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32.: The Period from 1450 to 1598 and the Nineteenth Century’s View of It - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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The Period from 1450 to 1598 and the Nineteenth Century’s View of It
(I) [May 10, 1859.] The chief creation of more recent history is the Great Power, the life form of the most significant peoples. The balance among them is supposedly based on the number five (later the number six). But not only the small ones feel as insecure as ever with it; even the great ones themselves have never put down their arms in forty-four years of peace and have devoured in advance the money of future generations, in order to prevent one another’s aggrandizement.
Internally, the state has centralized all power and all law; and the small states, too, have had to reshape themselves according to this model. Wherever the unhealthy, the oppressed, the resisting elements band together, the revolution is directed at the entire state, indeed, at all of existence. But we trust ourselves to be able to suppress this every time.
The virtues of this modern state, which lays claim to being a legal state, are as follows: equality before the law; the safeguarding of material interests through the elimination of any oppressive intermediate rule; tolerance through indifferentism and the bureaucratic mind (at least relatively speaking) and through the state’s jealous guarding of its sole power; the refinement of private life and its pleasures; but primarily, freedom of thought and research, the objective evaluation of the world and of history.
To what extent is this favorable to the moral development of a man? As a private individual he gains; as a citizen he declines, and he accustoms himself to appealing to some state omnipotence in any danger. The finest flower of genuine philanthropy can pair itself with utter political rootlessness.
Is the movement of Europe on the whole, therefore, a rising or a falling one? This can never be determined by mere calculation. The peoples are still unexhausted physically, and in the intellectual and moral sphere one must, in order to calculate correctly, reckon with invisible forces, with miracles. This applies here, too.
To describe this life of the modern peoples in the last three centuries is our assignment.
(II) [After 1869; 1872?] It is not long since the period from 1450 to 1598 was regarded in an essentially optimistic way and made the beginning of that “progress” in whose further expansion and development we thought we were living.
This, to be sure, was true only in general, for in particular cases one admitted that the despotism of the great states, the Counter Reformation, and other phenomena had exacted considerable sacrifices (one can certainly hear those who suffered if one wants to hear them).
But on the whole one continued to connect the supposed excellence or, at least, the great promise of the conditions under which people lived from about 1830 with the great innovations after 1450.
In view of the imminent crises of the declining nineteenth century, these pleasant arguments have fallen to the ground, and as to the desirability of the events and developments since 1450 in relation to us, we have reason to express ourselves more cautiously—indeed, to abandon entirely the concept of the desirability of past things.
But for all that, this period does not lose one iota of its great intellectual interest for us. For as long as our present Western culture can keep above water we shall be inwardly enriched by absorbing the colors and figures of the past and treating the intellectual conditions and transformations of earlier world epochs as a great furtherance of our own intellectual consciousness. Indeed, the ability to compare different periods of the past with one another and with the present is one of the main forces that separate us from the confused doings of the day and from barbarism, which makes no comparisons whatever. In this respect the period from 1450 to 1598 is undeniably one of the most brilliantly instructive.
But instead of an overestimation of that period’s services to our present development, an objective appraisal is called for. Besides, we are not the ones who would be especially qualified for an absolute evaluation of past conditions, if only because we always have the criterion of material well-being before our eyes—that is, of continuing in it once it is attained. And yet the great forces, individual as well as collective, develop only in struggles, and these can be very terrible. That criterion, however, is intrinsically ridiculous, for greed and desires know no limit; one would always encounter a dissatisfied humanity.
On the other hand, our century is very well qualified to recognize the intellectual content of the past in the full richness of its shadings.
It must suffice us that the period in question has come down to us in great wealth of sources and in exceedingly vigorous and interesting colors and personalities.
We resist illusions—first of all, the illusion that humanity had been eager and longing, in the highest degree, to get out of the Middle Ages as a dark, unhappy situation. In a large view, the Middle Ages may have been a time of salutary delay. If it had exploited the earth’s surface as we are doing, we would perhaps not be around at all. (Would that be a loss?) Let us assume that the period concerned was there, at least primarily, for its own sake rather than for ours.
Further, we resist the illusion that developments since then have, generally speaking, led to happiness. The self-deception of the years 1830 to 1848 actually came close to this delusion; but in view of the clouds which hang over the end of our century one will probably have to speak more carefully.
