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aventinus varia Nr. 36 [31.08.2012] 

Max Trecker 

Solving The Enigma 

Theories on State Variations in Early Modern Europe 

1. Introduction 

For more than a hundred years scholars sought to explain the outcomes of early modern European state building. Why did countries like France develop absolutist structures and countries like Britain did not? The reasons for the differences in the political landscape of eighteenth century Christian Europe obviously were to be found in the decades and centuries before and thus in a long evolutionary process which had its origins in the Middle Ages. The fact that changes in the political systems of the European countries were going on was also visible for contemporaries long before the dawn of the eighteenth century. An example for this purpose is Sir John Fortescue who praised – two hundred years before the reign of Louis XIV – the limited monarchy in England in comparison to the unlimited power of the French king who suppressed his people whereas, according to Fortescue, the British king acting in consent with Parliament increased the wellbeing of his people.  

Three hundred years after Fortescue`s death the differences between the European countries had deepened after long struggles for supremacy in Europe and a series of religious wars. Historians trying to construct a theory facing all aspects of the century-long changes are confronted with various problems since the frontlines are not only running between France and Britain but different developments on the whole continent have to be taken into account. The aim of my paper is to look at the evolution of attempts to construct such an overall theory. I want to reconstruct the main ideas behind these attempts and how the scholars built up on the ideas of their predecessors. Furthermore I want to analyze their advancements and the remaining shortcomings of their theories. 

I will focus my interest on a selection of authors I consider to have contributed most to this cause. I will start my investigation with the German historian Otto Hintze who was not the first to encounter the problem of European state building in the early modern period but the first who could claim to have formulated an at least sophisticated approach in order to solve the enigma. I will then continue with Charles Tilly who followed the tracks of Hintze and Hellmuth Georg Koenigsberger who did not formulate an own theory himself but showed the difficulties of constructing such an overall theory and introduced elements not yet considered. Scholars like Michael Mann and Brian Downing have to be left aside for their contributions were of a more minor nature. More important were the results of John Brewer’s research who successfully called into question some assumptions which were quite clear for authors before. Finally I want to turn to Thomas Ertman who has undertaken the most recent attempt to formulate an overall theory.  

2. In the Beginning was Hintze 

The first one who developed a sophisticated theory claiming to be able to explain the formation of the early modern state was the German historian Otto Hintze who was specialized in administrative and constitutional history of the early modern period. He developed his theory in various papers published between 1906 and 1931 but his main points were covered by the three essays Staatsverfassung und Heeresverfassung published in 1906, Typologie der ständischen Verfassungen des Abendlandes published in 1930 and finally his essay Weltgeschichtliche Bedingungen der Repräsentativverfassung which was published one year after the former.

In his early works Hintze drew a connection between the way the state was organized and the organization of the military. He hereby emphasized the importance of geopolitics. For him history up to the French Revolution could be divided into three different parts. The first one lasted until the end of late antiquity and was marked by a congruence of the men who formed the state and the ones who formed the military forces. The more valuable soldiers they were the more political influence was guaranteed as can be seen by the constitutional infrastructure of the Greek states or the Roman state up to the late period of the Western Roman Empire. The second period was, according to Hintze, feudalism, in which the link between the sovereign and his inferiors was very indirect due to the nobility which took a middle position. But for Hintze feudalism was the only form of organization enabling a subsistence economy to field an army of mounted elite warriors.  

The beginning of the third period is marked by the failure of world supremacy which could not be achieved neither by the Habsburgs nor by the papacy. This led to an internal consolidation in France, Spain and England and the formation of territorial states in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. Knights were no longer important and more and more mercenaries were used who were paid with money. For that reason the sovereigns demanded no longer military service from their vassals but taxes which had to be approved by assemblies of the different estates or of the parliaments. The mercenary troops led directly to the standing armies of the eighteenth century and are an incorporated form of them controlled by the state and not by private officers. The continuing struggles between France and the Habsburgs in the seventeenth and the following centuries demanded high military efforts and formed the preconditions for modern Europe in Hintze`s view. Thus the army became the backbone of the centralized states on the continent enabling them to incorporate the nobility in the state and to dismantle the power of the estates. But England on the other hand had no need for a centralized state infrastructure due to its peripheral position on an island. Thus the country developed a system of self-governance on the level of the administrative infrastructure and a militia system on the military level. For Hintze a militia system preconditioned self-governance as absolutism preconditioned a standing army. The reason for the development of one of these systems in a particular country was rooted in its geographical position and thus in the geopolitical pressure the country was exposed to.  

