The 1st through the 18th centuries

World History II: the 1st through the 18th centuries


Because of trade and religious pilgrimage, Jerusalem was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire in the first half of the 1st century AD. But the lands around it – Judea, Samaria, and Galilee – were far from rich. They suffered, as did all the Roman provinces, from the extortionate levels of taxation required to pay tribute to Rome and maintain the luxurious lifestyle of Roman governors. There were repeated riots in Jerusalem and recurrent outbreaks of ‘banditry’ in the countryside, especially in Galilee. A man named Judas, who called himself ‘King of the Jews,’ led a guerilla war, and 40 years later the prophet Theudus proclaimed himself a messiah. In all these clashes, hatred of the Jewish upper classes among the Jewish poor merged with hatred of the Roman occupiers.

These class differences found expression in different interpretations of the Jewish religion. The rich, who spoke Greek and collaborated with the Romans, favored the Sadducee school of hereditary priests, which denied the existence of an afterlife or an immortal soul. By contrast, non-hereditary religious scholars, who came from a range of social backgrounds, favored the Pharisee school, which insisted on strict adherence to Jewish rituals and dietary laws, objected to upper-class collaboration with the Romans, and believed in an immortal soul (the souls of the good would enter into new bodies, while those of the wicked would be tormented by eternal suffering). A third school, the Essenes, attempting to escape what they saw as the evils of society, established monastic communities in the countryside, where they lived communally. Finally, the Zealots combined religious faith with political agitation against the Roman presence.

Urban converts to Judaism – people seeking a universal religion – were common in this period, and Jews made up 10-15% of the population of most Roman cities. The Jews in the diaspora just stood by, however, when the Jews of Palestine rose up in 70 AD.

Christianity was a version of Judaism at first. Then Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, a Greek-speaking convert from Phariseeism who lived outside Palestine and worked as a traveling tentmaker, set out to preach to people attracted to Judaism but put off by the stringency of its rules. He emphasized salvation through the resurrection of the dead. Christian converts were small traders, craftspeople, petty clerks, and minor officials – people who felt oppressed to some degree by the empire, but too weak to challenge it openly. The few better-off people who were attracted to the new faith provided Christian groups with meeting places in their houses.

The New Testament was compiled in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD from earlier writings expressing the changing beliefs of Christians as the sect expanded. Projecting the transformation of the apocalypse into the future and into a different, eternal realm, appealed to those whose bitterness was combined with fear of real revolution. The Christian message provided consolation for the poor and a way for the rich to discharge their guilt while keeping their wealth.

The growth of the religion was accompanied by its bureaucratization. Local groups centralized fundraising and administration in the hands of ‘deacons’ overseen by ‘presbyters’ and bishops. At first, the election of bishops was in the hands of ordinary Christians, but it wasn’t long before only the preachers had a say. At the same time meetings of bishops began to determine what was correct doctrine and who was entitled to preach it.

This process was hastened by a controversy posed by the Gnostics, who explained evil by postulating a continual universal struggle between good (Spirit) and evil (the material world, including the human body). Some Gnostics were ascetics who starved themselves and lived in rags (not very appealing to potential converts); others lived as they pleased, including engaging in free and open sexuality. The struggle over the issue was only resolved (after decades) by the bishops asserting that they alone, as successors to the apostles, could pronounce on issues of doctrine.

Over time, being a Christian gave one access to more protections and services than being a Roman citizen.

The Byzantine Empire

After Constantinople became the imperial “Roman” capital in 330 AD, successive emperors were able to keep control of Asia Minor, Syria, the Balkans, and the all-important Nile Valley. The economies of the empire’s provinces were controlled by large local landowners, some of which resembled miniature kingdoms complete with police, courts, and armies, but the imperial army was still able to collect the taxes it needed.

During his reign, Justinian the Great, Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer its lost western half. His general, Belisarius, swiftly conquered the Vandal kingdom in north Africa, extending Roman control to the Atlantic Ocean. Belisarius and other generals then conquered the Ostrogoths, restoring Dalmatia, Sicily, Italy, and Rome to the empire after half a century of barbarian control.

Most of southern Spain was also recovered, re-establishing imperial control over the western Mediterranean.

Justinian rewrote Roman law in a form that’s still the basis of civil law in many countries. His reign marked a blossoming of Byzantine culture, and his building program included such masterpieces as the church of Hagia Sophia, the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. A devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 540s marked the end of an age of splendor, and the empire entered a period of territorial decline.

Later in the 500s, the continued impoverishment of the peasants and discontent among the less wealthy inhabitants of provincial cities led to savage clashes between rival factions in all the cities of the empire. The empire attacked Jews and Monophysite, Arian, and Nestorian heretics, even though the majority of the population believed in one of these forms of Christianity.

Not surprisingly, there was little support for the empire when it was attacked in the early 600s by Persian and then Arab armies in Syria and Egypt, and by Slav peoples in the Balkans. It was soon reduced to Constantinople and part of Asia Minor, amid a general decay in the level of literacy and learning. Merchants and artisans were organized into state-controlled guilds, which limited their profits, delaying the growth of a strong bourgeoisie, so that when openings for trade emerged they were taken up by foreigners. Similarly, a class of free laborers didn’t develop until the 12th century, because of the persistence of slavery in the cities. The poor rioted periodically, but were easily manipulated by groups with other interests.

Early in the 13th century, Constantinople fell to the European thugs and adventurers of the Fourth Crusade, who found the city a better prize than Jerusalem. They were driven out in 1261, but the renewed Byzantine state was a pale reflection of its former self, and finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. A kind of civilization had been preserved for 1,000 years, but the only contact the ruling class had with the masses who did the work was via the tax collector and barely literate priests.


Islam differed from Christianity in one important respect: in addition to being a set of rules for moral behavior, it was also a political program for reforming society, replacing the often armed competition between tribes with an ordered community (umma) based on a single code of laws. This political aspect of Mohammed’s teaching led to clashes with the ruling families of Mecca, his group’s emigration to Medina, and their return to Mecca in 630 to establish a new state.

Mohammed died in 632, but his first two successors, or caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar – longtime disciples from merchant families – also knew how to combine religious principle and political pragmatism. They channeled the energies of feuding pastoralist tribes and clans into attacks on the wealthy cities of Damascus, which fell in 636, the Persian capital of Ctesiphon (637), and Alexandria (642). Arab commanders discovered that cavalrymen on camels could hit cities in bordering empires unexpectedly and with great force. Their successes showed how much the rulers of the Byzantine and Persian empires were hated by their own peoples. Urban populations welcomed the Arabs, who didn’t seek to convert them or create new state structures at first, just collected tribute and confiscated lands belonging to the state and aristocrats resisting their rule.

Some of the Arab tribes felt they’d lost out on the fruits of victory, however, and there was a civil war. After the murder of Umar by a slave in 644, power passed to Uthman, a member of the most powerful Meccan family. He was murdered in 656. The choice of Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali as caliph led to open warfare between rival Muslim armies, and power passed to Uthman’s cousin, who established a hereditary dynasty known as the Umayyads. (This is the origin of the division between Sunni, followers of Uthman, and Shia, followers of Ali.) The Umayyads oversaw the consolidation of the empire, establishing its capital in Damascus, Syria. The Arab armies also resumed their march, taking Kabul and Bukhara in the east and reaching the Atlantic in the west.

In 750, discontent among the poor and middle-class non-Arab Muslim converts with fewer privileges than Arabs led to the overthrow of the Umayyads (except in the al-Andalus region of Spain) and the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty. Instead of being ruled by an exclusively Arab military aristocracy, Arab and non-Arab believers were now treated the same, and there was a new social order based on agriculture and trade, with a cosmopolitan ruling class of officials, merchants, bankers, and the ulema – religious scholars, jurists, teachers, and dignitaries. Symbolic of the change was the shift in 762 to a grandiose new capital, Baghdad, only a few miles from the ruins of the old Persian capital, Ctesiphon.

The imperial rulers repaired the irrigation canals, and yields of wheat, barley, rice, dates, and olives were high. Cotton cultivation, introduced from India, spread from eastern Persia to Spain. Merchants traveled to India, Sri Lanka, the East Indies, and China, from the Black Sea up the Volga into Russia, through Ethiopia and the Nile Valley into Africa, and – via Jewish merchants – into Europe. Something like a banking system even emerged, which did away with merchants having to carry large sums of gold or silver.

During this period, religious scholars began compiling collections of the sayings of Mohammed (the hadiths) and formal codes of Islamic law (the sharia). Tradesmen and artisans appreciated the openly structured, egalitarian, and contract-based nature of these new legal systems, and intellectual activity flourished. Scholars translated into Arabic the works of Greek, Persian, Syrian, and Indian philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. Philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna) sought to provide a rational account of the world, building on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. At the same time, the lower classes of the towns were attracted to various Shia “heresies,” and there were repeated revolts.

Advances in farming soon disappeared, as state funds needed to maintain irrigation systems were diverted to other purposes, and land passed into the hands of large landowners interested only in the short-term profits needed to maintain an ostentatious lifestyle in Baghdad. Peasants lost their land, and slaves weren’t interested in the long-term fertility of the fields they worked. Attempts to maintain or enlarge tax revenues through corrupt and predatory tax-farming practices further aggravated conditions.

The economic decline of its heartland was accompanied by the political fragmentation of the empire, which further encouraged economic decline. Turkish peoples from central Asia, introduced as mamlukes – privileged groups of slaves fulfilling military functions for the imperial household – became powerful in their own right, and by the 1000s the empire had fallen apart. Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia had long been separate kingdoms; the rulers of eastern Persia owed no more than titular respect to the caliph in Baghdad; and insurgent Ismaili Shiites had established a rival caliphate ruling Egypt, Syria, western Arabia, and the Sind region of India. Their newly built capital, Cairo, with its magnificent Al Azhar mosque, rivaled Baghdad as a center of Islam.

Baghdad was sacked by a Mongol army in 1258, but Egypt prospered for two more centuries, and Islamic culture flourished from Cordoba in the west to Samarkand and Bukhara in the east.

African civilizations

African civilizations included Egypt, the Kushite civilization of Nubia, the Axum civilization of Ethiopia, cities all along the east African coast south to Mozambique, and kingdoms like Timbuktu along the river Niger in the early 15th century. Other civilizations arose in the forests of coastal west Africa, where the city of Benin made an enormous impression on the first Portguese to visit it, and across a wide belt of central Africa from the kingdom of the Kongo in northern Angola to Buganda in present-day Uganda. As elsewhere, sufficient surpluses allowed chiefly lineages to evolve into ruling classes which exploited the rest of society, while among the mass of the population specialized groups of artisans and traders emerged alongside peasants and herders.

African peoples learned to smelt iron ores about the same time as similar knowledge was spreading across Eurasia (about 1000 BC). The number of Bantu-speaking peoples from west Africa, who first adopted these methods, grew over the centuries, leading them to displace many of the hunter-gatherers originally predominant in western and central Africa between 2000 BC and 500 AD.

Africans were connected with world trade via Islam long before Europeans landed on their coasts – indeed, the ancient kingdom of Zimbabwe may have crumbled due to a decline in the price of the gold it exported in the 15th century.

