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READ: European States and Empires

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Describe European governments during the 1700s. What things were changing and which stayed the same?
  2. Around 1750, after centuries of religious warfare, European powers were trying to maintain a delicate balance of power. How did they do this within the European continent? How did their approach differ in their colonies?
  3. Explain the role of aristocrats in Europe. What was their relationship to monarchs? What are the two different ways that aristocrats related to the people that worked their land?
  4. How were the economic systems in Europe beginning to drive social change? How did this differ for areas like Russia, Prussia and Eastern Europe?
  5. What new cultural and intellectual ideas were changing European social structures? How? Where did these ideas come from?
  6. How was the Enlightenment commitment to science, reason, and progress connected to imperial expansion? How did racial prejudices contribute to colonialism?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

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At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. If you were telling the story of European States and Empires in 1750, how would the narrative differ if you lived in the continent of Europe or in a European colony? In what ways would the narrative be the same? In what ways would it be different?
  2. Choose a frame—communities, networks or production and distribution—and explain how it helped you in understand European states and empires in 1750.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

European States and Empires

Eman M. Elshaikh
Through most of the eighteenth century in Europe, kings ruled and peasants worked; it was business as usual. But economic and intellectual movements were beginning to shake things up.


The term "Europe" does not describe a country, but rather a region with lots of islands, mountain ranges, and peninsulas on the western end of the Eurasian landmass. It is a region that, unlike China, has rarely been politically unified. Between 1600 and 1750, Europe underwent massive changes, while also staying very much the same. On the surface, Europe's political and social structure really didn't change much in this period. Monarchs ruled and peasants worked; it was business as usual. But economic and intellectual movements were beginning to shake things up.
By 1750, trade was booming in some parts of Europe. Historically, the Mediterranean region had been the commercial center of the region. However, by this time economic power had shifted to northwest Europe. The English, Dutch, and French had overtaken Spain and Portugal as the most powerful European states, economically. Financial innovations strengthened the region's economies, as both European colonial territories and cities expanded. Governments were becoming more centralized and complex. Networks of cultural and economic exchange were flourishing. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment inspired new cultural and intellectual values, creating a sense of a shared European community. Throughout Europe, the bitter and divisive religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants had mostly ended. Now, a sense of a European community was emerging.
Map of Europe in 1700. By Rebel Redcoat, CC BY-SA 3.0.
But this idea of an integrated European community was still quite fragile. Most European monarchs were connected to one another through marriage and family relations but that did not stop these states from entering into more than 40 wars, usually with each other, during the eighteenth century. Many of these wars revolved around issues of succession (who would rule next), expansion of empires, alliances, and the occasional peasant rebellion. But this period also marks the time when some of the most consequential political revolutions took place: the American, French, Haitian, and Latin American revolutions. These events and the ideas behind them shook the foundations of European social order.

Centralized power and shifting hierarchies

During the 1700s, some European governments consolidated their power at home while also conquering massive empires on land and at sea. Despite these changes, some fundamental things about European states stayed the same throughout most of the eighteenth century. For the most part, European countries were still ruled by absolute monarchs, who often believed they had a "divine right" to rule, sometimes supported by nobles and bishops who had limited influence. The British and the Dutch were notable exceptions, as their governments included representative bodies like the British Parliament. At the local level, across Europe, the nobility (elites) continued to hold most of the political power. Local aristocrats had great influence over most people's lives, especially in the spheres of economics and religion.
But most Europeans weren't aristocrats. The majority continued to live in rural areas and farmed for a living. In some parts of Europe, economic growth created larger towns and a more advanced market economy, known as merchant capitalism. That meant most production took place in small workshops. Production intensified, creating new economic opportunities for men and women. As a consumer economy grew, people needed to produce more and more finished goods. Demand for skilled women's labor increased, and male guildsmen increasingly hired girls and women—even though this was illegal in some places.
For some, these changes meant more social mobility. Peasants were able to move into towns and cities and produce new goods. In Russia, Prussia, and Eastern Europe, however, older social patterns stayed largely the same, but there were some monarchs such as Russia's Peter the Great and many of his successors who attempted to modernize some aspects of the Russian Empire in order to align it more closely with its Western European allies.
Portrait of Empress Catherine II of Russia by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763. Public domain.
Map European colonies in 1754. By Andrei nacu, Public Domain.
A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuriev Day. On this day, which was celebrated after the gathering of the harvest, Russian serfs were able to change landowners. However, eventually, this practice was abolished, and serfs were bound practically permanently to one landowner. Painting by Sergei V. Ivanov, Public Domain.

