This very interesting and well written book is an ambitious survey of the traumatic 17th century. Parker is an expert on 17th century Europe who has written previously on this and quite a number of related topics. This book is a successful attempt to summarize a huge amount of historial information about the 17th century across the globe and draws not only on the very large range of secondary literature but also an impressive number of primary sources. Parker is a fine writer and shrewd analyst.
Even by the turbulent standards of human history, the 17th century was a particularly deadly period. While no one can know for certain, its plausible that somewhere between a quarter and a third of humanity in Eurasia perished prematurely across the 17th century. Famine, disease, and a great deal of prolonged conflict characterized the 17th century. This includes such well known events as the 30 Years War in Europe and the Ming-Qing transition in China. Parker describes 5 interacting features that drove the disasters of the 17th century. This is the period of the Little Ice Age (LIA), which resulted in diminished agricultural output and frequent harvest failures across the globe. Parker points out that the relatively benign 16th century had seen considerable population growth putting greater numbers of people at risk for subsistence crises. Important interacting human factors were the growth across Eurasia of states powerful enough to support substantial and destructive armies but not powerful or rich enough to produce centralized states that could mitigate the environmental and military challenges of the period. Finally, there was enough economic growth to produce large (and vulnerable) cities and some degree of regional specialization in agriculture, but not enough wealth to allow really large scale movement of foodstuffs to alleviate subsistence crises.
After a short analytical introduction, much of the book is a series of chapters analyzing the events of the 17th century across the globe. These focus on political history but stress the interactions of the 5 factors that Parker identifies in his analysis. These sections are generally done very well and contain a wealth of interesting detail. Parker covers Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and China in some detail with excursions to other regions of the globe. He draws on the particularly rich literature on Britain with 2 outstanding chapters on the English Civil War and related events. There is some duplication in these narrative chapters but they also give a very nice sense of the global connectedness of events. Parker also does very well in maintaining a truly global focus. A good deal of the narrative and analysis shows how 17th century developments set the stage for subsequent events in the 18th and subsequent centuries.
In a particularly nice chapter on Tokugawa Japan, Parker shows a counter-example to his general model. Because of continuous warfare in the 16th century, Japan had a relatively low population density and was less susceptible to subsistence problems. It was a unified state that avoided the internecine conflicts seen in Europe and the Tokugawa state avoided international conflict and devoted considerable resources to relief.
One relatively minor problem is that the narrative chapters tend to overwhelm the analysis at times, giving parts of this book a bit of a can't see the forest for the trees character. Parker also has a short epilogue section in which he points to the relevance of the impact of climate change in the 17th century to our contemporary problems. Parker rightly stresses the destructive effects of climate changes but actually understates the problem. The situation we're in now is not like the 17th century. The magnitude of the changes in train under business as usual greenhouse gas emissions are likely much greater than those seen in the 17th century.
on September 3, 2013
Culminating decades of research, this gargantuan tome should enjoy a similarly long life. The core ideas aren't exactly new (so let's say 4.5 stars); cf. earlier work by Jean and Richard Grove, HH Lamb, Brian Fagan. But it's now authoritative on 17C crises. Though Parker is most at home in his original European specialty, "GC" is genuinely global in scope with much to offer on other regions. It's truly inter/multidisciplinary history, but readable style helps make scientific and technical details accessible. One nice treat is having illustrations keyed to page numbers, to find further information swiftly. There are drawbacks: the (well-organized) avalanche of data will deter some readers, not least because this is an analytical study, not a narrative. More important, it is hard to conclusively prove causation between macro-level -- ENSOs, drought, famine, etc -- and micro-level events like wars and revolts. Overall, Parker is persuasive in making connections and avoiding determinism, though specialists will weigh in as needed. This is also present-minded scholarship, as Parker recounts varied responses to natural and political disaster. Some, like state grain reserves, provided crucial food relief. Others are more disturbing, like state repression to counter unrest. But proper knowledge of this earlier "time of troubles" can help prepare for current and future challenges. Will we learn in time?
on June 9, 2013
This book tells the story of the 17th century with its chaos, famine, revolutions, harsh weather and wars, and does in an all-encompassing look across the globe.
Much of this story has been told before either in works focusing on individual areas, or as a whole.
The premise underlying this retelling is that harsh and unusual weather/climate had a greater role in triggering the political upheaval than heretofore appreciated.
There is no doubt that the climate was severe based on historical records and observations, and that it resulted in famine, population decrease etc.
It's a little less clear to what extent the climate triggered the political events. The author interjects the climatic variables into the historical story and suggests they played a role but at times it's not clear whether the climatic effects were causal, correlated, or simply co-existed.
So we hear that cold, heat, drought, floods played into the historical events, but in some instances they are interjected into the currency of the events, which is no more meaningful than to acknowledge that while the unusually early and cold winter halted Napolean's and Hitler's attempt to conquer Russia, that the winters were in any way causal of their invasions rather than correlated or co-existent.
In most cases the author attempts to find and indicate causality but the lines do get blurred as to what was causal or coincidental, as the book repeatedly interject into the narrative that 'it was the coldest, hottest, driest, wettest' etc,; points out the disruption and famine that was undoubtedly caused by these changes and infers theeir connections as causative cause rather than an harsh but co-existent modifier of the events.