The peoples of Africa ended up as the victims of the emerging world system largely because, due to geographical barriers on the African continent, it was much easier for European culture and technology to spread.


At the end of the 500s, after a period of disorder, the empire was reunited, first under the Sui and then the T’ang dynasty, and two new capitals, Loyang and Ch’ang-an, were built. Canals 40 meters wide and several hundred kilometers long linked the Yellow, Wei, and Yangtze rivers, enabling southern rice to feed the northern cities. Military campaigns extended the empire’s influence into Korea, as far west as the borders of India and Persia, and south into Indochina. An administrative structure run by full-time Confucianist scholar-officials began to act as a counterbalance to the landowning aristocratic class, dividing much of the land into small peasant holdings to ensure that the surplus went to the state as taxes rather than to the aristocrats as rents. There were state monopolies on salt, alcohol, and tea.

The T’ang Dynasty lasted three centuries, finally going into crisis because of repeated quarrels between bureaucrats and courtiers and a decline in revenues associated with the rise of large estates worked by tenant farmers and wage laborers. Banditry increased, and there were frequent rural uprisings by the hard-pressed peasantry, the last of which toppled the dynasty. China split into five rival states, reuniting under the Sung Dynasty 50 years later.

The Sung capital, K’ai-feng, enclosed an area twelve times the size of medieval Paris and had a million inhabitants. Military technology developed rapidly, a textile industry grew up, and the iron and steel industries became larger and more sophisticated. There were luxury items, building materials, chemicals, books for a middle-class audience, and clothing, as well as ceramics and porcelain. New shipbuilding technologies enabled Chinese ships to reach the Arabian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. There were vessels that could carry 1,000 people, and Chinese map-making was far ahead of Europe and the Arab Middle East.

Chinese merchants became more powerful, but still had to work with the state, and state officials ran a major means of production, the massive canal networks and irrigation works. The state continued to absorb a large proportion of the surplus and divert it from productive use, spending it on luxury consumption by the court and top officials and on bribing border peoples to maintain peace. Chinese peasants still lived in grinding poverty.

In 1127 an invasion from the north by the Jürchen, a people organized in a state along Chinese lines, cut the empire in half, leaving the Sung in control only in the south, while the Chin ruled the north for almost 150 years. Both dynasties fell to a second invasion by the Mongols in 1271. In China the Mongol rulers called themselves the Yüan Dynasty, and relied on sections of the old officialdom to run the empire – while keeping key positions for themselves and using Muslim merchants from central Asia (backed up by soldiers) to collect taxes. This broke up the social arrangements encouraging technological and economic advance, increasing rural impoverishment and peasant revolts. In 1368 Yüan-chang, the son of an itinerant agricultural worker, took the Mongol capital (Beijing) and declared himself the first Ming emperor.

The early Ming emperors discouraged industry and foreign trade in an effort to concentrate resources on agriculture, so China was less developed in the 16th century than it had been in the 12th.

The Middle Ages

600-900: Dark Ages in Europe. Collapse of trade and failure of the Franks to re-establish a Roman-type empire (Charlemagne, 800-814). Invasions by Norsemen (800-900). Feudalism, less trade, and the dominance of brahmins and the caste system in India. The Byzantine Empire lost Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Balkans, and experienced technical and economic stagnation. Mohammed took Mecca in 630, and Muslim armies conquered most of the Middle East by the 640s, reaching Kabul in 664 and Spain in 711. (See below for a timeline of Islam.) The center of Chinese civilization moved toward the rice-growing Yangtze. Coastal civilizations developed in east and west Africa.

10th and 11th centuries: recovery of agriculture and trade in Europe, as serfdom replaced slavery. Serfs, who only had to give a share of what they produced to the lord of the manor, had an incentive to work hard and employ new techniques. Chinese civilization reached its high point under the Sung Dynasty (960-1279).

12th and 13th centuries: Mongol pastoralists ravaged Eurasia, sacking Baghdad in 1258 and conquering China in 1279. Western crusaders captured Jerusalem (1099-1187) and sacked Byzantium (1204). The north Indian heartland was conquered by Muslims from central Asia, leading to a rebirth of trade and the use of money. Agricultural output, population, trade, and handicraft industries grew in Europe. European kings granted towns internal self-government, using them as a counterweight to feudal lords, and started setting up national court systems. Universities were established in cities like Oxford, Paris, and Prague, where scholars taught for money and showed an interest in secular subjects (Arab translations of Greek and Roman writing). Self-governing city-states dominated Flanders and northern Italy, and writers like Boccacio, Chaucer, and Dante produced secular literature written in local idioms. The luxury consumption and military activities of feudal lords and kings were a drain on, rather than a spur to, advance, however. Notable here were the Crusades, the wars waged by Norman kings attempting to subdue the British isles and much of France, and the wars waged in 13th century Italy between German ‘Holy Roman’ emperors and French kings allied with the pope.

14th century: By the year 1300 there was a vast contradiction at the heart of European society. Material and cultural life had reached a peak that bore comparison with that of the high point of Roman civilization, and it looked as though society were going forward, slowly escaping poverty, insecurity, and superstition. But the top of society was freezing up, as the lords made the barriers separating them from other classes ever more rigid, as the church attempted to suppress dissent, and as ever greater amounts of the surplus were used for luxuries, warfare, and ritual. The contradiction came to a head as famines spread across much of Europe, followed by plague. Half the population was wiped out, vast numbers of villages abandoned, and millions of hectares of cultivated land left fallow. For more than a century the greater part of the continent suffered a massive decline in population and a regression in productive capacity.

The Inquisition

The church increasingly clamped down on the new ideas of rational philosophers like Abelard and Bacon. It was also disturbed by wandering monks preaching a gospel of poverty and humility to the ‘holy poor,’ who might rise up against the ‘corrupt rich.’

The inquisition was first used by the church in 1184 against the Cathar or Albigensian heresy of the Languedoc region of southern France, finally stamped out by the Albigensian Crusade of 1209 to 1229. (The Cathars believed that life consisted of a battle between good and evil. Love was good, and power and the material world were bad, needing to be renounced or redeemed. This contradicted church doctrine that God had created the material world and been born into it as Jesus Christ.)

During the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX (1227–1241) assigned the duty of carrying out inquisitions to the Dominican order, which used local authorities to establish tribunals to prosecute heretics and hand over those convicted to secular authorities. Thousands, perhaps even millions, of witches, male and female, were imprisoned or executed by the Inquisition. Muslims and Jews in Spain and Portugal, also targeted, were given the choice of exile or forced conversion. Many supposedly converted Muslims, called Moriscos, and converted Jews, called conversos or Marranos, were later tried and executed.

The Waldensians of southern France and northern Italy, who insisted on their own interpretations of the Bible, which they preached to the poor, were almost wiped out by the Inquisition as well. Their beliefs may have been derived in part from Catharism.

The Spanish Inquisition, established by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1478, operated in all of the Spanish colonies and territories as well as in Spain. In the Spanish possessions of the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples in southern Italy, it targeted Greek Orthodox Christians.

The Portuguese Inquisition, which started in Portugal in 1536 at the request of the king, focused on Sephardic Jews, whom the state forced to convert to Christianity. (Spain had expelled its Sephardic population in 1492, and many Spanish Jews had fled to Portugal.) It also handled charges of censorship, divination, witchcraft, and bigamy. The Goa Inquisition, an inquisition largely aimed at Catholic converts from Hinduism or Islam who were thought to have returned to their original ways, started in Goa in 1560. In addition, the Inquisition prosecuted non-converts who broke prohibitions against the observance of Hindu or Muslim rites or interfered with Portuguese attempts to convert non-Christians to Catholicism.

The most famous case tried by the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542 by Pope Paul III, involved Galileo Galilei in 1633. His heliocentric views were deemed heretical, he was forced to renounce them, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Black Death

The Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Thought to have started in China, it traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. From there, probably carried by fleas living on the rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships, it spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.

The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s population, reducing world population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. The plague returned at various times, killing more people, until it finally left Europe in the 19th century.

In China, the 13th century Mongol conquest disrupted farming and trading, and led to widespread famine, starting in 1331 with plague arriving soon after. The population dropped from 120 to 60 million. The plague also struck various countries in the Middle East, leading, as in Europe, to serious depopulation and permanent economic and social changes.

As much as half the European population died of plague during a four-year period. In Italy, the south of France, and Spain, the death rate was probably closer to 75 to 80%, and in Germany and England it was probably closer to 20%. The most widely accepted estimate for the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, during this time, is for a death rate of about a third. The Black Death killed about 40% of Egypt’s population. Half of Paris’s population of 100,000 people died. In Italy, Florence’s population was reduced from 110,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. At least 60% of Hamburg’s and Bremen’s population perished. Europeans living in isolated areas suffered less, but monks and priests were especially hard hit since they cared for the Black Death’s victims.

Because 14th century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. Many people believed only God’s anger could produce such horror. There were many attacks against Jewish communities: in 1349, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated, and the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews.

A recurrence of the plague in 1471 took as much as 10-15 percent of the European population. During the 16th and 17th centuries, plague visited Paris in one year out of three. Plague epidemics ravaged London in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665, reducing its population by 10 to 30% during each of those years. Amsterdam and Venice also suffered repeated recurrences.

In the first half of the 17th century, plague claimed some 1,730,000 victims in Italy, or about 14% of the population. More than 1,250,000 deaths also resulted from the extreme incidence of plague in 17th century Spain. Europe’s last major epidemic occurred in 1720 in Marseilles.

Class struggles and millenarial movements

After the plague, the feudal lords warred with each other even more, as in the seemingly endless ‘Hundred Years War’ (1337-1453) between English and French monarchs. They also tried to take more from the classes below them – the peasants and the burghers. In 1325, the free peasants of western Flanders took up arms, refusing to pay tithes to the church or dues to their lords. They weren’t defeated till the King of France intervened in 1328. (Flanders, today the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking part of Belgium, historically included parts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Brussels, the modern capital of Belgium, was one of the most important early commercial hubs.)

In 1358 a great jacquerie – rural uprising – in the Seine valley of northern France led to attacks on nobles and the burning of chateaux. In June 1381, the English ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ briefly gave control of London to rural insurgents led by Wat Tyler, demanding their freedom from their feudal lords.

Sections of the urban population gave their support to the Flemish and English peasants, and the 14th century also saw widespread urban revolts against the old order, some of them a continuation of previous efforts by townsmen to become independent of local lords. There were repeated struggles of this kind in Flanders, and in the late 1350s the burghers of Paris took over the city while the king was being detained by the English. In Florence in 1378, artisans in the woolen trade turned against the heads of their guilds and controlled the city for two months.

Millenarial movements also arose in Flanders and northern France in which heretic preachers proclaimed themselves successors to Jesus, and masses of people marched from town to town, looting and gathering support. They directed their anger not against the feudal ruling class, but against corrupt priests and Jews.

