Even before the Industrial Revolution of the last quarter of the 18th century, there was dramatic change in Europe. Spain and Italy were declining rapidly, while England, France, and Sweden (exploiting mineral resources) were developing quickly. It was a century of constant warfare, with conflict going on in some area all the time and in several localities at once most of the time. This century also witnessed the development of new technology in weapons, such as mobile field artillery, the development of accurate small-scale mapping, the break-down of the armies to divisions (units of about 12,000 men, but complete within themselves, with infantry, cavalry, artillery and all supportive elements), and better roadbuilding. At the same time, the 18th century was a period of prosperity for merchants all over Europe. Philosophically, it was an age of enlightenment and progress as human beings developed new ways of thinking about the world and their place in it.

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in European History #18


The 18th century was also a time of political intrigue and corruption. There were other paradoxes. In spite of great scientific advancements in physics and chemistry, the practice of medicine lagged far behind. Bleeding, cupping, and purging remained prominent treatments. An estimated 60 million Europeans died of smallpox in the century. Early in the century there was an extensive famine as frost killed crops as far south as the Mediterranean coast. The winter of 1709 was especially severe, as many northern rivers and even ocean coastal waters froze. Typhus fever took its own toll, with a severe epidemic in Sweden and the death of 30,000 people in France in mid-century. Yellow fever killed 10,000 in Cadiz, Spain. The majority of the people were illiterate. Europe as a whole burned 200 million tons of wood yearly up until about 1790 when coal came into more common usage.

A new business development was the concentration of trade and its profit to warehouses and storage depots. Raw cotton from Central America was stored in Cadiz, that from Brazil in Lisbon, Indian cotton was pooled in London, while Marseilles took that from the Levant. Mainz and Lille were great wine depots. By the end of the century, the 17th century Europe of fairs was turning into the 18th century Europe of warehouses.


Greece was still under the control of the Ottomans, but Greek seafarers and traders became prosperous at the end of the century as blockade runners through Napoleon’s overseas domains and through other waters. By the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774), the Ottomans allowed Russian ships to sail on the Black Sea. Since Russia had no ships or seamen of their own in those waters, they allowed Greek sailors the right to fly the Russian flag.


In 1711, Peter the Great of Russia vowed to free the Balkans from those whom he called “the enemies of Christ.” Both Moldavia and Wallachia pledged to help Peter, but only Moldavia actually supplied any troops. Peter’s army of 138,000 men were overwhelmed by the 200,000 soldiers assembled by the Ottomans. The Russians were forced to surrender, and as a result gave Azov and the Taganrog harbor back to the Sultan. They abandoned their southern fleet and evacuated Poland.


A Map of the Balkans (Source: Wikimedia)


Italy had a population of about 15 million, who lived under divided rule. As the dominance of the old noble families of Florence and Venice waned. noble titles were granted to the highest bidders. The Habsburgs took over Tuscany in 1737 and, except for Venetia, Genoa, and Savoy, soon controlled all of northern Italy. The Papal States and Kingdom of the Two Sicilies remained in power. The independent Genoese Republic was constantly threatened by Savoy, France, and Austria. When the French Revolution did break out, some Italian states joined a coalition against France. In retaliation, Napoleon invaded the peninsula, crushed all resistance, and once again Italy became a French dependency.

The 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio gave Venice to Austria and divided the rest of Italy into 5 republics: Cisalpine with Milan as capital, Liguria with Genoa as capital, Roman including Rome itself, Bologna, and Parthenopean which included the entire southern third (except Sicily), with Naples as the capital.


A map showing the division of Central Europe after the Treaty of Camp Formio (Source: Wikimedia)

Naples, with as many as 500,000 people, was the fourth largest city in Europe. Southern Italy was organized according to a feudal system, with powerful barons who were sovereigns on their own estates. As in the rest of Europe, food supplies in Italy frequently were short and unreliable. As an example, Florence experienced hunger in 111 years of the 400 leading up to 1791 and had had only 16 very good harvests in that same period. Corn, with its high yield, finally put an end to the recurrent famines in Venetia. All over Italy, soon the peasants ate corn and sold their wheat.

Italy continued to be a center for scientific and medical studies in the 18th century. Luigi Galvani started electro­physiology with electrical stimulation of nerves; Allessandro Volta developed a battery. Giovanni Morgagni, who oversaw the medical school at Padua for 56 years, is considered the “father” of pathological anatomy. He was among the first to correctly describe the changes associated with such diseases as cirrhosis of the liver, kidney tuberculosis, syphilitic brain lesions, and pneumonic consolidation of the lungs.


Allessandro Volta used an Electrophorus (shown in this image) to generate electricity. (Source: Wikimedia)


The story of this region in the 18th century centers on the power policies of two royal families: the Prussian Hohenzollerns (represented by Frederick I, Frederick William I, and Frederick II) and their counterparts, the Austrian Habsburgs. The complete power structure also involved Catherine II of Russia and, to a lesser degree, the rulers of England. Approximately 20 million people lived in the region but were divided into more than three-hundred independent states, each with its own sovereign prince, but all loosely subject to the Holy Roman Emperor. The most important German states were Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Hanover.

The average German village was still somewhat “servile” in 1750, however, and serfs still owed their masters heavy services and payments. They were not allowed to leave their estates in most German areas as late as 1788. In spite of considerable river traffic on the Rhine, Elbe, and Oder rivers, overland transport still carried five times as much goods as waterways.


The rulers of Prussia distinguished themselves by competent management and quick adoption of improved agricultural techniques. In 1701 the Prussian Elector Frederick III was crowned King Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713). He was a great supporter of education and the arts. Unfortunately, his reign was marked by tragedy as 300,000 people died from plague in 1709. Frederick Wilhelm I (1713-1740) was the next to be enthroned. Wilhelm I dedicated himself to developing the Prussian military so that at his death, Prussia had the fourth largest army in Europe and strong financial resources. He dedicated himself to improving Prussia in other areas as well by supporting the building and maintenance of educational and health facilities. He personally oversaw the revision of the Manual of Regulations for State Officials so that officials would know their duties (and the penalties associated with dereliction of duty). In politics, he was opposed to all things French. At his death in 1740, his son Frederick II became king.


A portrait of Frederick the Great by Anton Graff, 1781. (Source: Wikimedia)

Frederick II (1712-1786) ranks among the two or three dominant persons in the history of modern German. Later to be called Frederick the Great, he achieved a high reputation as a capable military leader and the Prussian Army came to be seen as a model for other armies throughout Europe. He was a leading exponent of the 18th idea of enlightened absolutism. According to this political ideal, monarchs were to rule their subjects according to the principles of the Enlightenment which stated that the good of the people (not of the monarch or just of the nobility) should be the most important principle in determining policies and crafting laws.