The earlier, very unclear and mixed concept of “progress” includes the following: extension of civil rights to larger segments of the population; moderation of the penal code; communication in the widest sense, including a global network of railroads and telegraphy; great dissemination of varied knowledge; movability of all values and properties; and other things.
The more recent study of the world, however, has substituted an entirely different conception for this progress (or put the same conception in a new light): the struggle for existence, beginning with plant and animal life and then basically penetrating human life. From this vantage point the concept of “happiness” must then be examined anew and perhaps entirely eliminated from historical investigation. In his Philosophy of the Unconscious, Eduard von Hartmann even calls the perspective, from the eudemonic point of view, of this continual struggle while the intellect is constantly rising a horrible one.
If Hartmann’s arguments are applied to the “History Since 1450,” this means the beginning of the subjugation of the inferior races of mankind, especially the red-skinned; according to him, this is to end with their complete eradication. (How will the victors thrive in this? The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru were intelligent devils.) A true philanthropist, he says, could only wish for the speeding up of these last throes. The faster the earth was occupied by the white race, the more quickly the struggle among the various divisions within it would have to break out and be carried on all the more fiercely because they are more evenly matched; but at the same time it would be all the more beneficial to the progressive development of the species. According to Hartmann, war is not by any means the only method of this struggle; industrial squeezing by a more highly developed people would do it, too. But with the earth having in this way become the prize of the most highly developed peoples, with the entire world population becoming more and more cultivated, the condition of the soil, the climate, and other differences would nevertheless create ever new seeds of development whose maturing again would only be possible through a joint struggle for existence. (In this process, human beings would gradually become veritable devils, and finally cripples to boot because of sheer development of the intellect.)
(III) [November 4, 1872.] In that period there were essentially spun the threads of that fabric into which we too are now woven. Any consideration of the past must tie on there at the latest. But all that was begun at that time has experienced great metastases.
The system of Great Powers and also the absolutism which once was the practice in smaller states, established in the spirit of the rulers, have today been transformed into a system of great nations. The will (passion as well as interest) of the peoples or of the classes that lead public opinion has replaced the will of the cabinet. Where dynasties are still in existence, they mainly serve to carry out the will of the people (confirmed: October, 1876).
Any single principality or single state within a nation is in direct danger, because even with the best of intentions it can no longer act for the entire nation.
And within and above the individual nations there looms as an obscure impulse universal democracy, sprung from the French Revolution with its belief in the goodness and equality of men. It arises with remarkable homogeneity; its basic feature is acknowledged by the sovereigns themselves in the form of universal suffrage which can be expanded into a general referendum on practically anything.
The main driving force of this activity is the great social question of property and enjoyment. There is only one method for the mighty to curb it or cut it off: the peoples must be urged to become conscious again of their old differences which were already getting quite smoothed out and to test their strength with one another. This can be done, because they still have conflicting interests through accumulated tradition and exploitation of the world, e.g., England and Russia, England and America, and others; because as yet the whole earth is not occupied by the most active nations which must yet fight one another for it; then, too, because in Europe there are still small things to be swallowed up which one begrudges the other; and finally, because in spite of all homogeneity of culture there live on very strong antipathies of race. But from great national wars there arises again and again centralized military and, depending on the circumstances, monarchic power (that is, it has been so up to now).
In this period there is an especially striking predominance of the oceanic (n.b. of all great oceans and no longer merely of the Atlantic) over the Mediterranean (which would have become a mere puddle if it did not, together with Egypt, have importance as a passageway and possibly as a battleground). Added to this is the weakness of Turkey, Greece, Austria, Italy, and Spain. But even of the oceanic nations, Spain and Portugal are deeply in the shade, as is Holland; they have their intestate heirs presumptive. The two great Anglo-Saxon nations with their immediate and colonial possessions are in the process of grandiosely exploiting the world through completely untrammeled activity. In spite of her slight coastline, Germany is forced into rivalry with them, in her merchant marine and her navy. The great destiny is based on the fact that an Anglo-Saxon colony like the Union [United States] has been able to achieve independence and remain united despite its enormous expanse. By virtue of its cast of thought it will in time brook no barriers on any ocean (unless internal barriers should be imposed on it. 1876).
