Sunday, July 10, 2005

My Western History Odyssey, Part Four: the 1600s

Last time, we looked at the 1500s, the time of the Reformation and Renaissance. I already knew a bit about that time period, having studied it at school, but as I peered into the 17th century, I came in knowing very little.

Churchill and Schama guided me through the reign of James I, Charles I and the English Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration, the hedonistic but stable reign of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution when the Dutch took over Britain from the Scots.

Meanwhile, understanding Continental Europe was becoming more and more important to understanding Britain. Luckily Barzun was happy to oblige, giving me details of the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe.

I also saw the growing religious pluralism - or desire for it - that gave rise to the Pilgrims' voyage to America. This was an age when many of the respected religious denominations of today were considered freaky, perhaps dangerous breakaway movements.

And thanks to King, I reached a significant date in terms of Western exploration in the South Pacific - 1642, when dutch trader Abel Tasman, far from home, sighted some giant Maori at the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. At least they look giant in the pictures he drew.
As a kiwi, I've read about Tasman many times, but for once I was reading it in context, realising just how far he was from what he would call civilisation, and what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time.

An interesting character who comes up around mid-century is Oliver Cromwell. The man is a mystery. On the one hand, he behaves like a despot, securing power for himself. On the other hand, he doesn't really desire that power for himself; he just wants a godly government and sees himself as the only candidate to choose from.

Cromwell gets mixed reviews from my hosts. Churchill, champion of freedom and democracy, slams Cromwell hard, pointing out his ruthlessness. Schama points out the very paradox I mentioned above, that while arbitrary and sometimes violent, Cromwell's rule resulted in a more tolerant, peaceful society than any of his royal predecessors.

The Restoration and the years of Charles II were semi-fictitiously portrayed in the BBC miniseries The Last King: The Power and the Passion and the slightly seedy Private Life of Samuel Pepys.

As you'd expect, these dramas played up the sensational aspects of the times. You can get a slightly tamer version at Samuel Pepys Diary, which has been bloggified for our fast-paced times. Nice idea.

Next time, I'm looking at the exciting 1700s, where men boldly went where they hadn't gone before.


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