As a leading proponent of “Enlightened Deposition,” Frederick the Great expresses his political aims in the following paragraphs (extracted from his Political Testimony, 1752). Note he emphasizes both the absolute power of the monarch and the necessity of exercising that power in the best interest of the state and its peoples:

In a State such as this it is necessary for the sovereign to conduct his business himself, because he will, if he is wise, pursue only the public interest, which is his own, while a Minister’s view is always slanted on matters that affect his own interests, so that instead of promoting deserving persons he will fill the places with his own creatures, and will try to strengthen his own position by the number of persons whom he makes dependent on his fortunes; whereas the sovereign will support the nobility, confine the clergy within due limits, not allow the Princes of the blood to indulge in intrigues and cabals, and will reward merit without those considerations of interest which Ministers secretly entertain in all their doings … The sovereign is the first servant of the State. He is well-paid, so that he can support the dignity of his quality; but it is required of him that he shall work effectively for the good of the State and direct at least the chief affairs with attention. He needs, of course, help: he cannot enter into all details, but he should listen to all complaints and procure prompt justice for those threatened by oppression.

Read a longer extract of his testimony.

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Prussian rulers not only distinguished themselves on the fields of battle but were also devoted to promoting cultural development as well. In 1717, Frederick William I made primary education compulsory, and in twenty years he founded 1700 schools, including excellent Universities. The development of science and philosophy and powerful secularizing forces weakened the influence of religion on German life. Music was supreme – especially as produced by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach has been called the “greatest musical poet that has ever existed.” A literary revival was initiated near the end of the century as the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were published. Frederick von Schiller contributed excellent dramas. Gottfried Leibniz, scientist and mathematician, founded the Academy of Sciences.


Listen to the music of Bach played on 18th century instruments.



Bavaria continued to be ruled by the Wittelsbach family. In 1777, the Elector of Bavaria, Joseph Maximilian, died childless and the nearest heir, another Wittelsbach, concluded a pact with Emperor Joseph of the Habsburgs (1678-1711) whereby most of northern Bavaria came under Austrian control. Other members of the extended Wittelsbach family, along with Frederick II of Prussia, opposed Austria’s designs and opened the War of the Bavarian Succession. Within the year, Bavaria regained her territory. At the end of the century, however, Bavaria became the chief battlefield of the Spanish War of Succession and Austrian troops devastated the land. In 1799, Elector Maximilian I united all Wittelsbach lands and allied himself with Napoleon, as a protection against Austria.


The young Elector of Saxony, Augustus II (1670-1733), was elected King of Poland in 1697. Augustus II continued the policies of his predecessors and collected fabulous works of art, so that Dresden eventually became known as Florence on the Elbe. His son and successor Augustus III (1695-1763) carried on the same tradition. Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz specialized in porcelain, silk, armaments, and textile. The Swiss Albrecht von Haller, a student of the Dutch botanist Herman Boerhaave, settled in Saxony and helped to create the University of Gottingen. He became a great physician, physiologist, botanist, and neurologist.


In the 18th century, Hanover, in northern Germany, had about as much power as Denmark, Prussia, or Saxony. Its status was helped when George, the Elector of Hanover, became George I of England (1660-1727). George spent most of his time in Hanover and used the English navy and money in an attempt to persuade Sweden to negotiate peace with Denmark and the German states on the Baltic.


Like Bavaria, Baden, and Wurttemberg became battlefields at the end of the century as French forces fought Austria. Throughout these years, although their princes had difficulty acknowledging it, these lesser states of Germany lost both power and influence. The Rhineland of west Germany became an important industrial area, with the first steam engine installed in a lead mine near Duesseldorf in the Duchy of Berg in 1751.


Although all German states were nominally subject to the Holy Roman Emperor, the heart of the empire was in Austria and Hungary, an area ruled by the Habsburgs from the capital of Vienna. In 1711, Austria lost 300,000 people to the plague even as they faced the threat of an Ottoman army at their border. The latter were put to rout by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was a great military leader for the Habsburgs. His success at this time was in part due to the Austrian cavalry which used fine Arabian horses. Emperor Joseph I, the elder son of Leopold, died prematurely and Charles, trained to become king of Spain, now became Austria’s emperor as Charles VI (1685-1740). Raised as a Spaniard, he introduced Spanish culture to the Hapsburgs. The Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding Academy) is a remnant of the Spanish nature of his court. His death in 1740 marked the end of the male line of the Austrian Habsburgs, but it was the beginning of Austria’s greatest era. When Charles VI’s daughter became Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780), the Austro-Hungarian Empire included all of present-day Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Transylvania, Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Istria with Fiume and Treiste, parts of southwestern Germany, Belgium, Lombardy, Tuscany, Sardinia, Piacenza, and Parma.


The Coat of Arms of Maria Theresa (Source: Wikimedia)

Austria, itself, with six million people was prosperous. All land was owned by nobles or clergy and tilled by serfs. Empress Maria Theresa supported the introductory of industry by founding a woolen manufactory in Linz that employed 26,000 workers by 1775. The empress was also a great patron of the arts. Her personal favorite was the musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who played for her at Schönbrunn Castle. The Dutchman Gerhard van Swieten, another pupil of the Dutch botanist Boerhaave, was called to Vienna by the empress to be her personal physician. Swieten opened a medical school which drew students from all over Europe. The famous Allgemeines Krankenhaus (Sick House for All People) was built in 1784 as a hospital for teaching and caring for the underprivileged. After 1765, Maria Theresa shared her power with her son Joseph II (1741-1790) until her death in 1780. Joseph anticipated the welfare state by 150 years. He initiated many reforms among which were the abolishment of serfdom and torture and the elimination of religious heresy as a political crime.


The Allegemeinese Krankenhaus, now known as the Vienna General Hospital, in 1784 (Source: Wikimedia)

18th century relations between Austria and Hungary were tense. In the Rakoczi War of Independence from 1703 until 1711, Hungarians revolted against the Imperial Crown of Austria. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the revolt revealed the dissatisfaction felt by many Hungarians at the way they were treated by the Austrians. As emperor, Charles VI worked to placate the Hungarians and to create peace in the Empire. Maria Theresa continued his policies. Population and immigration both increased rapidly during this time. The wealth of the Catholic Church and the size of the mansions and estates of the great nobles also increased. The Protestant Church was suppressed, and no Protestant was allowed to enter public service. By the end of the century, half of the upper nobility was Hungarian, but they spent much time in Vienna and Paris, intermarried with German-Austrian and Bohemian aristocracy, and often forgot or did not even learn their native Magyar language. Members of the lesser nobility remained home and were instrumental in supporting traditional Hungarian culture and language. By the end of Maria Theresa’s reign, the over three million Hungarians (known as Magyars) constituted approximately 35% of the total population and were chiefly in the central part of the country.

BOHEMIA (the Czech Republic)

Bohemia’s fate was similar to Hungary’s. Subject to the Habsburg autocratic rule, the life of both Bohemian and Moravian peasants was hard. Persecution of Jews began in 1744, with some fleeing to England. Near the end of the century, the Bohemians began to feel a spirit of national unity as nationalist ideas infiltrated the upper levels of society. Leopold II (1747-1792) tried to conciliate them, but he was the last Austrian ruler to be crowned King of Bohemia.


