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The General Crisis of the 17th Century (wikipedia.org)
89 points by benbreen on June 15, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 95 comments

Regardless of what you think about whether these crises were connected, they did give rise to a rather important idea. At its heart, the idea is that, "I won't kill you for your beliefs if you aren't going to kill me for mine."

This may seem like common sense today, but historically we only arrived at it after having plenty of opportunity to deal with the aftermath of people being willing to kill each other for having different ideas about whether, for instance, Christianity is what the Catholic Church teaches us that it is.

This tolerance gave rise to such ideas as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on. Which were key ideas from the Age of Enlightenment, which ideals influenced the US Constitution and Western culture to this day.

Well, that's a very Protestant, Whiggish view of things. Catholic Emancipation in the UK wasn't complete until 1829 for example. The idea of the Glorious Revolution as ushering in a democratic and free era was really only true if you were an Anglican, slightly less so for Dissenters, and very much less so for Catholics (both in Britain and Ireland).

I think a lot of those crises in Europe were just continuations of the Reformation in many respects.

I deliberately stated a very mild form of the idea because that is what actually seems to have been accepted relatively early on. The stronger idea that we should actually treat people with different beliefs as we would like to be treated in turn took a lot longer.

For instance the lot of many faiths in the UK started improving with the toleration act of 1668. Why were Catholics excluded? Because there had been actual attempts to kill English kings (most famously the Gunpowder plot) and the Pope kept the stance that Catholics should try to overthrow England's government. The Catholic church maintained that position until 1766. In response, England started treating Catholics better. First in various colonies, and then for England itself with the 1778 Papists Act. Something much closer to equality arrived as you noted in 1829.

Atheists got worse treatment. For example they could not testify in UK courts until 1870. And even though atheist Charles Bradlaugh started getting regularly elected in 1880, and he was not allowed to be a member of the House of Commons until 1886.

The US was fundamentally no better, and in practice worse despite the Bill of Rights. For example it was not until 1961 that the Supreme Court ruled that atheists could not be barred by their non-belief from things like being a notary public.

But for all that we can legitimately criticize about the way these ideas were put in practice, they are worlds better than when Henry VIII took land from Catholics for not recognizing his marriage, his daughter Mary killed Protestants for not recognizing the Pope, the Pope in return tried to convince Catholics to try to kill Elizabeth I, and James 1. Both then passed various laws penalizing Catholics in retaliation.

Remember the Bloody Question? "If the Pope should invade England, which would you support? The Queen or the Pope?" Killing people who said, "the Pope" was pretty brutal, but reflected political reality.

> The US was fundamentally no better, and in practice worse despite the Bill of Rights

You also have to remember that until the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, the Bill of Rights only applied to acts of Congress ("Congress shall make no law...") and not to state legislatures.

You have oversimplified the history. After the Fourteenth Amendment arrived, there was considerable confusion about what it actually meant for state laws. And it took a long time for the very complex details to get ironed out. That is why the case I pointed to was nearly a century after the 14th amendment was passed.

See http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/2012/03/12/the-14th-amendmen... for a detailed (and admittedly somewhat opinionated) history of this topic. And see http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment14.html to start digging in on exactly how complex the current interpretation of the 14th amendment actually is.

> You have oversimplified the history. After the Fourteenth Amendment arrived, there was considerable confusion about what it actually meant for state laws. And it took a long time for the very complex details to get ironed out. That is why the case I pointed to was nearly a century after the 14th amendment was passed.

I'm not disagreeing with you.

I was just placing a hard earliest point where the Bill of Rights could apply to the states, not saying that it was immediately interpreted as such as soon as it was ratified.

Google 'Slaughterhouse cases', and 'Colfax massacre', and then curse Louisiana for being the rock which incorporation stubbed its toe on.

> the Bill of Rights only applied to acts of Congress ("Congress shall make no law...")

That specific language only appears in the First Amendment. Other amendments were taken to apply to the states well before the Fourteenth; for example, there is case law from state courts from the first half of the 19th century dealing with how states interpret the Second Amendment, which would be meaningless if that Amendment were not held to apply to the states.

I would be very interested in reading that case law if you can dig it up for us.

Most of the cases that are usually cited were, upon close reading, decided based on clauses in various state constitutions. The one exception that I am aware of is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nunn_v._Georgia where the decision was made in a state court and hence was only binding for that state.

