The men of letters of this period may be divided into three groups: First were the conservers of classical culture, heirs of Petrarch’s humanistic enthusiasm for the classical past; second were the vernacular writers who took the path marked out by the Decameron, from Chaucer at the close of the fourteenth century down to Rabelais and Cervantes in the sixteenth; and third were the synthesizers—philosophical humanists who tried to fuse Christianity, classicism, and other elements into a universal human philosophy.
Over the broad sweep of the growth of European empires, there was a strong tendency for one nation to dominate for a century or so and then decline.
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tended to be dominated by the Iberian states, the seventeenth century by the Dutch, the eighteenth by the French, and the nineteenth by the British. The first on the scene were the Portuguese.
Under his son. Charles I, all James’s difficulties came to a head very quickly. England was involved in a minor war against Spain, and though the members of Parliament hated Spain, they were most reluctant to grant Charles funds to support the English forces. Meanwhile, despite his French queen, Charles became involved in a war against France, which he financed in part by a forced loan from his wealthier subjects and by quartering troops in private houses at the householders’ expense.
A quarrel with perhaps a third of the English barons arose from John’s ruthlessness in raising money for the campaign in France and from his practice of punishing vassals without trial. The barons hostile to John renounced their homage to him and drew up a list of demands, most of which they forced him to accept on June 15, 1215, at a meadow called Runnymede on the banks of the Thames. The document that he agreed to send out under the royal seal to all the shires in England had sixty-three chapters, in the legal form of a feudal grant or conveyance, known as Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.”
Neither the human nor the material losses of the United States in World War I were at all comparable with those of Britain and France. American casualties were 115,000 dead and 206,000 wounded; the comparable French figures were 1,385,000 dead and 3,044,000 wounded in a population one-third as large.
Moreover, in purely material terms, the United States probably gained from the war. Yet in some ways the American postwar revulsion against the war was as marked as that in Britain, France, and defeated Germany.
Divine-right monarchy was not peculiarly French, of course, nor was the mercantilism practiced by the France of Louis XIV. But like divine-right rule, mercantilism flourished most characteristically under the Sun King. Mercantilism was central to the early modern effort to construct strong, efficient political units.
As in eastern Europe, a nationality problem peculiar to Britain grew more acute near the end of the nineteenth century. This was “the Irish problem,” as the English called it.
The English, and the Scots who came to settle in the northern Irish province of Ulster in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had remained as privileged Protestant landowners over a subject population of Catholic Irish peasants. Although there were also native Irish among the ruling classes, many of them had been Anglicized and had become Protestant.
On October 31, 1918, eleven days before the armistice, Count Michael Karolyi (1895-1955) became prime minister of Hungary, after that country had severed its ties with Austria. One of the richest of the great landed nobles, Karolyi was also a democrat.
In the years immediately after Waterloo, Britain went through an intense postwar economic crisis. Unsold goods accumulated, and the working classes experienced widespread unemployment and misery.
Popular suffering increased as a result of the Corn Law of 1815, which forbade the importation of cheap foreign grain until the price of the home-grown commodity rose to a specified level. This assured the profits of the English grain farmer and probably raised the cost of bread for the average English family.
During the twenty-year crisis between the wars, an already authoritarian government in the Soviet Union became a virtual dictatorship, though one of the left rather than the right. From 1914 Russia had been in turmoil. By 1921, with the end of civil war, industry and agriculture were crippled, distribution was near a breakdown, and the communist regime was perilously near the loss of public support.