European History

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Why did Eastern and Western Europe follow different paths of economic and political development during the 17th century?

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There is a tendency to see the past through the prism of subsequent developments. For that reason, people tend to see West vs. East through the prism of the Industrial Revolution and other major modern economic and political developments. Historians should resist this temptation, as it can potentially be misleading.

Furthermore, the division into Western and Eastern Europe is itself somewhat arbitrary. Where do we draw the line between West and East? Conceptions of West and East have evolved over time. To some degree, they may be seen as constructs. This argument has been made by Larry Wolff in his Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). Wolff argues that the division into "Western Europe" and "Eastern Europe" is a conceptual paradigm constructed by the philosophes during the Enlightenment. People had previously seen Europe as divided into North and South. Yet more, he demonstrates the idea of Eastern European backwardness was used to affirm the importance of Western Europe.

While there are some elements of divergence between the West and East, there are also many examples of parallel development. Over the 1500s and 1600s, West and East developed in parallel in major ways, challenging the premise in the above question. Two prominent movements can be cited as examples:

1) The movement away from civil war and disorder to greater centralization and, eventually, something akin to the "absolute" power of kings

2) Religious violence intertwined with politics, which led to state supremacy over religious institutions or churches

We can use France, England, and Russia as examples.

In France, we see the Age of Religious Wars in the late 1500s and early 1600s, culminating eventually in the absolutism of Louis XIV (1661–1715)—the Catholic king, who established religious supremacy in the French realm and in 1685 revoked religious toleration and the Edict of Nantes.

In England, following death of Henry VIII, the religious pendulum swung repeatedly from Anglicanism to Catholicism, with the executions of hundreds of Protestants under Queen Mary (r. 1553–58) and then the execution of Catholics under Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), followed by English Civil War and Commonwealth, leading to the absolutism of Charles II (r. 1660–85).

In Russia (Muscovy), we see the attempts of Tsar Ivan IV to establish religious uniformity with the Council of the Hundred Chapters (1551), and then another advance in this direction under Patriarch Nikon (1605–81) with the Nikonian Reforms, leading to the Old Believer Schism, the suppression of the Old Belief, and ultimately the banishing of Nikon himself and the establishment of state supremacy over the Church by Tsar Alexis (r. 1645–76).
Poland went through a similar process of religious strife and strengthening of royal power, with intense Catholic persecution of Ruthenian Orthodox peasants in what is today Ukraine leading to rebellions and ultimately the integration of those lands into Muscovy.
In other words, in some very key ways, the East followed the same trajectory as the West, and sometimes under influence from the West. Eastern states were "westernizing" and would continue to do so, as we see in the very dramatic example of Peter the Great of Russia.
So were the so-called West and the so-called East really following different paths?
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The primary reason that East and West followed different paths is that they had different histories, which influenced their development. An important factor was religion. Western Europe had followed Roman Catholicism which, after some notable discord, had drawn clear lines of distinction between Church and State. This was not the case in Eastern Europe. The old Byzantine Emperor had been head of both church and state. This situation continued after the fall of Constantinople when Moscow called itself the "third Rome." The Russian Czar was head of both church and state. Also, Western Europe benefited greatly from expansion into the Americas, primarily from the importation of gold and silver. Eastern Europe did not participate in this expansion and therefore did not profit from it. It should be noted that absolutism existed in both Eastern and Western Europe; however England is the notable exception. That nation never developed an absolute monarchy.  The English people were proud of their "Rights as Englishmen" and ultimately executed their monarch when he attempted to rule absolutely. This was not the case in the East, where Czars and Emperors ruled without interference from Parliaments.

Economically, serfdom had long disappeared in Western Europe, but was reinstituted in the East. Western Europe had discovered new found wealth in gold, silver, and other products imported from the New World. Ironically, this caused inflation which forced up the prices of agricultural goods in the East, and in turn gave landlords incentives to demand more of their estates. Soon serfs were tied to the land and inherited with it. The rise in wealth led to the rise of the middle class in Western Europe, known in France as the Bourgeoisie. This was not the case in the East, where there was no middle class, only landlords and peasants (serfs) who were under his absolute control. In Poland, landlords could impose the death penalty on a serf if they so decided. In Prussia, a serf was assumed to be under "hereditary subjugation" unless he could prove otherwise in a court controlled by the landlord. Also, in Russia, a nine year statute of limitations on the right to have runaway serfs returned was abolished, meaning serfs were never safe from their landlords.    

Ultimately Western Europe's independence from religious control and expansion into the New World allowed it to develop politically and economically more quickly and efficiently than in the East.

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