Saturday, October 30, 2010

The godless Enlightenment

A friend has drawn my attention to Philipp Blom's A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. You can read the full review here. As the review states
It is the story of the scandalous Paris salon run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach, a philosophical playground for many of the greatest thinkers of the age. Its members included Denis Diderot (most famous as the editor of the original encyclopedia, but, Mr Blom argues, an important thinker in his own right), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of romanticism, and the baron himself; even David Hume, a famous Scottish empiricist, paid the occasional visit. ...It is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the “official” history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds “cut in stone” on a visit to the Paris Panthéon. There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state. Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.
Blom's heroes are the Enlightenment atheists, Holbach and Diderot. You need to read the whole review to see his argument. You will see that he doesn't like Voltaire or Rousseau!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Enlightenment

Above is Frederick the Great's palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam, built in the style known as Frederician rococo.

The Enlightenment was a dramatic new moment in the history of western Europe, marking a new cultural divide.

As Alexander Pope put it:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night,
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
The beginning of the Enlightenment is difficult to determine. Scholars often talk of a pre-Enlightenment period, dating back to Isaac Newton’s natural science, the social and political theories of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington and the epistemological (theories of knowledge) revolutions of Blaise Pascal and René Descartes. The end is equally difficult to pinpoint. The Enlightenment and its ideals extended beyond 1800 and permeated early nineteenth-century society.
Read more »

We say Enlightenment, the Germans say Aufklärung

Although the Enlightenment is most commonly associated with Frenchmen like Voltaire and the other philosophes, and with Hume and the Scottish thinkers who followed him, the most famous description of the Enlightement came from the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 wrote a celebrated essay, 'What is Enlightenment?' Here's a sample:
'Enlightenment (Aufklärung) is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! ... "Have the courage to use our own understanding", is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.'
See what I mean, when I said that the Enlightenment was self-conscious?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

War and Empire (1)

The following posts are indebted to a number of books, most notably William Doyle, The Old European Order, 1660-1800, 2nd edn. (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Tim Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Penguin, 2007).

The eighteenth century was a period of warfare. The wars of religion were over, and wars were now fought for dynastic or trade reasons. Inevitably they were also clashes over empire. Monarchs, however enlightened they professed to be, still prided themselves on their warrior credentials. Frederick the Great turned Prussia into a military machine. Joseph II on his death bed stated
‘I have always considered the military profession as my vocation’ (quoted Doyle, Old European Order, 266).
Read more »

War and Empire (2) Dynastic Wars

The War of the Spanish Succession
Historians have spoken of a ‘second Hundred Years’ War’, between Britain and France lasting, with intermissions from 1689 to 1815. The century opened with the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), brought about when Louis XIV placed his grandson on the throne of Spain. It is difficult to say who ‘won’ this war, as it ensured a Bourbon succession in Spain but at the cost of handing over most of the Spanish possessions in Europe to Austria and Gibraltar to Britain, and exhausting France’s military and fiscal capabilities. With the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the newly created nation of Great Britain was established as a major European power, even though its population was smaller than France’s. Although from 1714 the kings of Great Britain were also rulers of Hanover, Britain did not seek territorial power on the Continent and it was widely agreed that the main object of British policy was commercial. In 1714 Queen Anne declared,
‘It is in this nation’s interests to aggrandize itself by trade’ (quoted Doyle, Old European Order, 274).
Read more »

War and Empire (3)

Europe overseas
By the 18th century the powers of Western Europe were also imperial powers.

The oldest Empire, the Spanish Empire, was an Empire of settlement and by the middle of the seventeenth century 650,000 Spaniards were living in Spanish America.

The Dutch and Portuguese Empires had begun as trading empires, but the growing demand for sugar led to the populating of Brazil and the West Indian islands by white settlers and black slaves. Between 1700 and 1760 200,000 Portuguese emigrated but five times as many black slaves were transplanted in the same period. Europeans were also establishing themselves along the eastern seaboard of North America.

The most spectacular region of colonization was the British colonies. By 1776 the population of British North America had risen to a quarter of a million, most of them American born and over a third of non-English origin (from Scotland, Ulster, Germany or Africa).
Read more »

War and Empire (4) Colonial wars

War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739-40
Britain and Spain were in dispute over the seizure of British ships. They also had a dispute over the boundaries between Georgia (British) and Florida (Spanish). These disputes were partially resolved at the Convention of El Pado, 1739. Following the mutilation of Captain Jenkins, Britain declared war on Spain. In November Admiral Edward Vernon captured Puerto Bello on the Isthmus of Panama. Otherwise, the war was unsatisfactory for Britain.
Read more »

More on the consumer revolution

The admirable Amanda Vickery has done it again! There is a rave review in the Sunday Times of her new book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Globalization and consumption

[Above is a beautiful example of Staffordshire creamware.]

In the eighteenth century many ordinary people, especially in urban areas, began to acquire consumer goods. This coincided with improvements in communications, housing and postal services.
Read more »

Europe in 1700

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Although historians in the Anglo-Saxon tradition are usually preoccupied with change, historians in the French tradition stress the longue durée- the unchanging lives of the vast majority of people. The Industrial Revolution was to change profoundly the face of Europe but few of these changes were apparent in 1700.

Demographic studies are not an exact science and the textbooks do not always agree on numbers. But all historians agree that the population of Europe rose quite dramatically in the eighteenth century. Western Europe led by France and England gained people at the fastest pace: France’s population rose from c. 21.5 million in 1700 to 28 million in 1789, England’s from 5 to 8.6 million (Scotland had c. 1.2m, Ireland c. 2 m. and Wales about 300,000). Population growth was slower further east. Germany had a popularion of 15 m. in 1700 and 24.5 m. in 1800
Read more »

Monday, October 04, 2010


Welcome to the Birkbeck course, 'Europe Transformed'. You will see that all my notes for the classes are on this blog as well as a bibliography, book reviews and material that I haven't had time to cover in the classes.  I hope you find it helpful.

If you click on anything that is underlined, you will be able to read the rest of the post or be taken to a new site.

Use the sidebar to navigate the blog and don't bother at this stage with any posts dated earlier than October 2010. They will be brought up to date when necessary.

Enjoy the course!

Book list

Alexander, R. S., Napoleon (Edward Arnold, 2001)
Anderson, M. S., Europe in the Eighteenth Century (Longman, 1970)
Bayley, C. A, The Birth of the Modern World (Blackwell, 2004)
Beales, Derek, Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Tauris, 2005)
Berg, Maxine, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (OUP, 2005)
Black, Jeremy, The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2005)
Blackburn, Robin, The Making of New World Slavery (Verso, 1997)
Read more »