The beginning of the 15th century saw a different kind of religious movement arise in Bohemia. It contained some of the characteristics of the earlier urban revolts in Flanders, France, and Italy, but was also a rehearsal for the Protestant Reformation 100 years later. The region, which had undergone rapid economic development, contained the richest silver mine in Europe, but much of its wealth was in the hands of the church, which owned half of the land. Resentment found expression in massive support for Jan Hus, a preacher and professor at the university, who criticized the church and the pope’s claim to be the sole interpreter of God’s wishes. Hus even had some backing from the Bohemian king, Wenceslas. When the emperor burnt Hus at the stake at the pope’s behest, virtually the entire Czech population of Bohemia rose in revolt, taking control of church properties. The king turned against the movement, and nobles and rich merchants worried about the general lack of respect for authority. There was a decade of war as the pope and the emperor sought to crush the revolt. Finally, a noble army of 25,000 defeated the radical ‘Taborites,’ who believed no man should be subject to another, killing 13,000 of them.

The ruling councils of most towns were oligarchies dominated by rich merchants, who often owned land and serfs. Whenever there was class conflict, they tried to conciliate the lords, or joined them in attacking the masses. In northern Italy, for example, the most economically advanced part of Europe at the beginning of the 14th century, the Medicis, a merchant family, dominated Florence, the region’s most important city, and its vast cloth trade. They used their power not to break feudalism apart, but to establish themselves as key players in the maneuvers of lordly and princely families. In so doing, they ensured the continued fragmentation of the area into warring statelets and ensured its eventual economic decay. Depending on their circumstances, some artisans allied with the rich merchants and some joined peasant revolts.

By the middle of the 15th century, there was economic recovery and a renewal of population growth. Lords needing cash to buy town goods spurred the development of market networks that slowly but surely changed feudal society. Change occurred even faster with the beginnings of international trade. Regions tightly covered with networks of towns (England, the Netherlands, parts of France, and western Germany) moved toward capitalist agriculture, while elsewhere (eastern Europe and southern Italy) the aim was to make serfs work harder and longer.

15th and 16th centuries: Renaissance to Reformation

Toward the end of the 15th century, Charles VII and Louis XI in France, Henry VII and Henry VIII in England, and Isabel and Ferdinand in Spain all succeeded in enhancing their power at the expense of the great feudal lords and in imposing some kind of state-wide order. The new absolute monarchies rested on feudalism, but these rulers had also learned to use the market system and growth of the towns as a counterbalance to the power of the lords. They thus did what they could to increase trade and industry. Still, vast numbers of poor people roamed the countryside without a livelihood as the barons dismissed their old armies of retainers and landowners enclosed common lands and deprived smallholding peasants of their plots. Vagabonds were whipped, imprisoned, and – after their third arrest – executed.

The Renaissance, beginning in the Italian city-states, represented a return to the intellectual, cultural, and scientific endeavors of the 13th century. As it spread across Europe, there were a growing number of translations from the Greek and Latin into colloquial languages and a growing willingness to challenge classical wisdom, exemplified by the scientific advances of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a 34-year-old friar and theology teacher, nailed his 95 theses attacking the use of indulgences by the Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, southern Germany. (Catholics forgiven of major sins purchased indulgences to shorten penances imposed by the Church.) The cities of southern Germany and Switzerland – Basel, Zurich, Strasbourg, and Mainz – supported Luther, as did the rulers of Saxony, Hesse, Brandenburg, and other states. Soon, despite stringent countermeasures by the church, there were also Lutheran converts in Holland and France.

There was a long tradition of opposition to the church based on similar arguments – there had been an underground Waldensian church with groups in major European cities for 200 years, there were the Bohemian Hussites, and Lollard followers of the late 14th century reformer Wycliffe in England. But these movements had never succeeded in tearing apart church and society as Luther, Zwingli in Zurich, and Calvin in Geneva did.

By the beginning of the 14th century, scores of new devices were in use – mechanical clocks, wind and water mills, blast furnaces capable of producing cast iron, new ways of building and rigging ships, armaments like the cannon and musket, and the printing press – that enabled wider changes. Weapons could also be manufactured, minerals mined, printing presses financed, ships built, and armies provisioned on a greater scale because the social organization of production had undergone massive changes. During the Middle Ages, production had been for immediate use; now it was to sell. A peasant family might still produce most of its own food and clothing, but it required money to pay rent, buy tools, and provide for itself if a harvest failed. Lords and monarchs required money on a massive scale. Over time, this would transform the world of work so that it ceased being about meeting human needs and became a means by which those with money could make more money. Close to major ports, towns, or navigable rivers, whole areas were being turned over to the production of ‘industrial crops’ – flax for linen, grapes for wine, olives for oil, woad or saffron for dyeing, and herding to meet a growing demand for meat in the towns and among the upper classes. Merchants using the ‘putting out’ system pressured handicraft workers to accept lower payments based on supply and demand rather than the old customary prices. After the middle of the 15th century, prices began to rise, and the living standards of the mass of people fell. Real wages, which had often doubled in the century after the Black Death because of labor shortages, fell by between half and two-thirds between 1450 and 1600, while the peasantry was subject to increased pressures to pay various sorts of dues to the lords.

There was frenzied money making among the rich of town and country alike. The gold lust of Columbus, Cortéz, and Pizarro, and the church’s trade in indulgences were expressions of this. Members of great merchant families like the Medicis and the Borgias became popes in order to increase their wealth and pass it on to their illegitimate sons. Teenage boys were appointed to lucrative bishoprics, and clergymen took the incomes from several churches without ever appearing at any of them. Priests and monks lent money to peasants at high interest rates, despite the fact that usury was a sin. Money was becoming the measure of everything.

The German Reformation

Small traders and craftspeople – and sometimes priests, nuns, and monks from artisan families – were tired of a priesthood that didn’t satisfy their spiritual needs, and their agitation carried the Reformation to victory in city after city. In Basel, weavers wanted to help the poor with money set aside for church adornment. Usually from below, via pressure from craft guilds, two thirds of the German imperial cities went over to the new religion.

This German “empire,” also known as the Holy Roman Empire, had existed since Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, thus transferring the authority of the Western Roman Empire to the Frankish monarchy. The area really didn’t exist as a territory until 962, when Otto of Saxony was crowned emperor by the pope. At its peak the empire included the kingdoms of Germany, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Italy, and Burgundy, but for most of its history, it consisted of hundreds of smaller sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, etc. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Francis II, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars.

Getting back to the unrest in Germany, in 1524 a second, much more violent movement erupted. Known as the Peasant War, it’s been described as the most important mass uprising of pre-modern Europe. There had been a succession of local rural revolts across southern Germany in the previous half century, and now news of the religious turmoil in the towns, often spread by rural craftspeople, served to focus anger over deepening insecurity. Impromptu armies of thousands, even tens of thousands, carried the movement from one area to another as it spread through southern and central regions of the empire, sacking monasteries, assaulting castles, and attempting to win over towns. Demands started with the right of local communities to appoint their own pastors and decide how to use tithes, and went on to the abolition of serfdom; fees owed to the lords; lordly bans on peasants’ hunting, fishing, and wood-gathering; and arbitrary “justice.” The peasants appealed to laws of God, which they felt should supersede traditional feudal custom.

Pretending to make concessions, the lords began to mobilize mercenary armies, and in 1525 as many as 100,000 peasants were killed, mostly in one-sided battles. Luther supported the lords, urging them to take the most extreme forms of vengeance against the rebels, whom he referred to as “mad dogs” in need of “extermination.”

Among Protestant preachers who supported the uprising, the best known was 28-year-old Thomas Müntzer, a university-trained cleric, who wrote, “Our sovereigns and rulers are at the bottom of all usury, thievery, and robbery.” He was captured, tortured on the rack, and beheaded after an insurgent army was defeated at Frankenhausen by the Lutheran Prince of Hesse and the Catholic Duke of Saxony.

The crushing of the revolt strengthened the position of the great princes and their supporting lesser knights, united in continued exploitation of the peasantry. Urban oligarchies, after vacillating initially, saw in the princes their ultimate protection against rebellion. While Luther’s original doctrines had argued the equality of all parishioners in worship, Lutherans’ fear of revolt led them to embrace the old discipline. A religion that had arisen in reaction to the crisis of German feudalism became the official faith in areas of north and east Germany where peasants were forced back into serfdom. The towns of southern Germany, pressured by the emperor and the Catholic princes of the region to abandon the new religion, looked in vain to the Protestant princes to protect them. After 1546, Protestantism only survived in the southern cities on sufferance, its decline reflecting the urban middle classes’ loss of independence.

The French wars of religion

In France, economic crisis led to the impoverishment of peasants, artisans, and wage earners. There were repeated famines, outbreaks of plague, and, in 1557, state bankruptcy. Individuals turned against the church, the largest property holder, and a handful of aristocratic families.

Middle-class Frenchman Jean Calvin, forced by persecution to live in Geneva, framed a worldview even more suited to the bourgeoisie than Lutheranism. Luther had preached against the discipline of the church and then succumbed to the discipline of the princes. Calvin stressed the discipline of a new sort of church, run by the urban middle class. His followers, told they were God’s elect, tried to prove it by being more sober, self-controlled, and abstemious than their fellows. Such attitudes appealed perfectly to the respectable artisan or shopkeeper, cut off from the world of aristocratic luxury, but frightened and contemptuous of the ‘dissolute’ poor.

In the late 1550s, two of the great French aristocratic families, the Bourbons and the Montmorencys, fought bitterly over the succession to the throne with the third great family, the fanatically Catholic Guises. On Calvin’s advice, the radical section of the middle class tied their fate to the dissident aristocracy. The peasants, meanwhile, reacted to the intense poverty of the mid-1550s with Catholic religious processions, involving chanting the liturgy of the saints and self-flagellation. The crisis culminated in a series of bloody religious wars in the 1560s, including the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestant notables in Paris. The Calvinist strategy of reliance on the nobles meant that these wars were fought along feudal lines by armies led by and mainly composed of nobles, with social issues forgotten. There were twice as many Catholic as Protestant nobles, and the contemptuous attitude of the Calvinists to the poor allowed the Catholics to organize riots in Paris.

The Calvinists’ chosen champion, Henry of Navarre, finally took the throne by turning his back on Protestantism, and the Protestants were restricted to certain fortified cities before being driven from the country a century later as the “French Huguenots.” The defeat for the middle class wasn’t as total or as catastrophic as in Germany. There was still some advance of industry and trade, and some successful businessmen were able to buy their way into a new aristocracy (the noblesse de robe) or to marry their children to members of the old one (the noblesse d’epée).

Meanwhile, Calvin prospered in Geneva, and in Scotland the Calvinist John Knox drew together a group of aristocrats and burghers in opposition to the Catholic Scottish queen, Mary Stuart.

The Dutch Revolt

In the Netherlands, the Calvinist burghers of prosperous towns and local princes revolted against Spanish rule.

The area which today makes up Belgium and Holland passed into the hands of the Spanish crown in the 15th century, which didn’t bother people at first, since this was before the era of modern nationalism. The feudal lords gained from serving a great emperor – until 1555, the Flemish-born Charles V. The urban middle classes also benefited, using Spanish wool in their textile industries and profiting from the export of manufactured goods to Spain’s American empire. Silver and gold flowed in from the colonies, passed through the coffers of the Spanish crown, and ended up in the pockets of Low Country merchants. The Castilian heart of Spain, rich and powerful in the 15th century, entered a centuries-long era of economic stagnation, while the Netherlands became the most economically dynamic part of Europe.