This 16th century map shows Bohemia as the heart of Europe (Source: Wikimedia)


In 1715, the Swiss Federation was made up of thirteen cantons, a complex of three peoples, four languages, and two faiths. Most of the cantons were oligarchies, with very limited political freedom for the lesser nobility and peasants. Bern was the largest canton, embracing approximately one-third of Switzerland. The two rival Christian faiths, Protestant and Catholic, sparred frequently. Some cantons prohibited any but Catholic worship and some forbade any but Protestant. Geneva was not a canton, but a separate republic where people spoke in French and followed the Calvinist expression of Protestantism. The emigration of French Huguenots to Geneva was a great boon to the economy. In 1789, Switzerland was overrun by the armies of Napoleon. Napoleon set up a centralized Helvetic Republic, which was in closely allied with France.


In Western Europe, this was a century of warfare primarily involving the nations of Spain, France, and England.

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The new luxury of the 18th century meant a change in the living conditions of both rich and poor in western Europe. Of primary importance was the separation of living quarters from the workshop or business. Up until this time, merchants’ and artisans’ houses had the shop on the lower floor, the master’s dwelling above, and the workmen’s or apprentices’ rooms above that. Industrial activity was widespread so that there was not a town or city without its own looms, forges, brick or tile works, or sawmill. In some areas, there were huge concentrations of workers. For example, 30,000 men worked in the coal industry in Newcastle, 450,000 weavers labored in Languedoc, and one and half million textile workers were employed in five northern French provinces. At the same time, commerce and its accompanying wealth were in the hands of a few wealthy families. The disparity between the poor and the rich is illustrated in the region of Lombardy where the nobility made up one percent of the population but possessed more than 50% of all property.


From the 1730s to the end of the century, Spain was at war with various European nations. These conflicts included the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), the War of Jenkins Ear with England (1739-1748), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763).


A portrait of Charles III by Anton Mengs, 1761 (Source: Wikimedia)

Philip V (1683-1746), grandson of Louis XIV, was the first of the Bourbon family to be named king of Spain. Philip V was succeeded by Ferdinand VI (1713-1759). He died in 1759 and was followed by his half-brother, Charles III (1716-1788). As King of Spain, Charles III enacted far-reaching reforms, promoted science and university research, and facilitated trade and commerce. He also encouraged the modernization of agriculture. Finally, he worked to reduce the influence of the Church and strengthen the Spanish army and navy. Charles III is regarded as the greatest Bourbon king of Spain.

The best silk in Europe was grown in the Spanish region of Valencia, where there were 5000 looms by 1787. By 1790, there were a hundred cotton factories in Catalonia. Approximately 80,000 workers (mostly women) were employed. The uneven distribution of wealth was also evident in Spain as land ownership was concentrated in a small number of noble families. The poor became poorer.


By the 18th century, Portugal was no longer an active military and economic force in the Indian Ocean. It had lost all of its possessions except for its colony at Goa, India, to which it occasionally sent a boatload of convicts. As it weakened (both in power and prosperity) in the 18th century, Portuguese allied itself with England. The Methuen Treaty of 1703 established Portugal’s wine trade and admitted English manufactured products into Portugal without taxation. The English penetration of the country was so thorough that some Europeans even referred to Portugal as an English colony. As Lisbon expanded into a large city, the uneven distribution of wealth was evident. The wealthy few became excessively so even as the lives of the many poor grew even more wretched. Shanty towns grew up around the margins where once there had been fields. There were as many as 10,000 homeless men, women, and children living in the city.


Like the century before, in Europe the 18th century was dominated by the culture and military power of the French. The year 1709 was perhaps the most difficult year France had known. The winter cold was so extreme that rivers and the Atlantic coastal waters froze, and the winter wheat, vines, and fruit trees were killed. Children starved to death and both public and private finances were in desperate ways. By 1717, as many as 500,000 people lived in Paris, making it the third largest city in Europe, but the streets were narrow and crowded, the noise deafening, and the smells from human excrement dumped from windows, piles of manure, and slaughtered animal carcasses made life unbearable for many. After midnight, when the candle lamps on the streets were extinguished, they became very dangerous. The same situation could be found in most 18th century European towns, large and small. A bathroom in a house was a rare luxury. Fleas, lice, and bugs conquered Paris as well as London and other European cities. An average of 20,000 people died in Paris every year, even after the 1780s. Hardly anyone in Paris took baths, and those that did confined them to one or two a year.

In the country, the peasants were poverty stricken and there were a series of disastrous harvests between 1773 and 1789. Overall, there were at least sixteen general famines throughout the 18th century as well as numerous local ones. The last great western European plague epidemic occurred in Marseilles in 1720. While glass was used in windowpanes in Paris, oiled paper was still used for windows in Lyons and various provinces. But even in the midst of relative squalor, France began to set the fashion for dress for the whole of Europe. Dressed French mannequin dolls were sent far and wide for dressmakers to copy.


This painting of the Duchesse de Polignac illustrates the fashion of Paris in the 18th century. (Source: Wikimedia)

In the last years of his reign, Louis XIV increased state persecution of Protestants. When he died in 1715, his great grandson became Louis XV (1710-1774), with his great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, as regent. There was much unrest among the common people, and a tumultuous workers’ strike of 1716 in Abbeville had to be put down with armed troops. As king, Louis XV was more concerned with his own personal pleasure than governing his people. Living in isolated splendor, he remained oblivious to the restless ideas developing in the population who were struggling to survive.


A painting of Louis XV, 5 years old and enthroned as king, making his grand entrance into Paris by Pierre-Denis Martin (Source: Wikimedia)

One of Louis’ mistresses, Madame de Pompadour became one of the most remarkable women of the 18th century. Louis XV respected her intelligence, and as a result, she functioned as an unofficial prime minister and advisor. Her influence was not limited to the political sphere. She championed scientific, economic, and philosophical exploration as well. Pompadour encouraged Louis to expel the Jesuits from France. She also supported his growing alliance with Austria which led France into the Seven Years War. On the losing side in the war, France lost Canada and its territory in India to England. Many important 18th century Enlightenment philosophers lived in 18th century France. Among these were Jean-Jacques Rousseau who asserted the human beings were naturally good who were corrupted by the class division of hierarchical societies. Another early French philosopher of importance was Voltaire, born Francois Marie Arouet. He was an accomplished playwright, poet, historian, philosopher, confidant of kings and at least one queen (Catherine the Great of Russia). Other famous men of the century included the French painters Francis Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, and Quentin de La Tour. Charles Louis de Montesquieu was a powerful novelist, influencing religion and government. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published the Encyclopedia in 1750.


A painting of Madame de Pompadour by Francis Boucher, 1758 (Source: Wikimedia)

From a military standpoint, nothing was more important to France than Jean Maritz‘s development of casting cannon as a solid piece of metal and then boring out the barrel. The advantages of these cannons, with straight and uniform bores, were enormous as safety, accuracy, lightness (less thickness and thus more maneuverability), and reliability were all enhanced. The closer fit of cannonball to gun tube also meant less “windage” allowance and a smaller powder charge could be used to obtain even greater velocity.

