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Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: Science, Commerce, Freedom, and the Origins of Modernity

They witnessed the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the siege of Vienna, ending a thousand years of implacable Islamic expansion.

· 31 min read
Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: Science, Commerce, Freedom, and the Origins of Modernity
They are [letters] from brothers of mine in Europe. They tell a story – albeit in a fragmentary and patchwork way – of a sea-change that is spreading across Christendom, in large part because of men like Leibniz, Newton and Descartes. It is a change in the way men think, and it is the doom of the Inquisition.
— Edouard de Gex in the dungeons of the Mexican Inquisition

Athenian civilization defended itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. Technology is built on science. … The process of science doesn’t work unless young scientists have the freedom to attack and tear down old dogmas, to engage in an ongoing Titanomachia. Science flourishes where art and free speech flourish.
— Enoch Root, in a later incarnation in Cryptonomicon

The principal and proper work of history being to instruct and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently toward the future.
— Thomas Hobbes, introduction to his translation of Thucydides

Commentary on Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle has tended to focus on the fantasy elements of the story – the magic gold, the imaginary Hebridean isle with the unpronounceable name, the possibly immortal Enoch Root – with the result that the novels have been characterised as science fiction rather than literature. Stephenson himself, despite his evident deep knowledge of the religious, scientific, and political issues of the period, modestly describes it as such, which possibly explains why the novels were not entered into any of the major literary contests and have not been given the recognition they deserve. Far from being an instance of esoteric cult fiction, however, the Baroque Cycle is one of the greatest historical novels ever written, far superior in plot, characterisation, drama, and historical depth to War and Peace, and – for my money – significantly more impressive than Hilary Mantel’s much praised novels about Thomas Cromwell.

For a start, the geographical scope of the three novels (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) is vast, embracing not merely Britain, but Europe, the Mediterranean, India, east Asia, and America. Chronologically, the focus is limited to a pivotal moment in history – the period from the Stuart restoration in 1660 to the Hanoverian succession in 1714, dramatising not merely the tumultuous political events of those years, but the revolutions in science and commerce that rumbled in the background. Covering much the same territory as Paul Hazard’s Crisis of the European Mind, on the scientific revolution and the early Enlightenment, the novel’s theme of progress from darkness to light is exemplified in its opening and closing episodes: where Quicksilver begins with a witch being hanged in Boston, System of the World concludes with Newcomen’s steam engine pumping water from a coal mine in Cornwall.

Neal Stephenson (GDC Online)

The years 1660 to 1714 were vital decades that gave birth to many features of the world we still inhabit. They witnessed the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the siege of Vienna, ending a thousand years of implacable Islamic expansion. The experimental or empirical method in science (natural or new philosophy, as it was known at the time) eroded the power of theology and scholasticism, and established itself as the only reliable method for discovering objective truths about the universe. England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 delivered the death blow to the divine right of kings by expelling the reigning monarch (James II) and establishing the sovereignty of parliament, the principle of religious toleration (limited at first, but more generous than most places in Europe) and the sanctity of private property. The territorial aggression and religious totalitarianism of Louis XIV were checked and contained by the alliance between Britain, the Dutch, and the Protestant regions of Germany. The development of state institutions during the 1690s became the basis for a long-lasting administrative system, while the establishment of the Bank of England and the National Debt secured the basis for a stable currency and the systems of credit and exchange on which the modern world economy still depends. Finally, and perhaps most fatefully, the period witnessed the arrival of coffee and the growth of a flourishing coffee-house culture, in which people gathered to exchange news and business tips, discuss science and politics, and foment conspiracies and rebellions – a world of conviviality and public performance that is central to the plot of Baroque Cycle, and which is still very much with us.

Emerging from these developments, five themes stand out: the struggle against arbitrary government and royal absolutism, especially as embodied in the policies of Louis XIV and the ambitions of the Stuarts; the rise of scientific method, particularly as expressed in its emergence from the esoteric lucubrations of the alchemists; the fight for religious freedom, including freedom from religion and the right to be sceptical; the power of commerce and free trade to generate wealth and foster human well-being; the evils of slavery. In developing these themes Stephenson deploys a mixture of real and invented characters: vivid characterisations of Louis XIV, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Samuel Pepys, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, “hanging judge” Jeffries, and some minor figures are complemented by five major inventions, each of which is associated with a particular theme – Daniel Waterhouse with politics; Enoch Root with science; Eliza with commerce; Jack (King of the Vagabonds) as the failed alternative; and Father Edouard de Gex with religion. As the authentic voice of the Counter-Reformation, his role is to highlight all too clearly what the good guys are up against.