The Spanish crown had used its control of the country’s Catholic hierarchy, and especially the Inquisition, to stamp out opposition to its rule since the 1490s. Philip II, Charles V’s successor, made it his mission to fight heresy and Protestantism across Europe. In Spain this meant attacking the autonomy of Catalonia and suppressing the remaining Moorish minority. In the Low Countries it meant an onslaught on the local aristocracy and the growing Protestant minorities among the urban classes. This was accompanied by increased taxation for the mass of people at a time of economic crisis and growing hardship.

The first wave of revolt came in the late 1560s. Calvinism spread from the southern to the northern cities, accompanied by the destruction of religious images and the sacking of churches. Spain’s Duke of Alba crushed the revolt, marching into Brussels with an army of 10,000, and executing thousands. There was a second revolt a decade later, which proved successful in the north, where it received the backing of certain nobles – the most important of whom was the Duke of Orange. An independent state, the United Provinces (later known as the Dutch Republic), was established. The southern nobles, by contrast, allowed the Spanish army to reconquer the towns, and places like Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp, which had been in the forefront of economic development for 300 years, entered a long period of stagnation.

17th century

The Thirty Years War

Fighting between the Netherlands and Spain came to a halt with a 12-year truce in 1609, but before the truce had expired another religious war broke out to the east. It was to rage for 30 years, from 1618 to 1648, over much of the area between the Rhine River and the Baltic Sea. The war caused massive devastation and loss of life – by the time it was over, Germany’s population was a third lower.

Spain was still the greatest power in Europe in the 1610s. Its rulers, a branch of the Hapsburg family, were closely allied with the other branch, the emperors of the “Holy Roman Empire of the German nation,” most of whose lands were ruled by powerful, independent princes. The emperor’s only real power was in Austria, and even there it was circumscribed by the ‘estates’ – representatives of the lords, knights, and urban oligarchies. These insisted on their right to decide important questions of policy, and in Bohemia had the power to choose a non-Hapsburg king.

The war started with an attempt to clamp down on religious freedom in Bohemia. The imperial authorities began to tear down Protestant churches, arrest some well-known Protestants, censor printed material, and ban non-Catholics (90% of the population) from civic office. When representatives of the Protestant estates complained, the emperor declared meetings of the estates illegal. The estates threw imperial officials out a window (the 1618 ‘Defenestration of Prague’) and replaced the Hapsburg Ferdinand as ruler with Frederick of the Palatinate, a Protestant prince from Germany. Two years later, the Bohemian estates lost the war to the empire because the leaders’ class interests prevented them from mobilizing the lower classes. The Spanish crown went on to conquer the Palatinate territories that lay between some of its lands and the Netherlands.

By the late 1630s, Catholic France and Lutheran Sweden were the allies of Calvinist Holland, backed by the pope, who feared growing Spanish influence in Italy. The war dragged on for years, with shifting alliances centered around the rival monarchies of Spain and France. Peace was finally agreed to via the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, against a background of social and political unrest – a revolt of Catalonia and Portugal within the Spanish Empire, a clash between the Prince of Orange and the merchants of the northern Netherlands, and the beginning of political revolts in France.

Bohemia was subjugated to a devastating feudal absolutism, its land in the hands of lords who only wanted to grab as much of its produce as possible. The interest in new agricultural techniques that had characterized the 16th century died as the peasants were compelled to devote up to half their time to unpaid labor. The towns, depopulated by war, stagnated under the impact of debt and destruction, and what had been one of the centers of European culture became a backwater.

France emerged from the 30 Years War as it had from the religious wars of the previous century, with its monarchy strengthened and with a slow growth of economic centralization.

The English Revolution

In January 1649 Charles I, king of England and Scotland, was beheaded, an event that shocked Europe. The English Revolution was a product of the same social forces that had been tearing much of Europe apart for a century and a half, as market relations transformed the old feudal order. It involved rival upper class courtiers and politicians, merchant interests, artisans and small traders, and peasant protests.

Henry VIII had broken with the Roman Catholic Church and bound the majority of the English ruling class to his policy by selling them former monastery lands. His successor, Mary Tudor, married to Philip II of Spain, tried to reimpose Catholicism by force, causing lordly recipients of church lands to stand shoulder to shoulder with Puritan burghers in support of her sister, Elizabeth I.

The English population had more than doubled between 1500 and 1650, with more than one person in 12 living in a town. The output of handicraft industries, especially textiles, soared, as did mining and iron-making. The proportion of land in the hands of the better-off farmers, the ‘yeomen’ who supplemented family labor by employing waged labor, grew substantially, and a minority of the gentry were discovering that they could make more money by granting long leases to yeomen, who would improve the land, than by driving small peasants below the subsistence level. Although serfdom had disappeared in England at the time of the Black Death, lords still exacted numerous feudal payments, and peasants still tilled most of the land. Similarly, artisans rather than waged laborers still dominated most industries. The gentry still looked for handouts from the royal court, rather than improving their landholdings, just as the most powerful merchants relied on monopolies granted by the king, which raised prices and discouraged competition. Still, from the mid-1550s to the mid-1610s, as in Bohemia before the 30 Years War, there was slow economic advance, and with it an increase in the new capitalist methods.

The last part of Elizabeth’s reign saw the persecution and emigration of some ‘Puritan’ Calvinists. There was also an aborted conspiracy of large Catholic landowners under James I (James VI of Scotland, Protestant son of Mary Queen of Scots). But, by and large, the period was marked by a high degree of consensus between the monarchy, the large landowners, the gentry, the hierarchy of the national church, and the merchants. This was expressed by a constitutional setup in which the king appointed ministers to decide policies, but depended for their implementation and financing on the support of the two houses of parliament – the House of Lords, made up of the bishops and great aristocrats, and the House of Commons, made up of representatives of the landowning gentry of each county and the burghers of the urban boroughs.

The state machine was much weaker than in France or Castile. There was no standing army, no national police structure, and only a rudimentary civil service. Real power in each locality lay with the gentry, who administered much of the law, imposed punishments on the laboring classes, ensured most taxes were collected, and raised troops when needed. The monarchy’s power rested on its ability to persuade the gentry to do what it wanted.

Things began to fall apart in the later 1610s under James I, and more seriously in the late 1620s under his son Charles I. Wanting more money than the parliamentary gentry and merchant classes wished to give him, the king sought sources of revenue outside Parliament’s control – new taxes and customs duties, the selling of lordly titles, and trade monopolies. When Parliament threatened to withhold regular funding until it was granted control over these measures, the king kept it from meeting, using special courts such as the Star Chamber to punish those who resisted.

The gentry and merchants tended to identify with the Protestant side in the 30 Years War, out of a mixture of religious conviction and economic calculation. (Merchants reckoned that any weakening of Spanish influence would make American and East Indian markets more accessible.) James and Charles were pulled in the other direction, toward alliances with the great Catholic monarchies; Charles married the daughter of the French king, persecuted Calvinist ministers, and used church courts against religious dissenters. A powerful Catholic group centered on the king’s French wife and her Jesuit advisor emerged at court, and the king’s favorite, Strafford, established a permanent army made up of Irish Catholics. In 1637 the king attempted to impose a new non-Calvinist prayer book in Scotland, and Scottish nobles, lawyers, Calvinist ministers, and burghers raised an army in revolt that the king couldn’t raise the money to crush. As Scottish forces moved into northern England, he was forced to summon his first parliament in 11 years.

The parliament demanded abolition of the new taxes, dissolution of the special courts, an end to the king’s power to dissolve parliament without its consent, the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords, Strafford’s trial and execution, and an amicable peace with the Scottish Calvinists. The king made some concessions, including the trial of Strafford, bided his time, and collected supporters. In January 1642, he tried to seize total power in a coup, descending on parliament with 400 armed men in a failed attempt to arrest five of the most prominent MPs. The next day, the king’s efforts to arrest the MPs in London having been blocked by large crowds, he left the city to raise an army. He gathered around him the sons and retainers of the northern lords and the court gentry, military adventurers, unemployed mercenaries, and a ‘Cavalier’ core of flamboyant bullies who despoiled every area of the country through which they rode.

Meanwhile, many ruling-class parliamentarians became convinced that only a new form of religious discipline could stifle revolt among the lower classes. They were called ‘Presbyterians,’ because they were associated with the notion that there had to be a uniform system of religious doctrine, imposed by church elders (presbyters) of their class. For the first two years of the civil war they held resistance back for fear of revolution. There wasn’t a single parliamentary army, but a collection of armies, each with a lord as a general and local gentry as officers. The rank and file were conscripts, often forced to fight against their will, not revolutionary enthusiasts. The reluctance of the gentry to provide for the upkeep of the armies forced the parliamentary troops, like the royalist Cavaliers, to pillage the land, alienating peasants and artisans.

At the beginning of 1645, the king was entrenched 50 miles from London at Oxford, and the parliamentary armies were unpaid, demoralized, and mutinous. There were desertions on a massive scale, and the danger of the Scottish army making a separate deal with the king. The ‘Ironsides,’ a parliamentary army of volunteers raised by Cambridgeshire landowner and MP Oliver Cromwell were still determined to defeat the king, however. These soldiers were from the ‘middling classes,’ mostly better-off yeoman farmers who owned horses.

That spring Cromwell and a group of MPs and officers beat back opposition from the House of Lords and much of the House of Commons to form the New Model Army, whose cavalry were volunteers motivated by religious and political enthusiasm. Even among the foot soldiers there was a minority of enthusiasts who could motivate the rest at key moments of battle, aided by radical preachers, pamphlets and newssheets, and informal Bible readings and discussions. Within days, the king’s headquarters at Oxford was in parliamentary hands and the king had fled to surrender to the Scottish army at Newark.

While the gentry pressed for the disbanding of the New Model Army and the curtailing of religious liberty, the regiments each elected two representatives, known as ‘agitators,’ to present their views and make demands. Regimental meetings took on an almost insurrectionary character, with attacks on the way the Commons were elected (by a tiny franchise), demands for annual parliaments, calls for vengeance against Presbyterian ministers, and criticism of the arcane language of the law courts.

A radical democratic group, the Levellers, calling for small property owners to have the same rights as large ones, enjoyed growing support, and in October 1647 Cromwell and other army leaders were compelled to chair a debate in Putney with soldiers influenced by them. The parliamentary moderates tried to assemble reliable armed forces of their own, arranging for the city of London to purge radicals from its militia, establishing a ‘committee of safety’ to organize forces under the gentry of each county, attempting to ensure the military arsenals were in their hands, and negotiating with their fellow Presbyterians who controlled the Scottish army to bring it into England. They had come to believe that they should unite with the royalist gentry to restore a slightly reformed version of the old monarchy.

The Independents around Cromwell set up a ‘council of the army,’ made up half of rank and file representatives and half of officers. They seized the king from the Presbyterian party, which intended to continue with the monarchy, the unelected House of Lords, and the restriction of the franchise to the upper class. When Charles escaped in November 1647, Cromwell realized that his efforts to negotiate with the king had been mistaken.