In the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793), the king’s treasury was empty. To gain support for new taxes, the king was forced to call an ancient representative body called the Estates General into session in 1789. The Estates was composed of nobles, clergy, and the “third estate” (middle class) with each group having, in effect, one vote. Since it was apparent that the non-tax paying nobles and clergy would dominate the assembly, the third estate withdrew, held their own meeting, and formed a new deliberative body called The National Assembly. This Assembly vowed to give France a constitution and a reform administration. A few weeks later, they produced an important document entitled The Declaration of the Rights of Man. This document expresses the fundamental Enlightenment ideas of human equality and freedom. It also embraces the political idea of representative government. These actions set into motion a series of events which are known as the French Revolution.


The Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26, 1879, expresses the fundamental Enlightenment concept of natural rights and its political implications in the following statements:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.

Read the full Declaration.

From 1789 to 1791, the Revolution established itself as France became a limited monarchy. The king was kept virtually a prisoner in a diminished state in the Tuileries, while the National Assembly, now reorganized as to voting privileges, ruled the country with relative peace. The Assembly instituted reforms in the penal code, stopped heresy persecutions, and opened the army ranks to all.

The French Revolution was both similar and different from the Revolution that had taken placed in America. Both were founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment. These ideas had been shared across the ocean in newspapers, books, and pamphlets. The leaders of both Revolutions believed that human political and social arrangements could be improved by human action. In both countries, the notions of liberty, equality, free trade, religious tolerance, republicanism, and human rationality were embraced. They thus shared a common political vocabulary and a commitment to the same basic political principles.

But while the American Revolution had been a colonial rejection of imperial power, the French Revolution was a conflict that erupted within a society. In the Americas, colonists sought freedom from what they considered to be an outside imperial power. In France, revolutionaries wanted to restructure their own society. In attacking the monarchy and its institutions, the French leaders attempted to create a totally new social order. In the United States, the leaders of the Revolution did not seek a total transformation of society. They argued that the king had violated their rights by his unlawful actions. Their revolt was therefore in the name of recovering freedoms they believed they already possessed. The French perceived their revolution as starting from scratch and imagined themselves to be building a new society. As testimony to this, they declared 1792 to be “Year 1” of a new age.

These differences created a volatile situation that erupted in violence. Mobs in Paris took up the revolutionary cause and stormed the Bastille to obtain arms. Some peasants attacked the castles of lords, burning the documents and papers that recorded their bondage. In 1793, King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antionette were beheaded. In the same year, violence engulfed the nation. Under the leadership of Maximillian Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety, thousands of people deemed to be enemies of the state were executed. Robespierre ruled with an extreme hand, consumed by a passion for a new order of life. He even attempted to equalize property and abolish the class system. The terror came to an end in France when Robespierre was arrested and quickly executed. A new constitution of 1795 provided that the country should be ruled by a two-house legislature and five executives known as Directors.

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Learn more about the French Revolution in a series of videos produced by the Khan Academy:

The influence of the French revolution was felt far beyond its borders. Intoxicated by their success in ridding French society of its nobility, the French formed armies dedicated to republicanizing all of Europe. They spread out to Brussels, Holland, Savoy, Switzerland, and south Germany. They declared war on England. Under their new general, Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant young artillery officer, the Republican Army fought forces of Savoy and Austria in 1796 and conquered most of northern Italy.


A painting of a 23-year old Napoleon by Felix Philippoteaux (Source: Wikimedia)

After his Italian victories, Napoleon Bonaparte took an army to the Mediterranean, invaded, and initially conquered a part of Egypt. A combination of reinforced Ottoman armies and a British fleet under Lord Nelson cut off Napoleon’s ships and forces, however, and he managed to escape to France at the end of 1799 where he was greeted as a returning hero.

The French Revolution deeply impacted both French society and surrounding European nations. It raised the status of women, and although ultimately, they did not gain full political rights, their support for the Revolution and their demands for educational opportunities and political power gave impetus to a larger international movement for women’s rights. On a practical level, the vestiges of the monarch were removed. Streets were renamed, monuments to the royal family were destroyed, and the titles of nobles were no longer used. The Roman Catholic Church, which had aligned itself with the monarchy, also lost both political power and (perhaps more importantly) the support of the French people.

At the end of the century, several great scientists emerged. Rene Laennec developed the stethoscope. Pierre Simon Laplace was a great astronomer and statesman. Antoine Lavoisier worked out a new theory of combustion and conservation of matter in chemical reactions. Theophile de Bordeu was a pioneer in endocrinology who discovered that the stomach, heart, and brain each secreted a material to the blood stream necessary for. Dentistry became a separate, true profession through the work of Pierre Fauchard. His publication, The Surgeon Dentist, became a standard text for generations.


At the beginning of the century, the shipyards of the Netherlands built ships for all of Europe. In 1717 over six hundred thousand people lived in the capital city of Amsterdam, making it the second largest city in Europe. The great Amsterdam Exchange Building was finished in the 17th century. In the 18th century, thousands of people were said to “crush” inside about noon every day. It was the busiest exchange in Europe, while the city, itself, was the center of the Amsterdam-London-Paris-Geneva banking supremacy.

However, the small population of the Netherlands and the limited natural resources of its territory were unable to support its status of a great power for long. By 1784, three-way struggle for power emerged in Holland between the middle class, the patrician families, who controlled the Estates General, and the chief magistrate of the United Provinces of the Netherlands known as the Stadtholder. In 1787, Prussian troops intervened to support the Stadtholder to even greater powers than before. However, in 1795, French revolutionists moved into Holland and seized control of Amsterdam (1795). The Dutch fleet was captured while it lay frozen in harbor ice.

The greatest intellectual achievement in Holland in the 18th century was probably in medicine. The medical school at Leiden had two of the great teachers of the times in the botanist Herman Boerhaave and the anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus. Their students became the leaders in the profession all over Europe.


A portrait of Herman Boerhaave by J. Chapman, 1798. (Source: Wikimedia)


The Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, also ended a long series of wars between the Spanish and French over Belgium. After the Treaty, Belgium became part of the Holy Roman Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs. In 1787 an independence movement emerged in southern Belgium whose leaders declared that a new country had been formed. Modeling themselves after the United States, they called themselves “The Republic of the United Belgian States.” This fight for independence was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1795, Belgium was annexed by France.


The population of England and Wales grew to over nine million by the end of the 18th century. With the death of King William in 1702, Mary’s sister Anne (1665-1714) reigned until 1714 in a time known as the Augustan Age of England, because of the literature of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and others. This was also the time when England’s defeat of the French in the War of the Spanish Succession resulted in English control of Gibraltar, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. Parliament became the supreme power in the state and, on Anne’s death, chose the Elector of Hanover, George I (1660-1727), to be the next King.

George I, however, did not speak English and refused to learn the language. He spent most of his time in Hanover, and there was no love shared between him and the English people. Sir Robert Walpole, the Whig leader and the first prime minister and master politician, emerged as a strong leader who did much to improve the British economy. The Monarchy and the House of Commons both lost power at that time as the House of Lords ruled England. England also increased overseas expansion into North America and India.