Absolutism, Enlightenment, and the Russian empire

One of the largest eighteenth-century empires was that of Russia. By the mid-eighteenth century, Russia's territory had expanded considerably. Covering 22 million sq. km. in 1750, the Russian Empire was huge. It would continue to grow as more territories were won through both war and diplomatic efforts. Russia also represented the turn to modernity seen in other parts of the world at the time. The Russian monarchy and court read Enlightenment scholars, dressed in European fashions, adopted European architectural elements, and promoted scientific investigations. Yet Russia continued to be an empire whose economy was driven mainly by farming. The production of food for the empire was mainly thanks to its enormous population of serfs. So, while the elite were reading about Enlightenment ideas of reason, equality, tolerance, and the rule of law, most of the Russian population could not read and were not rich. Instead, these rural peasant farmers or serfs were bound to the land they farmed.
The rulers of Russia were absolute monarchs, most of whom believed they had a divine right to rule over their subjects. Catherine II, empress of Russia, but sometimes better known as Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796), symbolized the contradictions of this time. Empress Catherine was highly educated. She read and corresponded with some of the most famous Enlightenment authors of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Grimm, and the female salonnières of Paris. She supported them by becoming a patron of the arts, including funding their writings and libraries. She also enlisted the services of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the famed court painter to Marie Antoinette (you know, the one who eventually lost her head in the French Revolution).
However, Catherine was also a highly competent ruler and one who was keenly aware that in order to strengthen Russia's power, she would need to walk a fine line between accepting Enlightenment ideas and maintaining control of her empire. She instituted many reforms including introducing new agricultural technologies and lifting economic regulations on trades such as the textile and sugar industries. She also allowed the serfs to petition the courts if the nobles failed to uphold their duties to the serfs. But she did not free the serfs from their service to the state because she knew how much Russia relied on their production of food. She was also keenly aware of the fact that if she gave serfs some small favors, such as allowing them to bring abuse to the courts, it might be just enough to prevent revolts against the state.
Much like the other empires of this era, Catherine reigned over a vast territory that was both multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Over the course of her reign, she extended the Russian territory by approximately 500,000 sq. km. A large portion of this was won after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. As a result, she became the monarch to an even more diverse group of people. At first, she imposed restrictions on those who were not members of the Russian Orthodox (Christian) Church including Muslim and Jewish subjects. However, by 1773, she instituted the Toleration of All Faiths Edict in an attempt to satisfy those of different faiths. One reason for adopting this edict was to prevent uprisings as well as secure border territories. But Catherine also saw these subjects as people who could add to the treasury by taxing them for believing in a non-Christian faith.
Catherine also sought to extend both trade networks and alliances between Russia and those states in Europe and Asia. She sent a delegation to the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan to attempt to open up networks of exchange with this empire. In addition, she viewed herself as a mediator between European powers and attempted to negotiate treaties in order to maintain the delicate balance of power between nation-states. By the end of her reign, and after the political revolutions in both America and France, Catherine began to distance herself from Enlightenment ideas, especially since these were seen as a catalyst for revolt. She fully understood that these ideas could be dangerous for a monarch who still exercised complete control of her empire and her subjects.

Europe's place in the world

By the mid eighteenth century, most European monarchs –like Catherine the Great – were toeing a fine line between enlightened thinking, modernization, and maintaining power. At this time, the world was more connected than ever before, both economically and intellectually. While European monarchs attempted to maintain absolute control of their nations, cracks were beginning to appear. By the end of the century, Britain had lost most of its colonies in the Americas, and France was in a state of terror. But even with these changes, European power was growing, thanks in large part to the innovations in production and distribution that began to occur with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Serfs were indentured servants who were in essence owned by the Russian state. They were bound to the land they farmed and in many cases to the nobles who owned that land. They could not leave the land without the permission of the nobles for whom they worked. In addition, the children of serfs were born into serfdom. But there were some who were able to save some money and eventually buy their freedom.
Author bio
Eman M. Elshaikh holds an MA in social sciences from and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago, where she also teaches writing. She is a writer and researcher, and has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the US and in the Middle East. Eman was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP world history.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user wehrle924
    Explain the role of aristocrats in Europe. What was their relationship to monarchs? What are the two different ways that aristocrats related to the people that worked their land?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Strange Quark
      According to what I have read, which may not be completely accurate:
      On continental Europe, they are seen as servants to the monarch, responsible for administering the monarch's authorities on a local level, and sometimes to advice them. As even in those days, one person cannot be expected to rule over every aspect of their empire, the aristocrats (a mostly heretical position that is tied to the land they own) basically are responsible for enacting the monarch's authority over the land that they are responsible for (own). They are responsible for tax collections (which they keep a part of, and that part is why they are wealthy without having to work), administering economic policies (ie. making sure people are working efficiently), and during war times, gathering up people to fight in the monarch's or the pope's wars.

      In England/Great Britain the aristocrats have more power and authority in influencing the future of the society. their power would grow and grow until it reaches a peak in the early industrial revolution. their role may perhaps be compared to modern day ministers, except that their authority come mostly from their bloodline (being the elder most son of the previous generation) and land. They are almost seen as being equal or wealthier peers to the monarch (especially after the civil war of the 17th century). They are also responsible for the creation of the English Parliament (where there still exists a (formally mostly hereditary) house of lord as it's upper chamber), where originally the wealthy and influential, and their representatives, gathered up to "advise" the monarch on decisions and policies effecting the domestic and foreign policies of the empire.
      (5 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user meyer924
    What new cultural and intellectual ideas were changing European social structures? How? Where did these ideas come from?
    (3 votes)
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