Fiscal Military States in Early Modern Europe

According to Nicholas Henshall, historians have long misinterpreted the term “absolutism.”  The term “absolutism” emerged after the fall of the ancien regime and came to describe “a highly centralized and despotic government ruled by an all-powerful monarch authority extended to all parts of the realm and was not subjected to any constitutional, aristocratic, or legal constraints.” (Dunning and Smith, “Moving Beyond Absolutism,” 2006.) For Henshall, this approach is no longer tenable, and he argues that “absolutism” in fact never existed – it was a myth.  Rather than expanding their powers and destroying corporate bodies like the Parlements, Henshall asserts that absolute monarchs were simply enhancing the powers they already controlled in the realm of foreign policy, military forces, government minsters, and the collection of revenues.  In rejecting the concept of “absolutism,” Henshall instead adopts the term fiscal military state, as used by John Brewer, to describe the expansion of the English state; moreover, Henshall argues that this concept can be applied to other European states.

The idea of the fiscal military state developed from the debate over the early modern military revolution.  First articulated by Michael Roberts in 1955, the military revolution paradigm argues that a dramatic change in military technology, tactics, strategy, training, the size of armies, and the cost of war significantly affected early modern states (see Clifford Rogers, ed. The Military Revolution Debate).  By exploring Sweden and the Dutch Republic, Roberts suggested that this military revolution resulted in the expansion of the state and administration to supply money, men, and materiel.  Scholars quickly adopted the idea of the military revolution and built upon this concept, for example, Geoffrey Parker asserts that the growing cost of war forced bureaucrats and kings to seek out additional sources of revenue, a process that generally increased both the size and power of the central state authorities.  Nevertheless, these scholars simply plugged the military revolution into the theory of “absolutism” without investigating whether “absolutism” proved an adequate descriptor of early modern states.  Proponents of the military revolution argue that the revolution acted as a catalyst for the formation of “absolutism,” describing the power shift from the nobles to the monarch and his ministers who extrapolated money and resources from the state.  (Dunning and Smith, “Moving Beyond Absolutism,” 2006.)

By simply plugging the military revolution into the theory of “absolutism,” scholars failed to investigate the structures or process of the early modern state.  One of the first scholars to challenge the paradigm of “absolutism” was John Brewer who coined the term fiscal military state in his 1989 study The Sinews of Power.  Prior to Brewer’s study, the historical literature credited the rise of the liberal British state as a result “English exceptionalism,” particularly emphasizing Britain’s political culture, geographic isolationism, and representative assembly.  This view described early modern England as a “weak” state that became a great power; however, Brewer overturns this assumption by examining public finances in England.  In exploring this development, he discovered that far from being weak, early modern England developed fiscal military structures similar to European continental powers.  This expansion of state power occurred rapidly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as England increasingly involved itself in European and world affairs.  Moreover, the desires of the English government and private investors supported the rapid growth of the world’s most powerful navy.  Though costly, the financial revolution that occurred with the founding of the Bank of England in 1694 and the development of a modern credit system provided the institutions and instruments needed for this large scale project, but it still required the increase of taxes and a large bureaucracy to collect them.  This development ensured that by the 18th century, England was the most heavily taxed and militarized state in Europe, with a bureaucracy larger than Prussia.

The theory of the fiscal military state is applicable beyond England and Jan Glete has provided a comparative study of the fiscal military state by examining early modern Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.  Yet, in considering a comparative approach to the fiscal military state, it is important to consider the timing.  As Thomas Ertman emphasizes in Birth of Leviathan, the onset of international pressure, access to technology, and the stage of economic development can explain the variations among fiscal military states.  The earliest fiscal military states tended to use coercive methods to extract resources and revenue from domestic economies without concern for their actions, yet these predatory actions slowed the development of capitalism.  Later fiscal military states would be wiser and extracted resources without causing significant damage to the economy, particularly through the use of well-trained bureaucrats.  Thus, collecting resources and revenue in a state based on cooperation rather than coercion proved to be a defining characteristic of successful fiscal military states.

According Glete and other historians, Spain (Kingdom of Castile) was the first fiscal military state.  As a product of the Reconquista of the Iberia Peninsula, Spain develop a highly militarized culture, and the king of Castile wielded enormous power over his subjects and the economy.  Using a centralized bureaucracy, Castile formed a strong administrative structure to increase tax collection and to manage a growing military force.  Nevertheless, the king and his administrators did not coerce traditional elites, but rather reached a cooperative agreement.  Glete characterizes this relationship as “protection selling” whereby the local elites willingly entered into the growing kingdom in return for the protection of the king.  This cooperation reduced violence between elites and enabled the state to grow.  Yet, Glete suggests that the kingdom’s continued desire to expand its territorial possessions rather than its colonial empire caused its downfall.  To continue funding wars on the European landmass, Castile’s resource extraction harmed the economy, slowed the development of capitalism, and caused short-term fiscal crisis that resulted in even more extreme forms of extractions.  Ultimately, the growth of the Spanish empire created a sense of hubris and prevented the empire of implementing the reforms needed to maintain its imperial ambitions.