These first thoughts of Hintze may have formed a sufficient framework for the dualism between France and Britain but they remained superficial. More than twenty years after the essay Staatsverfassung und Heeresverfassung had been published Hintze worked on a more elaborated set of ideas. To achieve this he turned his attention to the representative assemblies and combined his insights with the ideas expressed in 1906. He differentiated between two representative assemblies: bicameral and tricurial. For him the main exponent of the latter was France and of the former England. A bicameral system came into being on the periphery of the old Carolingian Empire, thus in Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungary and England. The tricameral system existed at the heartland of the former Carolingian Empire and Naples. For Hintze the system in England was the older one but in countries like France the tricameral infrastructure developed just in the fifteenth century. The reason for the formation of the two types of assemblies was the penetration of the societies of the Carolingian heartland by feudalism. In these societies the sovereigns were from the thirteenth century on – after the revitalization of Roman Law – able to bind their vassals to their rule and formed them to bureaucrats and military leader at their demand. The countries on the periphery instead were never fully penetrated by feudalism and were hence left with a substantial group of free peasants. Therefore, according to Hintze, they developed a system of self-governance by the local nobility or elites which fueled a militia system.

Hintze`s theory on early modern state building does a good deal in covering developments leading to the political landscape of the eighteenth century but embodies severe constraints. His assumption that geographically more isolated countries did not develop absolutist regimes is not quite true since England was one of the most warmongering countries in early modern Europe and hence should have become absolutist and not constitutionalist. On top of that his model does not fit for Hungary and Poland which were situated on the periphery but experienced stiff pressure by their neighboring countries. Spain on the other hand was quite isolated due to the Pyrenees but developed absolutist structures. Furthermore Hintze did not even write a word on the Netherlands which are in total contradiction to his model since the biggest part of the country was located at the Carolingian heartlands. Nevertheless his theory has some explanatory power and was something future scholars had to take into account.

3. Buiding on Hintze's Theory 

The essays on state building written by Otto Hintze didn’t receive much resonance during his lifetime since his works on Prussian history had a much broader appeal and he became completely unimportant after Hitler came to power. In Germany his works were rediscovered in the late sixties and his most important essays translated into English in the seventies. One of the first to build on Hintze`s work was Charles Tilly, an American scholar who was working interdisciplinary. Tilly accepted Hintze’s stress on the importance of war as a “catalyst” but questioned the tight connection between the degree of military pressure and the size and character of the state apparatus formed in response to this pressure. For him the availability of easily taxable resources and kinds of income was more decisive for explaining the variations between early modern European states. States which could rely on easily taxable income, like commerce was for Tilly, could avoid bureaucratization and thus absolutism. But countries which could mainly tax landed income needed a big bureaucracy to finance their war efforts. So the outcome of the state building process depended highly on the economic structure of a particular European country.  

Tilly achieved to formulate a more sophisticated theory than Hintze’s by bringing together geopolitical and economical factors and linking regime type to the relative availability of different sources of revenue. Compelling as this link might appear it couldn’t eliminate all contradictions and problems in constructing an overall theory. In comparison to Hintze Tilly could explain why England didn’t develop in an absolutist direction since England could tax commercial income and didn’t need to develop absolutist and highly bureaucratic structures. But Tilly could still not convincingly explain the outcomes of the state building process in the Netherlands, Hungary and Poland. Another point which undermines Tilly’s approach are the cases of Spain and Portugal which had access to a vast colonial empire and therefore should have been, according to Tilly’s theory, able to rely on easily taxable income. Nevertheless these countries developed absolutist structures. 

In the written version of his inaugural lecture published in 1986 Hellmuth Georg Koenigsberger criticized Hintze’s theory which he considered the only one with an universal claim and made suggestions for improvements or new elements that have to be taken into account in constructing a new theory. For Koenigsberger Hintze’s model was much too static and just focused on geopolitical influences. Koenigsberger therefore suggested implementing a model able to deal with domestic dynamism over a long period of time. He found such a model in the works of Norbert Elias, a German sociologist. His main works The Civilizing Process and State Formation and Civilization although written in the thirties became known to the public not until the seventies and eighties.

Elias suggested three different mechanisms that worked in European history from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution. The first mechanism he described was the inevitable formation of monopolies of power from a situation of free competition. This was achieved by the gradual elimination and absorption of rivals. This mechanism led to the formation of clear political and territorial entities on the land of the former Carolingian Empire after century-long struggles. The second inevitable mechanism relates to the depersonalization and institutionalization of the exercise of power due to the growth of territory ruled by certain sovereigns and increasing complexity of societies. The third and final mechanism was named the “royal mechanism” by Elias. By this he meant the tendency of the monarchy to absorb functions and to increase power by balancing the different interest groups within a country against each other, thus slowly increasing control over them.