By contrast in the early years after the 14th was passed, the Supreme Court stated in both https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Cruikshank and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presser_v._Illinois that the 2nd amendment was only a restriction on what the federal government could do. State and local regulation was unaffected.

> Most of the cases that are usually cited were, upon close reading, decided based on clauses in various state constitutions.

Yes. One of the arguments against adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was that the states already had similar clauses. That was the reason why they're amendments and not part of the original Constitution, in fact. The argument went something like this:

"Here's your new Constitution! Please ratify it."

"Um, there's no Bill of Rights."

"Well, the states already have Bills of Rights."

"Yeah, that sounds like a loophole waiting to happen. Add a Bill of Rights or I'm not ratifying it."

"Fine, fine. I promise that if you ratify it, we'll amend it with a Bill of Rights the first chance we get."

And yet your own hereditary monarch in 2015 has to be an Anglican.

That's been recently changed. Catholics are now allowed, and men no longer take precedence over women.


The whole thing is still, to quote Doug Stanhope, "some dungeons and dragons bullshit", but at least its not immutable even today.

Nope, those Married to Catholics are now allowed, but Catholics themselves? Definitely not. And Jews? Muslims? Forget it! "the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England remained"

Well, it's kind of problematic if the head of a church doesn't actually belong to it.

> at least its not immutable even today

We've since moved to immutable trade agreements.

And here I was thinking immutable == good. I guess functional programming doesn't work well with nation states.

Laws actually resemble immutable data structures pretty strongly! When a law is repealed, it's not simply erased, but rather a new law is passed that says "this law repeals that old law." When a law is changed, it's not rewritten, but a new law is passed that says "Section X of law Y is changed to read, 'blah blah blah.'" The full law in effect at any given time is just the sum of all those changes.

End digression!

Which hereditary monarch would that be?

I was born in California.

England et al, I think.

"However, the ban on Catholics and other non-Protestants becoming sovereign and the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England remained."

Thanks for posting this. That essay is fantastic. It's actually a perfect complement to that article and the discussion happening in this entire thread.

It beautifully highlights the modern historian's crisis.

You cannot distill history into a framework because any unique set of events seem to be reproduced somewhere else in history with different outcomes.

You must distill history into a framework otherwise it's impossible to reason about and understand.

This seems like a good spot to link to one of my favorite essays on the theme you've raised here - the historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin (of the hedgehog and the fox fame) on "The Concept of Scientific History." (Short version: he argues that there's no such thing). By the way, I'm happy to see such an interesting discussion of my favorite historical topic on HN - thanks.


This is actually exactly how I've recently heard the Peace of Westphalia[0] described (which ended the Thirty Years War in Germany): it established the idea that nations are independent "wholes" with their own laws, religion and politics, and that that's okay.

The ideas encoded in the agreement are basically the reason we think of events like the Crimean secession[1] as an unconstitutional Russian annexation regardless of whether it happened by a public vote or not: even if there was a referendum and even if that referendum was formally valid and the outcome was in favour of the secession, the constitution of the Ukraine forbids the secession and therefore renders the referendum invalid by definition.

It's also important to note that these ideas of statehood popped up in the (at the time) Christian world and therefore strongly shaped the face of modern Christianity and the separation of state and church in the West (which even in its worst cases still works better today than it did before the Enlightenment). This didn't happen in the Islamic world, at least not in the same way (though there are examples for church-state separation as in post-WW1 Turkey). I think this provides some insights into why that part of the world's politics is so poorly understood by Westerners (e.g. consider the tribal politics in Afghanistan or the Sunni-Shia conflicts all over the map).

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Westphalia

[1]: Whether it was an annexation or secession and whether it was formally valid or not is a separate debate. There is a lot of evidence indicating that it was, to say the least, influenced by Russia, which would have made its validity doubtful even if it wasn't unconstitutional.

Uh, I think if people seceded by a real public vote, they should be allowed to, regardless of what the constitution says.

People in a region voted to be independent, hence they are, they're their own nation. Forbidding that is a violation of their basic freedoms.

Now, I do think that Russia influenced the Crimean vote and plunged Ukraine into chaos, but if it was an honest, impartial vote, they should be allowed to self-govern or join the Russian federation, it's their choice...

At what point do you think that a majority vote should overrule the Constitution? And what are the consequences if it happens?

