In the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish Empire, and France contested for political dominance in Europe. In spite of the presence of these large empires, there were still areas scattered across Europe from southern Italy to Scandinavia and from Scotland to Auvergne where smaller, less organized social enclaves persisted. Attempted control of these numerous pockets sapped the resources of the great powers. In addition, after about 1620, the entire continent suffered from food shortages as the population increased to about 118 million by 1648. Political instability was a common consequence. As early as 1640, rebellion was common throughout Europe. During the entire century, there were only seven years of peace. People revolted against the powers of princes and kings and protested against taxation, interference with trade, and arbitrary imprisonment. Throughout Europe, the peasantry represented vast numbers of people and in one way or another they were almost always in revolt, with occasional open rebellion, as in Naples in 1647. Many districts were over-populated with great numbers of unemployed. Vagrants were universally put under lock and key, usually in workhouses.

The last quarter of the 17th century saw the establishment of responsible parliamentary government in some regions. By 1700, the north-south trade axis had swung almost 90 degrees and ran east-west from England to Saxony, Bohemia, and Silesia. Population growth at the end of the century had been slowed not only by war and famine but also by plague, so that shortly after the turn of the century, the population had plummeted to about 102 million.

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Learn more about the effects of the Plague in 17th century Europe by reading the scholarly article, Plague in seventeenth-century Europe, by Guido Alfani.

Still, Europe remained in a favored position when compared to other regions of the 17th century world, particularly in regard to food. Europeans consumed great quantities of meat. Watermills supplied the chief energy and were owned and supplied by the lord of the manor, while the peasants supplied the labor. The mill, which ground grain, was thus the essential tool of the manorial economy. Otherwise, Europeans in the 17th century relied on energy from burning wood and charcoal. Buildings, machines, winepresses, plows and pumps were all made of wood, with few metallic parts. Fortunately, Europe was well-endowed with forests. Iron, although available, was still in short supply. Wigs, and then powdered wigs, came into fashion in the 17th century despite initial objections from the church.


A portrait of Maurice by Michel Jansz, 1607. (Source: Wikimedia)

Most of the armies of Europe adopted the military reforms initiated at the end of the 16th century by Maurice, Prince of Orange. This resulted in obedient, responsive units of soldiers able to function efficiently. The new drill and techniques spread from officers trained at Maurice’s Military Academy, which was founded in 1619, first to Sweden, then to the northern Protestant European states, and finally to France, and eventually Spain.


Greece and most of the Balkans remained under Ottoman rule, although several Christian communities survived and experienced a degree of local autonomy under the leadership of the Bishops of the Greek and Serbian Orthodox churches. Many men from the western Christian Balkans fought as mercenaries, either for Venice or the Ottomans.

Commercial agriculture became increasingly important with an emphasis on the cultivation of cotton, tobacco, wheat, and corn. After 1638, there was no more recruiting of Christian boys as Janissaries and this, in turn, meant a widening gap between Christian and Muslim, landlord and peasant, village and town. Eventually this shift in relationships destroyed the relative peace that had been created by the Ottomans. Travel in the Balkans was precarious, and, in open country, travelers deployed their carriages in a circle at night in order to defend their persons and possessions from attack.


In Italy, the monarchs of Europe and Italian princes fought over its territory. Most of the older ruling families of the previously prominent city-states died out as a result of the Plague which killed a million people in northern Italy between 1628 and 1631. In Genoa, there were perhaps 700 rich nobles left out of about 80,000 inhabitants. In Venice, there were only 14 or 15 wealthy patricians left who were capable of holding high state positions. As foreign shipping increased in importance throughout the century, Venice remained a busy port. Genoa lost control of the island of Corsica and its credit collapsed. Florence barely existed, being little more than the Grand Duke’s court. He had seized everything, including money, the right to govern, and distribute honors. In spite of all these troubles, active Jewish colonies survived for many years in Piedmont, Venice, Mantua, and Ferrara.

One of Italy’s most important contributions to the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century came in the person of Galileo Galilei. Galileo was an astronomer, experimental physicist, and mathematician. The outstanding anatomist of the age was also an Italian – Marcello Malpighi, born at Bologna, who taught medicine there for 25 years. His descriptions of capillaries, Malpighian tufts, and corpuscles are only a few of his multitude of important anatomical discoveries.