Daniel Waterhouse embodies the spirit of radical political dissent: against kings, entitlement by birth, divine right, and religious authority; in favour of personal and economic freedom, social equality, science, and religious tolerance – so much so that he ends up as a sceptic in the mould of David Hume, if not an outright atheist. The son of an iconoclastic Puritan revolutionary from Cromwell’s time, whose earliest memory is the execution of Charles I, Daniel was raised as a phanatique and sent to university to learn languages so that he could personally welcome the second coming of Jesus in fluent Aramaic. When the Apocalypse failed to materialise he turned to natural philosophy, but did not shed his radical roots: as Bishop Wilkins remarks, “I forget you are a phanatique born and bred. Which was the same as saying, You recognise no man as your better, do you?” (Q 135). Surrounded by geniuses such as Newton, Hooke, and Leibniz, however, Daniel had little chance to make his mark as a scientist, so he turned to politics and became a courtier, reflecting that “maybe this was why God and Drake brought him into the world: to play some pivotal role in this, the final struggle, between the Whore of Babylon, aka the Roman Catholic Church, and Free Trade, Freedom of Conscience, Limited Government and diverse other good Anglo-Saxon virtues.” (Q 629-30). He is, in the words of Wilkins, the character to make it all happen (Q 272). These objectives were largely realised in the Glorious Revolution following the invited invasion of the Prince of Orange and his accession as William III, but not secured until the Hanoverian succession and the arrival of George I in 1714 – victories that Daniel described as his life’s work and greatest achievement. His failure to mend the quarrel between Newton and Leibniz, as requested by Princess Caroline, is another story – but a task as far beyond the capacity of any mortal as Leibniz’s own dream of reuniting the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Gottfried Leibniz

Enoch Root is the character who, more than any other, is responsible for the impression that the Baroque Cycle is a work of science fiction. His habit of turning up mysteriously at crucial moments and hints of unnatural longevity, perhaps even immortality, suggest that he might really have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and produced the Elixir of Life. A more reasonable view would see Root, not only as a character in the story, but as a symbol of the spirit of scientific advance. If you read the novels attentively it is clear that his appearances always coincide with the need for some sort of scientific or technological breakthrough, and that his knowledge is of a practical rather than a mystical character. These include bringing chemical supplies for the apothecary where the young Newton boards, and urging him to encourage the boy’s scientific and mathematical curiosity; devising improved methods for refining silver in the Harz and forging Damascus steel in India; demonstrating the properties of phosphorous; and igniting the mind of the young Ben Franklin.

Explaining the principles of the new way of knowledge, Root tells him that a Natural Philosopher is “one who tries to prevent his ruminations from straying, by hewing to what can be observed, and proving things, where possible, by rules of logic … Rather like a judge in a court, who insists on facts, and scorns rumour, hearsay and appeals to sentiment.” (Q 14) There is a remarkable congruence between this definition of science and David Wootton’s argument in The Invention of Science that the modern concept of scientific evidence emerged in the late seventeenth century and was drawn from contemporary understandings of evidence in English legal practice. It would thus appear that Root is far more in the mould of a modern scientist than the alchemists with whom he tends to be associated, and thus that his reputed immortality should really be seen as a metaphor for the spirit of scientific inquiry – “the quicksilver spirit that circulates among the minds of philosophers and ingenieurs,” as Eliza puts it (SW 790) – which is indeed immortal, forever welling up in the human heart and flourishing in open societies of the sort championed by Daniel and the Marquis of Ravenscar, and hated by Father Gex.

If Daniel and Ravenscar are the emblems of political progress and religious tolerance, Gex embodies their nemesis – the fanatical spirit of the Counter-Reformation and the Ancien Regime in all their reactionary menace: divine right of kings, aristocratic power and privilege, a totalitarian church that persecutes and even burns heretics, a world without commerce or money. In pursuit of these ideals, Gex destroys the Spanish galleon, conspires to corrupt the English coinage in the hope of wrecking her economy, and tries to poison the Princess of Wales in order to frustrate the accession of George I and facilitate the restoration of the pro-French young pretender as James III.

It might be thought that Gex is a caricature and that nobody could really be so vicious, and it is true that there is a degree of exaggeration, appropriate in fiction for the sake of effect and contrast. But the exaggeration is not by that much. In France, Protestants were gaoled, tortured, and sent to the galleys after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and as late as the middle of the eighteenth century the Callas case showed how far the church would go to enforce conformity, while the young Chevalier de la Barre was tortured and burned for showing insufficient respect for a religious procession. Even in England, a woman who had sheltered some of the Monmouth rebels was convicted of high treason and burned at the stake – though she was the last person in Britain to be so treated. Gex’s dream of re-establishing the Inquisition in England might seem far-fetched, but who knows what might have happened had Louis XIV achieved his ambition of conquering the major Protestant powers, Britain and the United Provinces? Gex’s vision of society, with its rejection of scientific progress and visceral loathing of the commercial and professional classes and their obsession with money and other things of this world, actually has much in common with the ideals of romantic primitivists such as Rousseau, the ideologues of the Counter-Enlightenment, such as de Maistre, and even some of the extreme clerico-fascists who supported the dictators of the 1930s. It is also disturbingly close to the nihilistic vision of many contemporary enemies of modernity, from the Islamic State to the anarchist fringes of the regressive Left.

