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H.G. Wells (1866–1946). A Short History of the World. 1922.


The Age of Political Experiments; of Grand Monarchy and Parliaments and Republicanism in Europe

THE LATIN CHURCH was broken, the Holy Roman Empire was in extreme decay; the history of Europe from the opening of the sixteenth century onward in a story of peoples feeling their way darkly to some new method of government, better adapted to the new conditions that were arising. In the Ancient World, over long periods of time, there had been changes of dynasty and even changes of ruling race and language, but the form of government through monarch and temple remained fairly stable, and still more stable was the ordinary way of living. In this modern Europe since the sixteenth century the dynastic changes are unimportant, and the interest of history lies in the wide and increasing variety of experiments in political and social organization.

The political history of the world from the sixteenth century onward was, we have said, an effort, a largely unconscious effort, of mankind to adapt its political and social methods to certain new conditions that had now arisen. The effort to adapt was complicated by the fact that the conditions themselves were changing with a steadily increasing rapidity. The adaptation, mainly unconscious and almost always unwilling (for man in general hates voluntary change), has lagged more and more behind the alterations in conditions. From the sixteenth century onward the history of mankind is a story of political and social institutions becoming more and more plainly misfits, less comfortable and more vexatious, and of the slow reluctant realization of the need for a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of the whole scheme of human societies in the face of needs and possibilities new to all the former experiences of life.

What are these changes in the conditions of human life that have disorganized that balance of empire, priest, peasant and trader, with periodic refreshment by barbaric conquest, that has held human affairs in the Old World in a sort of working rhythm for more than a hundred centuries?

They are manifold and various, for human affairs are multitudinously complex; but the main changes seem all to turn upon one cause, namely the growth and extension of a knowledge of the nature of things, beginning first of all in small groups of intelligent people and spreading at first slowly, and in the last five hundred years very rapidly, to larger and larger proportions of the general population.

But there has also been a great change in human conditions due to a change in the spirit of human life. This change has gone on side by side with the increase and extension of knowledge, and is subtly connected with it. There has been an increasing disposition to treat a life based on the common and more elementary desires and gratifications as unsatisfactory, and to seek relationship with and service and participation in a larger life. This is the common characteristic of all the great religions that have spread throughout the world in the last twenty odd centuries, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam alike. They have had to do with the spirit of man in a way that the older religions did not have to do. They are forces quite different in their nature and effect from the old fetishistic blood-sacrifice religions of priest and temple that they have in part modified and in part replaced. They have gradually evolved a self-respect in the individual and a sense of participation and responsibility in the common concerns of mankind that did not exist among the populations of the earlier civilizations.

The first considerable change in the conditions of political and social life was the simplification and extended use of writing in the ancient civilizations which made larger empires and wider political understandings practicable and inevitable. The next movement forward came with the introduction of the horse, and later on of the camel as a means of transport, the use of wheeled vehicles, the extension of roads and the increased military efficiency due to the discovery of terrestrial iron. Then followed the profound economic disturbances due to the device of coined money and the change in the nature of debt, proprietorship and trade due to this convenient but dangerous convention. The empires grew in size and range, and men’s ideas grew likewise to correspond with these things. Came the disappearance of local gods, the age of theocrasia, and the teaching of the great world religions. Came also the beginnings of reasoned and recorded history and geography, the first realization by man of his profound ignorance, and the first systematic search for knowledge.

For a time the scientific process which began so brilliantly in Greece and Alexandria was interrupted. The raids of the Teutonic barbarians, the westward drive of the Mongolian peoples, convulsive religious reconstruction and great pestilences put enormous strains upon political and social order. When civilization emerged again from this phase of conflict and confusion, slavery was no longer the basis of economic life; and the first paper-mills were preparing a new medium for collective information and co-operation in printed matter. Gradually at this point and that, the search for knowledge, the systematic scientific process, was resumed

And now from the sixteenth century onward, as an inevitable by-product of systematic thought, appeared a steadily increasing series of inventions and devices affecting the intercommunication and interaction of men with one another. They all tended towards wider range of action, greater mutual benefits or injuries, and increased co-operation, and they came faster and faster. Men’s minds had not been prepared for anything of the sort, and until the great catastrophes at the beginning of the twentieth century quickened men’s minds, the historian has very little to tell of any intelligently planned attempts to meet the new conditions this increasing flow of inventions was creating. The history of mankind for the last four centuries is rather like that of an imprisoned sleeper, stirring clumsily and uneasily while the prison that restrains and shelters him catches fire, not waking but incorporating the crackling and warmth of the fire with ancient and incongruous dreams, than like that of a man consciously awake to danger and opportunity.