The conflict between the Catholic church and its adversaries took quite a different form from what friend or foe could possibly have foreseen in the sixteenth century.
Protestantism came under the strongest influence of general culture. On the other hand, Catholicism as such remained stationary in the form which it assumed in the sixteenth century as the Counter Reformation. Those who do not want to go along with it and have surrendered to the modern spirit are abhorred and reciprocate with a vengeance. Catholicism has come to be in opposition to all such and to almost all Catholic governments and bureaucracies. At present it is highly remarkable as the only element of pure authority from above, something which no government is domestically any more. Its early connections with culture, worldly life, and science have largely been severed, its opposition to modern thought has sharply come to a head.
The subjectivity of the intellect, which in the sixteenth century was so vigorously astir in all new things and produced such strong personalities, has since remained legally untrammeled or has become so again after interruptions. There is nowadays no dearth of “permissions.” It is a very different question, however, whether our time is favorable to primary, creative geniuses; whether it will impress any future generation with the same originality and profusion as did the period around 1500; whether the gathering of knowledge does not stand in the way of higher productivity; whether the acquisitive spirit and the general haste are not destroying the genuine great mood, in creative persons as well as in those who ought to appreciate; and whether present-day democracy does not bring secret mistrust and, under certain circumstances, open hatred upon the outstanding person in every form and direction. At any rate, with its program involving equality of enjoyment, democracy stands outside anything intellectual.
However, not only in democracy but in all classes and parties people desire, above all, material enjoyment. After that, of course, they would like, for the further amelioration of life, poets, artists, and probably even thinkers of genius, provided they keep nicely in their place.
(IV) [October 21, 1880.] The sixteenth century largely creates those great positions in the material and intellectual worlds which dominate the periods to come; it is a time of tremendous innovations. It possesses one particular advantage: it is possible here, if ever, to view history as history of the intellect and to master the debris of external facts—not only because in the movements concerned there was much idealistic, even metaphysical, drive, but because they are represented by original individuals, some of them of the highest order, in state and war, religion, art, and science. The intellect speaks to us concretely through mighty, expressive people. In particular the time around the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries altogether gives one the impression of freshness, spontaneous strength, and of a very extraordinary generation. In every activity Europe has available the most outstanding men—discoverers, conquistadors, military men, statesmen, founders of religions, scholars each of whom remodels his field, thinkers who occasionally encompass the entire horizon of the time in single words, utopians like More and Rabelais, finally poets and, especially, a group of artists of the first rank. But even people of the second and third rank participate in the general vigor to the extent that they, too, give naively whatever they have to contribute. In literature we begin to get those books that are still really read. In the second half of the sixteenth century, to be sure, there is no longer this multifarious wealth of great individuals, and those who are now powerful are no longer naive but reflective, or they serve a movement; but no matter which side they are on, they arouse the greatest participation through their tremendous strength. And we are intimately acquainted with their persons—Tasso and Camoëns, Shakespeare and Montaigne, St. Theresa and St. Carlo Borromeo, Coligny, William the Silent, Elizabeth of England, and Henry IV in his rise.
Apart from this individually concretized aspect of world history, the great movements as such are significant, the changes in state and society which carry with them a new era.
The concept of Western Christianity is dissolved. The West looks on almost inactively while, in the East, Christian civilization recedes before the Ottomans who crush the Mohammedan and Christian states that come into their orbit. The rise of their empire is to date the last great new formation in the Near East. The Mediterranean stagnates, Southern Europe is permanently and seriously threatened.
At the same time, however, the great compensation is gained: the setting out for distant seas by the Portuguese and the Spaniards. Europe crowds in upon old civilized states of East India and founds great colonial lands in America. While in Asia Minor Turkish city names proliferate, America is filled with Spanish and Latin names.
At home a shift in world power takes place, the transfer of the world accent to the Atlantic states with their Atlantic and generally oceanic interest.