It is worth comparing the US and French revolution. Both happened in the late 1700s. The US wound up with the attitude that the Constitution was sacrosanct and the current democratic will of the people is secondary. France wound up with the belief that what the majority wants should happen.

Since then the US has had one nasty civil war, but is still on its first republic.

France by contrast has been an absolute monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, an empire, and a republic. Each several times. (I think they were also briefly communist.) They are now a republic for the 5th time.

There is something to be said for a rule of law that can supersede the democratic whims of the moment.

Eh...things would have been very different if the US had to remain inside roughly the same boundaries it had at the time of its founding, rather than having an entire continent to expand into.

France has been through multiple Republics but hasn't really had a huge civil war since the French revolution, and I don't think you can blame France for all the instability brought about by external aggression (Franco-Prussian War, WW1 & 2) notwithstanding France's own missteps. Again, the US is in the happy geographic position of only have 2 immediate neighbors, both of which are substantially weaker in military and economic terms and both of which it had already beaten in war.

I do think there is something worthwhile to the way the US Constitutional system operates, and that the difficulty of amending the Constitution has been a good thing overall. But to ascribe the countries' very different histories to legal structures alone without considering geopolitical and economic differences is a bit facile. One might as well argue that France had existed in approximately the same territory for nearly 2500 years while the US has only been in existence for about 1/10th of that time - it's approximately true but not really informative.

nitpick: the Canadians actually beat us in the war of 1812. Twice if you count the failure of Benedict Arnold's campaign. The real reason for the peace along our northern border was Britain's post-Munroe policy of trying to cultivate an alliance with us as a means first of securing free access to Latin American ports and later of having us to aid it in its traditional role of balancing against the prospect of a hegemony on the European mainland.

D'oh! You're right of course, I apologize for such a lazy mistake.

Since the revolution, France has been an Empire twice, a monarchy other than an Empire once, plus the five republics; it has not been each form several times. And the changes to non-republic forms were not through democratic wind of the moment overturning the rule of law.

Also, the US had been through at least one change since the revolution parallel to the change between the fourth and fifth republic in France, that between the US under the Articles of Confederation and the US under the Constitution.

My count differs. France was an empire under Napoleon 1 from 1804 to 1814, again for a few months in 1815 (and that time he took over due to overwhelming popular support), and again under Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870.

Both in 1815 and 1852, the emperor took power with public support. (Napoleon I invited the soldiers sent to stop him to kill him, and they joined him instead. Napoleon III was democratically elected then changed the form of government.)

There were more monarchies as well. When the Revolution happened it first briefly became a constitutional monarchy before the First Republic. It was made a monarchy when Napoleon fell, then the monarchy was restored after Napoleon fell again.

You make a good point about the adoption of the Constitution in the US. Furthermore it is unfair for me to not note that several of France's changes of government were imposed from without.

But still I've noticed a sharp difference of attitude between what people in different countries believe democracy to be.

You should at least take into account all the countries that seceded from the colonial empires in one form or another. Including Ireland.

If the Confederate States of America held a public vote to secede - do you think it would have passed? If it passed, do you think the United States should have let them secede?

I think it all hinges on what "a public vote" is.

The problem most people have with Crimea, as far as I've seen, is not that there was a vote to secede. It's that the vote was heavily rigged and in no way reflects the popular sentiment of the people living there.

Similarly with the Confederates, I'm sure a public vote on secession would have passed, if you had limited it to people who were already eligible voters. But what if you had extended it to all the poor people and slaves? I'm going to hazard a guess that allowing the ~40% of the population that was enslaved to vote on the issue would have tipped the balance against secession.

>I think it all hinges on what "a public vote" is.

While true, it's somewhat of a red herring. If Texas held a vote today and voted to secede, I imagine the position of the federal government would be "Nope, you can't do that." Of course, it's hard to say how that particular scenario would play out given that--whatever wild rhetoric occasionally floats out of Austin--there is approximately zero likelihood such a vote would take place. So one would have to assume a significantly different political and cultural landscape than actually exists.

That said, it's fair to say that there's a widespread presumption in western democracies that if a region of a country holds a legitimate vote to split off, they should be allowed to do so. If Quebec decides to leave Canada at some point, I'd expect Canada would have little real choice but to let them.

