Goldstone J.A. (1988) East and West in the 17th century

Goldstone Jack A. (1988) “East and West in the Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey, and Ming China”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30/1, 103-142.

Criticism of the previous interpretations:

  • Too Eurocentric: they assume that the West was the epicentre of a crisis due to the rise of capitalism and of the modern state (Marx and Weber). Significantly, the crisis seems to have had more consequences in the East than in the West. The simultaneity of the English revolution, the Anatolian turmoil and the end of the Ming is not either merely casual: “behind all of these events lay a common causal framework rooted in a wide-ranging ecological crisis” (104). The author intends to “note certain cogent similarities that make comparative analysis possible” (105).
  • Early modern states faced common constraints; they needed: 1) sufficient revenue for their army and their administration, 2) sufficient allegiance from the elite, 3) sufficient stability for production to occur. Demographic growth and inflation endangered the equilibrium reached during the 16th century.

The end of a virtuous cycle started in the late 14th century

During the 16th century, population growth had accelerated (less diseases, better climate).

  • +70% for rural Asia Minor and +200% in urban areas in 1500-70; +700% for Istanbul 1520-1600.
  • Chinese population from 65m late 14th century to 150m late 16th century.
  • England from 2m in 1520 to 5m in 1640; London from 50k in 1500 to 400k in 1650.

But agricultural productivity didn’t follow that quick pace.

  • In Anatolia, cultivated acreage increased by 20% in 1500-1570 (decline of productivity per capita).
  • In China the amount of land under cultivation rose of 50% from the late 14th to the mid-17th century (average acreage per head tilled by 33% from 1480 to 1600).

The result of this hiatus was emigration, changes in diet (lower standard of living) and change in landholding structure (which in turn fed proto-industry). After 1650, these trends reversed population declined and agriculture expanded (England even managed to export grain).

A price revolution, the 1500-1650 great inflation

Braudel’s vision is that import of silver from the Americas in the 16th century depreciated currencies. But:

“The equation that relates money supply and prices is MV = PQ, where M is the money supply, V the velocity of circulation of money, P, the price level, and Q the quantity of goods and services marketed. A direct relationship between the money supply and the price level occurs therefore only when the velocity of circulation and the quantity of goods marketed are either constant or change in the same proportion. But in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries monetary velocity changed rapidly relative to economic output” (108).

  • And, monetary velocity did increase during the period; urbanization, multiplication of rural markets and deepening of division of labour induced a faster turnover of species. The extensive use of credit by merchants and governments and the debasement of money had the same effect.
  • Demographic growth increased demand, while supply grew modestly creating an import pressure on the prices; from 1500 to 1650, there was 500% inflation, in the mean time, the stock of silver in England only rose of 33%. There was a monetary famine (development of copper coinage).
  • If inflation had been caused by American silver imports, the governments would have re-valuated their currency they debased them instead. Besides, inflation stopped after 1650, but not precious metals’ flows.

    Fiscal decay

    Due to inflation, the fiscal systems and the military systems linked to it were destroyed:

    • Collapse of the timar system in Turkey, the central army takes more importance (burden of cash payment, rebellion if salary doesn’t cope with inflation, budget deficit), and lands and tax-collecting become private. Contrarily to what has been argued before, trade with the west doesn’t seem to be the reason for the Ottoman fiscal crisis. Extraordinary taxes became ordinary revenue, but the unfairness of the tax-farmers and the ability of large landowners to escape taxes fuelled rebellion.
    • In China, the lija system, also collapsed. Unable to pay their equipment, the wei-so military families lose their strategic importance. Early Ming taxes were paid in goods, but were converted in silver (ex. Chang Chu-cheng 1572-82). There too central government was enable to enforce taxation. As government’s deficit rose, the provinces’ gentry had to rely on its own means to survive and became semi-independent, preventing the state to increase its revenues. The author refuses to consider the import of European silver as a cause of the Ming’s decline. Rice shortage were much more important for inflation (116). “The critical problem was that rising military costs collided with a decreasingly effective tax system.”
    • The English Revolution too started by a financial crisis, after the government had exhausted its asset and credit (no loan guaranteed on taxes since 1620s). The king depended on an alienated Parliament for new taxes. The king had to resort to hidden taxation (monopolies, special levies, sell of offices). In the 1630, the crown was living on credit during peacetime and couldn’t afford a single war. The Scottish rebellion was only the last stroke (119): “the inflation eroded their [the Stuarts’] the value of their revenues, while the growing wealth of landlords remained beyond their grasp.”