A portrait of Galileo by Justus Sustermans, 1636 (Source: Wikimedia)


Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

In 1615, Galileo sent a letter to Christina, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, in which he explains his scientific discoveries and argues that they do not contradict the teachings of the Bible or the Church. In the excerpts below, Galileo explains his understanding of the correct relationship between science and religion.

Some years ago, as Your Serene Highness well knows, I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences. They seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction.

I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth – whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies. Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands and eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of` things past and ignorance of those to come. …

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense ­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. …

From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit. …

You can read the full letter in the Modern History Sourcebook from which this excerpt was taken.


Most of central Europe was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. First, there was a loosely bound union of almost completely independent German states, seven in number, each ruled by an elector and nominally subject to the Habsburg emperor, who was routinely elected by those electors. Secondly, there was the heart of the Habsburg Empire, which consisted of the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Bohemia-Moravia, Silesia, the Kingdom of Hungary, and other Balkan territories conquered from the Ottomans. The Habsburgs also had claims to the throne of Spain with all of its possessions in Europe.

From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years War raged in Central Europe, disrupting the entire continent. The Thirty Years War was brutal and destructive, involving a semi-guerrilla force, which plundered, raped, and killed wantonly. It was a series of bloody campaigns in which civilians frequently suffered more than soldiers. To some of those involved in the conflict, this was also a religious war in defense of their faith. Calvinists fought for recognition as co-equals with Lutherans and Catholics. For most rulers, however, it was a political struggle as the Habsburgs were intent on retaining control over the various political units in Germany. It was also a civil war among jealous territorial princes and a dynastic struggle among ruling families. In addition, it was a predatory war fought by mercenary generals for fame, power, and booty. Finally, it was an international war for territorial and economic gains fought by the Dutch, Spaniards, Swedes, Bohemians, and French.

The end of the war left the Habsburg Empire intact but impoverished. Only the territorial Lords won a clear-cut victory. Prussia emerged as a strong state, and Bavaria gained territory. While most German cities were ruined, Hamburg actually prospered. France, along with Sweden, reaped the most important benefits. Toul, Metz and Verdun were all given to France, along with other valuable cities and territories in Alsace which gave a bridgehead whereby France could move forces into Germany at will. Sweden gained western Pomerania, Stettin, and many harbors, keeping good control over northern Germany. The Netherlands and the Swiss Cantons were permanently free.

Following the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which brought the War to an end, the histories of Germany and Austria diverge as the Habsburgs confined their interests and power to the soon to be formed Austro-Hungarian Empire.


This map shows the boundaries of Europe in 1648 after the Treaty of Westphalia. (Source: Wikimedia)


Although still divided into many separate states, the peasants of Germany gradually gained both economic and political freedom in the 17th century. Their slow emancipation was an important reason for the appearance of the industrial revolution in Germany in the 18th century. Peasants who gained freedom of movement frequently moved to urban areas and thereby provided the growing industrial state of the 18th century much needed labor. Food became more plentiful as the potato reached eastern Germany in the 17th century and yielded four times as many carbohydrates per acre as wheat. The many Jews who lived in Germany led a precarious existence in the 17th century. In Frankfort, in 1614, a Christian crowd forced entry into a ghetto and after a night of plunder and destruction, compelled over a thousand Jews to flee the city.

Germans contributed much to the emerging Scientific Revolution. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote fifty treatises. He published an infinitesimal calculus in 1684, three years before Newton’s similar work. One of the most basic discoveries of the age was made by Athanasius Kircher who used a microscope to diagnose disease. He is credited with finding “worms” in the blood of plague victims and realizing their significance. Frederick III of Prussia established the University of Halle in 1694, which soon became a center for the flourishing of German culture. He also spent enormous sums to beautify Berlin by importing architects, painters, and other artists.


In the 17th century, Austria was a Catholic world dominated by the Jesuit order. The center of the empire was the Hofburg palace in Vienna. Leopold I (1640-1705) was emperor. The basis of his policy was that the throne and empire had been given to the Habsburg rulers by God. In actuality, his real power was confirmed by the military power of Prince Eugene Francis of Savoy, commander of the Imperial Army of Hungary. In September of 1697, Leopold I’s forces, led by Prince Eugene, defeated the Ottomans in the Battle of Zenta. The Treaty of Carlowitz was signed in 1699. According to the terms of this treaty, Hungary, with the exception of Croatia, was given to the Habsburg Empire.