In the case of the Confederacy though, I doubt it would have made much difference even had there been a hypothetical vote in which a majority of the entire population voted to secede. The North would almost certainly still have gone to war to preserve the Union.

>That said, it's fair to say that there's a widespread presumption in western democracies that if a region of a country holds a legitimate vote to split off, they should be allowed to do so.

Somaliland did and is not recognized by anybody.

The actual assumption is that if a region of a country holds a legitimate vote that is recognized as so by the rest of the country, then it should be allowed to do so.

Votes in Quebec, Scotland, South Sudan, Erythrea, Timor Leste were recognized by the main country before they happened.

The only exception is Kosovo where Serbia opposed the vote.

Scotland is in a different position because the UK already has varying degrees of constituency (e.g. compare crown dependencies, "countries" and so on). Over the past century the UK has effectively paved the way that enables votes like the one in Scotland in the first place (contrast this with Ireland a century ago).

But you are right: what matters isn't whether the vote is legitimate but whether the sovereignty of the seceding territory is (internationally) recognized. This is certainly not the case in the Ukraine, nor is it the case in Spain (Catalan) or Turkey (Kurdistan).

As another poster said, Scotland is sort of a unique case for historical reasons but in general you're right that a key criterion is recognition by the rest of the country. Otherwise, the international reaction is (for the most part rightly) that whatever dispute exists is really an internal matter and other countries shouldn't get involved my recognizing breakaway provinces/regions. There are exceptions but it's a sensible default.

Did the states vote on the issue? Either way I cannot reconcile saying no to them not being allowed to secede with Wilsons 14 points (and, on a personal point, I very much enjoyed my childhood in Southern Jutland, which was one of the areas that voted to join another country after WWI) or even the American revolution. I also can't argue against going to war with them to end slavery but that shouldn't necessarily mean that they should be forced to join the union afterwards.

To my knowledge, states did not hold plebicites. However, their legislatures did vote on the issue. You can read the ordinances of secession passed by the legislatures here: http://www.civil-war.net/pages/ordinances_secession.asp

Note that what is shown are excerpts. click the links to view the full measures passed. Note the ones that include the defense of the institution of slavery as their primary motivation.

Looks like quite soon after the civil war ended, the US Supreme Court ruled that secession was not allowable per the Constitution.


Secession had been a topic of politics in the South for decades, and was was unpopular for a long time. After the South Carolina Fire-Eaters forced the issue in 1861, a wave of secession fever swept the South. Most seceding legislatures passed secession with large majorities, except for edge cases like Kentucky (where the state government rejected secession then basically collapsed).

None of this was democratic, of course, because many Southern states had large black majorities. IIRC, More than 80% of Mississippi and 65% of South Carolina, by population, was black. Nearly all those people were enslaved and/or disenfranchised. These were not nations of the people, but states run by and for the slaveowners. The only reason that contemporary Southern states had a majority-white population is because the wave of state terrorism and terroristic violence caused a massive exodus of black Southerners, the Great Migration.

Of course it was democratic. It's easy to forget that the definition of who is or isn't a citizen and who is or isn't eligible to vote is historically impermanent.

It's not even comparable to women's suffrage: women were citizens who couldn't vote because of their gender, whereas slaves were in an entirely different category. The closest equivalent in the modern US would be prisoners (except their status is not intrinsic but temporary). In terms of human rights, slaves weren't really treated as human. Slaves are property, not unlike cattle and livestock.

This mindset is obviously appalling from a human rights point of view, but it's misleading to call a state undemocratic just because it doesn't categorize a large segment of its population as people (the "demos" in "democratic"), even if we wouldn't consider it democratic by our (mostly superior) modern ideas of who should or shouldn't be represented in a representative democracy.

The secessions happened around a time when those definitions began to change and more non-slaves became increasingly uncomfortable with the dehumanizing idea of slave ownership (in part carried by new religious ideas though it would be naive to thank religion for abolishing slavery). One of the reasons this change of mind was met less favourably in the seceding states was that they were the ones most economically dependent on slave ownership and therefore most threatened by any legislation that would make the practice illegal or less viable.

Heck, considering how latent racism still is in the modern US, it should be easy to imagine how the idea that black people are no different from white people except for irrelevant details like the colour of their skin wasn't actually widely accepted at the time. It's not like free slaves were treated as equals to white men either -- although at least recognizing them as human (and citizens) certainly was an improvement.

