The Enlightenment and the French Revolution
Introduction. For educated Europeans the Eighteenth Century was a cosmopolitan century. In many ways Europe enjoyed a common culture.
There were many political unities. Everywhere aristocrats dominated politics, social and intellectual life, and much of the economic life of the time. Nobles filled the most important offices in every state, provided the officers for the armies and navies of Europe, and staffed the highest positions in the Church. With their vast landholdings, they, together with the Church, controlled much of Europe’s wealth. They enjoyed many privileges which were denied to the common man. In France and many other lands they were exempt from heavy taxation.
Far beneath the nobles on the social scale were the peasants, on whose labor their wealth and privileges depended. Even though in western and southern Europe serfdom no longer prevailed, the relations economic relations between lord and peasant were generally characterized by exploitation.
Europe was unified in culture, too. French culture dominated, a consequence in the first place of her political and economic power. French was the language of diplomacy. Most well educated Europeans spoke or at least could read French. French literature and theater served as models for the rest of Europe. French fashions and architecture were widely imitated.
The two major developments in Europe during this time were the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which flourished from the first decades of the Eighteenth Century, and the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Both of these developments had a profound, although complex impact on Italy. The peninsula, which had remained peripheral to the major developments in Europe since the middle of the Sixteenth Century, now became more fully involved in European events.
The lectures, assignments, and discussions of Week Two deal with the impact of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution on Italy. They conclude the introductory portion of the course and set the stage for our more detailed study of modern Italian history.