Eliza and Jack form an obvious binary pair, not merely on account of their love for each other, but because they are polar opposites. Eliza is the emblem of the spirit of trade, commerce, credit, the market, and the free movement of goods and services. She recognises that wealth does not lie solely, or even primarily, in land, gold, jewellery etc, but in networks and ideas, and that the real drivers of wealth accumulation are to be found in the inventiveness of clever people and investment of funds in productive enterprises. Her instinctive understanding of economics equips her to build several fortunes that in turn enable her to support new ventures such as computation and steam power, and devote resources to the eradication of evils such as slavery. Jack, by contrast, is the lovable loser who illustrates the Sunday School adage that crime does not pay. While Eliza’s subtle playing of markets – all perfectly legal – brings her ever-increasing wealth, influence, and status, all his elaborate get-rich schemes end in disaster and land him in captivity. As he laments in the condemned hold at Newgate: “I chose to seek my fortune. Failed. Lost all. Then I got a fortune I had not even looked for. Lost it though. Got it back. Lost it. Got another – the story is somewhat repetitious.” (SW 775)

The irony is that to gain all those fortunes by underhand and convoluted means cost far more effort than Eliza’s legal dealings: if only Jack had devoted his undoubted genius for project management to activities that were above board! As Daniel remarks after springing Jimmy and Danny out of the Fleet prison, “I never knew how bloody complicated it was to be a criminal master-mind.” (SW 775) There is thus perhaps a grain of truth in the tenet beloved by the social science model, that crime arises from poverty rather than criminal disposition: perhaps the more ambitious and hard-working criminals are aspiring entrepreneurs who lack start-up capital and thus have to obtain it illegally. Once they set off into the back streets of the underworld, however, it becomes very difficult for them to find their way back to high roads of legality. Instead of funding rehabilitation programs, perhaps governments should work on the development of policies to make it easier for small entrepreneurs to raise capital.

One of the great joys of the Baroque Cycle, and the main reason for its compulsive readability, is that it entices us with all the raciness and suspense of a political thriller. In fact, it is a political thriller, complete with beautiful spies, elaborate cyphers, complex plans and the need for last-minute decisions to avert disaster. Of course we know the outcome (it’s history, after all), but Stephenson has us on the edge of our seats, wondering whether Daniel will be murdered in the Tower; whether Jack will succeed in ruining the currency or blowing up Newton; whether the French marines will succeed in kidnapping the Prince of Orange; and whether, in the end, the Hanoverian succession is secured, thus laying the basis for a politically free, religiously tolerant, and economically capitalist future; or whether a Stuart restoration would lead to domination by France and realise Gex’s dream of bonfires incinerating heretics at Charing Cross.

The issues are spelt out starkly by Ravenscar at his dinner with Bolingbroke: “We are at a fork in the road just now. One way takes us to a wholly new way of managing human affairs. It is a system I have helped … to develop: the Royal Society, the Bank of England, the Recoinage, the Whigs, and the Hanoverian Succession are all elements of it. The other way [inviting James III] leads us to Versailles and the rather different scheme that the King of France had got going there.” (SW 575) Would the future be “a world where power came of thrift and cleverness and industry,” Daniel wonders, or one where it was based on birth and Divine Right? (C 496) This was the Versailles system, whose idle aristos regarded financiers as akin to “meteors, comets, sunspots … monstrous deviations, fell portents of undesired change, proof that something is wrong in a system that was supposedly framed by the hand of God.” (C 376) Louis’s chief banker put it mildly: the full force of the Ancien Regime comes blasting out in Gex’s impassioned rant to Eliza, trapped in the overturned coach – so vivid that it deserves quotation in extenso:

Money, and all that comes with it, disgusts me … Within living memory, men and women of noble birth did not even have to think about it. … Nobles did not handle money, or speak of it; if they were guilty of caring about it, they took pains to hide it, as with any other vice. … And ordinary, honest peasants lived a life blessedly free from money. To nobles, clerics, and peasants – the only people needed or wanted in a decent Christian Realm – coins were as alien, eldritch, inexplicable as communion wafers to a Hindoo. … The makers, users and hoarders of money were a cult, a cabal, a parasitical infestation … no more Christian than the Jews – indeed, many were Jews. They convened in a few places like Venice, Genoa, Antwerp and Seville, and spun around the globe a web or network of links … The money-cult has spread faster across what used to be Christendom than the faith of Mahomet across Araby. … It was then [when you came to Versailles] that I formed my resolve to burn you at the stake. … Burning you, Eliza, was to be the climax, the catharsis of a great work of purification. England was to fall to the armies of the Most Christian King, and the Dutch Republic was to fall next. Not just you, but many were to have been consumed in autos da fe that would have illuminated the face of Europe. … It was to have been the end of heresy – the heresy of the so-called Protestants, of the Jews and, most of all, the money cult.

