in his Essays in Swedish history (1967)

Geoffrey Parker, ‘The military revolution, 1560-1660 – a myth?’, Journal of Modern History, 48.2 (1976), 195-214

Further reading

Jeremy Black, A military revolution? Military change and European society, 1550-1800 (1991)

G. N. Clark, War and society in the seventeenth century (1958)

Michael Duffy, ed. The military revolution and the state, 1500-1800 (1980)

Henry Kaman, ‘The economic and social consequences of the Thirty Years’ War’, Past and Present, 39 (1968), 44–61

Geoffrey Parker, The military revolution: military innovation and the rise of the west, 1500-1800, 2nd edn. (1996)

David Parrott, ‘The constraints on power: recent works in early modern European history’, European History Quarterly, 30 (1990), 101-9

C. J. Rogers, The military revolution debate (1995)

5. The demolition gang

Class reading

A. D. Lublinskaya, French absolutism: the crucial phase, 1620-1629 (1968), ch. 1

Further reading

J. H. Hexter, On historians: reappraisals of some modern masters of modern history (1979), ch. 5

H. G. Koenigsberger, ‘The crisis of the 17th century: a farewell?’ in his Politicians and virtuosi: essays in early modern history (1986), 149–68

Maurice Lee jnr., ‘Scotland and the “general crisis” of the seventeenth century’, Scottish Historical Review, 63:2 (1984), 136-54

6. Lawrence Stone, revolutions, and revisionism

Class reading

L. Stone, ‘The causes of the English revolution’, in J. P. Greene & R. Foster, eds. Preconditions of revolution in early modern Europe (1970), xxx

L. Stone, ‘Theories of revolution’, World Politics, 18:2 (1966), 159-76

Steve Pincus, 1688: the first modern revolution (2009), ch. 2

Further reading

Glenn Burgess, 'On revisionism', Historical Journal, 33 (1990), 609-27

D. Cannadine, ‘Historians in the “liberal hour”: Lawrence Stone and J. H. Plumb re-visited’, Historical Research, 75 (2002), 316–54

C. S. L. Davies, ‘Lawrence Stone’, Oxford dictionary of national biography, online

Ronald Hutton, Debates in Stuart history (2004), ch. 1

L. Stone, ‘The revival of narrative’, Past and Present, 85 (1979), 3-24

‘Lawrence Stone—as seen by himself’, The first modern society: essays in English history in honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine, and J. M. Rosenheim (1989), epilogue

7. J. H. Elliott and the view from Spain

Class reading

J. H. Elliott, ‘Revolution and continuity in early modern Europe’, Past and Present, 42 (1969), 35-56

Further reading

J. H. Elliott, The revolt of the Catalans: a study in the decline of Spain (1963)

J. H. Elliott, ‘The decline of Spain’, Past and Present, 20 (1961), 52–75

J. H. Elliott, ‘A Europe of composite monarchies’, Past and Present (1992) 137, 48-71

J. H. Elliott, History in the making (2012)

Richard L. Kagan and Geoffrey Parker, eds. Spain, Europe and the Atlantic World: essays in honour of John H. Elliott (1995)

8. Terminology

Class reading

Randolph Starn, ‘Historians and “crisis”’, Past and Present, 52 (1971), 3-22

Further reading

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The mind and method of the historian (1981), ch. 9

J. B. Shank, ‘Crisis: a useful category of post–social scientific historical analysis?’, American Historical Review, 113.4 (2008), 1090-99

Randolph Starn, ‘Meaning-levels in the theme of historical decline’, History and Theory, 14 (1975), 1-31

9. Geoffrey Parker and the world crisis

Class reading

Geoffrey Parker & Lesley M. Smith, ‘Introduction’ to their, eds. The general crisis of the seventeenth century, 2nd edn. (1997), 1-31

Geoffrey Parker, ‘Crisis and catastrophe: the global crisis of the seventeenth century reconsidered’, American Historical Review, 113.4 (2008), 1053-79

Further reading

Geoffrey Parker, Europe in crisis, 1598-1648, 2nd edn. (2001), ch. 1

Geoffrey Parker, Global crisis, war, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century (2013)

J. R. McNeil, ‘Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history’, History and Theory, 42 (2003), 5-43

Patrick O’Brien, ‘Historiographical traditions and modern imperatives for the restoration of global history’, Journal of Global History, 1 (2006), 3-39

10. Conclusions

Class reading

‘The general crisis of the seventeenth century revisited’, AHR Forum, American Historical Review, 113:4 (2008), 1029-99

J. H. Elliott, ‘The general crisis in retrospect: a debate without an end’ [2005], reprinted in his Spain, Europe and the wider world, 1500-1800 (2009), 52-73

Further reading

Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and rebellion in the early modern world (1993)

Geoffrey Parker & Lesley M. Smith, eds. The general crisis of the seventeenth century, 2nd edn. (1997)

‘The crisis of the seventeenth century: interdisciplinary perspectives’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 40.2 (2009), 145-303

V. H. T. Skipp, Crisis and development: an ecological case study of the Forest of Arden, 1570–1674 (1978)

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