To be honest, the unwillingness to recognise Crimean secession had a lot more to do with geopolitics than Westphalian constitutionalism. The idea of constitutions guaranteeing the indivisibility of nations faced a lot of challenge in liberal political thought, especially over the past century.

It's why the West generally does recognise the secession of Kosovo but doesn't recognise the secession of Abkhazia, and Russia adopts the reverse position. Not to mention the frankly silly policies adopted by different countries on Beijing/Taipei sovereignty...

> even if there was a referendum and even if that referendum was formally valid and the outcome was in favour of the secession, the constitution of the Ukraine forbids the secession and therefore renders the referendum invalid by definition.

That's kind of weird. What does it take to peacefully annihilate/void a constitution, then?

I would assume that if every citizen revokes their citizenship to the original country, then the original country ceases to exist, no? (Or rather, retains no more sovereignty than a "country" like Sealand.)

Most constitutions can be amended, but unless there are people with guns ready to back them up they are, to quote George Bush, "just a piece of paper".

>What does it take to peacefully annihilate/void a constitution

Most constitutions specify processes for amending them, which often could be used to dismantle them.

Either a constitution provides some mechanism to amend/replace itself or politically devolve, or the entire populace has to be very lucky and agreeable at the same time, I suppose.

Constitutions work like anything else in politics: if nobody acknowledges their validity, they might as well not exist. In other words, if nobody opposes voiding the constitution, it can be voided regardless of what it claims.

Of course most countries with such provisions have some systems in place to prevent this from happening (e.g. by having a supreme court that is legally bound to act in the spirit of the constitution).

Countries ceasing to exist is actually an interesting topic.

Germany, for example, is generally regarded to have been founded in its current form after WW2 when it received its Grundgesetz (literally "foundational law") that effectively became its constitution. The Federal Republic is not the same government as the Third Reich.

However a few decades later the Democratic Republic (East Germany) dissolved and was absorbed by the Federal Republic. So cities in East Germany were formerly German under the Third Reich, then German in the Democratic Republic and now German in the Federal Republic.

Additionally the Third Reich is called "the Third" because there were two other empires preceding it: the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the German Empire (1871-1918). So if we consider the Federal Republic as a successor to all three of these, does that mean Germany only existed since the foundation of the German Empire in 1871?

Well, no. Germany as the political entity we would today recognize as Germany indeed began in 1871, but it was preceded (with a few years of chaos in between) by the looser German Confederation (1815-1866) which in turn was preceded by the much larger Holy Roman Empire (962-1806).

If you try to dig any deeper than that you end up with various kingdoms incorporating separate parts of what later became Germany and a lot of parts we wouldn't consider German, so at that point the term "Germany" loses its meaning.

But in all that basically means there are three separate entities we could think of as "Germany":

1. The Federal Republic of Germany, which is an internationally recognized country today.

2. The internationally recognized nation of Germany, which has existed since the foundation of the German Empire and which since the reunification is represented solely by the Federal Republic.

3. The socio-cultural entity we call Germany, which dates back to the Holy Roman Empire (and, in parts, even beyond).

Also consider the role of Austria during WW2: because Austria had been annexed by Germany ("voluntary" or not) it effectively ceased to exist as a separate entity. However Austrians would very much disagree if you said that Austria as an entity ceased to exist as well (and later popped into existence again).

It gets even more complicated if you consider all the various parts that were at various times part of "Germany" (in any of its forms) or not.

At the end of the day, a country is whatever other countries agree to be a county and the cultural, geographic and political definitions tend to not always line up.

I can echo the dissent to this view. Not one european nation came out as a turf for religious freedom. Quite the opposite, most nations came out as religiously cleansed.

Ethnicity, Religion and Nationhood are different things. Todays meaning of "nationhood" was probably formed in this time of wars. But most of Europe's nations of present day are culturally dominated by one the belligrent religions:

Catholic: Italy, Belgium, France, Austria, Ireland, Poland Protestant: Great Britain, Netherlands, Scandinavia, the Baltics

Today, there are only two exceptions. Switzerland and Germany. Germany didn't exist as a "nation", but in each of the many German states, it was either one or the other religion. As was the case in Switzerland's Cantons.