The ‘second civil war’ during the summer of 1648 saw former supporters of parliament fighting alongside the cavaliers, royalist risings in south Wales, Kent, and Essex, and an invasion from Scotland. Still, Cromwell and the officers of the New Model Army were victorious. Having imprisoned the London Levellers, they still relied on the Leveller-influenced army rank and file, and called for the execution of Charles and his chief advisors. Only after the king’s execution did Cromwell feel confident enough to repress those articulating class feelings. In May 1649, a mutiny of 1,000 troops was broken and four of its leaders executed. The bulk of the New Model Army was dispatched, minus its agitators, to Ireland.

From 1649 on, the governments of England and Scotland were run by army officers, many of them middle-class. Cromwell, a member of the gentry, had carried through a revolution that ensured society would be run on bourgeois lines. He ruled England as a virtual dictator for a decade, his regime based on military force, but was unable to resolve the differences between the Presbyterian gentry and the Independent middle-class. In 1660, after Cromwell’s death, a section of the army agreed with the remnants of parliament to invite the son of Charles I back as King Charles II.

The English monarchy was now beholden to the will of the propertied classes expressed through parliament, as was shown in 1688 when they overthrew James II (Charles II’s younger brother) in a ‘bloodless’ revolution for being pro-French and pro-Catholic. James also believed in the divine right of kings and wanted to become an absolute monarch. When he produced a Catholic heir, the leading English nobles called on his son-in-law William of Orange to land an invasion army from the Netherlands. James fled England (and thus was held to have abdicated), and William became king (as William III), ruling jointly with his wife (James’s daughter) Mary II. William and Mary were both Protestants.

China’s Glorious Sunset

China was recovering from the crisis of the 14th century by the early part of the 15th, as seen in a series of epic voyages by fleets of large ships carrying more than 20,000 people to the west coast of India, Aden, and east Africa. Equally impressive technological and cultural developments continued into the first half of the 17th century, including an increase in the number of cheap publications in the vernacular.

The state increasingly commuted the old labor services of peasants and artisans into money taxes, and produced industrial crops like cotton, dyes, vegetable oils, and tobacco. Trading and craft enterprises flourished, especially in the coastal regions of the south and east. As in Europe, most production was still in artisan workshops, but there were occasional examples of something close to full-scale industrial capitalism. The silk, cotton, and ceramics industries began producing for a worldwide, rather than a merely local market. It was a period of economic growth, despite continuing poverty among the lower classes.

After falling by almost half to around 70 million in the 14th century, the population rose to an estimated 130 million in the late 16th century and to as high as 170 million by the 1650s. Then the empire experienced a devastating crisis similar to those of the 4th and 14th centuries, as well as to that occurring simultaneously in much of 17th century Europe. There was a succession of epidemics, floods, droughts, and other disasters. Famines devastated whole regions, and once-flourishing industries were shut down. Historians often explain this crisis, like the earlier ones, in terms of overpopulation or harvest failures due to changes in global climate, but rice was available in the Yangtze delta even during the terrible “famines” that plagued the country during the early 1640s – people just didn’t have the money to pay for it.

The state and its bureaucracy encouraged economic expansion in the aftermath of the crisis of the 14th century, then worried about the growing influence of merchants. In 1433 there was a sudden end to great naval voyages because of Ming concern about coastal trade disturbing the social life of its agrarian society. A ‘black economy’ grew up in coastal regions, and there were clashes with ‘pirates,’ as state measures cramped the development of new forms of production.

The ever-growing unproductive expenditure of the state was an enormous drain on the economy. More than half the tax revenues of Shansi and Honan provinces went to provide incomes for princes and court nobles, and a war with Japan for control of Korea completely exhausted the treasury. Economic hardship led to social discontent. Almost every year between 1596 and 1626 there were urban riots by workmen in the most economically developed parts of the country. During the 1620s, there were also rebellions by non-Chinese peoples in the southwest, and in the 1630s peasant revolts in the north. In 1644 the last Ming emperor committed suicide when the leader of a peasant army proclaimed a new dynasty. A month later Manchu invaders from the north took Beijing.

Under the Manchus, there were agricultural advances as crops from the Americas like maize and sweet potatoes led to population increases, and industrial crops, now including tea, expanded. Peasants were better off than their equivalents in the France of Louis XV, with some even able to pay for their children to receive a formal education. Trade and craft production resumed and reached new heights. Half the silver carried to from Latin America to Europe between 1571 and 1821 went for goods from China, and the population reached 260 million in 1812. China was the biggest and richest state in the world.

However, after an initial period of intellectual and cultural ferment, there was a decline in popular literature for the urban middle classes and a ban on anything even mildly critical of the regime. Books were banned and destroyed, and dissident authors and their relatives faced exile, forced labor, confiscation of property, and possible execution. Immense expenditures by the imperial court resumed, along with official corruption, costly wars on the borders, and oppression of peasants by local administrators and tax collectors. Failure to maintain dykes and regulate waterways resulted in recurrent and sometimes catastrophic floods. A new wave of peasant rebellions began in 1795, and one of the greatest revolts in Chinese history would follow within half a century.

Mogul India

During the 1200s and after, Islamic rulers in northern India imposed centralized structures on local feudal peasant economies. The Mogul emperors ruled through a hierarchy of non-landowning officials who collected taxes and maintained cavalry forces. Another class, the zamindars, often high-caste Hindus, helped collect the taxes and took a share for themselves. The mass of rural people continued to live in virtually self-sufficient villages, peasant castes producing food for castes of smiths, carpenters, weavers, and barbers – a division of labor that didn’t involve cash payments.

The peasants had to sell between a third and a half of their crops to get money to pay taxes, however, and those who failed to pay were sold into slavery. The bulk of the surplus extracted in this way went to the imperial court, the state bureaucracy, and the imperial armies. Few of the revenues ever returned to the villages, as the state used them in the cities and towns of the empire, spurring craft production, internal and international trade, and urban growth. There were as many as 120 big cities and great concentrations of population, production, and consumption in Lahore, Delhi, and Agra, and to a lesser extent in Lucknow, Benares, and Allahabad. The biggest industry, cotton textiles, was exporting products to Europe by the 17th century.

Over-taxed peasants couldn’t afford improved tools, however, and in time the productive base of the empire was ruined. The effects became apparent during the reign of Shah Jahan’s son (and jailer) Aurangzeb, and eventually urban industry and the towns began to suffer from the agricultural decline.

At first few peasants dared to challenge Mogul power, and discontent was expressed in the rise of new religious sects. These used vernacular dialects instead of Sanskrit, and their prophets and teachers came mainly from the lower classes, including the grain merchant Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism around 1500. These sects, all monotheistic, abandoned ritualistic forms of worship and denied caste barriers and communal differences. They avoided outright rebellion, teaching humility and resignation. As conditions worsened, however, the new sects provided the inspiration for powerful revolts against the Moguls. There was a great Sikh rebellion in 1709, and a revolt of the Marathas, an Indian warrior caste, which was the greatest single force responsible for the downfall of the empire. The fighting strength of the rebellions was provided by peasant bitterness, but the leaders were usually zamindar who resented the lion’s share of the surplus going to the Mogul ruling class.

Merchants and artisans didn’t play a central role in the revolts, as they relied on the luxury markets of the Mogul rulers.

The way was now open for armies from western Europe to begin empire-building, with the backing of sectors of the Indian merchant bourgeoisie.

The 18th century

A time of social peace

There were bitter wars between European powers, such as the War of the Spanish Succession at the beginning of the 18th century and the Seven Years War in its middle. There were also struggles at the top of society over the division of power between kings and aristocrats in Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Portugal. Supporters of the Stuart dynasty also tried militarily – and unsuccessfully – to upset the English constitutional order in 1690, 1715, and 1745. But the economic and social struggles that had shaken so much of Europe now survived only on its fringes.

The one-time bastion of counter-revolution, the Hapsburg dynasty, was a shadow of its former self, losing the Spanish crown to a branch of the Bourbons. In contrast, the two states in which revolution had broken through – the Dutch republic and England – were increasingly important: Holland taking over much of the old Portuguese colonial empire and England becoming a colonial power in its own right.

The second half of the 17th century is sometimes called the “Dutch Golden Age.” Dutch agriculture flourished with land reclamation from the sea and the adoption of new plant types and farming methods. Industry reached an apex of prosperity, with a district north of Amsterdam emerging as the most modern industrial zone in Europe. Over a hundred windmills there permitted the mechanization of industries from papermaking to rice husking.

England began to undergo an agricultural revolution in the aftermath of the civil war. Farming was increasingly commercialized, and new crops, including turnips, potatoes, and maize, were introduced. There was a spread of capitalist farming and a great wave of enclosures – the fencing off of common grazing land by landlords and capitalist farmers, forcing the mass of poor peasants to become wage laborers. Helped by new inventions and techniques, including the first steam engines in 1775, industrial output grew by an estimated 0.7% a year from 1710 to 1760, 1.3% a year between 1760 and 1780, and 2% annually from 1780 to 1800. The proportion of town dwellers grew from 9% in 1650 to 20% in 1800.

In both England and Holland the legal subjection of the peasantry to individual lords had vanished, and there were genuine national markets, in contrast to the petty states of Germany and Italy or the internal customs barriers in France. London overtook Paris as the largest city in Europe. Rural industries absorbed the labor of many people, and the seaports and navies employed large numbers of the lower classes. The great families who dominated governments were careful to adopt policies that kept large merchants, middle-class traders, manufacturers, and capitalist farmers happy.

Things were very different in the European countries in which revolutionary upsurges had been thwarted. For most of these, the 17th century was a period of economic decline, falling populations, a contraction of urban crafts, and low investment in agriculture, as lords and the state took all the surplus and the peasantry was mired in endless poverty, in some places even becoming serfs again. Total agricultural output was lower in 18th century Castile, Sicily, and Poland than it had been two centuries earlier, and in Bohemia one person in ten died of hunger in the famine of 1770-72.

France, southwestern Germany, and northern Italy were in between these extremes. They didn’t suffer the economic regression that characterized Castile, the Italian south, and eastern Europe, but their agriculture and industry were more backward than England’s and Holland’s. Innovative farming techniques and capitalist relations spread in some regions close to large towns. There was some increase in handicraft production and even, in a few cases, the establishment of larger mining or industrial enterprises. Some ports centered on Atlantic trade expanded considerably, especially on the west coast of France. By the 1780s, 20% of the French population was employed in mainly small-scale industry, as against 40% in England.

From superstition to science

Copernicus’s 1543 discovery that the Earth and other planets move around the sun didn’t receive full acceptance at first, but at least he’d been able to publish his views without fear of persecution by the church. Things changed with the counter-Reformation, whose supporters mobilized behind the Aristotelian model adopted by Thomas Aquinas 250 years earlier. Aristotle had taught that every thing and every person had its own place in the scheme of things, and that there were fixed celestial and earthly hierarchies. From this perspective, the Copernican worldview was as subversive as the views of Luther or Calvin. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that there was an infinity of worlds. An Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, his cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in proposing that the sun was a star, and that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by intelligent beings.

