Bounded on either end by aristocratic dynastic power struggles, "carbonated" by grassroots religious wars, exhausted by ineffectual slaughter, reoriented by scientific discovery and growing capitalistic rationalism: this is how Dunn characterizes the period from 1559-1715.
As he is writing a historical overview, Dunn's obligation is to keep the work moving forward; Chapters One and Two therefore survey in short order the political fortunes of Spain, France, the Netherlands and England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Austria, and Brandenburg-Prussia. Dunn suggests that the focusing conflict in the West was between Calvinism and Catholicism; in the East he sees conflicts between central and the periphery states ("the center cannot hold"). In fact, for either "half" of Europe it is difficult to see where politics ends and religion begins. Although it is possible to understand the constant dynastic struggles as somehow above or unrelated to the miserable lives of overtaxed peasantry, it is hard not to see that same peasantry as a group in slow boil, moving upward into new social classes, creating goods, offering services, forming trade alliances and forcing rulers and princes to at least respond to local feeling and religious belief. In a sense, while there were empires, religions, languages, electorates and loyalties, nations did not quite exist because there were no instruments for creating such entities. Taxation is one such instrument, but in the hands of the warring kings -- even in the hands of very clever ministers -- it was still a very clumsy and ineffectual instrument. Perhaps sooner than any other land Britain began the creation of a nation-state by creating a Bank and a national debt. Voting for rulers is another such instrument, and although hereditary voting privileges were held in England, Poland and Germany and a few other parts of Europe, for the most part, and for most people, voting was many many years in the future. (A national press would be a third instrument, but Dunn doesn't really talk about the social impact of political and religious pamphleteering.)
Chapters Three and Five examine the century from a variety of perspectives: demographics, technology, commerce, the price revolution, religious beliefs, statecraft, public entertainment, literature, art, science and philosophy. It is perhaps important to note that for most of the century, war, famine and disease kept the death rate equal to or above the birth rate, so that population pressure did not contribute greatly to price inflation. Rather, American silver was the foundation of East-West trade and the cause of higher prices. To historians this century is not only an age of growing trade, but also the era of scientific revolution, of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton -- a shining time of discovery. However, for their contemporaries, these thinkers, and their scientific discoveries, perhaps meant less than the impact of new sea-worthy vessels, the technology that supported the colonization of the new world, or changes in agricultural practices. Scientists and their works are usually discussed in non-nationalistic terms; by contrast artists are usually understood in the context of their country. It may be that such a grouping became possible in this century. Prior to this age, artists produced work under the patronage of the great men of the state, celebrating universal themes of church; afterwards, it was possible to be a "secular" artist, still supported by great men, but exploring themes unrelated to religious belief and celebrating the particularities of the spirit of one's homeland.
Chapters Four and Six cover French and English revolutions, the Wars
of the Spanish Succession, the turning back of the Ottoman Empire and the
new balance of power at the end of the century. France achieved a
temporary equilibrium through royal absolutism; England found its rest
through the supremacy of Parliamentary power. Through the final exhaustion
of the Hapsburg line, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany became
in fact separate entities as they had been in custom. A slow crumble
began in the Ottoman Empire, and Peter the Great laid some (but not all)
of the foundations of Russian power. But that, as Dunn says, is another