Click and Explore

Read about the development of the Novel in 18th century England in an
article written by Mariwan N. Hasan.


At home, important changes took place in agriculture, farming, and transportation. Rural life in England up to about 1715 was very much as it had been for a thousand years. The development of a factory system transformed England into the workshop of the world. A key to this development was James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1760. By 1760, England had become the world’s leading iron manufacturer. Wood had up to that time been the major fuel used by the English. However, as the forests in England were cut down (only four of the original sixty-nine great forests of England remained by the end of the century), there was great need of a newer and cheaper fuel. Coal was the answer. Abraham Darby’s discovery that, by mixing sulfur with coal, a new fuel could be produced that would burn more efficiently (known as coke) transformed the smelting process and enabled England, by 1760, to become the world’s leading iron manufacturer. These changes, along with significant developments in modes of transportation caused by the building of steamships and railways, were important components of the Industrial Revolution.

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Watch John Green discuss the Industrial Revolution in Crash Course in European History #24.


Change did not occur immediately. Thomas Newcomen invented the atmospheric steam engine in 1711, but only one was in operation in England 30 years later. In 1728, the first steel rolling mill was set up. In 1740 Benjamin Huntsman invented the crucible process for making high-grade steel. This union of coal and iron made the great machines of the Industrial Revolution possible. Inventions also transformed the textile industry. The most significant of these were John Kay’s “flying shuttle” (1733), Lewis Paul’s spinning machine (1738), and James Hargreave’s spinning jenny (1764).


A contemporary model of Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (Source: Wikimedia)

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 18th century. There are several important reasons for this. First, during the reign of George III, the structure of British economy and society underwent profound change, manifested first by the tremendous output of coal, pig-iron, engineering products, and textiles. Economic growth was furthered by the availability of cheap water transport in inland waterways for the newly manufactured heavy, bulky goods. Iron and steel production in England was also stimulated by the government’s need for naval cannon and other military hardware. Another reason that helps to explain why the Industrial Revolution developed first in England was that, except for two minor revolts, all of the wars were fought abroad, thus allowing industrial development at home. As a result, English foreign trade tripled between 1702 and 1772. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England was also aided by the prestige and autonomy which merchants and financiers enjoyed. The interpenetration of the landed nobility and the merchant class in England resulted in availability of large amounts of available capital and remarkable economic growth.

One must not assume, however, that there were no troubles. The development of machines led to serious labor reactions. It is true that John Kay’s invention of the “flying shuttle” doubled the weaving output and increased quality, but the increased productivity caused many who had been working at home to lose their incomes. Angry mobs attacked Kay’s home and he was forced to flee to France, where he died in poverty. Similarly, James Hargreaves had his house sacked, his first machine burned, and he also was forced to flee.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution in England was immense. Industrial output increased fifty-fold between 1750 and 1900. As the Revolution spread throughout Europe and to the United States, it improved the material life of humankind in many ways. But it also greatly damaged the environment. The massive extraction of nonrenewable fuels (coal, iron ore, petroleum, gas, and much more) to fuel the engines that formed the material basis for production altered the landscape in many ways. Raw sewage and industrial waste ran freely into rivers and streams, turning them into poisonous cesspools. Smoke from coal-burning industrial centers created smog that was sometimes so thick that it limited vision. This smoke also impacted the ability of people to breathe, sharply increasing the cases of respiratory illnesses.

The Industrial Revolution in England also deeply impacted the lives of human beings. In essence, it created two societies, remote from each other. The first was the society made up of modest country gentlemen and the other was the urban poor. With somewhere between 750,000 and 860,000 inhabitants, London was the largest city in Europe. A considerable part of the population was packed into slums which were filthy with garbage and, thus, a breeding ground for deadly diseases. In some sections of London, 64% of the children died before reaching ten years of age. The lives of the laboring classes were shaped by changes brought about industrialization. Mass numbers of people moved from rural communities to live in overcrowded cities. People were crowded into tenements which were unsanitary, unsafe, and structurally unsound. Fires were a constant threat. Furthermore, the lives of the working poor were dramatically altered. Long hours, low wages, and child labor were the norm. Work was monotonous and, without safety standards, dangerous. There was not a single bathing establishment in London, even in 1800. Education was so limited that the majority of Englishmen could not read or write.


An image of a young girl working in a coal mine from the 18th century (Source: Wikimedia)

At the same time, improved farming machinery and methods such as fallowing led to improved diets and to population increase. In the 1770s, some eight million pounds of tea were consumed in England, and by the end of the century, the English were consuming two pounds per person, per year. Catsup (or ketchup) came to England via India from Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia.

In the 18th century, a new expression of Christianity, known as Methodism, was founded by John and Charles Wesley, with a few friends, especially George Whitefield. They organized a little group of 15 students and teachers at Oxford, resolved to practice Christianity with “Methodical” thoroughness. All were devout Anglicans, and most became Anglican clergy. On a trip to Georgia as a missionary, John was impressed by the piety and creed of some Moravian Brothers and soon adopted some of their intensity and ideas. In the next few years, Whitefield’s and John Wesley’s emotional oratory and preaching and Charles’ hymns took over lower class England for Methodism. They preached essentially the old Puritan Creed with the message of sin and repentance, but they offered an ethical code that shared in the moral rehabilitation of England in the second half of the century. By the time of John Wesley’s death, there were 79,000 Methodists in England and 40,000 in the United States.


George Whitefield is shown preaching in this 19th century engraving. (Source: Wikimedia)


Near the end of his life in 1786, at the age of 83, John Wesley published a short pamphlet entitled, On Methodism. Speaking of himself in the 3rd person, he described the beginnings of Methodism in this way:

In the year 1729 four young students in Oxford agreed to spend their evenings together. They were all zealous members of the Church of England, and had no peculiar opinions, but were distinguished only by their constant attendance on the church and sacrament. In 1735 they were increased to fifteen; when the chief of them embarked for America, intending to preach to the heathen Indians. Methodism then seemed to die away; but it revived again in the year 1738; especially after Mr. Wesley (not being allowed to preach in the churches) began to preach in the fields. One and another then coming to inquire what they must do to be saved, he desired them to meet him all together; which they did, and increased continually in number. In November, a large building, the Foundery, being offered him, he began preaching therein, morning and evening; at five in the morning, and seven in the evening, that the people’s labor might not be hindered. …

From this short sketch of Methodism, (so called,) any man of understanding may easily discern, that it is only plain, scriptural religion, guarded by a few prudential regulations. The essence of it is holiness of heart and life; the circumstantials all point to this. And as long as they are joined together in the people called Methodists, no weapon formed against them shall prosper.

Read the full pamphlet here.

Literature and music flourished in 18th century England. Henry Fielding wrote the highly popular comic-novel Tom Jones in 1730. Other important authors include Thomas Gray, known particularly for his “Elegy in a Country Courtyard,” the caustic Samuel Johnson, and the transplanted Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume. The most prominent musician was George Friedrich Handel, a German-born musician who spent most of his career in London. Although he wrote many operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos, his best known and most frequently performed choral work is his oratorio, Messiah.

