The biggest economic decline of the 17th Century

Since starting my RPC course on Western Civilization history, I have learned about things in European history that I didn’t even know happened and events that were incredibly devastating.  The French Wars of Religion and Oliver Cromwell’s tyrannical rule are just a few examples.  However, one event stands out and that is the economic decline of Spain in the 1600’s.

There were many contributing factors to the decline. Some things happened by coincidence, for example, Spain was struggling with famine and bubonic plague, for a couple of years already.  The famine had arisen from a sequence of poor harvests during the 1590’s, while the bubonic plague, more commonly known as Black Plague, struck in 1600 and lingered for a couple years, killing roughly 10% of the population after running its course.  This got the ball rolling down the path of decline, stressing the economy and all those who depended on its state of stability.  Other elements that were instrumental in the decline of Spain were poor and foolish choices made by those in power.  Philip III was King of Spain then, but he wasn’t the best leader.  He was the figure-head for the Spanish Government and nothing else.  He was not a dominant character, which, as a king, he should have been.  This made it easy for his dukes and advisors to sway and influence his decisions, which were not good.  For example, Philip, with the influence of corrupt men, decided to expel a people known as Moriscos out of Spain simply because of religious and cultural prejudices.  This expulsion was a major factor in the economic collapse and was the most catastrophic mistake that the economy suffered for.  This was one component that made the decline so catastrophic because Philip and the men that served for him were weakening the already economically stressed state of Spain.

While the plague and famine were very unfortunate, they weren’t as economically crushing as the expulsion of the Moriscos.  King Philip III, along with the bad influence of some advisors, decided that it would be worthwhile to expel 275,000+ Moriscos out of Spain.  The Moriscos were Christians whose Muslim ancestors had converted from Islam to Christianity.   Even though the Moriscos followed the state religion, their old customs and culture made them unpopular.  With these religious prejudices and unproven claims that the Moriscos were planning to band with pirates and invade the peninsula, the King and his lords, dukes and advisors all voted to get rid of them.  This was the biggest mistake those in power could have made.  This was the final blow to completing the obliteration of the Spanish economy because the Moriscos were a critical element of Spain’s agriculture-based economy.  The Moriscos helped with harvesting crops and were good workers.  Now, with them gone, many people were struggling to harvest the whole crop and were losing food.  Less farm-hands meant less harvest.  Some farmers even had to be stop growing certain labor-intensive crops and replace them with those that were easier to grow and harvest.  However, these new crops were less nutritious and not good staple foods.

This expulsion of the Moriscos was completely unnecessary and unfair to them because they didn’t have anywhere to go.  I believe that were completely innocent and were persecuted because of their religion and custom.

These events tipped the scales on decline.  The state of Spain had just lost 275,000 productive citizens, voters and workers.  These incidents forced Spanish government to take a couple of steps back and gain control of their economy and focus on the citizens’ needs.  This inauspicious episode in Spanish history and it’s decline during the 17th Century shows me just how susceptible an economy can be to power-motivated individuals and groups in a corrupt government.

Quinn Palmer

RPC Student


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