Identify the causes and consequences of the seventeenth century social and political changes from a global perspective.

Many places in the world underwent significant socio-political changes in the 17th century. Examples include new settler colonies in North America and South Africa, gradual decline of the Mughals, and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. However, for the purpose of this paper, our discussions will focus on the causes and consequences of the most dramatic socio-political disruptions – sometimes called “the 17th century crisis” – in western Europe and China in the first half of the century.


One of the causes of the 17th century crisis was climatic: falling temperatures and draught caused food production to decline, resulting in grain riots “from China all the way to Spain.” (7-4) In pre-modern economies where the vast majority of population was rural, such climatic change was bound to have socio-political repercussions. Nevertheless, the impact would not have been crisis-like without the emergence and rivalries among global mercantilist empires based in western Europe.


Let me first illustrate how global mercantilism impacted conflicts within Europe, which no doubt had many locally-rooted causes, such as dynastic quarrels over land-holdings, religious rivalries (Catholicism vs. Lutheranism / Calvinism) and autonomous cities’ struggle against empires. These locally-originated conflicts would not have escalated to become the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which involved so many political entities, caused so many casualties and lasted so long if the Spanish empire – which by late 16th century had annexed the Crown of Portugal, which were to break away again in 1640 in the midst of the War (7-4) – did not have silver from Americas and trading profits from Asia, for example through Manila acquired in 1571 (5-4, 5-5). Many primary internal and external enemies of the Habsburgs (who held the Spanish Crown), such as the Dutch republics, England and France, had their own fledging global mercantilist interests by the early 17th century. As an example, the Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602 and acquired Batavia as a base in Java in 1619 (5-4). This not only increased military resources that could be deployed by the Dutch in Europe, but also undercut Spanish trading interests in Asia.


One other way the Dutch and English undermined Spanish interests was through assaulting the “Manila Galleons” during the Thirty Years’ War. (5-4, 7-4) This turned out to be a critical cause of the 17th century crisis in China – the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Ten years after Spaniards captured Manila, in 1581 the Ming dynasty started the Single Whip taxation reform that required tax payments in silver. (7-2) The Chinese demand of silver was so great that between 1571 and 1597, twelve million pesos of silver flowed from Mexico through Manila to China. (5-4) As the “Manila Galleons” came under Dutch and English attack, silver supply to China contracted, making it difficult for farmers to pay silver-denominated taxes, now more expensive in real terms. This, together with food shortage under unfavorable climatic conditions, caused peasant uprisings, social banditry, and eventually a full-scale civil war in 1640s leading to Li Zicheng’s capture of Ming Beijing in 1644. (7-4) As Ming collapsed, one of its generals deflected to the Manchus, who then set up a new Qing dynasty which would last till 1911. (The Manchus coalesced as a powerful tribal state, possibly as a response to worsening climatic conditions, in the first decades of the 17th century, and contributed to Ming’s distress in the dynasty’s closing decades.)


Despite the severity of the 17th century crisis, socio-political orders were mostly restored in both western Europe and China by the end of the century. In western Europe, the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia stabilized the denominational boundaries of Europe. (7-1) Highly indebted Spain was permanently weakened by the War. While war debts also created domestic political crises in England and France, by 1700 orders were fully restored – in England through the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and in France during the reign of Louis XIV. In China, the reign of Kangxi saw Qing’s full integration of southern China, expansion into Xinjiang (7-5), and confirmation of boundaries in 1689 with Russia (which also saw increasing integration of Siberia and a strong reign of Peter the Great).


The global restoration of socio-political orders were probably facilitated improving climatic conditions in the second half of the 17th century. However, the other major cause of the 17th century crisis, namely global mercantilism, was strengthened. For example, the English East India Company was set up in 1689, an entity which would corrode Mughal power in the next century. (6-6) In the 18th century, rivalry between the global British and French mercantilist empires would culminate in the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. (6-5) In conclusion, climatic deterioration and mercantilism were the primary global causes the 17th century crisis. While climatic recovery facilitated restoration of socio-political orders, strengthened mercantilist empires would led to another set of global conflicts in the subsequent century.


Works cited:

Course lectures are cited first by the lecture number, then by the segment number. For example, lecture 5, segment 4 is represented in the main essay as (5-4) in parenthesis.



Comments: 1 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    lawpark (Saturday, 12 January 2013 19:29)

    self → Based on additional check, the data point from lecture 6-6 regarding East India Company set up in 1689 was not correct. Might be a mistake in the script, or a slip in the delivery. The correct date should be more like 1600.