The Habsburgs convinced the Spanish nobility that Spain should police Germany and the Netherlands, control France, and invade England. In these imperial enterprises, both Spanish manpower and American gold and silver were squandered. In the 1620s and 1630s, the powerful Dutch West India Company used its military might to effectively blockade Spanish shipping lines, thereby stopping the flow of silver from the Americas and indirectly allowing French and English settlements in the Caribbean. The wool industry was gradually lost to German wool and imported cotton. By 1630 there was violence and revolt. The situation was made worse by terrible epidemics of plague between 1647 and 1654. Overall, the 17th century was a period of industrial, commercial, and financial failures, along with inadequate government and military defeats for Spain, so that by the end of the century, the economic, military, and political power of the Spanish Empire was greatly diminished.

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To learn more about the Spanish Empire’s rise and fall in the 16th and 17th centuries, watch Crash Course in World History #25.


The French monarchy gradually became the most powerful economic and military power in Europe in the 17th century. One reason for this domination was population. France had twenty million people in 1660, while Spain and England each had only five million and Italy six million. The Holy Roman Empire had twenty-one million but its economic and military might was significantly reduced in the Thirty Years War.

In 17th century France, public baths became less frequently visited because of the fear of disease. Even at the king’s court, baths were taken only rarely, in cases of sickness. As with many kings and most European nobles, many French kings kept mistresses, some of whom have become among the famous courtesans of history. There were also famous and productive men who contributed much to human culture and the arts. Artists, playwrights (such as Moliere), sculptors, literary men, and scientists all thrived in this glorious period of France. The science of surgery was elevated in France after Charles-Francois Felix, a barber surgeon from Avignon, operated successfully on King Louis XIV’s anal fistula. As a result, surgeons, who had previously been maligned, began to assume a high rank in French society. There were twenty-four medical schools in France, of which four were dominant – Montpellier, Paris, Toulouse, and Strasbourg.

France in the 17th century is an important example of what historians call “Absolutism.” As a political theory, absolutism believes that a centralized sovereign individual (i.e., the King) holds unlimited, complete power with no checks or balances from any other part of the nation or government. The three kings of France who reigned in the 17th century, Henry IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV, expanded their power by weakening the influence of the nobles in the administration of their governments. The power of the French kings during this century was unrivalled.

No 17th century ruler illustrates absolutism more clearly than the French king, Louis XIV (1643-1715). As a testament to his wealth and power, Louis XIV built the great palace at Versailles near the end of the century. As witness to his military might, Louis kept a standing peace-time army of 150,000 men, which was increased to 400,000 in the event of war.


A painting of the Palace at Versailles by Pierre Patel, 1668 (Source: Wikimedia)

Versailles became the official seat of government in May of 1682. Originally built to be a hunting lodge and private retreat for King Louis XIII, Louis XIV directed its transformation into an immense and extravagant complex. The palace had 3000 mica-paned windows in 270 rooms. There were 1500 jets of water from octagonal lakes. When there was no war in progress with the Netherlands, approximately 4 million tulip bulbs were imported from that country each year. The most famous room in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors. Every detail of the construction was designed to emphasize the king’s absolute power and authority.

Louis’ relations with the Protestant Huguenots of France were one of the defining themes of his reign. Fluctuating between tolerance and non-tolerance for years, in 1681 Louis declared a holy war against the Huguenots. Many, out of terror, pretended to convert to the Catholic faith. Thousands also fled, abandoning homes and properties. In 1685, the king revoked the Edict of Nantes and France became almost entirely Catholic. The few remaining Huguenots in many provinces were subjected to horrible tortures. Of the one and a half million Huguenots in the country in 1660, four hundred thousand escaped across guarded borders. The Elector of Brandenburg gave them so friendly a reception that, by 1697, one-fifth of Berlin was French.

Watch and Learn

Watch John Green talk about King Louis XIV and his importance in 17th century Europe
in Crash Course in European History #13



In 1609, Spain recognized the independence of seven provinces in the Netherlands, of which Holland was the chief one, while keeping the southern Spanish Netherlands under its control. These provinces had warred with Spain (1621-1648) as an off shoot of the Thirty Years War and, after peace was established, formed the Dutch Republic. The Republic was ruled by a States-General made up of representatives from each of the provincial assemblies. An oligarchy of businessmen with the aristocratic House of Orange was given control of the army. Those two ruling classes clashed at intervals, but this did not seriously interfere with the tremendous prosperity and progress of the country.