The problem of Elias’s theory is that it is very abstract and does not explain why France and not Burgundy became the major state in Western Europe. Koenigsberger therefore modified his approach by connecting Elias with Hintze. According to him this new theory works quite well in explaining the French case, where the monarchy slowly played off against the estates and the provinces. But for Koenigsberger this was just a very narrow victory and the prevailing of the monarchy over the estates was neither inevitable nor secured until 1650. In England on the other hand Parliament could command loyalties and in contrast to the representative assemblies in France the English Parliament represented the whole country, hence the monarch could hardly divide the Parliament and had no possibility left but cooperating with this institution. Applied to Poland the royal mechanism could not work there, because of the economic backwardness of many parts of the country. So the power of the monarch remained very weak and he was not able to balance the different interest groups or to take advantage of the uprising of the protestant lower nobility in the beginning of the seventeenth century although the uprising split the aristocracy in two parts.  

But even the combination of Elias and Hintze doesn’t deliver a full answer to the question why in some countries parliament prevailed and in others the monarch. Koenigsberger himself in his essay pointed at the Netherlands as an example for the constraints of his set of ideas. He doubted if there could ever a theory be developed which could deliver a full explanation for the diverse structures that could be found in the Netherlands. Furthermore Koenigsberger doubted if anyone could calculate the influence of the religious struggle since the spread of the reformation. According to him the religious-political struggles always drew the attention of other powers and increased the likelihood of foreign intervention. The wars of the seventeenth century were wars of survival for him. Actually he regarded foreign intervention as the most serious difficulty in constructing a theory on early modern European state building.  

Fortunately other scholars didn’t perceive their chances as bad as Koenigsberger did. An important step was taken by John Brewer who could prove successfully that England indeed possessed a highly capable bureaucracy the British monarchs and their governments could rely on. In fact there were much more civil servants per capita in Britain than in the continental states. Brewer’s insight, who collected the results of many scholars, shattered a basic assumption all scholars before him didn’t question. For Hintze and Tilly Britain was a country dominated mainly by self-government on a local level. For them the Justices of the Peace were the backbone of British administration. People like Tilly put a great effort in proving why Britain could mobilize vast resources and win the wars of the eighteenth century against France with a bureaucracy less capable and less organized as the one of France. Thus the explanatory power of Hintze shrunk further away.

4. A New Start 

Despite this disillusionment caused by the publications of Koenigsberger and Brewer the most recent attempt to formulate a sophisticated theory on state building in early modern Europe was undertaken by Thomas Ertman. For him one of the biggest mistakes his predecessors made was the strict dichotomy of France and England and their reluctance to consider time as an important variable. Out of the works of Brewer he drew the conclusion that it was wrong to relate one kind of political regime to only one kind of state apparatus. In breaking up the one dimensional thinking of his predecessors Ertman introduced three different categories for his model. As first category he mentioned the organization of local government during the initial period of state building. Secondly he stated the importance of timing of the onset of sustained geopolitical competition. His third category was the independent influence of strong representative assemblies on administrative and financial institutions.

Important for the outcome of the state building process was whether the onset of geopolitical competition occurred before 1450 or afterwards. According to Ertman this date was more or less important since the fifteenth century marked a turn in the availability of human capital and know-how for sovereigns who were eager to expand their state apparatus. The first countries which were affected by sustained geopolitical competition were the ones in the west and the south of Europe. The English sovereigns who started building a complex state apparatus in the late twelfth century before the Roman Law was revived and the medieval universities flourishing had to rely on the feudal and ecclesiastical systems of large-scale organization. Their conception of an office granted almost proprietary rights for officeholders. Due to the scarcity of skilled administrative personnel these officeholders were able to exploit their skill-monopoly for their own benefit. The same procedure occurred also in France which fought century-long wars against England and Spain whose Christian sovereigns drove the Moors out of Europe. These early state builders were way ahead of their neighboring European countries by the end of the fifteenth century bur they had to pay a price for this advantage: A more than gradual loss of effective control to proprietary officeholders, officeholder-financiers and tax farmers.  

