Eric Hobsbawm once stated the issue in the clearest of terms. ‘Nobody’, Hobsbawm declared in Marxism Today in 1962, ‘has seriously maintained that capitalism prevailed before the 16th century or that feudalism prevailed after the 18th’ (Sweezy et al. 1978: 162). This statement maintains in effect that, during the early modern period, Europe was transformed from one type of society into another. The nature of this transition, as well as its precise outlines, have continued to fascinate historians and social scientists alike: this book seeks to add some new elements to our understanding of this crucial issue in the history of Europe, and indeed the world.1