Eliza realises that his aim is “to overturn and scatter the new System that has been built up, during your lifetime, by the ineffable workings of money.” Gex agrees:

What right do Britain and the Dutch Republic have to exist? God did not mean for men to live in such places, or if He did, He did not mean them to prosper here. Look at this opera house! Built on the edge of the world by frostbitten shepherds – yet its size, its glory, truly a monster an abomination, only possible because of the unnatural distortions that Money has wreaked upon the world. The same is true of all London! It should all burn. (SW 567-9)
Isaac Newton

One is reminded of Sultan Selim’s boast before the Battle of Lepanto, that he would conquer Italy and stable his horse at the high altar of St Peter’s.

In case it should be thought that such sentiments have entirely disappeared from the world, bear in mind that that they present many contemporary parallels and a striking congruity of tone and sentiment with statements from the more extreme supporters of the Islamic State, as well as some of the apocalyptic cults that appear from time to time in the backblocks of the United States and the subways of Japan.

Just as there are two ways in politics there are two ways in science – the old way of alchemy, and the new way of natural philosophy, initiated by Copernicus, continued by Galileo, and brought to maturity by Newton. The ongoing scientific revolution is a pervasive theme throughout the Baroque Cycle, announced at the outset with Root’s visit to Mr Clarke, himself a dabbler in Alchemy. Responding to Root’s comments on the young Isaac’s drawings and devices, Clarke wonders whether he will turn out to be “the one,” but Enoch does not think so:

He’s not the one. Not the one you are thinking of. Oh, he will be a great empiricist. He will, perhaps, be the one to accomplish some great things we have never imagined. … Galileo and Descartes were only harbingers. Something is happening now – the mercury is rising in the ground, like water climbing up the bore of a well.

By the term “the one” Clarke of course meant the discoverer of the philosophic mercury or philosopher’s stone, but Root dismisses this as an idle fancy:

We are empiricists – we scorn the scholastic way of memorising old books and rejecting what is new – and that is good. But in pinning our hopes on the Philosophic Mercury we have decided in advance what it is that we seek to discover, and that is never right. (Q 31-33)

Even at this early stage Root thinks that the Philosopher’s Stone is a bit of a distraction and that more important discoveries lie ahead. One of these is the calculus, an advanced mathematical technique, Leibniz explains to Eliza and Jack, that will bring about “enormous changes in all forms of Natural Philosophy and Engineering. People will use it to build machines that will fly through the air like birds, and that travel to other planets, and its very power and brilliance will sweep old, tottering, worn-out systems of thought into the dustbin.” (Q 431) One of these systems was alchemy. Some of the most enthralling passages in the Baroque Cycle dramatise the clash between Newton and Leibniz on this and related questions, but their antagonism is as much a question of style as disagreements about the nature of light, gravity, the promise of alchemical research, and which of their respective philosophies is more likely to lead to atheism. Always the paranoid, publicity-shunning loner, Newton liked to keep his discoveries secret, working everything out in great detail, including possible objections, until he had an unassailable case to be presented as the unquestionable Final Word, and until that moment kept under-wraps or (at most) circulated confidentially among a narrow circle of trusted adepts. Leibniz took what became the modern approach: turning out work-in-progress papers as fast as he could pen them, and sharing them as rapidly as possible in his journal, Acta Eruditorum, so that they could be evaluated by the informal network of scholars constituting the Republic of Letters.

Beware of Root Causes
Sydney. London. Toronto.

The genial Leibniz is a more attractive character than the austere, neurotic Newton, but the fact is that we revere Newton today as a brilliant scientist whose mathematics and physics are still relied upon to build bridges, navigate ships, and fly aeroplanes, while pigeonholing Leibniz as a mere philosopher. If he is remembered at all, it is in histories of the Enlightenment as the eternal optimist who believed that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – Voltaire’s deluded Dr Pangloss. Leibniz’s own scientific ideas, such as calculating machines and knowledge databases, were far ahead of their time, and could not be constructed with the technology then available. Yet Leibniz had one small posthumous victory: it was his, rather than Newton’s, mode of communication that became the preferred style of the scientific community, involving learned journals and peer review. Stephenson has gone to great trouble to understand Leibniz’s rambling and often incoherent writings, while making it clear that the fundamental reason he was a lesser scientist than Newton was his determination to bring God explicitly and directly into his theories. Newton, for all his sincere piety and (unorthodox) religious fervour, ignored God completely when it came to physics. He understood that science does not concern itself with purpose (Aristotle’s final cause) or morality, and was content to explain how gravity worked and what its effects were. Leibniz, more like Socrates, wanted to know how it got there, how it meshed with God’s plan for the world, and whether it was a Good Thing.

