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Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the 17th Century Review

global-crisis-war-climate-change-and-catastrophe-in-the-17th-century-review

Geoffrey Parker’s massive work Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the 17th Century is awe-inspiring in its length: at over a thousand pages long, it goes beyond just a look at Europe to embracing almost every corner of the globe, from China, to Russia, to Britain, to Italy, to the Ottoman Empire, South Asia, the Americas, even Australia ad far more! And these are beyond the level of simple overviews: the section of England is a two-chapter affair, while even the less lengthy parts on India or Persia are substantial in of themselves. This is a huge exposé which manages an incredible global perspective on the world crisis, disruption, suffering, misery, and factors involved in and produced by the deadly conjecture of war, climate change, and governmental mismanagement which brought the 17th century world to its knees and may have killed up to a third of the global population.

A Europe where the Thames was often fit for ice skating and where even the Rhone could freeze over speak of a climate which is dramatically different from that which we know today

A Europe where the Thames was often fit for ice skating and where even the Rhone could freeze over speak of a climate which is dramatically different from that which we know today


Starting with China in the East is an excellent choice, as Parker spirals across the globe from the most dramatically impacted region of the world through the ruin of Europe, the Americans, and then cycling back to East Asia, since China most clearly demonstrates the crisis which gripped the planet during these dark years of the Little Ice Age. Certainly, almost every part of the world was impacted in some way, but the Manchus launched their invasion of northern China in response to the horrific climatic disasters prevailing in their Manchurian homeland, and to exploit the internal dysfunction of the Ming, worsened by internal climatic problems and peasant unrest. Parker has a great use of sources which relay the intense tragedy and suffering that the Chinese experienced as death whirled about them, their society collapsed, and they were forced to humiliating submission to invaders. The despair which grips the narrators as their world, way of life, and culture collapsed amidst droughts, floods, banditry, foreign invasion, famine, and defeat is striking and pervades the text. its combination of the excellent descriptions of the feeling of the crisis and the rise and fall of Li Zicheng, the charismatic rebel leader, is comprehensible, helps contribute to the understanding of the structures present in the crises, and sweeping in its details of the Qing-Ming transition and Qing policy decisions.

In other states, the climate chanes did not alone spark the collapse or catastrophe in of itself, but Parker shows the interface and feedback loop between catastrophic climate situations and the bellicose policies pushed by European and Ottoman leadership had a disastrous effect of removing the surplus and margin of action needed for states to deal with the famines, plagues, and communication disruptions. The comparison is compelling even today, where the states which run the most danger from climate change are the weakest ones, without the resources to spare to confront it. On its own, war or climate change could have been confronted without too much dislocation, but combine them together and the result was a deadly cocktail. By contrast, the Safavids in Iran, Mughals in India, and Japanese, either isolationist or more restrained in their military and foreign policy aims, with more resources to spare or less strain on their societies, were better able to withstand the strain without the massive losses sustained by France, the German states, Spain, Britain, or Poland.

One notable state is left out however of the victor's club: the Dutch Republic, which despite being embroiled near constantly in war, in an extremely cold climate (having been to the Netherlands in May in our century I can testify that even now it is absolutely frigid), and deeply linked into the international economy. Yet the Netherlands underwent a golden age during this period, and its population expanded or maintained - with the 18th century being its period of stagnation. It is not explained by Parker why the Netherlands succeeded, and he brushes over this by focusing on the brief, and relatively minor, impact of the dislocations of the end of the Eighty Years' War.

The systemic structures are also accompanied by interesting observations of composite states and their weaknesses. Particularly well explored is Britain and Spain, where the fault lines of subdivisions such as Portugal, Castille, Aragon, Catalonia, or Scotland, England, and Ireland, helped to lead to civil war and conflict. In Britain, the monarchy, Charles II, sought to impose religious uniformity in Scotland, leading to rebellion, while the presence of Scotland and Ireland helped to keep the war going after the English Civil War broke out. In Spain, the attempts to force peripheral regions such as Catalonia or Portugal to pay an increased share of the war effort, under the belief that they were contributing less than Castille, led to a bloody revolt in the former and independence in the latter. By contrast, more unitary states did not suffer from these fault lines.

Figures such as Richelieu marked a massive change in who exercised power, vital assistants of kings and power centers in their own right.

Figures such as Richelieu marked a massive change in who exercised power, vital assistants of kings and power centers in their own right.


Related to this is one of the key features of 17th century governance, the rise of “favorites,” key chancellors and ministers who dominated government, such as Richelieu, Mazarin, the Duke of Buckinham, Count of Olivares, or Oxenstierna. Parker lays out a fascinating feedback loop where they proved increasingly necessary and yet also disrupruptive. They helped to circumvent increasingly powerful and cumbersome bureaucracies and to deal with crises, but this increasing centralization of power also provoked these very crises, leading to increasing need for them, in a terrible cycle. Both Mazarin and the Count of Olivares seem to be individuals with boundless energy and ambition, but very little idea of when to stop, to know their limitations, with atrocious consequences for their suffering countries.

A deeply tragic book, which shows the vulnerability of the Early Modern world and the danger that environmental change and collapse can herald, a vision for both today and history. There is an excellent examination of the cultural sides of the transformation in science and mentalities, as a new, rationalistic world view of technological progress seemed to ultimately offer a reprieve and a way out of the crisis and the ecological relevance to today which complete it and make it into a brilliant general history and a look at one of the world’s turning points.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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