Amsterdam became the financial and trade center of the world in the 17th century. When the port of Lisbon in Portugal was closed to Dutch trade as a result of French and English influence, the Dutch found their own way to the East and soon challenged the Portuguese for command of the Indies. The Dutch navy became supreme, supplanting Portuguese commercial power in the South Seas. The Dutch East India Company took control in Batavia in 1619, Ceylon in 1638, the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and Sumatra in 1667. Of twenty-thousand vessels carrying the maritime commerce of Europe in 1665, fifteen thousand were Dutch. In the middle of the century thirty-three percent of busy Amsterdam’s East India trade was in pepper from the Spice Islands.

In the second half of the century, there were two million people in the Netherlands, and it had an army of over a hundred thousand, as well as the second largest navy of the world. The very fertile land had a large yield per acre, enabling one farmer to feed two nonfarmers, thus allowing the promotion of commerce, industry, and shipping. The Dutch had more than four thousand merchantmen ships. Amsterdam was the wealthiest city in the world and the most important port in Europe. There were multiple industries, factories, warehouses, iron workers, and beautiful homes. In the naval yards there were mechanical saws, cranes, mast-erecting machines, and factories with hydraulic wheels. Dutch dairy farmers specialized in dairy products and the large-scale export of cheese. From 1609, the Amsterdam Exchange Bank was the focus of trade, commerce, and finance. A stock exchange was developed, dealing in government stocks and shares in the Dutch East India Company. Even the concept of a commodities market was present, with traders dealing in “futures” in such things as herring and wheat.

It is of interest that the tulip bulb was one of the greatest trade commodities in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. This famous flower had been brought from Turkey via Carolus Clusius, previously Prefect of the Imperial Medicinal Garden of the Austrian emperor. Any unusual tulip became a status symbol and prices skyrocketed, with the tulip trade becoming a full-time occupation for many. Speculation in “futures” followed and laws and regulations were drawn up defining the way business should be carried on. Sometimes a single bulb would sell for twenty-five hundred florins. Even after tulip-mania ended, the flower remained important in Dutch society.

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Read about Tulip Mania in 17th Century Europe and its cautionary tale to modern investors and businesses.

In religion, the Dutch practiced a degree of toleration broader than elsewhere in Europe. The majority were Calvinists, but Catholics were so numerous that suppression was impractical. Jews who had fled to the Netherlands from Portugal and Spain (called Marranos) lived in many of the cities, and they were granted freedom of worship. The Jews included some of the wealthiest merchants of Amsterdam. Portuguese-Jewish families built a beautiful synagogue, which is still one of the sights of Amsterdam. Jews also financed much of the work of Dutch artists in the 17th century.


A painting of the interior of the Portuguese Jewish Synagogue by Emanuel de Witte, 1680. (Source: Wikimedia)

For much of the 17th century, the Netherlands was the intellectual leader of Europe. The Frenchman, Rene Descartes, working in Amsterdam, developed his laws of refraction, his philosophy, and his mathematics in his Discourse on Method, published in 1637. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was among the first to use the microscope to view single-celled organism. Prominent artists included Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and Ruisdael. The philosopher, Baruch Espinosa, later known simply as Spinoza, was born in Amsterdam of Jewish-Spanish heritage. Christian Huygens, who developed the wave theory of light was second only to Newton as the greatest scientist of the age, inventing among other things, the pendulum clock. Two Dutchmen were the greatest medical teachers of the time – Franciscus Sylvius and Herman Boerhaave, both at Leiden. Dutch cities were flooded with books and publishers and, in at least five different cities, there were books printed in Latin, Greek, German, English, French and Hebrew, as well as in Dutch. Amsterdam, alone, had four hundred shops with books.


Excerpts from Descartes’ Discourse on Method:

In this book, Descartes advances his radical theory that the path to truth lies not in acceptance of what authorities teach but rather in the use of reason, as explained in the autobiographical excerpt below:

Here the best lesson that I learned was not to believe too firmly anything of which I had learnt merely by example and custom; and thus I gradually extricated myself from the many errors powerful enough to darken our natural intelligence and diminish our ability to listen to reason. Finally, I resolved one day to make myself an object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I ought to follow. …

I observed that, while I was thus resolved to feign that everything was false, that it was absolutely that I, who thus thought, must necessarily exist. I observed that this truth I think, therefore I am was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. …

Read a fuller excerpt of Descartes’ Discourse (from which the two paragraphs above were taken).