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Listen to the Royal Choral Society sing the Alleluia chorus of Handel’s Messiah.


The first medical school in London was founded by William Hunter, interested primarily in dentistry and obstetrics. William’s brother, John Hunter, was even more famous as a surgeon. John Hunter developed a method of closing off an aneurysm, thus preventing the necessity for amputating the limbs of thousands of soldiers and civilians. The surgeons finally achieved equality with their traditional rivals, the physicians. Most prominent among the latter was William Heberden, who described angina pectoris and nodules of osteoarthritis of the fingers, which still bear his name. The most important drug development was digitalis, used for “dropsy” by William Withering in 1785. James Lind, a British naval surgeon, proved the efficacy of fresh lemons and oranges in curing scurvy in 1753.


A drawing of James Lind superimposed over the title page of his book discussing scurvy (Source: Wikimedia)

In spite of the medical advances, typhus fever occurred sporadically in mild epidemics. Scarlet fever increased in incidence, and by 1750 one out of every 30 people who contracted the disease died. Smallpox remained widespread and highly virulent, with mortality ranging from 15 to 30%. Throughout the 18th century, there were only nine years in which small-pox deaths in London did not exceed a thousand, and in 1759 they reached over three thousand. One-third of the inhabitants of England bore pit marks of that disease. The idea of inoculation by pus from a true small-pox lesion was brought from the Ottomans by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. In 1798, Edward Jenner published a now-famous paper on the use of cowpox for vaccination.


Mary Montagu (depicted in the picture below in Ottoman garb) wrote of her observations of the Ottoman use of vaccines in a letter to Mrs. S. C. in 1717:


There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins… The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth (day). Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days’ time they are as well as before their illness.

Read the full letter here.

The War of American Independence was precipitated by the poor policies of ministers such as Grenville and Charles Townshend. King George III was also responsible. His support for the harsh policies of Prime Minister Townshend led to War. As it progressed ,the American defeat of British General Burgoyne in October of 1777 at Saratoga convinced the French, who had remained neutral up until that time, to support the Revolution. With the assistance of the French navy, the Americans defeated the British decisively in the Battle of Yorktown (1781). The victory of the United States in the Revolutionary War (1776-1781) increased calls for constitutional reform in England. Ironically, it also energized England to devote more time and resources to building its overseas empire which included Canada as well as territory in the Caribbean, Africa, and India.

18th century England also produced one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights in the English-speaking world. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) applied the ideas of the Enlightenment to argue for the education of women. Although Enlightenment philosophers had attacked the foundations of traditional political society by denying the idea that kings ruled by divine appointment, they had not been nearly so radical in thinking through the traditional understanding of gender. Most accepted patriarchy and spent little time considering whether it was reasonable to deny women the same freedoms and rights they were asserting belonged to men by nature. Wollstonecraft was among the first to challenge these assumptions. (Olympe de Gouges made similar arguments in France.) In her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, published in 1790, she asserted that the rights of women as human beings should be recognized as equal to those of men. Her focus in this treatise was on education. She argued that society had a responsibility for the intellectual wellbeing of its female citizens. She further maintained that women, because as human beings they are rational creatures, can and should be educated. Wollstonecraft did not argue, as later feminists will, that women should be considered the equal to man in politics and did not call for women’s suffrage. But her arguments that women are just as capable of learning as men because they possess the same rational faculties, and that they possess the same natural rights as men because they share the same human nature, were radical for their time and played an important role in the feminist movement of the 19th century.


A painting of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Ople in 1797 (Source: Wikimedia)


The death of the widowed King William left the crowns of both England and Scotland to his sister-in-law Anne. Under some duress by restrictive trade decrees against Scotland, a treaty was concluded producing a formal union between the two countries in 1707, with a common parliament. A Scot proposal to build roads into the Highlands to exploit their great timber resources was rejected by the English, who preferred to import wood from America. English coal could be exported duty free to Ireland, but not to Scotland. Poverty remained endemic, but cultivation of the potato after 1739 and an increase in the breeding of black cattle offered hope for economic recovery. In the Highlands, a warrior society still existed. Tribal at the bottom, almost feudal at the top, all spoke the ancient Gaelic language.

The Act of Union joining the two countries of England Scotland did not prevent an occasional resurgence of Scottish national pride and attempts at forcing a new Stuart king onto the throne of Britain. Prince Charlie, the Catholic son of James III, invaded England with an army of about 10,000 in 1745 in an event known as the Jacobite Rebellion. The Rebellion was unsuccessful, and after the Highlanders’ defeat at Culloden, Gaelic Scotland was broken, as the clans were dissolved, the bagpipe banned in war, and the kilt outlawed. At the end of that final battle, the English killed all the wounded on the field, shot and hung fugitives, and burned houses. Many Celtic Scots emigrated to Nova Scotia (New Scotland).


A scene depicting Jacobites fighting against British regulars in the Battle of Culloden painted by David Morier, 1746 (Source: Wikimedia)

Every parish in Scotland tried to set up a school for its children, and four universities offered the best education in the British Isles. A student of the Dutch botanist Boerhaave,, Alexander Monro, returned to his native Scotland to give new life to the ancient University of Edinburgh, which became the center of medical instruction for the English speaking world. The 18th century has been called the era of “Scottish Enlightenment.” The most important leaders were the philosophers David Hume and Thomas Reid, historian William Robertson, political economist Adam Smith, novelist Sir Walter Scott, who was born and educated in Edinburgh, and finally Robert Burns (1759-1796).


The situation in Ireland was quite different from Scotland. As a result of repeated victories by English armies over native revolts, a harsh code of laws had been established that severely limited the freedom of the Irish. The landowners were almost all transplanted English Protestants and most of them actually lived in England. The Established (Anglican) Church in Ireland included only about one-seventh of the people, but was supported by mandatory taxes taken from the peasantry, almost all of whom were practicing Catholics. Catholics were excluded from public office, from all professions, except medicine, could not purchase land, or hold any valuable leases. The social pattern in Ireland resembled that of eastern Europe and the southern American colonies. A small group of elite wealthy men owned the land which was worked by a large number of poor landless laborers. As a result, many Irish fled the harsh conditions of their homeland to the Americas. In the 1780s, eight thousand Irish emigrated to the United States each year.


A painting of Charles Carroll who was the only Irish Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was the American-born son of Irish immigrants in the 1730s. (Source: Wikimedia)

At the end of the century in 1798, a revolt broke out again in the country, which was put down by Lord Cornwallis, in spite of French assistance to the Irish. The English leaders then decided to make Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. An Act of Union was passed in 1800, which combined England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland into a single entity known as Great Britain.


Still under Danish rule, Norway rapidly developed a vibrant shipping industry, with particularly close commercial ties with England. Ludvig Holberg, Norway’s chief contributor to the literature of the century, wrote a number of comedies to be played in the first theater in Denmark.