The atmosphere of the Crusades has evaporated and their late-born representative, Don Sebastian, perishes. But to compensate for that, a new tinge appears in the air: worldly conquest and commercial profit. Of course, not until the following period does there develop the full modern exploitation of the world in connection with a new concept of labor in the European mother countries; it is the cycle of colonial raw material and domestic manufacture, with forced purchase in the colonies. For the time being, in the sixteenth century, all that the Spaniards wanted was to rule and to enjoy; they were in quest of an El Dorado; the possession of great American empires had strikingly little effect on internal, domestic Spanish life and its spirit. In the year 1580 Spain gained possession of Portugal along with its colonies. The French and English colonies were only in their infancy; but here, too, people sought a golden land for the costs of European politics and wars.
The medieval feudal state dissolved into the centralized modern state which at that time demanded primarily power (absolutism) and since then has behaved as a constitutional and equality state, as an institution of purposefulness and general welfare, with the resignation of the individual, and so on. A new concept of state power begins with the Italian tyrant state which is prefigured in France and now is put into practice in all states of Western Europe (n.b. including England), in Germany only in the smaller circles, while the whole falls apart all the more. The intermediary rulers are destroyed or reduced to mere honorary rights, the nobility are reduced to privileges; all indefinite and disputable duties are replaced by mandatory definite performances; even the most stubborn defiance is subdued. Finally, at the time of the Reformation the states which have become Protestant inherit the former political power of the church. But what did the rulers do with their power? They carried on experimental policies which soon became primarily policies of conquest or annexation (this had been the downfall of Charles the Bold). Such were the earliest joys of the cabinet and its doings.
The support and motive of such policies were great national conflicts of interest.
Would the nations have left one another in peace without the activities of the cabinets? We do not know today; arrogance and the clash of interests which, after all, are so very much intertwined, are unpredictable. Even the “happy ones” could not have borne their “happiness.” And then there existed in several nations a palpable satanic arrogance.
Earlier oppositions continued to have an effect: France and England, Anjou and Aragon. Now that the major part of the middle duchy of Burgundy and all of the Spanish power had fallen to Hapsburg through inheritance, the inevitable struggle between Hapsburg and Valois ensued, and the next victim was Italy—certain parts of the land and the overlordship of the whole.
Italy and the great transformation of the European mind that emanated from it: the Renaissance. This everywhere broke through the knowledge, thinking, and viewing of the Middle Ages. The ancients and soon the moderns completely supplanted the Middle Ages as authorities, beginning with medieval scholastic theology. The entire intellectual horizon was newly oriented; in addition, there arose an art which soon overwhelmed or cut in halves the art of all of Europe. The time of Italy’s greatest productivity coincides with periodic invasions; the so-called calm did not ensue until the rulership of Spain was decided.
In this Italy which was enmeshed and glorified by the Renaissance, but which at the same time had fallen prey to the Italian political spirit and let itself go in the most extreme way, the papacy dwelt as the possessor of an ecclesiastic state.
The papacy stands in a wholly irrational relationship to Italy and Europe, vis-à-vis nations that are already arguing and greedy dynasties. Oblivious of its earlier mission, the papacy had become something to be exploited and was for a considerable time in the hands of blasphemers who had obtained possession of it because it had become too desirable and was poorly guarded, as in the days of the pornocracy. Now it faces the greatest danger of all:
The German Reformation. This produces, first of all, a tremendous intellectual change in Germany itself and then more or less shakes up all of Europe, partly in a religious sense, partly in a political or a financial one. The conflicts, far from remaining purely ecclesiastical, are colored and discolored, entangle or disentangle themselves, and a literature from a thousand pens records every shading. Added to this is the enormous effect of the press which is now for the first time active in a European sense. Knowledge of the most remote places and of the earliest antiquity coincided with the strongest religious ferment.
And now the interests of the contending churches interweave with the antitheses of Hapsburg-Valois and of Occident-Ottomans. On one side of the scale of external destinies at that time there are the Protestants and Francis I and the Turks, on the other side there is Charles V. The popes become adversaries of Hapsburg which is fighting on the Catholic side, because it also wants to possess Italy. There are times when they wish for a Protestant victory. Especially striking was the alliance between the Catholic Henry II and the German Protestants against Charles V.