Swiss history can be thought of periods of peace and war. By peace, I mean sending mercenaries to go fight, and burning jews and witches instead of invading the neighboring cantons with a slightly different version of Christianity and pillaging them.

Fortunately, the invention of the portable Raclette oven calmed down religious tensions, though it did not lessen the zeal for witch and jew burnings.

There should be no conflict here. The idea arose out of a period of intense conflict. This idea arose as a response to religious conflict, and took a long time to get accepted. It is therefore no surprise that there was a lot of religious cleansing prior to and during the period where the idea formed.

More specifically, modern notions of religious freedom generally get traced back to John Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–92). He was influenced in turn by ideas developed by Baptist theologists. And his sphere of influence includes people like Thomas Jefferson who put freedom of religion into the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

I highly recommend Gellner's Nations and Nationalism on this topic. While not Gospel, it might at least be a good start.

Roman Empire had pretty tolerant culture as well...

The Roman Empire was traditionally willing to tolerate you if you were willing to worship the Emperor as a god.

This version of tolerance famously didn't work out very well for Jews and Christians. Particularly since they were OK with private human sacrifice and public executions for entertainment.

We owe a lot to the Roman Empire. But I wouldn't romanticize it too much.

Owe? A thousand years of stagnation? A repressive regime that enslaved half the world for the benefit of a handful of their own rich?

What did the Romans ever do for us?

In all seriousness, though, we tend to ignore how advanced the Roman civilization was compared to the "barbaric" ones outside of its borders.

For example, when the Romans invaded Dacia around year 106 they created a new capital, at Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulpia_Traiana_Sarmizegetusa), which became a proper Roman city, with an amphitheatre, a forum, several temples, Roman-built villas. The Romans evacuated Dacia and its capital around year 270, and then everything collapsed. Around Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa writing just vanished, for the next 800 years or so there are no archaeological finds involving written texts (either in stone or on the buildings' walls). Stone churches started to get built around year 1100-1200, many of them using stone from the Roman ruins. Theater as an art form would only return to the region around year 1600-1700, that's almost 1500 years after the Romans had left.

That makes me wonder what the Romans DID to those people, to blast them back to the stone age.

Parker's book on the topic is a good one-volume cover of the history from a global perspective. The climate data are pretty clear on how weird things were, with no shortage of "most extreme ever" events from China to England:


Concepts--all concepts--are made things, and the edges we draw around them are the edges of our attention. People draw those edges in different places, or not at all, depending on their priors. As such, a certain type of person will argue that there wasn't "really" a "general criss" in the 17th century because the panoply of events aren't enough to trigger their edge-detectors, and they feel that their edge-detectors are arbiters of reality. Arguments of this nature are rarely productive. The events happened regardless of what you call them.

That the global climate underwent a statistically significant excursion in the 17th century is hard to argue against. That that excursion was also economically significant is likewise difficult to argue against. Unprecedented multi-year runs of poor harvests aren't really something that can be wished away with ideology. Finally, that the economic excursion helped drive political decision making should be relatively uncontroversial, unless one were to argue that politics happens in an economic vacuum.

Parker does a good job of emphasizing the contingency of outcomes. People made decisions for reasons that seemed good to them--often of the form "God loves my country, so if I do X, Y will necessarily and certainly happen!"--and results followed for unrelated reasons (often of the form, "Luck.")

He also argues that something like 1/3 of the human species died in the crisis, which is fairly astonishing, but given the death tolls for the places where we have data, not entirely unsupportable.

There are some interesting comparisons between (what the economist Tyler Cowen refers to as) The Great Stagnation Of 1973-now, and The Really Great Stagnation of 1650-1740. Restraining the comparison to the English speaking nations, we can say:

1.) Both episodes begin with a cultural revolution that has no precedent (the arrival of militant Protestantism versus the arrival of the counter-culture of the 1960s)

2.) Both episodes witness a fundamental reassessment of what property is. (The closing of the commons giving rise to the concept of private property, versus the modern rise of intellectual property).

3.) Both episodes see important intellectual innovation, against a background of economic stagnation (Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Boyle, versus the rise of modern genetics --- although, arguably, this is an area where the analogy breaks down, as nothing of the last 50 years seems to match the importance of Newton or Boyle).

4.) Both episodes see a civil rights struggle that fundamentally changes the relationship between the citizen and the state (freedom of religion being the big struggle of the 1600s, freedom from racial discrimination being the struggle of recent times).