In the 17th century, Great Britain transitioned from an isolated island kingdom to the important European power it became in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like the French kings, English monarchs sought to extend their own power by limiting that of Parliament. The English Parliament was composed of two houses: Commons and Lords. The struggle of the English throne to rule with absolute monarchy against the powers of Parliament intensified in the 16th century throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I. This struggle came to a head at the death of James I in 1625. In 1628, Parliament issued the “Petition of Right,” citing the Magna Carta, and establishing various limitations on the king’s power. In return, Charles I dismissed the Parliament and did not call it to meet for 11 years.

A long Civil War followed (often referred to as the English Revolution of 1640-1688). Oliver Cromwell emerged as a military organizer, who used religion as a rallying agent. His followers were called Puritans. Cromwell’s Puritan supporters, who often wore short hair, were derisively called “Round-heads” in distinction to the wigged Cavaliers, supporters of the king. After beheading Charles I, Cromwell and his supporters established the Commonwealth of England in 1649. War with Spain followed, and the Spanish fleet was destroyed.


A painting of Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker, 1649 (Source: Wikimedia)

For English Puritans, the chief object of life was to escape the fires of hell and to avoid the temptations of the devil. As followers of the teachings of John Calvin, they believed that the elect were destined by God for salvation. Like Calvin, they attempted to legislate morality including the establishment of mandatory fasting days, declaring adultery to be a capital crime, and outlawing oaths. During this time, the Quakers were founded by George Fox. Quakers distinguished themselves by allowing no ornaments on their clothing, by refusing to remove their hats for any reason whatsoever, and by addressing all persons by the informal “thou” and “thee.” Both of these faiths were important in the settling of the Americas after the restoration of the English monarchy.

After Cromwell’s death in 1658, the English experiment in republicanism came to an end. The son of Charles I, Charles II, was brought back to the throne. Under Charles II, military and naval power declined, and the Dutch navy regained supremacy on the seas. When James II, a devout Catholic, reached the English throne in 1685, he brought back into focus the old “King versus Parliament” tension. Parliament promptly dethroned James, thus expelling the last Catholic king to rule the British Isles. Parliament then allowed the Protestant William III (also, known as William of Orange) to arrive from the Netherlands with an army and assume the English throne. William’s royal claim was through his wife, Mary, sister of James. William, a persistent hater of the French, made alliances with various European powers in an attempt to curtail the powers of France. As king, William was not interested in the domestic affairs of England but left those concerns to his ministers, the most influential of whom was George Savile, Marquis of Halifax.


A painting of William of Orange by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1680s. (Source: Wikimedia)

Watch and Learn

Watch John Green discuss the English Civil War in Crash Course
in European History #14.


During William’s reign (1688-1702), in spite of an expanding economy, there were constant political battles between the landowning Tories and the merchant class of Whigs. There were also battles between the English and the Scots and between William’s supporters and those who wanted to restore James to the throne. In 1692, an army of twenty-thousand Irishmen and French regulars assembled around Cherbourg, ready to attack England and restore the Catholic James to the English throne. The subsequent invasion fleet was destroyed by the British navy’s Admiral Russell.

Many living in England contributed to the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century. The following scientists were especially important: Robert Boyle for his work in chemistry, Robert Hooke the perfecter of the microscope, Edmond Halley the great astronomer (after whom the Comet is named), Christopher Wren geometer, astronomer, and architect, and William Harvey who was the first to describe the circulatory system in the human body. Thomas Sydenham was a clinical physician who recognized that each major disease had many varieties. Thomas Willis contributed the De Anatome Cerebi, a thorough study of the nervous system. A circle of arteries at the base of the brain and the 11th cranial nerve still bear his name.

By far, however, the most important English scientist was Sir Isaac Newton, who, using Galileo’s and Kepler’s work, formulated the laws of gravity. Newton developed the calculus and the binomial theorem and made significant advances in both physics and astronomy. His work had far flung consequences. The king conferred an official charter upon the Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge, in 1662. Most of the men just mentioned, along with poets John Milton, John Dryden, and Edmund Waller, were members.

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Watch Neil de Grasse Tyson explain why Sir Isaac Newton is the greatest physicist of all time.


Life for the common English person was difficult and tedious in the 17th century. Most roads in England were nearly impassable for a great portion of the year. Carts usually moved at about two miles an hour and were often held up for days by high water. For most of the year, the various regions of England were essentially cut off from each other. Ironically, this proved to be a key factor in making the inns of that day so important and different from those of today. The inn was a hub of commercial activity. For example, Salisbury, Wiltshire, then a small town, could accommodate over five hundred travelers and eight hundred horses in its inns in 1686. Most of London in-city transportation was by boat on the Thames, as the streets were narrow and covered with garbage and filth, crowds of people, and deep ruts, which made carriage rides hazardous.

