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1607 Cycle One

The World of 1607 - Cycle One - Power and Identity
King James armorial relief

King James armorial relief, Jamestown-
Yorktown Foundation Collection.

By the early 17th century, royal identities of all kinds were defined in terms of an increasingly global vision and rhetoric of power. Invocations of global authority were accompanied by new imagery and symbols, and the invention of the printing press in the 15th century offered a new medium through which power and identity might be expressed.  Accounts from English travelers across the “old worlds” of the East and the “new worlds” of the West indicate a concerted effort to comprehend alternative political systems in terms of a familiar hierarchy with a royal identity at its center.  The deliberate and calculated formation of a monarch¹s public persona through text, imagery and public spectacle enacted and maintained this system of power.

Diplomatic Gifts

Giving precious gifts as a sign of honor and gratitude is an ancient custom practiced by diverse ethnic groups, tribes and states. During the Jamestown era, royal dignitaries throughout Europe followed the practice of selecting gifts for their emissaries to present to brother sovereigns.

The protocol for presenting these offerings evolved into an important part of diplomatic court ritual.  Designed to represent wealth and provide aesthetic pleasure, objects were extremely fashionable, prestigious, and well known to courtiers of high social position. Both gift and ceremony served as a visual reminder and confirmation of mutual allegiance and a guarantee of future relationships between countries.

War and Peace

During the first half of the 17th century the technology of war changed little, but sweeping tactical changes radically altered the way battles were fought.  Tactics that depended upon edged weapons wielded in hand-to-hand combat with massed blocks of men shifted to tactics that depended upon maximizing the effect of firearms through the use of linear formations.  At the same time, rising concerns about the human impact of war laid the foundations for modern international law. In 1625 Hugo Grotius published his famous work De Jure Belli ac Pacis (The Rights of War and Peace), proposing codes of justice for the protection of noncombatants, establishment of personal  and property rights, and humane treatment of prisoners.

The Marketplace

Cameo brooch, Jamestown-Yorktown  Foundation Collection.

Cameo brooch, Jamestown-Yorktown
Foundation Collection.

The development of transatlantic trade was an important step in shaping commercial and industrial Europe. From the 15th to the 18th century, first Venice, Antwerp and Genoa, then Amsterdam, and eventually London, secured virtually unshared control of the western world’s economy. During the Jamestown era, commerce with the Americas helped fuel the rise of Amsterdam to economic pre-eminence over other European cities.  The need to supply the American market with huge quantities of cloth and other manufactured goods compelled a reorganization of links between production centers and trading networks within Europe.  New ways of shifting funds also had to be found to facilitate the new transatlantic economy.

America in European Consciousness

Europe’s attention centered on the Mediterranean at the end of the 15th century.  This orientation slowly changed after Columbus returned with news of previously unknown continents.  America stimulated changes in Europe¹s imaginative landscape. Reports of native polities and the ways in which they were governed spurred Europeans to imagine different kinds of societies. Moralists held up the Americans as a mirror in which their European readers could contemplate their own moral situation.  Species of plants and animals were gathered from America, and both natural and manmade specimens were displayed in cabinets of curiosities to which spectators flocked.  Ordinary people found their lives transformed by transatlantic products.

The Classical World Reinterpreted

By the 16th century, most of the classical literature known to us today already was available to Europe¹s cultural elite.  Classical science, philosophy, art, and history all had a profound influence on England and Europe during the Jamestown era.  Political ideas often found expression through classical allusions.  The emerging English political debate about the limits of royal and parliamentary authority drew heavily on the classical tradition for both language and ideas.  Shakespeare and other playwrights took classical themes to a broader public. England¹s elite also began to collect classical art and create libraries that gave a prominent place to classical literature.

The Rise of Great Britain

In the 16th century, England’s role on the European continent seemed to be eroding as increasing portions of Europe fell under the control of enemy powers.  This external threat led to the cultivation of the myth of an antique “Britain,” where the legendary King Arthur held sway over England and Scotland, and even Ireland.  It also made economic involvement with the world outside Europe more attractive.  When James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England in 1603, both nations finally were ruled by one monarch who promoted his own version of Great Britain.  State-authorized companies like the Virginia Company were formed to conduct overseas commercial ventures.  The concept of Great Britain expanded to include overseas territories as well as the British Isles.