The Really Great Stagnation ended with the Industrial Revolution. The current stagnation ends with...

> arguably, this is an area where the analogy breaks down, as nothing of the last 50 years seems to match the importance of Newton or Boyle

I'd argue that the ongoing computer revolution matches that. While, true, our knowledge of proper science hasn't advanced compared to what Newton, Boyle, et al. have done, our advances in engineering have more than made up for it. Personal computers, the Internet, and smartphones have changed the world like nothing else.

> freedom from racial discrimination being the struggle of recent times

For that matter, let's also add the ongoing culture wars, including the de-emphasizing of religion in everyday life and the struggle for LGBT rights.

> our advances in engineering

Think about where that word comes from.


Mid-14th century, constructor of military war engines (e.g. trebuchet).

It probably ends with commercial fusion power or a similar technological gain on power generation. Cheap power makes most of the stuff we use or make much cheaper. Which leads to a major change in the living standard and expectations (imagine access to electricity being seen as a right since power generation would outstrip demand if something like fusion became viable).

it correlates with climate change nicely - the 1650 was the time of the Little Ice Age which significantly affected the production of food and everything else. The fusion power (or similar) would allow to mitigate and finally overcome the current climate change catastrophe (the fact that it moves slowly doesn't make it less serious - just like a huge container ship - the mass/inertia makes for the speed in collision :) which is starting to cause real economic damage (cattle growing in Texas, agriculture in CA for example). And it is just the beginning...

I believe that with internet and open source idea, most human needed knowledge is free. What you need is cheap energy to realize what you want from it.

Replacing staring at screens with experiencing life.

Teaching our youth how to learn for themselves from experience, rather than Wikipedia and Facebook and social media du jour.

Talking to people in person rather than through screens and wires.

Good luck stuffing that particular genie back into the bottle.

It might happen if the current trend for digital and virtual prove detrimental enough. Just like newspapers not dying, or vinyl discs. Some properties stand the test of time, and I'm sure that nature complexity and our deep link to it will be valued again in the future. Right now people are still worshiping technology, until they realize it's a lot of commercial crap wrapped around a tiny beautiful core of knowledge.

Anybody interested in the subject should read Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. It's an excellent fictionalized account of the time period, focusing on the social and economic transformations (specifically, from a land-based economy and culture to a money-based one), which Stephenson posits is the birth of the modern world.

So, where is the test for "Distribution of conflicts does not follow a Poisson distribution?"

Certainly, that is a necessary condition before one can claim that a period is special in some way.

Yes, one can tweak the raw data by adjusting the time period, the estimation of the magnitude and number of conflicts (for example, was the 80-year war a single war? There certainly was a 12-year truce that likely was longer than many periods of formal peace), and by what areas of conflict to include, but that should only make it easier to get a statistically significant result.

This is a fascinating period of history. Our modern financial system is born during this period. I'm reading up on Cromwell and the English Civil Wars right now. There is a ton of great Dutch history during this period as well, especially the Dutch East India Company. Thanks for sharing.

I guess this is somewhat connected to the concept of the European Civil War:


Interesting concept, although the single most significant event of that era would have to be the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648.

I'd say the Glorious Revolution is right up there with it, as it was such a formative influence in for the American revolutionaries.

And of our era, 9/11, the beginning of the end of the Westphalian state-based order and signaling a new world order of overlapping authorities and loyalties, from multinational corporations to terrorist organizations. "The Modern Mercenary" by Sean McFate is a good book based on this idea.

9/11 isn't even close to the beginning of the end of the Westphalian order. The increasing domination of multinational corporations, labor organizations, political movements, terrorist organizations, etc., was widely observed and pointed to as evidence of the progressive decline of the nation-state order for many decades prior to 9/11.

While I don't disagree, it's still true that much (though not all) of trans-national activity still takes place within an overall Westphalian state framework. (And one of the big exceptions--the Middle East--is essentially a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire post-WWI.

Yeah, you could date it from any time from the end of WW2 onwards, with the establishment of transnational institutions.

Is there a crises timeline ? of some kind of transition map ? for periodicity ...

Maybe it is a little late in the day but I just read that and I don't think I got anything out of it. Some people say it existed and some say it didn't. What's the point?

When studying history, there is utility in developing and understanding frameworks for grouping historical events. It's also important to understand that these models are often flawed.