In the Counter Reformation the old church again gains a foothold in almost the entire Romanic world and in part of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic worlds. Supported by its own internal power and the external forces of the governments which had remained Catholic, it seeks to subjugate mankind again. It enters into an emergency alliance with Spain, which is at the same time fighting for world monarchy. In this situation the old church remembers and returns to its original mission, and it manages to a great extent to rejuvenate itself. The Reformation had produced a rescue as well as a menace.
All this flowed together in the great crises of 1560 to 1593. In them a new nation was born, Holland. At the same time there was also revealed the great European significance of England, of which Europe would have got a taste much sooner if it had not been for the ensuing Stuart strife. Only now does Scandinavia stand forth clearly.
The modes of life of this latter part of the sixteenth century are highly remarkable. There is a tremendous contrast to the beginning of this century; the world has become religious again or at least sectarian. The sixteenth century which had begun with such a brilliant cultural epoch had a frightful latter part. Great historical transformations are always bought dearly, often after one has already thought that one got them at a bargain price.
The Peace of Vervins, 1598, was inevitably only an intermission.
Let us once more stress the especial significance of the period 1450–1598.
In history in general there is among peoples of higher culture a wonderful juxtaposition and conglomerate of profuse mechanical forces, notably the massed might of the great state, on the one hand, and on the other, of the most delicate imponderables, like culture and religion, which in their highest manifestation depend on so few individuals and are able to carry away and shape entire nations. This is to be seen with especial clarity in the sixteenth century. The personal elements in their relation to the great mass destinies are here expressed with particular noteworthiness, precisely because the individuals concerned who stir this world are not all born princes and great men.
We reject the eudemonic, the so-called progressive, way of thinking. The fact that our present world situation is largely linked with the decisions of that period does not mean that as a totality it was especially happy or commendable, for then our century would also have to be considered as especially happy and commendable, which was actually the view particularly in the period from 1830 to 1848. The concept of the desirability of the past ought to be abandoned altogether, if only because the individual who speaks in this vein is not alone in the world. Actually, a historical judgment should always be such that it can be endorsed at least by all nations if not by all factions.
There is a widespread illusion that an innovation which came about once amidst the most terrible infractions of law and acts of violence is therefore justified, or that it was historically “necessary,” because later there was based on it a situation that was somehow tenable and appeared to establish new legal conditions. Humanity simply added its healthy powers to the act of violence and adapted itself to it, like it or not.
On the Dissolution of the Medieval Feudal State: Such copiously graded privileges and such indifferently performed duties.
On Experimental Policies: The more recently power has originated, the less can it remain stationary—first, because those who created it have become accustomed to rapid further movement and because they are and will remain innovators per se; secondly, because the forces aroused or subdued by them can be employed only through further acts of violence.
On the Papacy: As a state, it demanded, if it was not to be devoured, Italian politicians as rulers, i.e., people who also had the choice of being either anvil or hammer and then became hammers. In addition, however, it becomes the prey of covetous men and criminals.—Significance of the reign of Julius II.—What if Luther had encountered an Alexander VI in his path?
On the Reformation: It created states in which the clergy no longer constituted a political class and its heritage of power and property fell into the hands of the governments.
On the Counter Reformation: It is not merely resistance, but an inner remolding of the Catholic church under the influence of Protestantism.
On “Necessity” in History: There are, to be sure, historians who “hear the grass of necessity grow” (Hanslick).
The Dubiousness of the So-called Pragmatic View of History: In addition to demonstrable causalities, obscure forces come into play from all sides, and their raison d’être is established only after some time.
The Heightening of Consciousness in modern times is probably a sort of intellectual freedom, but at the same time a heightening of suffering. The consequences of reflective thought are postulates which can set whole masses in motion, but, even when fulfilled themselves, will only produce new postulates, i.e., renewed desperate and consuming struggles.
On the Progressive Way of Thinking: “This or that hallway would have to be the most beautiful if only because it leads to our room.” What coldness and heartlessness there is in this attitude, the ignoring of the silenced moans of all the vanquished, who, as a rule, had wanted nothing else but parta tueri [to preserve what had come into being]. How much must perish so that something new may arise!
The Confusion of the Concepts “Concentration of Power” and “Improvement of General Conditions”: The latter is highly questionable in the material sense, as compared with the period of 1500.
It is our task simply to observe and describe objectively the various forces as they appeared side by side or one after another.