When climate change was not associated with massive unrest (Japan e.g) the author relates that to a better organized government and less pressure on the food supply among other explanations...which seems to try to have the climate stor both ways, although those mitigating effects may indeed by true.
It's a historian's prerogative to build and 'theme' the root causes of historical events... The historical events happen once but can have many interpretations... a la the dozens of books written about the precedents for say, the attack on Pearl Harbor or the causes of WWII.
I don't give the book less than 5 stars because of the thesis relating to the climate...it's a little dense and dry at times to read as it covers the events of the century, and begins to get a bit repetitive..
Overall, it's a good account of the travails of that century with an interesting theme that has much to support the premise of induction by climate...but if you've read about the chaos of the 17th century in any other book you won't get much more out of this than 'it was the coldest, hottest, driest, wettest, drought stricken, volcano inflicted' etc interjections, and you can add them yourself to your other readings, as they did occur.... but what they caused and with what they simply coincided or exacerbated is hard to tell.
The author may have been better placed to focus on the exacerbation of the events by climate rather than reaching to causality...but it wouldn't have been such a provocative new approach...which he is entitled to venture...
This is a great work; it will stand as a major history of human beings dealing with multiple crises. I have to disagree with those who say it's "not for the beach" just because it's long. It is so well and compellingly written that it served me well on a long vacation. Infinitely better than those horrible long novels people take with them.
My one problem is that Dr. Parker does not really prove a case that climate caused the revolutions and wars. He stops a bit short of saying it did. He correlates wars and rebellions with the horrible climate events of the Little Ice Age, but--in a particularly good section of the book--notes that the awful climate events continued well into the 18th century, but the wars didn't. In fact, the 18th century begat the Enlightenment, partly in reaction to all those wars in the 17th. So, in fact, climate problems sometimes go with wars and sometimes go with revolutions and sometimes with neither one. Not much hope of causal chains there.
In some cases, the wars were predictable long before the climate turned bad. The Ming Dynasty's survival till 1644 was a still-unexplained miracle; it was rotten and tottering by 1550 (or even 1500) and would surely have fallen in the 17th century, climate or no. The religious wars of Europe were also a long time coming; they started in the 1200s with the Albigensian Crusade and got steadily more serious as Protestantism appeared. The climax in the 17th century was fairly predictable.
So, how much does climate explain? It certainly made people more desperate. It certainly displaced millions, and displaced people have much less vested interest in peace than stably located ones. We will need a lot more studies.
Of course, Parker is writing with an eye to our current period of rapid climatic change. I expect that we will see either lots of wars or lots of action to stop climate change. Possibly both. Dr. Parker provides a scary scenario of what might happen (again).
on July 13, 2014
A massive book that is clearly written and ties The 30 Years War, Plagues, Revolutions around the world, and population crises and crash together. Not a Grand Theory book so much as it is an impressive mining of many sources of data to explain how and why the Western World changed so radically and the Enlightenment and technological developments exploded in the 18th Century.
The 17th century appears to be the most calamitous century ever recorded in history. The author does an excellent job of researching this century, its events and the impact and the analysis is also excellent.
The author covers all the events of the 17th century, including the wars, the revolutions, the droughts, the major weather events, etc. Further, he lays out the impact of these events on the people who experienced it. Apparently, due to the events of this century, the population of the planet declined 33% with some areas experiencing even worse declines, e.g. China close to 50% and Germany.
The reasons for this, the author claims, and provides an excellent rationale to support his conclusions, starts with the worst climate of recorded history. The 17th century experienced some of the coldest months and years on record, some of the driest months and years, some of the wetest months and years, etc. One of the main reasons, apparently, was due to the lack of sun spots. However, El Nino raised its ugly head also to impact the weather differently in different regions of the world.
Further, instead of trying to help out their citizens, the 17th century had more wars and longer wars than another century in recorded history. There were only three years in Europe where a war was not being fought. And, there was the 30 years war that totally depopulated parts of Germany and which is still consider by many Germans to be the most calamitous period of German history (even beyond WWII). And, then there was the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China that resulted in a huge depopulation of that country.
And, these wars, droughts, etc., and the resulting hunger and crushing taxes, resulted in rebellions and revolts. The most recognized one is the English Civil War (and Cromwell) which resulted in the only time that the English executed their monarch, King James I. But there were many others, including many parts of the Spanish empire, including Barcelona, Portugal and Naples. These revolts appear to have caused the start of the decline of Spain.
To me, much of the book was new and interesting. However, this is a long and can be challenging read. And, the author often takes direct quotes from first persons, especially English, and these comments are horribly misspelled making it even harder to read. Finally, the conclusions - linking the 17th century to today was a stretch. We don't have anywhere near the amount of wars and revolutions occurring and we have the United Nations as a forum to handle these issues. And, whether we are as unprepared for climate change is arguable.
In spite of some the challenges, I do recommend this book for anyone interested in history. To me, this was worth the investment in money and time.
on September 30, 2015
This book is a great, marvelously chaotic storm of unleashed scholarship, which is badly in need of editorial re-engineering.