A severe plague broke out in 1665, and 70,000 Londoners died. Tobacco was widely considered to be an antidote to the plague, and even children were encouraged to smoke. In 1666, a fire burned for three days, destroying most of London north of the Thames. 200,000 people lost their homes, as two-thirds of the city went up in flames. After this disaster, though, the Corporation of London organized a fire department, fireplugs were placed in the main water pipes, streets were made wider and straighter, and sanitation was improved. As the power of plague ebbed, however, that of typhus fever rose. A severe epidemic of measles occurred in 1674.


James I and Charles I of England continued the previous century’s English oppression of Ireland, crushing rebellion after rebellion, and giving land progressively to Protestants at the expense of Catholics. It even became illegal for Catholics to buy land. In 1646, Irish Catholics beat the English at Blackwater River, but victory was short lived. After Oliver Cromwell defeated and beheaded Charles I, he came to Ireland to establish British rule. He waged a violent war against Catholic Ireland and its people. Over thirty thousand lrish fled Ireland for Europe, and Ireland lost a quarter of its population. Within 50 years, Catholic Ireland was largely owned by wealthy, often absent, Protestant English nobles.


On September 11, 1649, Cromwell and his army attacked the town of Drogheda. This was the first major military engagement of Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. The town of Drogheda was one of the best fortified towns. Cromwell, in attacking it, was determined to show the Irish that resisting the English army was futile. The end result of the attack was the defeat of the Irish. Over 2000 people were killed by the English army. In the following letter to John Bradshaw written on September 16, 1649, Cromwell discusses the battle and claims that it is sign of God’s blessing the English:

It hath pleased God to bless our endeavours. After battery, we stormed it. The Enemy were about 3,000 strong in the Town. They made a stout resistance; and near 1,000 of our men being entered, the Enemy forced them out again. But God giving a new courage to our men, they attempted again, and entered; beating the Enemy from their defences. … Being thus entered, we refused them quarter; having, the day before, summoned the Town. I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think Thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives. …

This hath been a marvellous great mercy. … I wish that all honest hearts may give the glory of this to God alone, to whom indeed the praise of this mercy belongs.

Read the full text of Cromwell’s letter and other correspondence from the Irish campaign.


Although Denmark had a king, the actual power was in the hands of noblemen who lived extravagantly. In large areas of the nation, Danish “free” peasants had fallen into a dependent state, roads were poor, and heather began to take over fields, because farmers did not know how to control it. Between 1650 and 1660, Denmark lost more than 20% of its population from disease and starvation. The most renowned Danish king, Christian IV (1577-1648), was crowned in 1596 and in spite of continued war with Sweden, he oversaw the building of Europe’s largest naval arsenal at Copenhagen and also a new Stock Exchange. During Christian IV’s reign, Copenhagen doubled in size.

Many factors allowed Denmark to exert power and control over the geographically larger Norway. Denmark had a larger population and capital as well more productive land. (Only 5% of Norway is cultivable, while 75% of Denmark is.) The tide of Renaissance splendor which enriched Denmark never reached as far north as Norway which remained poor. The roads were frequently impassable, and the country was thinly populated. As part of its overall strategy to control Norway, Denmark forced Protestantism on its people. Danish language Bibles and hymnals were also imposed upon the Norwegian people, doing much to establish a common Dano-Norwegian language. King Christian IV (1588-1648) worked to improve the lives of Norwegians by supporting mining, new civil and religious laws, and the development of Norwegian trading companies. He founded Oslo, naming it “Christiana.”


Sweden extends geographically 1,000 miles north from its southern tip and has 96,000 lakes. In the 17th century, it was sparsely inhabited with only about a million and half people. Iron was Sweden’s chief export, followed by silver, and then copper. In the 1620s, Flemish techniques of blast furnace construction and metal casting were imported, allowing the casting of excellent iron guns, so that soon Sweden dominated the international cannon market. This boom had been initiated in 1620 when Louis de Geer, a native of Liege, had sent Walloon iron workers to this Scandinavian country. The blast furnaces were financed with money from both the Netherlands and England.

Watch and Learn

Watch John Green talk about developments in Central Europe and the Baltic region in the 17th century in Crash Course in European History #16


As the century unfolded, the great struggle for the Baltic continued as Sweden, Russia, Poland, Brandenburg, and Denmark each attempted to exert political control of the region and its peoples.