Since history is the story not of individual lives but of communities, it is inevitable that the inventions that figure most in the historical record are inventions affecting communications. In the sixteenth century the chief new things that we have to note are the appearance of printed paper and the sea-worthy, ocean-going sailing ship using the new device of the mariner’s compass. The former cheapened, spread, and revolutionized teaching, public information and discussion, and the fundamental operations of political activity. The latter made the round world one. But almost equally important was the increased utilization and improvement of guns and gunpowder which the Mongols had first brought westward in the thirteenth century. This destroyed the practical immunity of barons in their castles and of walled cities. Guns swept away feudalism. Constantinople fell to guns. Mexico and Peru fell before the terror of the Spanish guns.

The seventeenth century saw the development of systematic scientific publication, a less conspicuous but ultimately far more pregnant innovation. Conspicuous among the leaders in this great forward step was Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) afterwards Lord Verulam, Lord Chancellor of England. He was the pupil and perhaps the mouthpiece of another Englishman, Dr. Gilbert, the experimental philosopher of Colchester (1540–1603). This second Bacon, like the first, preached observation and experiment, and he used the inspiring and fruitful form of a Utopian story, The New Atlantis, to express his dream of a great service of scientific research.

Presently arose the Royal Society of London, the Florentine Society, and later other national bodies for the encouragement of research and the publication and exchange of knowledge. These European scientific societies became fountains not only of countless inventions but also of a destructive criticism of the grotesque theological history of the world that had dominated and crippled human thought for many centuries.

Neither the seventeenth nor the eighteenth century witnessed any innovations so immediately revolutionary in human conditions as printed paper and the ocean-going ship, but there was a steady accumulation of knowledge and scientific energy that was to bear its full fruits in the nineteenth century. The exploration and mapping of the world went on. Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand appeared on the map. In Great Britain in the eighteenth century coal coke began to be used for metallurgical purposes, leading to a considerable cheapening of iron and to the possibility of casting and using it in larger pieces than had been possible before, when it had been smelted with wood charcoal. Modern machinery dawned.

Like the trees of the celestial city, science bears bud and flower and fruit at the same time and continuously. With the onset of the nineteenth century the real fruition of science—which indeed henceforth may never cease—began. First came steam and steel, the railway, the great liner, vast bridges and buildings, machinery of almost limitless power, the possibility of a bountiful satisfaction of every material human need, and then, still more wonderful, the hidden treasures of electrical science were opened to men.

We have compared the political and social life of man from the sixteenth century onward to that of a sleeping prisoner who lies and dreams while his prison burns about him. In the sixteenth century the European mind was still going on with its Latin Imperial dream, its dream of a Holy Roman Empire, united under a Catholic Church. But just as some uncontrollable element in our composition will insist at times upon introducing into our dreams the most absurd and destructive comments, so thrust into this dream we find the sleeping face and craving stomach of the Emperor Charles V, while Henry VIII of England and Luther tear the unity of Catholicism to shreds.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the dream turned to personal monarchy. The history of nearly all Europe during this period tells with variations the story of an attempt to consolidate a monarchy, to make it absolute and to extend its power over weaker adjacent regions, and of the steady resistance, first of the landowners and then with the increase of foreign trade and home industry, of the growing trading and moneyed class, to the exaction and interference of the crown. There is no universal victory of either side; here it is the King who gets the upper hand while there it is the man of private property who beats the King. In one case we find a King becoming the sun and centre of his national world, while just over his borders a sturdy mercantile class maintains a republic. So wide a range of variation shows how entirely experimental, what local accidents, were all the various governments of this period.

A very common figure in these national dramas is the King’s minister, often in the still Catholic countries a prelate, who stands behind the King, serves him and dominates him by his indispensable services.

Here in the limits set to us it is impossible to tell these various national dramas in detail. The trading folk of Holland went Protestant and republican, and cast off the rule of Philip II of Spain, the son of the Emperor Charles V. In England Henry VIII and his minister Wolsey, Queen Elizabeth and her minister Burleigh, prepared the foundations of an absolutism that was wrecked by the folly of James I and Charles I. Charles I was beheaded for treason to his people (1649), a new turn in the political thought of Europe. For a dozen years (until 1660) Britain was a republic; and the crown was an unstable power, much overshadowed by Parliament, until George III (1760–1820) made a strenuous and partly successful effort to restore its predominance. The King of France, on the other hand, was the most successful of all the European Kings in perfecting monarchy. Two great ministers, Richelieu (1585–1642) and Mazarin (1602–1661), built up the power of the crown in that country, and the process was aided by the long reign and very considerable abilities of King Louis XIV, “the Grand Monarque” (1643–1715).