Not surprisingly, the center of scientific advance shifted to the Dutch republic and post-revolutionary England – to Boyle, Hook, Huygens, and, above all, Newton, whose new laws of physics solved the problems in Copernicus’s, Kepler’s, and Galileo’s accounts of the universe. Science began to be identified with an increase in control over the natural world, which paid dividends in terms of agriculture, industry, trade, and military effectiveness.

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment thinkers shared a belief in the power of rational understanding based on empirical knowledge. The philosophers Descartes in France, Spinoza in Holland, and Leibniz in southwestern Germany were convinced that a complete understanding of the world could be deduced from a few unchallengeable principles of reason – a conviction that grew in the 18th century on the basis of Newton’s establishing basic laws for physics.

Another influence was the tradition begun by John Locke in England, who insisted that knowledge came not from the ‘innate ideas’ of the rationalists, but from empirical observation of what already existed. Voltaire and Montesquieu in France were great admirers of Locke, drawing from his writings the conclusion that the countries of continental Europe should be reformed along English lines. Enlightenment thinkers looked to members of the upper class for sponsorship and placed their hopes in the reform rather than the overthrow of society.

There were two great holes in the 18th century Enlightenment picture: chattel slavery in the Americas and the wage slavery of the property-less laborer.

Slavery and racism

Twelve million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas, a million and a half dying during the passage. The death toll on the plantations, especially the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, was horrendous, since the price of slaves was cheap enough to replace them when they died of overwork, insufficient food, and disease. Of the 1.6 million slaves taken to the British Caribbean islands in the 18th century, only 600,000 remained in 1800, an attrition rate of 62.5%. In North America a more temperate climate and greater access to fresh food allowed an expansion of the slave population, through births as well as imports, so that it grew from 500,000 at the beginning of the century to 3 million at the end, and 6 million by the 1860s. The attrition rate among North American slaves was still much higher than for non-slave workers, however – about 40%.

Slavery took off on a massive scale when Portugal, Holland, England, and France began the commercial cultivation of tobacco and sugar in their colonies. The sugar plantations of Barbados had a labor force of 2,000 indentured servants and 200 African slaves in 1638, with an indentured servant costing £12 and a slave £25. Neither the servant nor the slave was likely to live more than four or five years. Merchants and rulers had no moral problem with this. After all, the British navy was manned by ‘pressed’ men – poor people kidnapped from the streets, confined before leaving port, and facing a death toll at sea as high as that of the human cargo of the slave boats they might be escorting.

Since there weren’t enough indentured servants to supply the labor the plantation owners required as the market for tobacco and sugar grew, they turned increasingly to African slave labor. Slaves from west Africa had also acquired genetic immunity to malaria, a huge killer of whites in the tropics. By 1653, slaves outnumbered indentured servants in Barbados 20,000 to 8,000, and while there were only 22,400 black people in the southern colonies of North America in 1700, there were 409,500 by 1770.

At first the plantation owners treated white indentured servants and black slaves with similar harshness, and servants and slaves worked alongside one another. Instances of them helping each other to run away began to worry plantation owners, a concern intensified by Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676, when opponents of the governor and the wealthy planters offered freedom to servants and slaves prepared to help seize control of the colony. In 1680 the Virginia House of Burgesses prescribed 30 lashes on the bare back for any “negro or slave” who “lifted up his hand in opposition to any Christian.” A Virginia act of 1691 made it lawful to kill a runaway slave, and decreed that any white man or woman who married “a negro, mulatto, or Indian” be banished. Racism had begun to develop as an ideology.

The ‘triangular trade’ provided outlets for western Europe’s (especially Britain’s) burgeoning handicraft and putting-out industries. Ironware, guns, and textiles from Europe were sold to merchants on the African west coast in return for slaves, and the money obtained for slaves was used to buy colonial tobacco, sugar – and later raw cotton – for sale in Europe.

It was because of the dynamism of capitalism that the slave trade took off (not the reverse) – the demand for colonial produce existed because a dynamic British economy spread the consumption of tobacco and sugar from the upper classes to the urban and even rural masses. The looting of colonies and enslavement of peoples couldn’t create such a domestic dynamic – the Portuguese and Spanish economies stagnated despite their slave-based colonial empires. The British economy grew because the use of free labor at home enabled it to exploit slave labor in the Americas in a new way.

Plantation slavery was a product of the fact that Holland and England had already embarked on capitalist expansion, but it also fed back into capitalism, providing it with a powerful boost. On the basis of this, Britain began, in the second half of the 18th century, to create a new empire in the east through the East India Company’s conquest of Bengal.

Because of the slave trade, African population growth was stunted at the same time as population surged in Europe and North America. In west Africa there was a decline in population between 1750 and 1850 that left African states ill-equipped to resist European colonial invasion at the end of the 19th century.

The economics of ‘free labor’

In the early medieval period wealth was seen as lying in land. From the 1500s onward mercantilist notions focused on wealth in gold and silver. Now, in his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith insisted that human labor was the source of wealth. Just as he argued for free trade between nations, Smith laid out the virtues of free labor, noting that slavery prevented workers from applying their own initiative. “A person who can acquire no property can have no other interest but to eat as much and labor as little as possible.”

Smith’s theories ignored the fact that the crutches of mercantilism, colonization, and slavery had been necessary for the rise of industrial capitalism, even if it was beginning to feel that it no longer needed them. He also was unable to see that pure market systems display the irrationality of booms and slumps produced by the drive of producers to compete with one another. Finally, there was a contradiction in Smith’s argument about labor and value that had important implications. Like almost all Enlightenment thinkers, Smith assumed that people with unequal amounts of property confront each other equally in the market. But some of his arguments began to challenge this and to question the degree to which ‘free’ labor is that much more free than slave labor.

Smith’s assertion that labor is the source of all value led him to the conclusion that rent and profit are labor taken from the immediate producer by the landlord or factory owner. This led to a critique of capitalists as unproductive parasites, living off profits from the labor of other workers. It was a logic transmitted, via the writings of Ricardo (who attacked the landowners from the point of view of industrial capitalism) to the first socialist economists of the 1820s and 1830s – and later to Karl Marx.

The world turned upside down


1773: Boston Tea Party.

1775: Fighting at Lexington and Bunker Hill.

1776: American Declaration of Independence.

1781: British defeat at Yorktown.

1789: The French revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille.

1791: Slave revolt in the French sugar colony of St. Domingue (Haiti).

1792: French revolutionary war, execution of the king.

1793-94: Jacobin ‘terror,’ end of feudal dues.

1798: Rising against British rule in Ireland, and the formation of the Orange Order to combat it.

1799: Combination laws ban trade unions in Britain, Napoleon takes power in France.

1803: Dessalines leads an ex-slave army to victory in Haiti.

1805: Napoleon becomes emperor.

1807: Britain bans the slave trade.

1810: Risings against Spanish rule in Mexico and Venezuela.

1815: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo.

1819: ‘Peterloo’ massacre of working class demonstrators in Manchester, England.

1830: Revolution in Paris replaces one monarch with another; first passenger railway in England.

1832: The British middle class gets the vote.

1834: The Poor Law Amendment establishes workhouses in Britain.

1838-39: The British Chartist movement demands the vote for workers.

1839-42: Britain wages the Opium War against China.

1846-49: The Great Irish Famine.

1847: The Communist Manifesto.

Spring 1848: Revolutions across Europe

June 1848: The French workers’ movement is crushed by the bourgeoisie.

1848-49: Restoration of monarchies across Europe.

1857: The Indian Mutiny.

1859: Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

1859-71: Italy unified under a king.

1861: Beginning of the American Civil War; the tsar ends serfdom in Russia.

1863: The Emancipation Proclamation ends American slavery.

1865: Defeat of the South in the American Civil War.

1867: The Meiji revolution ends the feudal rule of the Tokagawa in Japan.

1867: Marx publishes Capital.

1870s: The Franco-Prussian War; fall of Louis Bonaparte.

1871: The Paris Commune; Bismarck establishes the German Empire under the Prussian monarchy.

1873: First electrical machine.

American prologue

Ultimate political authority in each of the 13 American colonies lay with a governor appointed in London, but effective power lay with independent farmers in rural New England, merchants and artisans in the coastal towns, large landowners in New York, the Penn and other Quaker families in Pennsylvania, and plantation owners in Virginia and the Carolinas. In 1766, there were bitter social clashes between landlords and tenants in New York’s Hudson Valley, between the Philadelphia elite and western settlers in Pennsylvania, and between small farmers and plantation owners in the Carolinas.

The Seven Years War of 1756-63 between Britain and France had ended with Britain defeating France in the West Indies, taking control of Bengal and Canada, and laying the basis for world empire. Now British ministers, who wanted the American colonists to pay part of the war’s costs, imposed taxes, including a ‘stamp tax’ on a range of transactions in 1765, a Quartering Act which made the colonists pay for British troops, and a tax on imports in 1767. Colonial delegates to a Continental Congress called for a boycott of trade with Britain until the taxes were repealed, and ‘Sons of Liberty’ groups of intellectuals, small merchants, and artisans – similar to the ‘middling sort’ who had played a key role in the New Model Army – sprang up, directing crowd action. In Boston people demolished a building thought to be an office for selling stamps and attacked the house of a stamp distributor. In New York City they tore down the houses of ‘traitors’ and clashed with British soldiers. Anger against the British was mingled with bitterness against the wealthy in a time of economic depression and general hardship.

Feelings rose to a crescendo in Boston in March 1770 when troops fired on a crowd that had thrown snowballs at them, killing five people (the ‘Boston Massacre’). Britain dropped all the new taxes, except one: the one on tea. When, in November 1773, an East India Company ship entered Boston harbor attempting to break the city’s tea boycott, a hundred activists dressed like Indians boarded the ship and threw its tea overboard. General Gage, the colony’s governor, dispatched troops, and the Intolerance Acts decreed that colonists breaking the laws would be hauled to Britain to stand trial, but the tea boycott spread, and the 13 colonial assemblies sent delegates to another Continental Congress. The people at the Congress were, by and large, respectable property owners, but they called for a new trade boycott, backed by elected committees in every county, city, and town. From this point on, the struggle only advanced because ‘middling people’ pushed aside hesitant elites connected with the British establishment.

Mass agitation took the form of arguments for the boycott, parades against boycott breakers, the burning of effigies of governors and British ministers, and the ransacking of buildings. In 1776 more than 400 pamphlets appeared, as well as scores of newspapers and magazines. The decisive role was played by a 40-page pamphlet, Common Sense, written by Tom Paine, a recent British immigrant making the case for an independent republic.

The radical forces that made the revolution a success didn’t keep power after the war was over. There were state constitutions that gave all men the vote and measures to protect farmers against debt, but by the time the states agreed to a federal constitution in 1788, forces wedded to the creation of a free market had gained control of the state assemblies.

The French Revolution

In the summer of 1789, the French king, Louis XVI, summoned representatives of the three ‘estates’ that made up French society – the clergy, the nobles, and the rest of the population – to discuss ways of raising taxes. The last such assembly had been convened in 1614. The representatives of the third estate refused to bow to the nobles or do what the king told them, proclaiming themselves a ‘National Assembly’ and demanding that the king give them a constitution.