    The elite’s increasing social frustration

    Population growth (more surviving offspring dispersing the elite’s wealth) and rising prices (more burden for the conservatives, more incomes for the entrepreneurs) led to an increased social mobility. Overall, there was an “emergence of additional claimants” (120).

    • In the Ottoman Empire, the alliance between the mighty janissaries and the local elite created a new class: the ayans. The repaid turnover of the government official made the administrative efficiency decline. The rising number of gentry members created a fierce competition for the official position; this led to the emergence of factions defying the sultan occasionally.
    • Inflation forced the Chinese magnates to concern themselves more with profit-making than with administration. Class divisions became blurred as some commoners got gentrified. Alienated elite became semi-autonomous and often supported peasants’ rebellion against the taxman. The bureaucratic chaos was general.
    • In England, as the Crown sold its lands, newcomers accessed to elite statute. They grew bitter against a government unable to give them jobs.

    The student population (coming from nouveau riches families) skyrocketed, but the impoverished palace couldn’t possibly employ them all.


    • In Turkey and in China the traditional education system was burst to pieces by the increasing number of students, the quality declined. Connection and wealth became more important than merit to build a career. Often, futureless students and low-ranking official joined bandits or peasants rebellions.
    • The expansion of Oxbridge marked the decline of traditional elite household education. The embittered elite drifted to political radicalism.

    Frustrated and literate masses welcomed heterodox religious movements. Predicators “carried the intellectual torch to the masses” (129). These highly politic currents endangered the ideological bases of the governments.


    • Radical Puritanism, T’ai-chou neo-Confucianism and to a lesser extend Sufi dervishes stressed men’s “intrinsic worth” and intended to purify religious practice and public and private morals. Elites were seduced by these ideas which offered a framework to understand the disordered society.
    • The Tung-li and Fu She academies (reformist and equalitarian Confucians) and Puritans alike lost instantly their political influence as soon as the social peace returned with the Manchu and the Stuarts restoration.

    No popular uprising

    Weak central government and disaffected elite paved the way for the impoverished landless peasants. But these rebellions were generally led and structured by semi-autonomous gentry, unpaid deserters and futureless students.

    • The 1590s-1650s rebellions known as the celali revolts were in general backed by ex-soldiers turned bandits and local magnates seeking independence from Istanbul.
    • The English Revolution is paradigmatic of a elitist and urban rebellion.
    • The Yang-tze bond-servants revolts are maybe the main counter-example of this trend as it was both anti-Ming and anti-gentry.


    1. “The seventeenth-century crisis are not autonomous causal factors, but aspects of an integrated; multifaced process” (131).
    2. “The ideological differences governing state reconstruction after the seventeenth-century crises profoundly influenced the later divergence of East and West” (132). As England, heir of the Puritan messianic ideology, adopted a dynamic culture to reach its imperial destiny. By contrast, China and Turkey adopted a cyclical point of view; orthodox and conservative institutions were to be recreated to return to the Golden Age. As a result they “turned inward and eschewed novelty” (133).

    One Response to Goldstone J.A. (1988) East and West in the 17th century

    1. […] of the 17th-century ‘General Crisis’ have been found all over Eurasia. However in India those years represent the golden age of the Mughal dynasty (p.625). The […]

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