There are potentially four separate books in various stages of development locked up inside these almost 1,000 pages. They are:
-The Little Ice Age: 1300 to 1850 A.D.
-Tumultuous Times: A Global Survey of the Seventeenth Century.
-Europe and Asia: The Great Divergence
-Why I Hate Republicans, and why you should too!
Here are the highs and lows of each book-within-a-book:
-‘The Little Ice Age: 1300 to 1850 A.D’ is the suggested title for the Climate Change component of ‘Global Crisis’. The raw material for this book includes roughly the first 100 pages of ‘Global Crisis’, but it is in a very raw form. The key problem is that the natural, physical event known as the Little Ice Age covers about 550 years, but the author is so fixated on the Seventeenth Century that he fails to accurately come to grips with the event as a whole. There are glimmers of a good science-oriented book in here, however, if Parker or some other writer wants to give it a serious go.
-’Tumultuous Times: A Global Survey of the Seventeenth Century.’ This is the best developed, most successful part of the book, which comprises about 400 pages. It is a balanced, comprehensive survey of World History during the 1600’s, stretching all the way from Cromwellian England to Tokugawa Japan, with peripheral landings in the Americas and Africa as well.
You’ll learn about everything from how the Cossack Host came into being, to the perils inherent to empire when you rely too heavily on your 80,000 palace eunuchs to run the government bureaucracy, to the twin evils of the Tanistry and Harem systems of imperial succession, to the hellish nightmare that was Germany during The Thirty Year’s War, to the confusions, errors, and limitations which beset the vast, all powerful yet overextended and declining Spanish Empire, a tale which reads eerily similar in certain respects to the current condition of the United States in world affairs.
-Europe and Asia: The Great Divergence. I’d like to know what Parker thinks about this subject, but by the end of the book when this chapter was finally written the author had lost his focus and went wandering off into the tall grass of too many tangents. Perhaps I’ll just have to settle for what Niall Ferguson has already said about this subject.
-’Why I Hate Republicans, and why you should too!’ Parker conveyed in the final chapter of his book the emotional depth of his concern about current Climate Change as a political issue, identified whom he believes the villains are, and tells a good success story about how the United Kingdom prudently invested in some costly but timely and effective flood abatement infrastructure to prevent the Thames from overflowing its banks and inundating London.
However, these last few pages come totally out of the blue - he has just put his readers through a forced march from Paris to Moscow in deepest winter, where he has waxed eloquently and endlessly about the historical disaster that was the naturally caused Climate Change of the 17th century, then charges in, without explanation or preamble, into the politics of contemporary Climate Change without giving his most patient readers any evidence to support his strongly held beliefs. Since Parker feels so strongly about this topic, he should first study it and come to understand the subject, then write a credible book about it.
on October 27, 2013
Parker has undertaken a prodigious task to relate 17th century "Little Ice Age" to political crisis across the entire world. His efforts to relate climate fluctuations with war, famine etc. are interesting, but much greater in detail in Europe where his scholarly background lies. Discussions of China, Japan and Islamic world interesting but less original in basis. Charts not always clear, though some enhance the text. This is a book that includes an excellent bibliography, is clearly aimed at the scholarly community and at over 700 pages is not for the faint hearted. Concluding section relating 17th c. to the present will only convince the already converted to importance of climate issues.
on August 9, 2013
This very thoroughly researched book tries to prove that adverse climate changes in the XVIIth century had more important role in the extraordinary historical events of the period than previously thought or admitted by historians. I have to say that I am just partly convinced. The extreme climate events of the Little Ice Age and the "global crisis" unfolding in the age are presented side by side, which makes a compelling case that they can be related somehow. But as the book admits, there were extreme climate events without turmoil in the affected societies before and after and there were revolutions, wars, etc. where climate change had no role. After having read the book I have only a vague feeling why climate and historical events had such a dramatic synergy in the XVIIth century.
The book presents an impressive array of facts and sources but I sometimes felt that it was overdone. I often read pages of facts that I felt not related to the main discussion. But I still feel that it is worth reading this book, if not for other reason then to see, how significant climate changes happened just some 100s of years ago. I definitely don't feel so safe after having discovered this fact.
on May 26, 2014
This great book by Geoffrey Parker was for me, as a Dutchman, a real eye opener. We were always taught at school that the 17th century was called Holland’s Golden Century (Gouden Eeuw). But halfway through this century the Dutch Provinces lost their global influence in trade and their society slit into relative poverty. All this happened rather quickly and has been incomprehensible for many. Parker, in a very captivating way, put this global era in a completely new perspective. He not only describes the effects sudden climate change had on society. Like failing crops, there for no food for the population, with the result that 30% of society just starved. The bottom third of the global population was pushed over the cliff. But also describes, in a very fascinating way, how governments and policy makers muddled through this period. Because of their total lack: of understanding, information and communication. Today we know more and understand more and we have constant actual information we can communicate instantly. I sincerely hope that today’s governments and policy-makers read this book, so we will do better with the eminent climate change we have on our doorstep today.