The emergence of the modern state

Note: This semester in my Western Civ classes, I tried to emphasize more about the development of the modern, centralized state. I tried to explain it in three stages, 1.0 (the confessional state), 2.0 (the nation-state), and 3.0 (the welfare state). I’m posting my slightly edited explanations here to get feedback on how accurate and helpful this history is. This post shows how I tried to set up the background.

As we begin the course, we find Western Europe in a tumultuous state. Europe in the 1500s was going through a critical period of transformation for three reasons:

  1. Rulers continued to attempt to increase their power over their territories. Their efforts were most successful in England, France, Spain before 1650, and Austria after 1648. There will be more explanation of this trend as we go.
  2. European exploration of Africa, Asia, and especially the Americas meant that European countries began to build global empires that allowed for worldwide trade. Spain and Portugal were most successful at first, and England and France eventually built great empires as well. This allowed for the rise of the Atlantic economy described in Chapter 17.
  3. The Protestant Reformation led to the fracturing of the Western European Christian church into the Roman Catholic Church led by the pope and bishops and different groups of Protestants like the Lutherans, Reformed (Calvinist), Anabaptists, and the Church of England (Anglican). Two important consequences of this period stand out for our purposes:
    • The division of the church led to the “denominations” of Christianity that we now take for granted.
    • It also made an important political development possible. Rulers had long sought power over the church in their territories, sometimes quite successfully. The division and weakening of the Catholic Church meant that rulers, whether Catholic or Protestant, had an even greater opening to become the senior partner in the relationship between church and state in their kingdoms. Both Catholic and Protestant rulers tended to exercise great control over the church in their kingdoms.

Thus, the increasing power of rulers, European exploration, and the breakup of the Christian church were all part of important changes in Western Europe. These new developments helped to bring important changes to the political, economic, and religious landscape of the European continent.

All of these things contributed to what historians sometimes call the Crisis of the 17th Century. Here’s how:

Centralization of power:

Kings and emperors in various countries had been attempting to establish centralized control over their kingdoms for a long time. While we might think that kings automatically had all the power that they wanted, that’s not actually the case. Local nobles often wanted to control their their own lands as much as possible, and preferred that their kings be distant figure that they could respect from a long way away. They wished to provide justice, collect dues from their peasants, and even wage war against each other if they wanted to.

During the High and Late Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1500), the English, French, and Spanish kings began to expand their power over their kingdoms. They claimed the rights to collect taxes and to provide justice to their subjects. They also maintained royal armies and cracked down on nobles who challenged their authority.

The rulers who notably failed to do this were the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (a huge entity in central Europe made up of what we now call Germany and some other countries). In the Holy Roman Empire, local rulers were able to maintain their own rights and attempt to build their own lands into smaller centralized kingdoms.

Having more power sounds good in theory, but there were problems.

  1. It turns out that centralization was expensive. Hiring soldiers (often mercenaries) for the royal army and officials to help the kings judge cases and collect taxes takes a lot of money. This meant that there was a constant effort to collect taxes, which meant that subjects sometimes revolted against their kings. At a smaller scale, peasants sometimes revolted against nobles who were taxing them more heavily.
  2. Also, the nobles often resisted the king’s plans. One incentive for German nobles in the Holy Roman Empire to become Lutherans and French nobles to become Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) was that the Catholic Holy Roman Emperors and the Catholic kings of France desired to expand their power. (This wasn’t the only reason to convert, of course.)



European exploration:

You probably know that the voyages of Christopher Columbus (beginning in 1492) allowed Europeans to begin establishing colonies in the Americas. It seems that a larger population in Europe and huge amounts of silver and gold that were plundered and mined under Spanish authority seemed to cause a rise in prices (inflation). This made it harder for average people to afford food and other items, and made it harder for kings and emperors to pay for soldiers and officials discussed above. This is discussed in Chapter 15 of The Making of the West.



The breakup of the Christian church:

Nobles in Germany and France were not the only ones to convert to forms of Protestantism. Some kings, like Henry VIII of England and the kings of Sweden and Denmark, became Protestants. While most Western Europeans were still Catholic, many Dutch, English, northern German people (along with others) became Protestants.

These religious changes within the kingdoms of France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, along with the quest for rulers to gain more political power, set off wars between various factions within these countries. The French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire are discussed in Chapter 15, and the English Civil War is covered in Chapter 16.

Religious differences between different kingdoms also played into the wars between England and Spain, the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and its Dutch subjects, and the entry of the kings of Denmark and Sweden into the Thirty Years’ War to protect Protestants.

At the same time, there were other factors besides religion at work in these wars. For example, Catholic France sometimes allied with Protestants in order to hurt the Habsburg dynasty that ruled both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.

Historian Joshua Cole summarizes different views of the crisis here:

So the Crisis of the 17th Century involved wars between countries, civil wars within kingdoms, food shortages, high prices and taxes, and the religious concerns of people great and small. What would emerge from this crisis? This we will see as we continue with the class.



James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History

Joshua Cole (above video for Norton History)

Hunt et al.., The Making of the West

Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage

Huppert, After the Black Death

Strayer, The Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence

Wiesner-Hanks, Wheeler, and Ruff, Discovering the Western Past

Sunshine, Why You Think the Way You Do


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