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Old Empires in the Mid-17th Century: History, Timeline & Characteristics

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  • 0:07 Characteristics of Old Empires
  • 0:40 Holy Roman Empire
  • 1:39 Important German States
  • 3:25 Poland
  • 5:03 Ottoman Empire
  • 6:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discuss the old empires of Central and Eastern Europe in the 17th century: Poland, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. In discussing the Holy Roman Empire's decline, we also preview the two states that filled the power vacuum its failure created.

Characteristics of Old Empires

The histories of different nations can sometimes read like the story lines of your favorite sports teams. Good times alternate with bad, and rarely is the same team better than the rest for more than a few years. This fluidity in most professional sports leagues has its historical parallels, as well, and perhaps none better than in Central and Eastern Europe in the 17th century. In that transitional century, older powers, like Poland and the Ottoman Empire, began to lose power and influence, while other newer states, like Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia, emerged as international players.

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire in the 17th century is a hard state to define. Technically speaking, the Emperor controlled vast territory in Central Europe, which contained most of modern day Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and even as far south as Northern Italy. In practice, however, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire - who throughout the entire 17th century came from Hapsburg family who ruled Austria - had only nominal control over many of these territories.

In the 1620s, Emperor Ferdinand II attempted to rectify this reality by exerting greater control over religious institutions and eliminating the partial political sovereignty of many of the states that made up the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years' War. Unfortunately, this effort failed, and when the war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, imperial power was left even weaker than prior to the war. The Emperor was forced to acknowledge home-rule for many of the states on the other side of the conflict and grant the ruler of each state the power to decide the religion of that state.

Important German States

As the power of the imperial throne waned, the most powerful of these states became important international players. One of these was the Hapsburg family, traditionally based in modern-day Austria. Throughout the 17th century, The Hapsburgs held the added power of holding the throne of Holy Roman Emperor, symbolically adding to their regional clout, even if the position's tangible power was declining. Although the Hapsburgs had failed in their attempts to exert their influence over the entirety of the German lands, at home, in Austria, they had consolidated most state power in the monarchy and expanded their territory into Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, and even into portions of Hungary (termed Royal Hungary).

Austria was a decidedly Catholic state, and despite the religious toleration the Emperor was forced to grant the rest of the states in the Empire, Austrian monarchs continued to fervently suppress Protestantism wherever it gained a footing inside Hapsburg territory. This zeal for religious uniformity even led to the expulsion of the Jews in the 1670s, although Austria continued to rely on Jewish financiers to remain fiscally solvent.

The other large German state within the Holy Roman Empire that rose to prominence during this period was Brandenburg-Prussia. Brandenburg-Prussia was composed of several non-contiguous states in the Northern Empire and on the coast of the Baltic Sea, united in the first half of the 17th century largely by dynastic family relations and untimely deaths. Prussia was by far more advanced and wealthy than the other states of the fledgling empire, and various patriarchs of the Hohenzollern family - by whom all these states were eventually ruled - attempted to use that wealth to reform and update the rest of his territory. By the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War, fiscal and military reforms had made Brandenburg-Prussia a major international power despite its unconventional shape.

Poland

One of the states the expanding Prussian Empire would butt up against in the following century was the expansive Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Its borders stretched as far north as modern-day Estonia and south into modern-day Ukraine, nearly to the Black Sea; the largest country by land area in Europe at 1600. This expansive commonwealth was unique in the period; when many monarchs in Europe were centralizing power at the expense of regional magnates, Poland exhibited a robust legislative body composed of the members of the nobility, the Sejm, whose legal proceedings had a huge impact on the realm. Furthermore, the Sejm was largely independent of the monarch, and anything the Polish King wanted to accomplish in the way of taxation, foreign policy - even the king's own marriage - required the Sejm's consent.

This, along with the fabled member veto - where any member of the chamber had the right to veto legislation - made any changes to the existing structures of the commonwealth incredibly hard to accomplish. This hurt Poland as the European economy shifted: Polish grain and other crops lost their value, and the Polish nobles were unable to successfully adapt to the changing circumstances of the 17th century.

Making matters worse, the 17th century was a period of constant warfare for the Polish state, forcing a country already experiencing an economic downturn to pay for costly wars against its traditional enemies: Sweden in the north, Russia to the east, and the Ottoman Empire in the south. The glut of troops recruited for these efforts, called Cossacks, often refused to disband and return to serfdom after the conflicts. Also, internal insurrections led by the Cossacks were a continual source of pain for the Polish crown in the 17th century.

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