After termination of the Great Northern War, political power in Sweden shifted to the lower nobility and the rich merchants, who prospered in trade and industry. The parliament became the center of political life, but as its leaders became corrupt, its popularity waned so that Gustavus III (1746-1792) became an absolute ruler once more in a golden age of intellectualism and art. Important intellectuals of Sweden in the 18th century were Charles Linnaeus, who established the modem binomial system of naming plants and animals, and Anders Celsius, astronomer at the University of Uppsala who devised the centigrade scale thermometer.


In 1699, Frederick IV (1671-1730), aged 28 years, ascended to the throne of Denmark. As king, he encouraged intellectual life. He also supported the development of industry, including the famous Royal Copenhagen Porcelain factory. After Frederick’s death in 1728, a great fire swept Copenhagen in the reign of Christian VI (1730-1746). The latter was followed by Frederick V (1723-1766), who married the daughter of Britain’s George II. Upon Frederick V’s death in 1765, his son became Christian VII (1749-1808), who married Caroline Matilda, sister of George III of England. After 1784, Christian’s son and successor Frederick VI (1768-1839) initiated thorough reforms, including the liberation of peasants from serfdom, clearing the way for the breaking up of large landholdings and allowing improvements in farming methods. In 1792, Denmark became the first European country to prohibit the slave trade.

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Learn more about Denmark’s involvement in the slave trade in the West Indies and its decision to abolish the trade in the article, “A Brief History of the Danish West Indies”


Sweden continued to rule Finland, but, in 1713-1714, as a part of the Great Northern War, Russians conquered the south coast of Finland. During this short period, much of the Finnish population fled to the Aland Islands, lying between Finland and Sweden. Those islands, however, were soon also infiltrated by the Russians. In the end, Finland was returned to the control of Sweden. Most Finns were poor peasant farmers. Their houses and other farm buildings were wooden huts with little in the way of accessories. At the end of the century, Russia’s continued push against its frontiers resulted in a recurrent invasion into Finland (1790).


In Norway’s “colony” of Iceland, there was a severe cold period, with glaciers covering more of the land so that many died. Beginning in 1724 volcanic fissures opened and spewed the spectacular “Myvatn Fires” over a period of 5 years, pouring lava and destruction over a large area.


The 18th century European surge in population did not put as much strain on the food supply system in eastern Europe as it did in the west. In the east, there was still much untilled land that could be converted to crops without costly capital improvements. As the population grew, it was easier for Poland and Russia to recruit more soldiers. Russia, as a state on the margin of Europe, like Great Britain, was able to increase control of resources more rapidly than was possible in the more crowded center of Europe.


At the end of the 17th century, the southern shore of the Baltic was controlled by the Swedes. Charles wanted the Polish Diet to depose Augustus II of Poland (1670-1733) and elect a new king. When the Diet refused, the Swedish army waged a six-year war against Poland and its ruler Augustus II. During this period, Russian soldiers with Calmuck and Cossack horsemen invaded Livonia where they bought and sold peasants as serfs. Among the prisoners taken was Martha Skavronskaya, a 17-year-old illiterate girl who later joined the house of Prince Menshikov, became Peter I’s mistress, then wife, and finally the ruler of Russia as Catherine I.

The complex history of Poland in the 18th century was the result of multiple factors, not the least of which was the constant antagonism between the nobility and the crown, with both sides influenced by the political agendas of other nations. In addition, the Polish territory overlapped an area containing Russians in the east and an area containing Germans in the west. There were no great cities and little trade. Internal weakness was caused by archaic institutions and religious antagonism brought about by intolerance to both Protestantism on the western borders and orthodoxy in Ukraine.

In 1733, Augustus III (1696-1763) assumed the Polish throne. He had Austrian backing, but France, Spain, and Sardinia opposed his ascension and initiated the War of the Polish Succession. The remainder of the 18th century was a time of political uncertainty for Poland. Rich nobles wielded much power. Stanislas II Poniatowski (1732-1798) was elected as King in 1764, but Catherine II of Russia used religious divisions as a lever to foment civil strife. In the resulting war of 1768-1774, the Ottomans decided to help Poland, but Russia still dominated and annexed a portion of Poland (part of the first Polish partition) and destroyed the Ottoman Mediterranean fleet in the Battle of Chesme (1770). Prussia took an area of Poland between Danzig and Thom, while Austria helped herself to a large area just south of Cracow. A second partition of Poland took place in 1787-92 and, finally in 1795, all of Poland was partitioned, with Austria taking Cracow, Prussia claiming Warsaw, and Russia occupying Vilna.

Life for the common people in 18th century Poland was extremely difficult. The peasants were subjected to the worst kind of serfdom. In Lower Silesia in 1798, compulsory labor by peasants was unlimited. They could be forced to work seven days a week for an unlimited number of hours. Later in the century there was a tremendous “floating” population of runaway serfs, impoverished noblemen, and urban paupers, forming a sort of “anti-society.” At the same, the persecution of Jews continued unabated throughout the 18th century.

The other Baltic states suffered the same ultimate fate as Poland. Latvia and Lithuania were divided along with Poland in the various partitions between 1772 and 1795. Estonia, devastated by Peter’s armies was then ruled by Russia for the next 200 years, although the culture of the country remained Germanic.


A map showing the partitioning of Poland in the 18th century. (Source: Wikimedia)


One of Peter the Great’s (1672-1725) fundamental goals was to build a modern Russian army. When he had been in England, he had bought thousands of modem flintlocks with bayonets. Using these as models, the Russians manufactured 6000 guns in 1701, and by 1711 were turning out 40,000 a year. One-fourth of all the church bells in Russia were melted down to make new cannons, with 20 new ones available by May 1701. In the next three years, seven new iron works were developed beyond the Urals.

Another of Peter’s strategic goals was to procure a northern port in the Baltic for the land-locked Russian nation. To accomplish this, Peter oversaw the building of a new city called St. Petersburg. Digging for the new city began in May 1702 on Hare Island. Although still occasionally under attack by Swedes, the new city received its first merchant ships for trade in 1703. The hardships of building a fortress and a city on the swamps were enormous. Thousands of laborers were drafted from all parts of the empire and many of its diverse peoples including Cossacks, Siberians, Tatars, Finns, and Russians. Scurvy, dysentery, malaria, and other diseases killed many workers so that, by its completion, tens of thousands had died building the city. The stone and most of the timber and food were imported from inland. Fires were common. Floods were frequent and devastating, with the entire town sometimes under water.


A map of St. Petersburg in 1744 (Source: Wikimedia)

Tsar Peter was determined to maintain Russian control of both Livonia and Estonia to safeguard his new city and to preserve Russia’s northern port. To fund his wars, Peter raised taxes. Money also came from an increasing number of state monopolies, with the state taking control of production and sale of innumerable commodities from alcohol to chess pieces, salt, and furs. Many people revolted. Some escaped to the north and east where they joined the Old Believers. Others organized true revolts, including a rebellion at Astrakhan and the uprising of the Bashkir (between the Volga and the Urals), as well as the Cossack revolt under Kondraty Bulavin. All were put down in one way or another, the latter one with the help of other loyal Cossacks under Hetman Maximov.