Louis XIV was indeed the pattern King of Europe. He was, within his limitations, an exceptionally capable King; his ambition was stronger than his baser passions, and he guided his country towards bankruptcy through the complication of a spirited foreign policy with an elaborate dignity that still extorts our admiration. His immediate desire was to consolidate and extend France to the Rhine and Pyrenees, and to absorb the Spanish Netherlands; his remoter view saw the French Kings as the possible successors of Charlemagne in a recast Holy Roman Empire. He made bribery a state method almost more important than warfare. Charles II of England was in his pay, and so were most of the Polish nobility, presently to be described. His money, or rather the money of the tax-paying classes in France, went everywhere. But his prevailing occupation was splendour. His great palace at Versailles with its salons, its corridors, its mirrors, its terraces and fountains and parks and prospects, was the envy and admiration of the world.

He provoked a universal imitation. Every king and princelet in Europe was building his own Versailles as much beyond his means as his subjects and credits would permit. Everywhere the nobility rebuilt or extended their chateaux to the new pattern. A great industry of beautiful and elaborate fabrics and furnishings developed. The luxurious arts flourished everywhere; sculpture in alabaster, faience, gilt woodwork, metal work, stamped leather, much music, magnificent painting, beautiful printing and bindings, fine crockery, fine vintages. Amidst the mirrors and fine furniture went a strange race of “gentlemen” in tall powdered wigs, silks and laces, poised upon high red heels, supported by amazing canes; and still more wonderful “ladies,” under towers of powdered hair and wearing vast expansions of silk and satin sustained on wire. Through it all postured the great Louis, the sun of his world, unaware of the meagre and sulky and bitter faces that watched him from those lower darknesses to which his sunshine did not penetrate.

The German people remained politically divided throughout this period of the monarchies and experimental governments, and a considerable number of ducal and princely courts aped the splendours of Versailles on varying scales. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), a devastating scramble among the Germans, Swedes and Bohemians for fluctuating political advantages, sapped the energies of Germany for a century. A map must show the crazy patchwork in which this struggle ended, a map of Europe according to the peace of Westphalia (1648). One sees a tangle of principalities, dukedoms, free states and the like, some partly in and partly out of the Empire. Sweden’s arm, the reader will note, reached far into Germany; and except for a few islands of territory within the imperial boundaries France was still far from the Rhine. Amidst this patchwork the Kingdom of Prussia—it became a Kingdom in 1701—rose steadily to prominence and sustained a series of successful wars. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740–86) had his Versailles at Potsdam, where his court spoke French, read French literature and rivalled the culture of the French King.

In 1714 the Elector of Hanover became King of England, adding one more to the list of monarchies half in and half out of the empire.

The Austrian branch of the descendants of Charles V retained the title of Emperor; the Spanish branch retained Spain. But now there was also an Emperor of the East again. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), the grand duke of Moscow, Ivan the Great (1462–1505), claimed to be heir to the Byzantine throne and adopted the Byzantine double-headed eagle upon his arms. His grandson, Ivan IV, Ivan the Terrible (1533–1584), assumed the imperial title of Cæsar (Tsar). But only in the latter half of the seventeenth century did Russia cease to seem remote and Asiatic to the European mind. The Tsar Peter the Great (1682–1725) brought Russia into the arena of Western affairs. He built a new capital for his empire, Petersburg upon the Neva, that played the part of a window between Russia and Europe, and he set up his Versailles at Peterhof eighteen miles away, employing a French architect who gave him a terrace, fountains, cascades, picture gallery, park and all the recognized appointments of Grand Monarchy. In Russia as in Prussia French became the language of the court.

Unhappily placed between Austria, Prussia and Russia was the Polish kingdom, an ill-organized state of great landed proprietors too jealous of their own individual grandeur to permit more than a nominal kingship to the monarch they elected. Her fate was division among these three neighbours, in spite of the efforts of France to retain her as an independent ally. Switzerland at this time was a group of republican cantons; Venice was a republic; Italy like so much of Germany was divided among minor dukes and princes. The Pope ruled like a prince in the papal states, too fearful now of losing the allegiance of the remaining Catholic princes to interfere between them and their subjects or to remind the world of the commonweal of Christendom. There remained indeed no common political idea in Europe at all; Europe was given over altogether to division and diversity.

All these sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other. Each one of them pursued a “foreign policy” of aggression against its neighbours and of aggressive alliances. We Europeans still live to-day in the last phase of this age of the multifarious sovereign states, and still suffer from the hatreds, hostilities and suspicions it engendered. The history of this time becomes more and more manifestly “gossip,” more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. You are told of how this war was caused by this King’s mistress, and how the jealousy of one minister for another caused that. A tittle-tattle of bribes and rivalries disgusts the intelligent student. The more permanently significant fact is that in spite of the obstruction of a score of frontiers, reading and thought still spread and increased and inventions multiplied. The eighteenth century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly sceptical and critical of the courts and policies of the time. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide we have the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.