The late state builders had advantages on hand which their predecessors could not use. The expansion of the university system fueled their expanding administrative infrastructures with capable servants, their skills were not as rare on the market anymore as they had been a few centuries before. Furthermore the economy had made improvements and was more commercialized which enabled more opportunities to lend money at lower cost for the monarchs. The late state builders had also the advantage that they could learn from the mistakes of their western and southern neighbors. On the other hand it turned out to be quite difficult for countries like Spain and France to change their outmoded administrative culture. It follows from Ertman’s argument that countries which expanded their administrative infrastructure after 1450 developed proto-modern bureaucracies, which means the separation of office from the officeholder, while the other countries developed along patrimonial lines. Thus countries like England should have kept their patrimonial system while countries like Poland and Hungary should have developed proto-modern bureaucracies. 

At this point the independent influence of the representative assemblies comes into play. In absolutist states the representative assemblies were weak by definition and played no or just a minor role. Ertman agrees with Hintze that countries with a tricurial system were more inclined to develop into absolutism, because the monarchs were able to play the different groups off against each other. Thus Ertman also implemented Elias’s “royal mechanism”.In constitutionalist states the representative assemblies made the difference in the development of their administrative infrastructure. The English Parliament first appeared on the political scene in the late thirteenth century when the administrative infrastructure was already expanding. This led to a struggle over the growing state structure between the royal officials and Parliament which was in quite a strong position, because it represented the whole country. But with the retreat from the continent in the late fifteenth century the power of Parliament declined as it wasn’t summoned regularly anymore which led to a consolidation of proprietary office holding. A return to regular meetings just occurred in the second half of the seventeenth century which enabled Parliament to replace the patrimonial infrastructure, thus limiting monarchical power.

In Hungary the strong national representative bodies did just the opposite. King Mátyás Corvinus was able to field a standing army of 28,000 soldiers and he built up a non proprietary bureaucracy with university-trained humanists but after his death in 1490 the Hungarian Diet which acted for the county communities controlled by nobles eliminated the standing army and proto-modern bureaucracy as instruments of royal power and turned most functions to local government which was in their hands. In Poland the same happened after the death of Sigismund Augustus and Jan Sobieski who wanted to form a capable state apparatus. The reason for these different developments is rooted in the fact that a substantial state apparatus was already existing before the English Parliament came into being. It was too late by then to eliminate the whole apparatus. In Poland and Hungary the situation was the other way around, geopolitical pressures occurred after the national representative assemblies were in place. 

5. Conclusion 

Many scholars have contributed to an overall theory on state building in early modern Europe but the theory formulated by Thomas Ertman is the most compelling up to now. Nevertheless his explanations are not fully satisfactory. Ertman fails to find a convincing solution for the case of the Netherlands which remain a puzzle with their diverse political structure of unicameral, bicameral and tricurial systems existing next to each other in a densely populated, small area. He has also severe problems with Denmark and Sweden which changed course in the seventeenth century from constitutionalism to absolutism in the case of Denmark and the other way around in Sweden. Their cases can’t be explained properly with his three categories. 

Despite this Ertman achieved great advancements. He implemented the insights of John Brewer on early modern bureaucracies into his very sophisticated theory and is able to explain the developments of Poland and Hungary in the early modern period in a way unachieved by his predecessors this satisfactorily. Although Otto Hintze had published his first essay on the variations of early modern European states more than ninety years before Ertman published his book on the same topic Ertman was still building on his insights. He acknowledged his works as the most important for his theory and emphasized the importance of the geopolitical argument and the organization of the representative assemblies for explaining the outcomes of the state building process from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution. 

6. Bibliography 

Brewer, John, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688—1783, London 1989.

Ertman, Thomas, Birth of the Leviathan. Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Cambridge 1997.

Hintze, Otto, Staatsverfassung und Heeresverfassung, in: Oestreich, Gerhard (ed.), Staat und Verfassung. Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Allgemeinen Verfassungsgeschichte, Göttingen 1970, pp. 52—84.

Hintze, Otto, Typologie der ständischen Verfassungen des Abendlandes, in: Oestreich, Gerhard (ed.), Staat und Verfassung. Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Allgemeinen Verfassungsgeschichte, Göttingen 1970, pp. 120—140.

Hintze, Otto, Weltgeschichtliche Bedingungen der Repräsentativverfassung, in: Oestreich, Gerhard (ed.), Staat und Verfassung. Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Allgemeinen Verfassungsgeschichte, Göttingen 1970, pp. 140—186.

Koenigsberger, Hellmuth Georg, Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale: Monarchies and Parliaments in Early Modern Europe, in: Politicians and Virtuosi. Essays in Early Modern History, London 1986, pp. 1—25.

Tilly, Charles (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton 1975.

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Erstellt: 30.08.2012

Zuletzt geändert: 22.02.2013

ISSN 2194-1971