The delegates of the third estate were all from the respectable middle class, most from the wealthier parts of it. Half were lawyers, the rest merchants, bankers, businessmen, and wealthy middle class landowners. There wasn’t a single artisan or peasant. Political discussion clubs were formed in Paris and newssheets and pamphlets published. Four hundred representatives of the Parisian middle class met in the city hall and declared themselves the city council, or ‘commune.’

On July 12th, crowds from the poorer sections of the city demonstrated, and two days later a great number marched on the symbol of royal domination, the Bastille fortress. Cannon fire killed 83, but when the people dragged out cannon of their own, seized from the Hotel des Invalides, and threatened to blow up the fortress and the district around it, the commander surrendered.

The fall of the Bastille emboldened the National Assembly to decree the abolition of feudalism and pass a declaration of the rights of man. Women from the poorer areas of Paris marched to the royal palace at Versailles, shaming 20,000 armed men into following behind them. This force broke into the palace and forced the king to return with them to Paris. The crowds, angered by food shortages, still accepted the leadership of the official representatives of the third estate. Led by the Marquis de Lafayette, a former general and aristocrat who’d acted as an adviser in the American War of Independence, the assembly framed a constitution that restricted the vote through a steep property qualification and left the king with the power to delay new laws by two years.

In the countryside, peasants, also suffering materially, were breaking into chateaux and burning titles to feudal dues. In Paris crowds of ordinary people fumed about food shortages, price rises, and unemployment, and the Jacobin club, led by Robespierre, and the Cordelier club, led by Danton, vied for influence.

In June 1791, an attempt by the king to flee Paris to join counter-revolutionary armies gathering across the border was thwarted by the prompt action of a village postmaster, who summoned the local militia. National Assembly leaders feared “the destruction of the concept of property,” and banned unions and strikes. The National Guard opened fire on people queuing to sign a republican petition in Paris, killing 50.

January and February 1792 saw food riots in Paris, while in the countryside bands of poor peasants descended on markets to impose price reductions on corn and bread. A growing number of artisans and tradesmen attended political meetings, and a revolutionary women’s organization built support among those who had participated in the food protests and the march on Versailles.

The moderates who ran the government fell out among themselves, torn between fear of the king and queen’s counter-revolutionary plots and fear of the masses. Finally, in April 1792, the Girondins, a moderate group within the Jacobin club, and the king formed a government, which declared war on Austria and Prussia – these countries had gathered armies on the country’s northern border.

The war went badly, and there was a new upswell of activity from below. A call from the National Assembly for volunteers to fight the counter-revolutionary invasion led to 15,000 signing up in Paris. Enthusiasts for the revolution marched to Paris from provincial towns, most notably Marseilles, whose marching tune became the anthem of the revolution (it’s still the French national anthem). Popular meetings in Paris demanded a republic, and local National Guard units in the poorer areas were influenced by the revolutionary mood. On August 10, 1792, tens of thousands marched on the Tuileries palace, defeating royal troops. The Assembly now voted to suspend the king, recognize the new revolutionary commune, and organize new elections based on universal male suffrage.

The French army continued to suffer defeat as the foreign armies – now joined by the likes of Lafayette – marched toward Paris. The Parisian masses, spurred on by Marat, descended on the prisons and summarily executed royalists, intimidating and subduing the royalist fifth column in the city. On September 20th, the revolutionary army halted the invading forces at Valmy. The next day the new Convention, the first legislature of any country in history to be elected by the vote of the whole male population, abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. The remnants of feudalism were now swept away in deed as well as word, as were the tithes people had been forced to pay to keep bishops and abbots in luxury.

The next two years saw a further radicalization of both government and society, but in the summer of 1794 there was a sudden falling back of the revolutionary wave, allowing new inequalities and some old privileges to reemerge in what would eventually become a new monarchy. The process began with the ‘terror’: the execution of the king, agreed upon by the narrowest of Convention majorities, was followed by that of the queen and many aristocrats. The Jacobins sent the Girondin leaders to the guillotine; Robespierre and Saint-Just sent Danton and Hébert to the guillotine; and finally, Robespierre and Saint-Just themselves were sent to the guillotine by the Thermidorians – a coalition of the former supporters of the Girondins, Danton, and Hébert. There was a time of civil war, when republicans were killed in the hundreds in the provinces, but by the summer of 1794 the French army was victorious and the monarchist revolts in the provinces had been smashed. The victories led to a growing feeling that dictatorial rule was no longer necessary. The Jacobins tried to save themselves by calling on the people, but they had repressed popular organizations, lifted the ban on speculation in food, and passed a maximum wage law.

After the Jacobin executions, groups of rich young thugs began to take over the streets of Paris, attacking anyone who tried to defend revolutionary ideas or showed a lack of respect for their ‘betters.’ A constitutional amendment established a property qualification for the vote, and a ‘white terror’ led to a wave of executions of former revolutionaries and the victimization of many others.

In October 1795, there was a royalist uprising in Paris and the Thermidorians began rearming Jacobins and calling on the masses for help. Finally, the army – especially a rising officer, a one-time Jacobin called Napoleon Bonaparte – came to their assistance. Fearful of a monarchic restoration, the Thermidorians agreed to concentrate power in the hands of a Directory of five men. For four years the Directory was pulled first in one direction and then another, all the time giving Napoleon more power (his base in the army provided a bastion against both the royalists and any rebirth of popular Jacobinism). Finally, in 1799 Napoleon staged a coup that gave him dictatorial power. In 1804 he had the pope crown him emperor. Napoleon ruled with the support of some former Jacobins and some of the returned aristocrats. He set out to conquer Europe, but was defeated in 1814 and 1815, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored.

Napoleon’s regime was built on the consolidation of many of the revolutionary changes: the ending of feudal dues, the creation of an independent peasantry, the ending of internal customs posts, the creation of a uniform national administration, and, above all, government policy in the service of bourgeois rather than dynastic or aristocratic goals. Napoleon annexed Belgium, Savoy, and German statelets south of the Rhine, replacing democratic assemblies with monarchies and installing his brothers as kings in Italy, Westphalia, Holland, and Spain. The French army got rid of any remnants of feudalism and, in some cases at least, prepared the ground for the advance of capitalist production. But without the sans-culottes and peasant risings that had been so important in France, its local allies lacked any base among the mass of people. Peasants and the urban lower classes gained nothing from French occupation, since tribute paid to France and the cost of providing for the French army constituted a burden as great as the old feudal payments.

Napoleon overextended his empire by going in two directions at once – placing his brother on the Spanish throne and marching east to Moscow. His troops managed to put down a popular uprising in Madrid, but were harassed by guerilla fighters as British troops led by Wellington fought their way across the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile, the French occupation of a deserted Moscow turned into a disaster as enemy troops and harsh winter conditions destroyed 1,000-mile supply lines. Spanish and Prussian liberals allied with monarchist forces to drive the French out only to find themselves betrayed by victorious kings and driven down into the depths of oppression depicted in paintings by Goya.

Napoleon’s two defeats (he staged a 100-day comeback in 1815 before being defeated for good at Waterloo) allowed all the kings, princes, and aristocrats to return in style, creating a weird half-world in which the old superstructures of the 18th century ancien régimes were imposed on social structures which had been transformed – at least in France, northern Italy, and western Germany. This is the world portrayed in The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (a former commissary in Napoleon’s army), as well as in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, whose father, the son of a black slave, had been a general under Napoleon. In 1792 Tom Paine was charged with treason for The Rights of Man, his defense of the French revolution and call for similar constitutional principles in England; he was forced to flee the country. Thomas Hardy was put on trial for treason, too, and his wife died when an anti-French mob attacked the Hardy home.

Britain had consolidated its hold over Ireland, after smashing resistance in the 1650s, by settling Protestant peasants (mainly from Scotland) in Ulster on land taken from native Catholics. The settlers were allied with the great Anglo-Irish landowners, also Protestants, and the Protestant parliament in Dublin acted as a rubber stamp for policies made in London until the 1770s.

The American War for Independence gave the Dublin parliament increased bargaining power, since Britain wanted a militia of Irish volunteers to ward off possible French attack, and for a time it was able to act in the interests of Irish landowners and businessmen. These hopes were dashed when the war ended, and there was growing bitterness against Britain, especially among the Protestant middle class of Belfast. The French Revolution inspired volunteers to drill, demand a constitutional convention, and back Catholic emancipation. Posters attacked religious sectarianism. In response, laws passed by the Irish upper classes on English orders forbade the carrying of arms and outlawed the freethinking United Irishmen group founded by Wolfe Tone and others. Forced underground, the organization became increasingly revolutionary, its aim now the overthrow of British rule, which had kept Ireland economically backward and divided along religious lines. Protestants allied with Catholic peasants, who had a long tradition of anti-landlord agitation, in armed underground ‘defender’ groups.

The numbers prepared to back the 1798 rising were greater than those at the disposal of the British government – 100,000 compared with about 65,000, but they were much less well trained and armed. French support was “too little, too late,” and the authorities arrested the leaders of the movement and forced the rebels into premature action. Reprisals against those suspected of supporting the rising cost an estimated 30,000 lives. With British encouragement, a semi-secret Protestant peasant organization, the Orange Order, had been founded in 1795, and Anglo-Irish landlords allied with it. General Lake, commander of the British armed forces, presided at Orange processions, and armed Orange groups increasingly worked alongside government troops and militia to punish supporters of the insurgent United Irishmen. Two years later, the British government persuaded the Irish parliament to vote itself out of existence.

The plantations of Saint Domingue, the western part of the island of Hispaniola, produced more sugar than all of Europe’s other Caribbean and American colonies put together with the labor of 500,000 black slaves, controlled by 30,000 whites. Alongside these lived 30,000 free mulattos, some of whom were wealthy slave-owners themselves. The whites were outraged when the French assembly, in its revolutionary exuberance, decreed equal rights for all free men, regardless of race (it carefully avoided the mention of slaves), and soon there was near civil war between the groups that made up the free population. The slaves seized the chance to rebel, setting fire to plantations and killing slave-owners. Their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, skillfully maneuvered between rival white groups, the mulattos, an invading Spanish army from the other half of the island, and successive representatives of the Girondins in France.

On February 4, 1794, the Jacobin-dominated French government abolished slavery in all French territories. Meanwhile, a British expeditionary force of 60,000 troops that had landed in Saint Domingue was suffering major casualties. In 1807 the British parliament banned the slave trade.

The shift to the right in France after Thermidor gave new influence to former slave-owners and their mercantile allies, and Napoleon sent a fleet with 12,000 troops to reimpose slavery in Saint Domingue. Toussaint, mistakenly trying to negotiate with the French, was kidnapped and ended up dying in a French prison, but Dessalines, his former lieutenant, defeated Napoleon’s army.

The new independent black state of Haiti was poor – 15 years of almost continual warfare had done enormous damage. The sugar economy couldn’t be restored without near slavery, and although Dessalines’s successor, Christophe, tried to impose this, the people wouldn’t have it.