Peter unsuccessfully attempted to create alliances with European powers for help against aggressive Swedish military advances. Charles XII attacked Russia in 1707 with 26,000 of his own men and almost 42,000 men from Saxony. While waiting for Charles’ forces, Peter married his Lithuanian, low-born mistress of many years, Martha Skavronskaya, who had taken the name Catherine. Charles led his army into Russian territory in winter by marching them over the frozen Vistula. They quickly captured Grodno and then entered the Russian controlled Lithuania. The tides of war wavered toward one side and then the other, but gradually the battle lines shifted more southward towards Ukraine and away from Moscow.


A portrait of Catherine by the French painter, Nattier. (Source: Wikimedia)

As the war shifted towards Ukraine, the thorny question of the shifting allegiances of the various Cossack and Ukrainian peoples emerged. The leader (called Hetman) of one large group of Cossacks was Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa. His people desired full Ukrainian independence from Russian control in order to avoid high taxes and forced military service. As a result, Mazeppa aligned his forces with the invading Swedes. In response, Peter’s forces attacked his home city of Baturin and completely destroyed it, slaughtering over seven thousand people – soldiers and civilians alike. Most Ukrainians stood by the Tsar as a devastatingly cold winter dealt a critical blow to the strength of the invading Swedish army. It is estimated that close to three thousand Swedes froze to death, with many more seriously incapacitated by frostbite. The decisive battle of the Great Northern War was fought in the summer of 1709 at Poltava in Ukraine, in which at least 10,000 Swedish soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken captive. The Swedish invasion of Russia was terminated.


A 19th painting showing Charles II and Mazeppa discussing plans for the Battle of Potava (Source: Wikimedia)

St. Petersburg flourished, with Italian, French and German architects all leaving their marks. The common people in and about St. Petersburg were chiefly Finnish and while the women were chambermaids or cooks, the men were sledge drivers, snow and ice shovelers, and icebreakers on the Neva. Ice blocks supplied icehouses on the ground floor of every large home. Even the lowest servant spoke Russian, German, and Finnish, while the educated often spoke eight or nine languages. However, there were endless supply problems. While fish could be obtained from nearby Lakes Ladoga and Onega, sheep and cattle had to be brought from Ukraine, the Don and the Volga regions, and even from Ottoman territory.

Peter was devoted to establishing Russia as a European nation. Thus, under his leadership, Russia’s past traditions were banned: there were no more beards, long robes (kaftans), or female seclusions at the court, the Julian calendar was adopted, and the Russian alphabet was simplified. Peter effectually transformed Russian society and institutions within one quarter of a century. He established new industries, with laborers working directly or indirectly for the state. Men were elevated by merit and although old noble titles were not abolished, they no longer carried special privileges. He promoted mining and industry and an Academy of Science.


A portrait of Peter in 1717. (Source: Wikimedia)

After the Great Northern War was settled, Peter sought to expand the Russian nation towards the Caspian Sea, Persia, and India as well as north and east to the Pacific. In 1724, the Danish born sea captain Vitus Bering, in Russian employ, led an expedition to what was subsequently called the Bering Strait. East of the Caspian, Peter was not successful, as he was soon met by the army of the Khan of Khiva. The Russians won the initial engagement and were invited into the city where they were divided up for billeting and then were systematically slaughtered, group by group. West of the Caspian in the country of Georgia, Peter’s armies were more successful, eventually winning the city of Derbent from Persia, along with three seaboard provinces of the eastern Caucasus. Persia continued to fight, however, and later, in 1732, Empress Anna, losing 15,000 Russian soldiers a year to disease, relinquished the Caucasian provinces back to Persia, where they remained until the time of Tsar Alexander I in the next century.

In his personal life, Peter fathered twelve children by Catherine, but only daughters Anna and Elizabeth lived beyond the age of seven. Catherine was made officially Empress of all Russia in 1722 and when Peter died in January 1725, she continued to rule. The real ruler during Catherine l’s short reign was Peter’s old, close friend Alexander Menshikov. When Catherine died in 1727, Menshikov was exiled, and Peter II (1715-1730) became Tsar. When Peter II died of smallpox in 1730, Anna became Empress for the next ten years. On her death, the infant Ivan VI inherited the throne, only shortly to be imprisoned for 22 years, while Elizabeth, Peter’s daughter, became Empress from 1741 to 1762. Following Elizabeth came a short reign of Peter III (another of Peter the Great’s grandsons) and, then his grandson’s German wife, Catherine II (1729-1796) who became known as Catherine the Great, seized the throne.


A portrait of Catherine the Great in her 50s. (Source: Wikimedia)

The period of Catherine the Great’s rule is considered the Golden Age of Russia. The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in the classical style endorsed by the Empress, changed the face of the country. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment and is often regarded as an enlightened despot. Catherine was a sophisticated ruler who corresponded with Voltaire and other European intellectuals. In her dealings with the Muslims who lived in her realm, she decreed a policy of religious tolerance. She preserved her power by cultivating the Imperial Guard and satisfying the demands of the noble class. During her reign, the urban population rose to two million. At the same time, the lives of peasants became more degraded as their freedoms were increasingly denied by the realities of serfdom.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about Catherine the Great by watching this documentary produced by Biography.com.

You can also watch the trailer for HBO series (2019) on the life of Catherine the Great.

In 1773, Emelian Pugachev, a Don Cossack, led an uprising of peasants, Cossacks of southeastern Russia, and minority groups of Kalmuks and Bushkirsalls along the Ural and Volga rivers. Their antagonism to Catherine’s rule was fueled by the long history of serfdom, the attachment of peasants to factories, intolerance, and discrimination toward the various tribes in the Volga region, administration corruption, abuse of power by the gentry, crushing tax burdens, and intolerable conditions in the army. Religion was also a contributing factor as most of the Cossacks, who were “Old Believers,” had been forced to shave their beards upon conscription. At the time of that rebellion, Russia was at war with the Ottomans and busy with the partitions of Poland but when that was settled government troops put down the rebellion (1775) and executed Pugachev.


A 19th century charcoal drawing of Pugachev (Source: Wikimedia)

Near the end of the century, Catherine II’s troops defeated the Tatar Khanate of the Crimea, thus gaining control of the north shore of the Black Sea for the Russian navy. Iron and copper ores, along with plenty of charcoal, all from the Urals, fueled expansion of armament industries and general industrialization. In 1771, a plague killed over fifty-thousand people in Moscow alone, but an abundant food supply made possible through the use of the plow overcame those losses so that the population actually increased from about 12.5 million in 1724 to 21 million by 1796. Catherine introduced smallpox inoculation through an English physician in 1768.

Russian scientist made several important discoveries in the 18th century. M. V. Lomonosov was the father of Russian science, achieving success in molecular physics, chemistry, optics, electricity, and in the development of a law of the conservation of matter. He founded the Russian Academy of Science. I.I. Shuvalov founded the University of Moscow in 1755. Leonard Euler, born in Switzerland, did most of his work at the Academy in St. Petersburg. He was the greatest mathematician of the century, developing calculus and some aspects of astronomy. He was the first to develop algorithmic devices and use the concepts of “e”, “Pi”, and “i” for various constants and an imaginary number.


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