The seventeenth century was a period of crisis and transformation in Europe. Agricultural and manufacturing slumps led to food shortages and shrinking population rates. Religious and dynastic conflicts led to almost constant war, visiting violence and destruction on ordinary people and reshaping European states. Armies grew larger than they had been since the time of the Roman Empire, resulting in new government bureaucracies and higher taxes. Despite these obstacles,European states succeeded in gathering more power, and by 1680 much of the unrest that originated with the Reformation was resolved.
These crises were not limited to western Europe. Central and eastern Europe experienced even more catastrophic dislocation, with German lands serving as the battleground of the Thirty Years’ War and borders constantly vulnerable to attack from the east. In Prussia and in Habsburg Austria absolutist states emerged in the aftermath of this conflict. Russia and the Ottoman Turks also developed absolutist governments. The Russian and Ottoman Empires seemed foreign and exotic to western Europeans, who saw them as the antithesis of their political, religious, and cultural values. While absolutism emerged as the solution to crisis in many European states, a small minority adopted a different path,placing sovereignty in the hands of privileged groups rather than the Crown. Historians refer to states where power was limited by law as “constitutional.” The two most important seventeenth-century constitutionalist states were England and the Dutch Republic.Constitutionalism should not be confused with democracy. The elite rulers of England and the Dutch Republic pursued familiar policies of increased taxation, government authority,and social control. Nonetheless, they served as influential models to onlookers across Europe as a form of government that checked the power of a single ruler.