Like the Spanish with the Reconquista, the Dutch fiscal military state also developed with the onset of geopolitical conflict – the Dutch Revolt of 1566.  By the time of the revolt, the Netherlands was already economically dominate with the wealthiest ports in the world; a product of the shift of the European economy from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic following the collapse of Constantinople and Venice.   As a possession of Philip II, the king saw the Dutch as wasteful and attempted to force obedience on the Dutch in 1566.  The Dutch nobles and merchants joined forces against Philip and were especially outraged at the king’s attempt to impose Catholicism on the Calvinist region.  The formation of a state by nobles and merchants subordinated the state to elite interest, and Glete in fact argues that the Dutch were the first middle class army.  The wealthy Dutch merchants and their dominance over the Baltic and Mediterranean trade (along with defeat of the Spanish Armada by England) enabled the Dutch to provision and feed their armies; moreover, as their access to capital was not denied, they were able to pay their army on regular basis.  This regularly paid army was much less likely to rebel and underwent new and rigorous reforms introduced by Maurice of Nassau to discipline the army.  Thus, broad interest groups in the northern Netherlands willingly provided the fiscal resources needed for the military as it was good business – the military protected the Dutch ports ensuring the continuation of trade and the accumulation of wealth.

Glete also considers early modern Sweden a fiscal military state, emphasizing the years 1520-1660 as coherent period of state formation process.  This emerged with the Vasa rulers who sold protection to the church, aristocracy, and peasant communities in exchange for taxes, furthermore, the Vasas also administered their own military apparatus, unlike other states that relied on military contractors.  With the geography of the Baltic region and Sweden’s lack of natural resources, Sweden waged war offensively, rarely ever actually fighting on Swedish territory.  To extract resources, the Vasas employed local bailiffs who collected taxes and reported directly to a central administration controlled by the king.  The bailiffs maintained detailed knowledge of the local communities, enabling them to collect resources more effectively.  While Glete emphasizes the use of bailiffs, Robert Frost, in his study The Great Northern Wars, suggests that Sweden attracted officers and nobles because they were able to offer large tracts of land confiscated during the Reformation, moreover, as they were paid in land contracts, they had desire to see the state expand.  These concepts are not mutually exclusive and both demonstrate the cooperation between the state and the elites in the formation and functioning of the Swedish fiscal military state.

When considering the development of fiscal military states in the early modern era, Brandenburg-Prussia often receives much attention due to its legacy of militarism.  However, its position in the center of Northern Europe made Brandenburg vulnerable to invading armies, particularly evident during the Thirty Years’ War.  The Great Elector recognized both the vulnerabilities and the need for a standing army and he was able to start the foundations of an army; however, most historians identify his grandson, Frederick Wilhelm I, as the creator of the organizer of the Prussian fiscal military state.  This is particularly evident in Reinhold Dorwart’s Administrative Reforms of Frederick William I of Prussia which describes the legal, administrative, and military reforms of Frederick Wilhelm.  These historians emphasize the implementation of the canton conscription system that incorporated the peasantry into the conscription system; the close cooperation between nobles and the monarch through the use of positions and salaries; and the formation of the General Directory which centralized state power into one body.  Furthermore, historians such as Hans Rosenberg in Bureaucracy, Aristocracy and Autocracy argue that Frederick Wilhelm’s reforms demonstrate the authoritarian nature of Prussia and provided the foundation for Germany’s Sonderweg

Nevertheless, recent research by Peter Wilson suggests that the Prussian fiscal military state was weaker than previously considered.  Frederick Wilhelm’s “reliance on the nobility, especially for local government, forced the Crown to respect their regional interests.” (Wilson “Prussia as a Fiscal-Military State, 1640-1806,” 2009) This prevented Frederick Wilhelm from developing a truly uniform system of government throughout the Brandenburg-Prussia, rather, Prussia remained, in Karin Friedrich’s words, a composite monarchy whereby each region maintained its own institutions and traditions.  This interpretation is further supported by William Hagan’s Ordinary Prussians.  In this work, Hagan demonstrates the ability of peasants to appeal to higher courts if they were dissatisfied with the estate courts; moreover, continued peasant insubordination leads the author to doubt the thesis stressing the militarization and discipline of villagers by Junker lords.  This revisionism, however, should not ignore the fact that peasants carried an unfair burden.  Thus, Wilson and Hagan’s research indicates a lack of cooperation between the monarch and the nobles, a central pillar of the fiscal military state argument and, looking into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, suggest that Prussia did not want to undermine the tax and conscription system it developed.  Instead, research emphasizes the regional differences within Prussia, concluding that historians need to be wary of considering Prussia a fiscal military state.

By exploring the relationship between monarchs and nobles, many historian have abandoned the term “absolutism” to describe early modern states.  The term implies that monarchs commanded the power to force nobles and regions into the growing state apparatus and most proponents of “absolutism” point to French King Louis XIV.  However, the term fails investigate how monarchs extended their power; it simply assumes they already had the fiscal and military instruments to expand, but recent research has called this into question.  In adopting the term fiscal military states, historians are now examining the relationship between monarchs and nobles and how these cooperative relations enabled for the expansion of centralized power as nobles accepted political and military positions in exchange for cooperating and working with the monarch.  This provided the monarch with loyal officials, a growing bureaucracy, and an increasing tax base to support a centralized state.  Although this process is hardly uniform across early modern Europe, it demonstrate more effectively the shrinking of powerful nobles and the expansion of state power.


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