What makes Newton such a puzzle, as much to his contemporaries as to us, is that once he had invented the calculus, discovered the nature of light, and explained how gravity ordered everything from the orbit of the planets to the fall of an apple, he turned away from science (or, what we would regard as science) and devoted the remainder of his long life to alchemical and biblical researches while running the Mint – which he managed with dazzling efficiency. Such bizarre juxtapositions could cause alarm, for as the Duke of Marlborough complained, “such arcane and eldritch matters as the Solomonic Gold and the Philosophic Mercury and other such semi-occult doings have no place in this, the eighteenth century. … Can Newton be trusted to run the Mint? … Is he a bloody sorcerer?” (SW 635) What mattered in the new system of the world was not the date of the Apocalypse or knowledge of the nature of God, but maintenance of a sound currency. At the other end of the social scale, Jack agreed: “This bloke [Newton] … is a sorcerer or alchemist of some stripe, straight out of a bleeding faery-tale. Just like elves and trolls, his sort are fading away, and soon to vanish from the world.” (SW 722) The Duke and the coiner were correct: for all Newton’s commitment to them, both alchemy (soon) and religious belief (eventually) would be whittled away by the unfolding implications of the physical laws that he had discovered.

The real magic of the modern world was to be found in neither alchemy nor religion, but in the free market, a far more reliable way of generating wealth than seeking the Philosopher’s Stone or praying for divine favour. “Markets drew a particular sort of person, just as those other places [palaces, parliaments] drew different sorts. And the sorts who found a market a congenial place to be were those who thought quickly on their feet, and adapted to unlooked-for happenings with facility; they were, in short, mercurial.” (SW 605) The parallels between the scientific and commercial revolutions is emphasised in Daniel’s reflection that gravitational force is very like a universal measure of value:

[E]verything attracted everything … the influences on (say) Saturn of the Sun, of Jupiter and of Titan … were different only insofar as they came from different directions and had different magnitudes. Like the diverse goods piled up in some Amsterdam merchant’s warehouse, they might have come from many different places and have different values, but in the end all that mattered was how much gold they could fetch on the Damplatz. … In the case of celestial mechanics, the gold – the universal medium of exchange to which everything was reduced – was force. (Q 676)

This is a very different kind of force from the military force that allowed kings to renege on their borrowings and plunder the property of those who had lent them money. When Daniel crosses plague-stricken London to collect some money from his Uncle Thomas to fund his trip to Epsom, he finds the cellar stocked with valuable items (gold, silver, jewellery etc) that people had deposited there for safe-keeping or as security for loans. None of this was treasure owned by William Ham (son of Thomas and director of the bank) as goldsmith/banker, but assets entrusted to him by his customers: as Daniel later points out to Ravenscar, such wealth “is not his. It is the sum of his obligations.” (Q 297) To pay for his war on the Dutch, reward mistresses, throw parties etc, maintain the Navy, and (as an afterthought) govern the country, the king (Charles II) had borrowed these deposits (“presumably at gunpoint”), but then could not pay them back, or even meet the interest, and declared bankruptcy, thus ruining Thomas and those who had trusted him. The only bright spot in this saga of irresponsibility and betrayal is detected by Sir Richard Apthorpe, who explains that the goldsmiths became bankers when the previous monarch (Charles I) seized the gold that merchants had deposited in the Tower for safe-keeping. Nobody trusted the government after that, and the merchants and others with valuables turned to the goldsmiths. Now that Charles II had repeated the exercise, they too would no longer be trusted, and a new system would need to be devised.

This turns out to be the Bank of England, whose director, in a thrilling, action-packed episode, thwarts the scheme of the state (in the form of Newton’s Mint police) to seize the gold from Minerva that Daniel had stored there. While in the vault he and his friends discover an old (Roman era) Mosaic showing that the site had once been a Temple of Mithras – himself, appropriately enough, the god of contracts. (SW 621f; 800) The importance of this episode is emphasised at the Trial of the Pyx, where Ham is chosen to be the assayer because “he defied Sir Isaac and the King’s Messengers in the Bank of England a few days ago, asserting that they had no right to enter the vault and seize a deposit. They honour him for it now. The steadfast goldsmith protected the sanctity of England’s commerce by his actions.” (SW 857) As a result of the Glorious Revolution and the defeat of royal pretensions to absolute power, contracts would be respected and property was protected from violation and seizure by the state; being king no longer entitled you to be a bank robber.