Poland, a giant in size, was the weakest and most vulnerable of all the European states. It had a population of about 8 million, but it was poor politically and militarily, and it became a battle ground for invading foreign armies. Several factors combined to cause Poland’s powerlessness. First, there was no real racial or religious unity among the Polish people. Half the people were true Poles and were Catholic, but the other half were Orthodox Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, and Germans. In addition, the Cossacks obeyed only their Ukrainian “Hetman” and refused all orders from the Polish king. To continue, the political situation was bad. Poland was a republic with a king who only exercised power given him by feuding nobility. Furthermore, there was no machinery for tax collection. The army had little discipline and the lords could withdraw their own contingent of soldiers for any reason, at any time.

As the 17th century began, Sigismund III (1566-1632), was recognized as king by the nobility. The sudden death of Boris Godunov in Russia enticed Sigismund to invade. He marched into Russia with an army, took Smolensk, and even entered Moscow for a short time (1611-1612) before retreating. The result of this invasion was the Polish possession of Smolensk and a strong infusion of Polish culture into Russian life. The rest of Sigismund’s reign was a succession of disastrous wars, including an expensive struggle with the Ottomans. Upon his death in 1632, the nobles gave the crown to his son Ladislaus IV (1595-1648), a fine general and a tolerant leader who encouraged debate on religion and promoted art and music. He died in 1648, just as a great Cossack revolt threatened the existence of the Polish state.

This rebellion by the Cossacks was led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky and supported by the Muslim Tatars of the Crimea. As the Polish nobles selected the Jesuit John II Casimir (1609-1672) as ruler, Khmelnytsky appealed for help to Orthodox Russia and offered Ukraine to Tsar Alexis. Russia accepted, knowing that it meant war with Poland. Because the Crimean Tatars preferred a Polish to a Russian Ukraine, they shifted their support back to Poland.

The conflict between Poland and Russia came to an end in 1667 with Smolensk, Kiev, and the eastern part of Ukraine ceded to Russia. A terrible side effect of the Cossack uprising was the accompanying ferocious massacres of Polish Jews, who had served as stewards and tax gatherers for the Polish and Lithuanian estates. Vast numbers were butchered without mercy and thousands of infants were thrown into wells or buried alive. In the town of Polonne alone, close to 10,000 Jews were killed by Cossacks or taken prisoner by Tatars. Altogether in the ten years of 1648 to 1658, it is estimated that nearly 35,000 Jews were killed in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia.


First edition of the Jewish account of the massacres by Yeven Mezulah (1653). The line in the picture reads, “I write of the Evil Decrees of Khmel(nytsky), may his name be obliterated…” (Source: Wikimedia)

Watch and Learn

Watch the short film, European Antisemitism from its Origins to the Holocaust, to learn more about the history of Antisemitism in Europe.


Boris Godunov (1551-1605) on the Russian throne at the beginning of the 17th century. His control of power was tenuous from the beginning. He was not of royal descent and this aroused opposition from the old aristocratic families (known as boyars in Russian), the Golitsyns, Shuiskys, Romanovs, and others. Furthermore, crop failures between 1601 and 1603 caused catastrophic famines. Finally, there were rumors that Boris had actually been involved in the assassination of the heir to the throne, the infant Dimitri. In 1604, a motley army of mercenaries from Poland, including restless Cossacks and disgruntled peasants, marched on Moscow in opposition to his rule. When Boris died in the middle of this uprising, he was replaced by his son Theodore. Violence from political, social, and religious elements continued unabated.

Peace was only established in 1613 when the National Assembly elected Michael Romanov as Tsar, starting a new dynasty. Under Michael, peace was obtained with Sweden in the Treaty of Stolbovo in 1618. The first Romanov rulers sought to limit foreign influence in Russia. Thus, while foreigners were allowed to serve as drillmasters, armament makers, and merchant contacts for furs, they were enclosed in special ghettos in Moscow and were treated with general suspicion. There was a new formulation of law which codified existing laws based on medieval absolutism and Orthodox Christianity.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the history of the Romanov Dynasty in the 17th century by watching this documentary produced by Maksim Bespalyi.

In the 17th century, Moscow was a rich and beautiful city. Hundreds of gold domes topped with golden crosses dotted the skyline, as there were over sixteen hundred churches in the city. Red Square was a brawling, open-air marketplace. The Kremlin was on a hill 125 feet above the Moscow River, with walls twelve to sixteen feet thick, rising sixty-five feet above the surrounding rivers and moat. The entire fortress area was sixty-nine acres.