If you are interested in history as a series of facts, then this notion isn't particularly useful. But if you are curious as to how our modern societies came to be, you will endlessly scour history for patterns demonstrating how our era is different and how it is not from other eras, how the eras leading up to it were different and how similar eras may or may not have flourished in bygone ages.

It is especially interesting when you consider that the general consensus is that we are entering a period of dramatic climate change, and the crisis/crises in question took place during the "little ice age" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Ice_Age), another period of dramatic climate change.

If you're the type who looks for lessons in history, it raises some obvious questions: are the dislocations, wars and struggles that came from the privation of the little ice age something we'll be seeing in our future too? Are there things about warming that make it more or less prone to these types of problems than global cooling was? Are there mistakes people made back then that we can avoid making?

> developing and understanding frameworks for grouping historical events

This is called "historiography", and were it more commonly taught in US primary and secondary schools, fewer Americans would think of "history" as being dull -- an endless stream of bare facts lacking context is indeed dull as dishwater; it's in the drawing and analysis of narrative that all the interest lies.

Same here, but a lot of people, teachers and kids seem to love the story of how their (when they feel native enough) ancestors lived. How much time is wasted learning dates and false truth about societies. Also how much people do remember when adults ?

I too would have loved deeper ideas in history classes. Only recently I've realized how subtle historian's work can be, very interesting investigations, but maybe it's too often open questions rather than answers, something kids and schools don't like until college I guess.

I too would like it taught in schools, but I also think its important to have reliable sources for the bare facts. It depresses me when I go to the history section in a bookstore and see how much of it is given over to conflicting viewpoints of the same events, so there's (almost) different versions of history available depending on what you already like to believe - conservative history over here, liberal history over there, progressive history in this corner and so on.

> I too would like it taught in schools, but I also think its important to have reliable sources for the bare facts.

No such thing is possible. Facts are inferred unreliably from physical evidence and (at best) primary sources which are written by people who (claim to have) direct experience, but who also write with agendas.

> It depresses me when I go to the history section in a bookstore and see how much of it is given over to conflicting viewpoints of the same events, so there's (almost) different versions of history available depending on what you already like to believe

I don't know how you'd expect it to be otherwise; if you look at first-person accounts of current events, its clear that agendas and biases shape them, and history is largely what is pieced together from those kinds of accounts (often fragments of those kinds of accounts!) plus fragmentary physical evidence. Even if historians didn't have their own biases, there's multiple self-narratives that can be reconstructed to explain the evidence historians work from and no foolproof way to choose the right one from among those.

I think you're exaggerating the difficulty. We have more than sufficient documentation of many facts to make definitive statements about them, and where we are not sure abou ttheir provenance we can qualify our statements as being limited to a sinlge source or being controversial. We could, for example, dispute the historical causes of the Battle of Waterloo all day, but there's widespread agreement that it took place 200 years ago next Thursday, who the principles were, how it proceeded, and what the outcome was. Of course there are numerous details about the event that event that remain the subject of historical inquiry; did Wellington meet Blucher at 9pm or 10pm, and where on the battlefield did this meeting take place?

It's certainly true that any historical incident comes with a mass of unanswered questions, sometimes of great import - witness the ongoing controversies over the assassination of Kennedy or the authorship of the September 11 2001 attacks in modern times. But there is little dispute that that assassination and those attacks took place on those dates, what the basic nature of those events were and what major changes ensued in the aftermath. Although we face significant epistemological limitations in studying history, you seem to be arguing an almost solipsistic position, as if the impossibility of knowing everything invalidated the notion of knowing anything.

Matters of fact (even if wrong) can be linked together into a web of evidence and assumptions and would serve at least to illustrate what we know and don't know.

> reliable sources for the bare facts

A laudable goal, but one I'm not sure can be achieved. It's often difficult or impossible to obtain accurate reporting of today's events, and, at least in my experience, the passage of time does nothing to simplify the task.

I've always felt that people would enjoy history more if teachers would remember that history contains story.

In fact, etymology-wise history preceded and begat story. It was only as an analogy to history that we invented that signifier for the concept of story.

Actually, I wasn't talking about the etymology at all, just providing a nice mnemonic for educators to remember when deciding how to teach history.

I do find etymological stuff like that fascinating, though.

'Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory'

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