The report that the 17th was a difficult century is hardly news. As early as 1954 Eric Hobsbawm mooted that Europe in the 17th century experienced a major economic crisis. Five years later Hugh Trevor-Roper expanded this observation to include politics and society as well, as small monarchies struggled to organise themselves into larger public states at severe cost to their neighbours. The Thirty Years War, he asserted, was not the century’s aberration but its norm. Geoffrey Parker knows all this better than anyone. As the co-editor of The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, which became required reading for every graduate student of history as soon as it appeared in 1976, Parker brought the puzzle of this general crisis to the attention of his discipline: was the century as disastrous as Hobsbawm and Trevor-Roper claimed (it was, and probably worse), and if so, how can it be explained?
Newly admitted to graduate school the year that book appeared, I was tasked to read it. Being a student of Chinese rather than European history, I had no special insight into the intricate issues that excited Europeanists. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether the crisis wasn’t even more general than