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READ: European States and Empires

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.

European States and Empires

By 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.
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 oder.

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.
Map of Europe in 1700. By Rebel Redcoat, CC BY-SA 3.0.
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.
Portrait of Empress Catherine II of Russia by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763. Public domain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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