During the seventeenth century, strong
central government returned to Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire.
Europe, however, was not united. Political power was divided up among competing
nation–states (peoples with a common culture united by a strong central government).
In several of these nation–states, new experiments and philosophies led to
the growth of organized and wealthy governments that were each able to impose
order throughout their realm, project their power abroad, and develop a national
culture and identity. Whether this process took the form of absolutism or
constitutionalism, the broad implications for the nations involved were similar.
Complete the following activities to further your understanding of these developments.
- You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore
different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and
questions detailed in each activity.
- On many web sites you can increase the size of the images
by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine
fine details in photographs.
- Review Map
4 from Chapter 15, Activity Eight. Go over your list about emerging
nation–states in Europe. Now go to Western
and Central European Chronology: Absolute Monarchies 1598–1689. Analyze
4 in terms of the developments shown in your chronology. Why were France
and England developing into strong nation–states, but not Germany? Where
else were strong nation–states appearing during this time? What areas were
not undergoing this transition?
As the first activity demonstrates,
absolutism and constitutionalism were competing systems of government that
were both capable of producing a strong central government. To understand
this process, complete the following exercises.
- Go to Absolutism
What is the goal of both systems of government? In other words, what role
do they see for government? Should government be strong and capable of bringing
about change and reform? Or should it be weak? How do the two systems differ
in trying to achieve this goal?
- There are many antecedents for both these philosophies
in European history. For example, review Chapter 5, Activity Four. Which
seventeenth–century philosophy of government most closely resembled the
democratic city–states of ancient Greece? Now review Chapter 6, Activities
Three. Which seventeenth–century philosophy of government most closely resembled
the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus and Trajan? Considering the histories
of ancient Greece and Rome, which model of government — Greek democracy
or Roman imperialism — do you think was better suited to the problems that
European nation–states faced in the seventeenth century?
- As you can see, neither model — absolutism or constitutionalism
— was perfect. Yet each tried to bring about order and stability by creating
a strong central government. Where they disagreed was over how strong that
government should be. Indeed, it's remarkable how similar the actions of
absolutist and constitutionalist governments were. For example, go to Discourses
Upon Trade and On
the Financial Disorders in France. What are these authors' views of
the role of central government in promoting economic stability? What methods
do they suggest? What government institutions would be necessary to carry
out these duties? Why was it possible for governments to create these institutions
during this period?
- One consequence of the growth of strong central governments
was the promotion of a common culture and identity. Go to Letters
Patent Establishing the French Academy in 1635 and The
Rise and Fall of the Absolute Monarchy Make a list of ways in which
the French government promoted a common culture and identity during the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Why were such policies advantageous
to the French monarchy? What problems might they have caused? Record your
reflections in a few paragraphs.
Another consequence of the growth
of strong central governments was the ability of some European nation–states
to project their power abroad. France, England, and the Netherlands all created
large global empires in the seventeenth century. Despite their different systems
of government, all three countries used a similar practice to promote their
overseas influence: mercantilism. To better understand the significance of
mercantilism, complete the following exercises.
- For an overview of mercantilism, go to Mercantilism.
What was the overall goal of mercantile policies? What specific policies
did the philosophy entail? Why did most European nation–states resort to
it during this period? Considering what you have studied in this course,
which country do you think was most successful in achieving the goals of
- To understand the impact of mercantilism outside Europe,
read about British
mercantilism and French
Expansion in North America. What specific laws or policies did the English
and French use to govern their colonies in North America? How did these
laws or policies reflect the goals of mercantilism? What impact did these
laws or policies have on the economic development of these colonies? How
did colonists circumvent mercantilist restrictions on trade? What other
economic policies in addition to mercantilism were employed in the colonies?
Overall, how successful do you think mercantilism was as an economic policy?
In this age of emerging nation–states,
you can also see the continuation of a broader European culture. Despite differences
in religion and government, this common culture made Europe a distinct civilization
in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arts. McKay, A History
of World Societies
(Sixth Edition), calls the artistic flair of Europe
in the seventeenth century "baroque." To better understand this
trend, complete the following exercises.
- According to WebMuseum: Baroque,
what characteristics defined this artistic period? What trends in European
history did it reflect? (See The
Baroque Era for clues.)
- Take a virtual tour of Versailles
and the Schönbrunn
Palace. What were these two palaces used for? How do they reflect the
values of absolutism? How do they reflect baroque sensibilities?
- Take a tour of Amsterdam
Petersburg. How does the architecture and city planning in these two
urban landscapes reflect the baroque mood in the seventeenth century?
- Read about the lives and view the paintings of Caravaggio and
was each man from, and where did he live? What do their paintings have in
common? What does their work say about a common European culture in the