Neal Stephenson at the 2011 National Book Festival in Washington DC (Ryan Somma)

As Eliza demonstrates in her brilliantly executed take-downs of Mr Sluys and Lothar von Hackleheber, the essence of banking is confidence. Despite that, even today governments which fail to control their expenditure ignore her observation that while “a lady’s wealth consists in the contents of her jewellery box, that of a banking house consists largely in its credit.” (C 429) Like Charles I and II, contemporary governments which fail to balance their budgets and get their debts under control look around for additional sources of revenue and imagine that banks are sitting on vaults full of treasure that can easily be plundered – or “shared”, as some politicians like to express it. But banks are not sitting on piles of treasure: they are merely middlemen whose obligations (deposits, funds they have borrowed) correspond to their assets (loans and investments). Profligate governments which try to escape the consequences of their own financial mismanagement by imposing special taxes or “levies” on businesses that are managed well enough to make a reasonable profit are not acting very differently from mediaeval monarchs who repudiated their debts by attacking the Jews (the money-lenders of those times), executing a few and fining the community for practising usury. Throughout history, lenders have been as unpopular as they were essential, and it is very easy for demagogues to tap into the resentment of those who would rather not be required to pay their borrowings back. Modern governments, aware of the fragility of the system of trust on which the modern economy rests, ought to know better than to risk letting such genies out of the bottle.

In addition to the two systems mentioned by Ravenscar – the Versailles system of royal absolutism and the messy British compromise between king, parliament, the gentry, and the middle classes – there was a third system. This was embodied in various forms of forced labour involving permanent or temporary ownership of human beings. Slavery and its evils are such a pervasive theme in the Baroque Cycle that they could be regarded as the central thread around which all the episodes of the series are woven. Its regular recurrence, like a musical motif in an opera by Wagner, offers a commentary on the action and sense of how the situation should be judged and interpreted. Six types of slavery are identified:

  1. The African slave trade, whereby Africans captured other Africans and sold them to either Arab traders for transfer to the Ottoman Empire or to Europeans for shipment to the West Indies and America to work on sugar and other plantations.
  2. Barbary corsairs kidnapping Europeans from ships and coastal villages and keeping them as slaves on galleys or in the major north African centres, such as Algiers or Tunis.
  3. Judge Jeffries sentencing English farmhands and schoolgirls to periods of slavery as punishment for their involvement in or proximity to the Monmouth Rebellion.
  4. The efforts of Louis XIV to eradicate religious dissent by sending religious dissidents and political criminals to the galleys and his ambition to enslave all Europe (as William sees it).
  5. Personal chattel slavery, exemplified by Mr White’s attempt to claim Dappa as a runaway slave.
  6. Indentured labour, exemplified by the service of Jimmy, Danny, and Tomba on Mr Ickfield’s plantation in Carolina.

Of these it is the first two that receive the most attention, and represent the remote cause that brought Eliza and Jack together and then kept them apart. Eliza and her mother were captured from their barren island by a raiding corsair and sold into slavery in Algiers. Through a series of transactions involving a French duke and albino stallions, Eliza was transferred to the Sultan’s seraglio in Constantinople, before ending up as the property of the commander of his forces at the siege of Vienna – from which sticky situation she is rescued by the providential arrival of Jack. These experiences leave her with a bitter hared of slavery and determination to get her revenge on those responsible for her capture and captivity. The partnership is broken up when Jack, hoping to make his fortune as a trader, unwittingly enters the Atlantic slave trade himself, not realising that “pieces of India” did not refer to cloth, but to African males. This in turn leads to Jack’s capture by another corsair off the coast of Spain, and his own enslavement on an Algerian galley – a development that provides the occasion for a vivid description of the Mediterranean world at a time when the Muslim Ottomans, occupying the eastern and southern coasts, were the dominant imperial power.

It is a fact not well known to social media addicts today, especially those who fret about European colonialism and the sin of ‘Islamophobia,’ that Ottoman control of this region was based on slavery, and more especially on a powerful pirate fleet that preyed on European shipping, and even raided coastal villages as far north as Scotland, capturing crews, seizing the cargoes and selling the passengers, crew, and villagers into slavery. Over several centuries hundreds of thousands of Europeans were enslaved in this way, while others (particularly those with valued skills) “turned Turk” voluntarily in the expectation that defection would secure them better treatment and conditions – often better, in fact, than they could have got at home. As Jack noticed in the vagabond camp at Cadiz, the poverty and meanness of the West presented a contrast with the wealth and splendour of the East. That this situation reversed over the next couple of centuries has much to do with other events recounted in the Baroque Cycle, notably the painstaking investigations of a neurotic loner in Cambridge in the 1660s, and the financial innovations that allowed nations without reserves of gold or silver to prosper through credit, industry and trade. Or as the English dissenter Daniel Defoe put it, in a spirited, highly judgemental passage about the corsairs that would probably be tagged as disrespectful, if not hate-speech, today:

