Daily Archives: 14 March 2023

Eastern Europe After Mohacz

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 250-252:

The political consequences of the battle of Mohacz were also considerable. Louis II had died childless; and the Habsburgs of Austria, long-sighted dynastic politicians and shrewd diplomatists, became the leading contenders for the thrones of both Hungary and Bohemia, and soon gained both. But in Hungary there was strong backing for a local candidate, John Zapolyai, and he, too, was crowned king. This political division weakened resistance to the Turks, who by the end of 1541 had occupied the southern and central parts of the country, including the capital Buda; and gained suzerainty over the east, which became a largely autonomous principality, Transylvania.

The death of Louis had ended one Eastern European dynasty. Two others failed to survive the sixteenth century. The last Jagiellonian King of Poland-Lithuania died in 1572; the last of Russia’s ancient Riurikid dynasty in 1591. In both instances political hiatus encouraged tumults, though, as we have seen, the long-term outcomes were quite dissimilar. While Russia returned to dynastic rule, Poland abandoned it. In this respect she came to resemble the smaller polities in the region, the Danubian Principalities, self-governing tributaries to the Turk, which also lacked dynastic rule: The instability of their domestic politics is suggested by the fact that, in the course of one century Wallachia had twenty-four, and Moldavia no fewer than forty, changes of ruling prince, or hospodar.

These religious and political changes were obvious to contemporaries. But there were other shifts, no less profound in their effects, which were much less noticeable at the time, or recognized only in retrospect.

Europe’s centre of economic gravity had been moving from the Mediterranean to the countries bordering on the North Atlantic; from the basin of the River Po to that of the Rhine (where it has remained); and from the emporia of Istanbul and Venice to that of Amsterdam. Furthermore, a surge in the population of Western Europe, and in particular of its cities, was stimulating a sharply increasing demand, and hence higher prices, for imported foodstuffs which Eastern Europe was able to supply. This was to have marked social as well as economic effects, especially on those regions with access to the Baltic, not least in encouraging the rise of serfdom.

At the same time the importation of silver from the Americas was promoting a sharp increase in the money supply and hence serious inflation. This was to throw the finely-tuned mechanisms of the Ottoman state out of kilter and prove a major factor in its subsequent decline. And there was one change perceived by very few, if at all, the indirect effects of which were felt by almost everyone. This was ‘the little ice age’, a slight but insidious drop in the average temperature beginning late in the sixteenth century. By restricting the latitude and height at which agriculture was viable this precipitated famines, population movements and the great disorders which were to overtake most of Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, turning the frontier lands especially into a crucible of violence.

And there was a plethora of other factors which intervened at various points with varying intensity to influence the course things took. Linguistic differences, for example, sometimes fed into religious and political struggles; and social classes sometimes gained or lost constitutional rights according to the religion they embraced at a particular moment. Low population density in Poland-Lithuania contributed to the enserfment of the peasant; yet high population density in the Ottoman Empire contributed to the disruption of that state. Sometimes the effects seem paradoxical. The Turkish presence, so often assumed to be a wholly negative influence, slowed down and even reversed the process of enserfment in Hungary for a time. The Baltic grain boom had helped to promoted serfdom, yet the end of the boom around the turn of the century served not to remove serfdom, but to entrench it. And though Protestantism is often associated with the origins of modern science Copernicus was a priest whom Polish Protestants rejected, while the patron of Tycho Brahe and Kepler was a Habsburg. The interactions of circumstances and catalysts that shaped Eastern Europe in the period from 1526 to 1648 far exceeded in complexity the most complicated transmutation process in any alchemists’ laboratory.

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