Monday, January 19, 2015

Early-modern Europe as backwater

Krugman is fishing for something else, but this observation struck me:
But was the Mughal state sui generis? Not really. It flourished in an era of “gunpowder empires”, large states where the strength of the central government rested on siege artillery and professional pike-and-musket infantry. The term is usually applied primarily to the three giant Islamic states – the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals. But as I understand it, the whole arc from Ming/Qing China to Habsburg Spain basically fits the model; and were the Bourbons really that different?

In this world the states of northwestern Europe that ended up looming so large in world history look trivial – and still look trivial in population and economic weight as late as the early 18th century. What’s more, they didn’t have any visible advantage in military technology until much later.

But surely this, too, is a simplistic picture. For even in the heyday of the gunpowder empires, the far Western states of Europe dominated the world’s oceans. Not the Mediterranean, where the Habsburgs and the Ottomans were relatively even at least until Lepanto, but in the open ocean, where galleys never had a chance and it was sail-and-cannon all the way, the Atlantic fringe took control very early. Why?

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