Dwelling on the sea-coast, and being a rapacious, cruel, violent and tyrannical people, void of all industry or application, neglecting all culture and improvement, it made them thieves and robbers, as naturally as idleness makes beggars. They disdained all industry and labour; but being bred up to rapine and spoil, when they were no longer able to ravage and plunder the fruitful plains of Valentia, Granada and Andalusia, they fell to roving upon the sea; they built ships, or, rather took ships from others, and ravaged the coasts, landing in the night, surprising and carrying away the poor country people out of their beds into slavery. (C 83)

The existence and demise of such systems of slavery have much to do with power – not primarily political power, but power, as Daniel explains to Eliza, “in a mechanical sense – to mean a sort of general ability to effect change, in a measurable way. Pumping water out of a mine is one thing to spend power on, but if you had a fund of such power you might out it to other uses as well.” (SW 386) The problem faced by pre-industrial societies was the absence of any cheap, effective, reliable power source. Water, wind and animal power made some contribution, but most activities, from sowing wheat to forging iron and moving ships, depended on human labour; and since most of these activities were arduous and unpleasant, various forms of coerced labour were common. What transformed this situation was the application of the discoveries of the scientific revolution, particularly in mathematics and physics, to technology, making it possible to develop new power sources, such as a boiler that did not burst under pressure, and which could direct steam to power an engine.

The relevance of this miracle to the future of slavery was very much on Daniel’s mind when he inspected the engine for raising water by fire and discussed the matter with Mr Threader. As a conservative Tory, he disliked innovations such as the steam engine, and regarded it as unnecessary now that England had secured the slave trade from Spain. Daniel replied that English people were not accustomed to “seeing their pastures and mines crowded with Blackamoors toiling under the lash,” and added that “ingenuity is a more essential element of that [English] character than cruelty. Steam engines, being a product of the former virtue, are easier to reconcile with the English scene than slavery, which is a product of the latter vice. Accordingly, if I had money to bet, I’d bet it on steam engines.” (SW 41) Which is exactly what that canny market player, Eliza, does: “If the engine succeeds,” comments Daniel, “it will help your cause by reducing the demand for slave labour.” And yours, she replies, “by supplying motive power for a Logic Mill” (SW 793) – that is, the proto-computer that Daniel envisaged, but could not build or get to operate for lack of a suitable power source, eventually provided by electricity. As Aristotle had remarked, slavery would disappear only when “each instrument could do its own work … as if a shuttle should weave of itself and a plectrum could do its own harp-playing.”

The Baroque Cycle

Those who bemoan the Industrial Revolution as entailing the dispossession of the handloom weavers, the confinement of children in dark satanic mills, and the cause of accelerated global warming (all of which is true) might also reflect that, without it, and in order to obtain a fraction of our consumer goods, comforts, entertainment and communication modes, including the social media platforms on which these evils are denounced, slavery would have continued for much longer than it did, and we would still not be able to enjoy most of these wonders.

There is a certain fashion among progressive people these days to decry the anti-Catholic attitudes of English people in the seventeenth century as some sort of bigotry and to regard James II as seeking no more than tolerance for his co-religionists. Such views are anachronistic, possible only in a world where the historic antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism, and its national expression, have been eroded by secularisation and loss of faith to the point where they have been forgotten. Roman Catholicism in the seventeenth century was not merely a religious option, but a totalitarian political ideology remarkably like Communism or Nazism in the 1930s, or radical Islam today. The Pope was not a kindly, grey-haired gentleman who worried about social inequality, but a temporal ruler, surrounded by monarchical pomp, who raised armies and claimed the power to depose and replace kings. Rejecting the humanism and laxity of the Renaissance at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Papacy was determined to win back the ground it had lost in a broad program known as the Counter-Reformation. The military face of such revanchism was represented in the first half of the century by the Hapsburg Emperor, based in Vienna, and the King of Spain, able to raise huge armies by virtue of those streams of South American silver that play such a starring role in the Baroque Cycle. In the second half it was represented most fearsomely in the person and policies of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, whose actions are comparable to those of Stalin and Hitler at their worst: internal repression; ideological uniformity; aggressive territorial expansion; persecution and extermination of a religious minority through arrests and death camps (the galleys); grandiose building projects and displays designed to enhance his prestige and project his absolute power.

For seventeenth century Englishmen people, Catholicism brought back memories of the Bloody Mary and the burning of Archbishop Cranmer; the Armada in which Spain sought to invade and conquer; the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605; the setbacks experienced by Protestants in the Thirty Years War; France’s invasion of the Netherlands in 1672; the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and persecution of the Huguenots; and a French style of royal and confessional absolutism in which the rights and liberties of the people would be trampled. The English and Scottish fear of Popery was not merely intolerant bigotry, but a realistic assessment of the dangers that they and their own religion (closely bound up, as it was, with national identity) faced at a time when the Counter-Reformation was in the ascendant – so much so that during the early seventeenth century the proportion of European territory that could be called Protestant shrank from half the land area to less than a fifth.

