IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > B. Early Modern Europe, 1479–1815 > 3. Europe, 1648–1814
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
3. Europe, 1648–1814
a. Economic and Social Changes
THE LEGACY OF THE THIRTY YEARS' WAR: This war left two legacies—massive destruction of land and population and the end of Catholic supremacy in Europe. Armies moved back and forth across Europe, destroying crops and routing people from their homes. Estimates indicate that European population declined by as much as 30 percent in some areas. The war also resulted in major dislocation and migration throughout Europe. Even countries largely untouched by armies suffered loss of trade. The Baltic grain trade was devastated. The Peace of Westphalia not only ended the war and established territorial boundaries, it codified the principle that the prince would choose the religion (Calvinism, Lutheranism, or Catholicism) of his territory. This principle weakened the Holy Roman Empire because it recognized princely sovereignty. It also furthered the gradual decline of the Catholic Church in the 17th and 18th centuries.  1
THE GENERAL CRISIS OF THE 17TH CENTURY has sparked intense debate among historians. The term “crisis,” originally used in the medical sense, refers to an economic and political turning point. Historians cite the shift of economic growth in Europe from the Mediterranean (especially Spain and Italy) toward western Europe (particularly England and France) in demonstrating this turning point. They also recognize the repeated challenges to political authority. The 17th century witnessed numerous revolutions (England, the Fronde, the Dutch Republic, etc.) and revolts. Peasant revolts regarding taxes spread throughout the 17th century. These revolts focused either on new taxes or on extensions of old ones but were characterized by a desire to return to the status quo.  2
DEMOGRAPHY (see also individual countries): Population grew very slowly or remained stagnant before 1730. It was hampered by high infant mortality. Among infants, girls fared better than boys, and adult males characteristically had higher mortality rates than adult females. However, women had higher mortality rates during their childbearing years because childbirth was often deadly. Relatively low birth rates also contributed to a lack of population growth. European men and women typically married quite late and had only small families. They generally lived in a nuclear family, often leaving older family members without any recourse but charity and poor assistance from the state. The lack of support for the elderly may have been a byproduct of the European marriage pattern; families suffered greater poverty when they had several children too small to contribute to the family economy in the household. This arrangement also decreased the mother's economic contribution. As a result of late ages at marriage, families often experienced such life-cycle poverty at the same time as their elderly parents needed assistance. Problems of life-cycle poverty were exacerbated by the problems of disease that persisted between 1650 and 1730. Several waves of plague spread through Europe along trading routes and via armies. Europe also suffered from famine, typhus, and smallpox. After 1730, these problems decreased and population began to grow rapidly, encouraged by the development of proto-industrialization, which led to earlier marriages. However, growth rates varied dramatically from country to country.  3
The decline of mortality and rise in fertility were partially the result of the AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION. Characterized less by major technological breakthroughs than by changes in farming technique, the Agricultural Revolution increased productivity without a corresponding increase in the labor needed to produce food beginning in the late 17th century. This increase came from the introduction of the nitrogen-fixing crops, which reduced fallow lands, enclosure, and drainage of wetlands. In the process, some western European landholders consolidated their property, removing tenants and peasants. These peasants eventually worked as day laborers or went to the cities in search of work. Their availability also encouraged the development of protoindustrialization.  4
PROTOINDUSTRIALIZATION: Partially in an effort to bypass the regulations of guilds, merchants extending the putting-out system, in which they supplied cottiers and other poor families in the countryside with the necessary tools and supplies, such as a loom and thread, to complete a given step in a production process. The merchant then deducted charges for those supplies from the overall piece rate and paid the family the difference. This process enabled families living on marginal land to supplement their produce not only with work on neighboring farms but also with nonagricultural work. The process fit into the family economy but furthered the creation of a family wage rather than a subsistence economy. It also helped lead to a decline in the age at first marriage because it gave couples another means of income. These couples no longer had to secure sufficient land for their livelihood. Likewise, it encouraged increased family size, as more children meant more hands available for cottage production. However, unlike the artisan who owned his means of production, these families worked for a middleman who owned both the materials and the equipment. This distinction led many historians to argue that the putting-out system was a precursor to the factory system. The process had three consequences for industrialization. It increased the size of the labor force by increasing population growth. It created a group of families dependent on cash payment for their labor rather than the sale of their goods. It enabled merchants to amass capital in a system that had greater elasticity than the factory system—protoindustrialization required smaller outlays, and fluctuations in demand could be met by depressing the piece rates. However, protoindustrialization could also lead to deindustrialization after 1800. In areas where the putting-out process was not followed by industrial development, emigration drew workers into industrialized areas, resulting in a decline in population and productivity in nonindustrialized areas.  5
COMMERCIAL SHIFTS: The crisis of the 17th century shifted economic prospects throughout Europe. The countries bordering the Mediterranean, especially Italy and Spain, declined economically and their position within Europe was taken by Holland and, subsequently, England. This change was partially owing to shifts from trade exclusively with the east to trade with both the east and the Americas. Such trade favored England because of its position on the Atlantic. These shifts also resulted from changes in investment and the necessity for capital expansion. Northwest Europeans created banks and other institutions capable of financing expanding trade networks and the putting-out system. Southern Europeans continued to invest in property and land, seldom having a large amount of ready capital available for new ventures. Northwestern Europe also benefited from the eastern European grain trade. Eastern European lords increased serfdom in an effort to provide the necessary labor for grain production. This enabled eastern Europe to provide large quantities of cheap grain to the west, fueling western population growth and urbanization. Population growth was also affected by the introduction of products from the Americas, notably the potato and sugar. The potato gradually spread throughout western Europe and, because it grew well in poor soil, became one of the major foodstuffs for many poorer Europeans. The increases in trade, development of cheap sources of grain and foodstuffs, and population growth ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th centuries (See Economic and Social Changes).  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.