A sprawling, lively history of the era in which the Late Renaissance morphed into the Enlightenment—at least for some lucky Europeans.
Blanning (History/Cambridge Univ.) locates the beginning of that time in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The treaty settled two major issues, he writes: the independence of the Netherlands from Spain, and the general distribution of power in the German-speaking world, which would be fairly untumultuous as compared to its neighbors. Spain and France kept fighting after the treaty, and other parts of Europe still had their problems; Sweden found itself, for instance, in “a confusing series of wars,” while a great plague felled 100,000 Britons in a single year, lending credence to the Book of Common Prayer of 1662: “When mourners gathered around an English graveside to hear the clergyman intoning the words…‘in the midst of life we are in death,’—they knew that he was telling the truth.” But not long thereafter, as Blanning chronicles, much of Europe began to emerge from pestilence, famine and war, and a “culture of reason” began to assert itself—helped along by noble and churchly folk as much as the bourgeoisie, to say nothing of the state. (For instance, in Hungary and elsewhere in the early 18th century, “the persecution of witches did not end because belief in witchcraft or magic ceased, but because the government intervened.”) The rise of the Enlightenment saw not always connected developments such as the decline of papal powers in the secular realm, the slow abandonment of serfdom and the ascent of science. All these matters are treated at length and with some leisure, though the narrative starts to gallop at the end, with the Napoleonic Wars accounted for in only a couple of dozen pages. To do otherwise would of course have added bulk to an already big book.
Blanning is a most lucid interpreter of the past, and readers may find themselves wanting more.