The Baroque Cycle is a work of fiction, not a history book, so it does not mention this fact; but its brooding presence lies behind the story and suffuses the narrative, such as when Jack and Eliza travel through regions of central Europe devastated by the Thirty Years War – a barren landscape of torched villages, burnt-out castles, starving peasants and abandoned wheatfields (rather like parts of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan today). The disaster is epitomised in the story of the Winter Queen, a motif that recurs at many points of the trilogy and plays a central role in the ultimate resolution of the plot. Elizabeth, daughter of James I, was married to Frederick, Elector Palatine as part of a dynastic ploy to strengthen the Protestant forces against the Counter-Reformation. When Bohemian rebels threw off their Hapsburg overlords in 1618 they invited Frederick to take the throne. He and his wife duly travelled to Prague, where they reigned for less than a year: in 1620 the Hapsburg armies invaded, defeated the Czechs, and forcibly re-Catholicised the region. Unable to return to the Palatinate, as that had been awarded to the Duke of Bavaria for his assistance in suppressing the rebels, they found asylum in the Netherlands – which, unlike Bohemia, had successfully asserted and defended their independence against their Spanish overlords the previous century. Ensconced at the Hague, Elizabeth and Frederick had little to do but make babies, one of whom was Sophie, who in due course married the Duke of Hanover.

Princess Sophie at Ashdown House

When Eliza, passing through Hanover on her journey west, hopes to get a glimpse of Sophie from the church tower, her reverential attitude and intense excitement perfectly encapsulate the iconic status of her mother in English eyes – a figure of tragedy and dispossession who symbolised both the rapacity of the Catholic oppressors and the hopes of the Protestants, who reminded them of the shameful failure of her father and brother (James I and Charles I) to come to her assistance, and whose fate aroused the nagging, persistent fear that such spineless inaction threatened the survival of Protestantism in Britain. Far from making efforts to assist Protestant brethren in Europe, the Stuart kings seemed far more interested in currying favour with their Catholic opponents. This theme in English history is deftly captured by Stephenson, who brilliantly dramatizes the Frenchified attitudes of James II and his court, with their aristocratic disdain for those who produced the nation’s wealth, and their preference for the arcana of alchemy over the New Philosophy’s sober accumulation of data and related commitment to observation, evidence, and open communication.

The Baroque Cycle is a work of historical fiction. Most of the dialogue and many of the episodes are invented, products of the author’s fertile imagination. Stephenson has nonetheless read deeply in the literature of the period and acquired a profound grasp of the issues that stirred people’s passions and motivated their actions at that time. His exploration and dramatization of the scientific, religious, political, and commercial revolutions that together were giving birth to modernity make this trilogy of novels a far more reliable (and infinitely more readable) guide to the origins and characteristics of the world we inhabit today than all the critical theory ever ground out from the verbal sausage machines of cultural studies programs. If you are ever looking for an accessible primer on the strengths and weaknesses of Western civilization, this is a good place to start.


As this review went to press, I encountered a fascinating article in which Peter Jenkins contests the argument that Western science was a product of the Reformation.

He willingly admits that there is a connection between Protestantism and the scientific outlook (you have only to compare the rate of scientific progress in early modern Britain as compared with Spain or Italy), just as there is a connection between Protestantism and capitalism, as expounded by Max Weber. But in explaining the rise of science in Britain Jenkins takes a materialist approach and looks “far less to ideas, religion, or intellectual history, and rather to social and economic realities, and especially to matters of law and custom.” To take a couple of examples, economic development required new technologies that in turn called forth deeper knowledge in areas such as metallurgy (better guns, furnaces) and mathematics (navigation, ballistics). Even more importantly, security of property gave owners the incentive to invest in long-term projects. English property law gave rights underground to the landowner, not (as in Europe) to the monarch, thus encouraging mineral exploration; and it ensured that all property was normally safe from seizure – unlike in much of the Islamic world, where fixed property (land, workshops) was at the mercy of the sultan or local ruler, and the wealthy thus tended to keep their wealth in moveable but unproductive forms, such as gold and jewellery. As Jenkins concludes, “in making the West, and Western science, mortgages and mineral rights matter at least as much as theology, Calvinist or otherwise.” I think Daniel and Eliza would agree warmly with this analysis, and Father Gex with cold fury.

Further reading

Robert C. Davis. Christian Slaves. Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Seymour Drescher. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery (Cambridge university Press, 2009)

Paul Hazard. The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715 (1935; Penguin 1964)

Jonathan Israel. A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Jonathan Scott. England’s Troubles: Seventeenth Century English Political Instability in European Context (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Matthew Stewart. The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World (Norton, 2006)

David Wootton. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Allen Lane, 2015)

Robert Darby

Dr Robert Darby is an independent scholar and author of 'A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain' (University of Chicago Press). He lives in Ca

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