The Spanish colonies, led by Simon Bolivar, also took the opportunity to revolt. From a family of large landowners, Bolivar took part in the first insurrection in Venezuela in 1810, just as the revolutionary priest Hidalgo was leading a rising in the Mexican town of Guadalupe. The risings enjoyed initial success and then were crushed. Hidalgo was executed, and Bolivar had to flee for his life. The pattern was repeated when Bolivar staged another rising in Caracas, and Morelos took up the banner of Hidalgo. Bolivar was successful at his third attempt, marching from Venezuela through what is now Colombia into Bolivia, where he met with San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, then joined with O’Higgins of Chile to drive Spanish royalists from Peru. A third revolt in Mexico also forced the Spanish to concede independence there.

Supporters of Bolivar and Hidalgo embraced the values of the French Revolution and aimed not merely at getting rid of the crown, but ending feudalism, freeing the slaves, and establishing bourgeois republics. Hidalgo had gone as far as talking about dividing the land, and Bolivar was calling for a ‘Continental Congress’ in Panama to establish a ‘United States of Latin America.’ Land reform never came, however – power remained in the hands of regional oligarchies, and Bolivar’s plan for unity was similarly stillborn. Latin America remained a continent of a few outstanding cities with a 17th and 18th century splendor rivaling many in Europe, surrounded by a vast hinterland of great latifundia estates worked by near-serfs. Oligarchic cliques plotted against one another, staged coups, ran rival ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ parties, and preserved social structures characterized by extreme privilege on the one hand and poverty on the other.

Time Lines (all dates are AD)


410 End of Roman rule; Saxons, invited as allies, lived in eastern England by the end of the century.
450-650 Christianity established. The Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Northumbria were organized, like Britons, into warrior bands, free peasant communities, and manorial estates. Germanic kindred bonds were eventually undermined by the feudal relationship of lord and vassal. War leader kings developed courts and laws, and churchmen were prominent among royal counselors. War was waged for “Christian” purposes.
800 Viking raids. 876: Danes occupied Yorkshire.
954 Wessex predominant. The shire had become a military and judicial unit.
1016 Cnut of Denmark crowned king of England.
1066 Edward the Confessor’s named successor, Harold, Earl of Wessex, was defeated by William of Normandy (descended from aViking dynasty begun in 911) at the Battle of Hastings.
1337-1453 100 Years War with France. England was the long-term loser, despite great victories at Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). In 1429 Jeanne d’Arc saved Orléans, allowing Charles VII to be crowned at Reims. By 1500, England had little land left on the continent.
1348-1390 Bubonic plague. Because of the collapse of food production, landlords were forced to pay wages and sell land to tenants.
1485 Richard III was defeated by Henry (VII) Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. Many consider this to be the end of the Middle Ages in England.
1603 Elizabeth (I) Tudor was succeeded by James (I) Stuart (James VI of Scotland).
1649 James’s son, Charles I, was executed and the monarchy abolished.
1660 Restoration: Charles II crowned king.
1688 Protestant William (III) of Orange became king by virtue of his marriage to Catholic James II’s daughter Mary.
1714 The German House of Hanover, descendants of James I’s daughter Elizabeth, ascended to the throne, beginning with George I.
1760-1820 Reign of George III.
1832 The Great Reform Act increased the electorate by 50%.

Islam, the Crusades, and the Mongols

570-632 Life of Muhammad. Islam, like Christianity, absorbed the traditions of preceding religions, encompassing Judaism, Christianity, and local pagan worship.
632 The authority to interpret Muhammad’s teachings was inherited by a ‘caliph.’ The last caliph related to Muhammad by blood or marriage was deposed and killed in 661, and the office passed to the Ummayad family.
638 Muslim Arabs ruled Syria, including Jerusalem.
700s Muslims ruled in North Africa and invaded Spain and India. In 732 the Battle of Tours marked the northernmost advance of Islam in Europe. The Ummayad caliphate ended in 750 when a usurper massacred all the male members of the family, beginning the Abbasid caliphate.
750-1250 The Abbasid caliphate, which moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, was a real force until 950. Under it, Arab civilization reached its greatest glory, with literacy more widespread than in any contemporary culture.
1095 Christians on the First Crusade captured Jerusalem and established Latin kingdoms in Palestine.
1189 On the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart and others failed to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, who allowed Christians access to the Holy Sepulcher.
1204 Christians on the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople.
1228 Emperor Frederick II retook Jerusalem. It was retaken by Muslims 16 years later, and Louis IX the France went on two crusades. In 1281, Acre, the last Frankish holding, fell to the Muslims.
1236 Córdoba fell to the Christians, who spent the next 200 years reconquering all of Spain.
1250 Mongol forces killed the last Abbasid caliph, after conquering north China by 1215 and Kiev in 1240. In 1249, Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, completed the Mongol conquest of China, which they ruled until 1368. Mongol rule was followed by the Ming dynasty till 1644 and the Ching (Manchu) dynasty until the 20th century.
1379 The Mongol/Turk Timur Lang conquered Persia and India.
1453 The Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, and within 100 years ruled north Africa, the Muslim holy cities, and much of eastern Europe. They failed to take Vienna in 1683.

Africa and the Americas

600-900 Height of Mayan civilization
700s Coastal east Africans, converted to Islam, spoke Swahili (from the Arabic word for “shore”) and traded gold and ivory for cotton garments and luxury goods from India and China.
900-1050 Kingdom of Ghana
1200-1500 The Incas, with a capital at Cuzco, conquered an Andean empire from northern Ecuador to eastern Chile. The Spanish conquistador Pizarro arrived in 1531.
1300 Shona peoples, trading with coastal Africans and Arabs, built the Great Zimbabwe.
1350-1500 Aztec Empire. Cortez arrived in 1520.
1400s Mali, an Islamic kingdom in the Senegal Basin, broke up when the Saharan trade was taken over by Songhai, supreme until 1600. Gao, the Songhai capital on the Niger River, was a center of trade between desert, savanna, and rainforest areas. In 1500, 15,000 people lived in Timbuktu.
1591 A Moroccan army of Tuaregs and Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries armed with muskets destroyed Gao. The Hausa ruled from Kano, using cavalry to exact tribute.

Europe and the World

1500-1800  African slave trade
1517 The Reformation began with Martin Luther. In 1530, John Calvin established a theocratic state in Geneva.
1540 Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuit order, an elite corps of teachers and missionaries, beginning the Counter-Reformation.
1543 Copernicus, a Polish priest, demonstrated that the planets revolve around the sun.
1600s The Dutch in South Africa; succeeded by the British in 1815.
1700s The concept of national sovereignty was accepted, and absolute monarchies waged worldwide wars to control colonial empires. Three dynastic powers emerged in eastern Europe: the Hohenzollerns in Prussia, the Hapsburgs in Austria, and the Romanovs (1613; 1682: Peter the Great) in Russia. Louis XIV of France (1660-1715) was one of the first absolute monarchs.
1788 British convicts, dumped in Australia, began killing aborigines.
1789 The French Revolution
1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, a young general, seized power in France. He was crowned emperor in 1804. A year later, he was defeated by the British at the naval battle of Trafalgar.
1830 A French colony in Algeria. By 1881, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only independent African countries.
1839-1842 China was defeated by the British in the Opium War. Forced to cede Hong Kong.


1840s Maori wars with English settlers in New Zealand.
1848 A wave of liberalism and nationalism swept Europe, and serfs were freed in Austria, Germany, and much of Poland.
1851-1864 The Taiping rebellion in China was suppressed with foreign aid. 20 million killed. Between 1856 and 1860, China made more concessions, with Russia taking territory, as well as the British and French in Peking and Burma and Indochina respectively.
1857 The Indian Mutiny. The Moghul emperor was deposed, and the East India Company’s governor-general, appointed by the British government since 1784, was replaced by a viceroy.
1867 Austria reduced to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
1868 The Meiji restoration in Japan. The shogunate was abolished, and modernization begun. By 1889, Japan had a bicameral parliament, an army, a postal system, railroads, and a European calendar. Agricultural output doubled between 1868 and 1914, and there was rapid industrialization between 1895 and 1900. In 1895, at the end of a war with China, Japan occupied Formosa.
1900 The Boxer Rebellion, which included attacks on Christians, in China. The Russians occupied Manchuria.
1905 The Kuomintang (National People’s Party) was founded in China.
1911 Overthrow of the empress Tzu Hsi and founding of the Republic of China. After Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, the Kuomintang wiped out urban communists, and between 1934 and 1936 Kuomintang attacks forced the Long March of communists from southern Kiangsi province to northern Shensi province.
1914-1918 The Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Bosnia six years after its occupation by Austria-Hungary. A month later, with German backing, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and Germany declared war on Russia and France and invaded Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany. Japan and the U.S. joined the Allied side, Turkey the Central Powers. By the time of the armistice in 1918, Austria-Hungary had been broken up, and Wilhelm II of Germany had been forced to abdicate. Out of former German, Austrian, and Russian territory appeared 3 new Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the new countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and a new Austrian republic. The League of Nations was also established, with headquarters in Geneva.
1919 An influenza epidemic killed 5-10 million people in Europe, more than had died in the war (not counting Russia’s 7 million casualties).
1930 44% of Germans voted for the Nazis, who couldn’t win a majority in parliament to form a government. In 1933, parliament granted Hitler the power to rule by decree after communists were imprisoned and other parties outlawed. Trade unions were dissolved, and there were thousands of arrests and hundreds of political murders.
1933 Japan invaded China two years after taking over Manchuria and converting it to the puppet state of Manchukuo.
1936 The Spanish Civil War. Germany and Italy supported Franco, while the Soviets backed the losing republicans.
1938-1941 Austria and Germany were unified in 1938, and at Munich Britain and France agreed to transfer large areas of Czechoslovakia occupied by Sudeten Germans to Germany. In 1939, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin, and invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany. In 1940, Germany took Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and 3/5 of France. Britain was saved by its victory in the air Battle of Britain. In

1941, Germany occupied Yugoslavia and Greece and invaded the Soviet Union.

1942 Russian victory at Stalingrad, bombing of German cities, and Allied victory in North Africa.
1943-1945 By 1943, the Allies were in Italy. In 1944 they were in France, and the Soviets were marching through eastern Europe. By the time Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, 20 million Russians and 15 million other Europeans were dead (Germany: 5 million; British and French each 450,000; Italy 410,000). Approximately 10 million Chinese, 2 million Japanese, and 290,000 Americans also died, for a total of over 47 million. By comparison, 618,000 Americans died in the U.S. Civil War, more of them on the Union side, and most not in battle. 56,000 U.S. servicemen were killed in Vietnam, and 270,000 wounded. As of 2012, 2,152 U.S. troops had been killed in Iraq and over 2,000 in Afghanistan.
1949 The People’s Republic of China declared, with collectivization of land and labor beginning in 1955.
1957 Purge of  Chinese intellectuals (“Let 100 flowers bloom”).
1958-1960 The ‘Great Leap Forward,’ creating grassroots industrial units in the Chinese countryside. 19 million died in the resulting famine.
1966-1969 The Cultural Revolution (China). Nixon visited in 1972; Mao died in 1976, and Tiananmen Square occurred in 1989.




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