The Catholic University of America

History 390A: Crisis and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century Europe

This course will examine a critical period of transition in European history, the age of the first “world” war, the period in which kings were overthrown and the right to rebel was defended by philosophers, the era of the scientific revolution and the early Enlightenment, and the time in which both modern republicanism and absolutism were established alongside the idea of the nation-state.  We will begin with the argument made by historians that the seventeenth century was a time of universal crisis, and we will consider from there the many political, philosophical, and cultural resolutions that emerged out of this supposed crisis.  The course will have five distinct but interlocking units: the decline of Spain, the Thirty Years War, Republicanism and Absolutism, the Scientific Revolution, and the early Enlightenment.

Course Books

Rabb, The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe
Asch, The Thirty Years War
Helferrich, The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History
Descartes, Discourse on Method
Prak, The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century
Beik, Louis XIV and Absolutism
Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed
Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science
Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise


The course will use both primary and secondary source readings, which should be completed by the Tuesday of each week unless otherwise indicated.

Students will write three papers (5-7 pages each) for the course.  At the beginning of each unit, students will receive a list of suggested paper topics; they may choose to write on one of the suggested topics or to create their own topic based on the readings for the unit.  Students may submit papers for three units of their choice—hence, for two units they do not need to write papers.  These papers may be turned in any time after the completion of the relevant unit and before Saturday, May 2nd, at 5pm, which is a “no-excuses” deadline.  If students choose to write four or five papers instead of three, only the three highest grades will be counted.  If a student writes all five papers and receives a “B” or higher on all of the papers, then the student may choose to have his or her paper grades substitute for the final exam: i.e., the average of the five papers would then become 80% of the student’s grade.

There will also be a final exam, with identifications, short-answer questions, and an essay section, covering the material from the entire course.  The final will be on Tuesday, May 5, from 1:30-3:30pm.

We will have an in-class debate on Locke vs. Hobbes on March 26th.

On April 23rd we will have a day of cultural presentations.  Each student should prepare some form of seventeenth-century culture to offer to the other students.  For example, students might jointly perform a scene from a play; bring in food cooked from a seventeenth-century recipe; write and recite a poem written according to seventeenth-century rules of rhyme and meter; perform a seventeenth-century piece of music for the class; sew and wear a seventeenth-century costume, etc.  Students should inform the instructor of their intended presentations by April 14th.


First Paper: 15%
Second Paper: 15%
Third Paper: 15%
Final Exam: 35%
Participation: 10%
Debate: 5%
Presentation: 5%

Course Schedule

Week One: Introduction

Tu: Crisis! Or Not?

Th: An Overview of Early Modern Europe

Reading: Rabb, The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe, pp. 1-34
               Niels Steensgaard, "The Seventeenth-Century Crisis"


Unit One: The Decline of Spain

Week Two: Rise

Th: The Creation of Spain and Its Empire

Reading: Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I, Prologue and Chapters 1-6
               Primary Source Packet

Week Three: And Fall

Tu: The Price of Silver
Th: The Habsburg Jaw

Reading: J. H. Elliott, “The Decline of Spain," Past and Present 20 (1961): 52-75
               J. H. Elliott, “Self-Perception and Decline in Early Seventeenth-Century Spain” Past and Present 74 (1977): 41-61
               Henry Kamen, “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?," Past and Present 81 (1978): 24-50
               Jonathan Israel, “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?," Past and Present 91 (1981): 170-180
               Henry Kamen, “A Rejoinder” Past and Present 91 (1981): 181-185


Unit Two: The Thirty Years War

Week Four: Origins

Th: The Military Revolution

Reading: Asch, The Thirty Years War, pp. 1-72
               Helferrich, The Thirty Years War (selections)


Week Five: The Course of the Wars

Tu: 1618-1635
Th: 1635-1647

Reading: Asch, The Thirty Years War, pp. 73-125
               Helferrich, The Thirty Years War (selections)


Week Six: The Peace Settlement

Tu: Political Settlements
Th: Cultural Settlements

Reading: Asch, The Thirty Years War, pp. 126-194
               Descartes, Discourse on Method
               Treaty of Westphalia


Unit Three: Republicanism and Absolutism

Week Seven: The Dutch Republic

Tu: Casting off Spain
Th: A Golden Age

Reading: Prak, The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century, pp.1-60, 75-152, and 201-249


Week Eight: The French King

Tu: The Fronde
Th: Absolutism in Theory and Practice

Reading: William Beik, Louis XIV and Absolutism


Week Nine: English Revolutions

Tu: Civil War
Th: And a Glorious Revolution

Reading: Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed
               Primary Source Packet


Week Ten: Political Thought

Tu: Political Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century
Th: Hobbes/Locke debate

Reading: Hobbes, Leviathan (selections)
               Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government


Unit Four: The Scientific Revolution

Week Eleven: Nullius in Verba

Tu: Science Before the Scientific Revolution
Th: Planetary Motion

Reading:    Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science

Week Twelve: Galileo

Tu: Catholic and Protestant Responses to Galileo

Reading: Primary source packet
               Rabb, pp. 35-99

Week Thirteen: Newton

Tu: Classical Mechanics and the Calculus
Th: Newton Reads his Bible

Reading: Primary source packet


Unit Five: The Early Enlightenment

Week Fourteen: Seventeenth-Century Cultural Life

Tu: Baroque and Rococo
Th: Cultural Presentations

Reading: Milton, Paradise Lost, Book One and Book Nine
               La Rochefoucauld, Maxims (selected)
               Pascal, Pensées (selected)
               Rabb, pp.100-151

Week Fifteen: Into the Eighteenth Century

Tu: The Question of Atheism
Th: The Century of Genius vs. The Century of Light

Reading: Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (selected)
               Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary (selected)
               Simon, Critical History of the Old Testament (selected)