Geoffrey Parker

Book Review

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale University Press, 2014, 904 pages.

Crises, Then and Now

Reviewed by Michael F. Duggan

This book is about a time of climate disasters, never-ending wars, economic globalism complete with mass human migration, imbalances, and subsequent social strife–a period characterized by unprecedented scientific advances and backward superstition.  In other words, it is a world survey about the web of events known as the Seventeenth Century.  Although I bought it in paperback a number of years ago, I recently found a mint condition hardback copy of this magisterial tome by master historian, Geoffrey Parker (Cambridge, St. Andrews, Yale, &c.), and felt compelled to write about it, however briefly.  I have always been drawn to this century because of its contrasts as the one that straddles the transition from the Early Modern to the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment and more broadly marks the final shift from Medieval to Modern (even before the Salem colonists hanged neighbors suspected of witchcraft, Leibniz and Newton had independently begun to formulate the calculus).

In 1959, historian H. R. Trevor-Roper presented the macro-historical thesis of the “General Crisis” or the interpretive premise that the Seventeenth Century can be characterized by an overarching series of crises from horrible regional wars (e.g. the 30 Years Wars, the English Civil War and its spillover into Scotland and Ireland) and rebellions, to widespread human migration and the subsequent spread of disease, any number of specific plagues, global climate change, and a long litany of some of the most extreme weather events in recorded history (e.g. the “little ice age”), etc.  When I was in graduate school, I had intuited this premise (perhaps after reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the “calamitous Fourteenth Century”), but was hardly surprised upon discovering that Trevor-Roper had scooped the idea by 40 years.

Parker has taken this thesis and generalized it in detail beyond Europe to encompass the entire world–to include catastrophic events and change throughout the Far East, Russia, China, India, Persia, the greater Near East, Africa, North America, etc.  Others, including Trevor-Roper himself, also saw this in terms of global trends and scope, but, to my knowledge, Parker’s book is the fullest and most fleshed-out treatment.  It is academic history, but is well-written (and readable for a general audience), and well-researched history on the grandest of scales.  For provincial Western historians (such as myself), the broader perspective is eyeopening and suggestive of human commonality rather than divergence; we are all a part of an invasive plague species and we are all victims of events, nature, and our own nature.

Although I am generally skeptical of macro interpretive theories/books that try to explain or unify everything that happened during a period under a single premise–i.e. the more a theory tries to explain, the more interesting and important, but the weaker is usually is as a theory and therefore the less it explains (call it a Heisenberg principle of historiography)–this one may to be on to something, at least as description.  The question(s), I suppose, is the degree to which the events of this century, overlapping or sequential in both geography and time, are interconnected or emerge from common causes or if they were a convergence of factors both related and discrete, or rather is the century a crisis, a sum of crises, or both?  To those who see human history in the broadest of terms–in terms of of the environment, of humankind as a singular prong of biology, and therefore of human history as an endlessly interesting and increasingly tragic chapter of natural history–this book will be of special interest.

As someone who thinks that one of the most important and productive uses of history is to inform policy and politics, it is apparent (obvious, really) that the author intends this book to be topical–a wide-angle and yet detailed account of another time for our time.  In general the Seventeenth Century is good tonic for those who believe that history is all sunshine and roses or that human progress (such as it is) is all a rising road.  A magnum opus of breathtaking scope and ambition, this book is certainly worth looking at (don’t be put off by its thickness, you can pick it up at any time and read a chapter here or there).