A 19th century illustration of the Kremlin as it would have appeared in the 17th century. (Source: Wikimedia)

In the third quarter of the century, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich cultivated an image of himself as a “holy ruler.” Near the end of his reign there were about eight million Russians, only a fraction of whom lived in the larger towns. Most were scattered in villages, in forest clearings, or along the rivers. The most important feature of Alexis’ reign was a religious schism that split the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon, attempted to reform the Russian liturgy and church ritual back to what he considered to be correct Orthodox forms. These reforms were opposed by traditionalists who were led by Archpriest Avvakum. Those who opposed the reforms became known as the “Old Believers.” Avvakum was banned to Tobolsk in Siberia in 1653, but, through his writings, continued to oppose the reforms. Avvakum was imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake. His death inspired more than 20,000 Old Believers to burn themselves to death in the next six years (1684-1690).


In this excerpt from Avvakum’s Autobiography, he describes his arrest and the treatment he received:

Boris Neledinskij and his musketeers seized me during a vigil; about sixty people were taken with me. They were led off to a dungeon but me they put in the Patriarch’s Court for the night, in chains. When the sun had risen on the Sabbath, they put me in a cart and stretched out my arms and drove me from the Patriarch’s Court to the Andronikov Monastery, and there they tossed me in chains into a dark cell dug into the earth. I was locked up three days, and neither ate nor drank. Locked there in darkness I bowed down in my chains, maybe to the east, maybe to the west. No one came to me, only the mice and the cockroaches; the crickets chirped and there were fleas to spare. …

In the morning the Archimandrite came with brethren and led me out; they scolded me: “Why don’t you submit to the Patriarch?” But I blasted and barked at him from Holy Writ. They took off the big chain and put on a small one, turned me over to a monk for a guard, and ordered me hauled into the church. By the church the they dragged at my hair and drummed on my sides; they jerked at my chain and spit in my eyes. God will forgive them in this age and that to come. It wasn’t their doing but cunning Satan’s. I was locked up there four weeks.

Read a longer excerpt of the Autobiography (from which these examples were taken).

Tsar Alexis died at 47 years, apparently of a respiratory ailment, and his sickly son Theodore became Tsar. At Theodore’s death six years later, his brother Ivan would normally have been the next tsar, but he was incapable of ruling due to physical ailments. The throne was therefore given to Alexis’ ten-year old son Peter, with the idea that his mother Natalia would be regent until he came of age.

When he was 17, Peter’s boyar backers overthrew Sophia as regent and confined her to a convent. Peter’s reign began in 1694 when he turned 22. As a young Tsar, Peter traveled to western Europe on what has been called “The Grand Embassy.” The purpose of this trip was to strengthen alliances with other European nations against the Ottomans, as Peter had decided Russia could not fight them alone. In addition, Peter wanted to educate himself concerning his new navy. The tsar went incognito, although with his towering height of 6’ 7″, he was hard to hide. Thus, although some deception was kept, the ruling powers of Europe knew his identity.


A painting of Peter the Great studying the theory of shipbuilding in Amsterdam by an unknown artist. (Source: Russiapedia)

The embassy’s first extended stop was in the Netherlands, where Peter studied and worked in the shipbuilding yards of both Zaandam and Amsterdam. After meeting William of Orange, who was King William of England as well as Stadholder of the Netherlands, the Tsar was invited with a small party to visit England for four months. While Peter visited England, the remainder of the embassy in the Netherlands recruited over six hundred Dutchmen, including a Rear-Admiral and other navy officers, seamen, engineers, and physicians, along with ten ship loads of equipment, to return with them to Russia.

By the time Peter arrived back in Russia, he had decided to transform Russia into a modern state on European principles. He initially decreed the cutting off of beards and mandated a change to western clothing by abolishing the traditional Russian tradition of wearing long cloaks and sleeves that went below the fingertips. Women were now required to wear petticoats, skirts, bonnets, and western shoes. The calendar was changed to the Julian one so that the old Russian year 7206 then became the year 1698. Russian coinage was revised and instead of giving large estates or money for service to the state, one would henceforth get the “Order of St. Andrew” – a ribbon to wear diagonally across the chest.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about Peter the Great and other important European rulers of the 17th century in Crash Course in European History #17



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