The Duck of Minerva

A less technical version

10 March 2008

For those of you who may have found my discussion of the argument befuddling, I give you a less technical version below the fold.

My argument begins with the most banal of claims: we cannot understand the political impact of the Protestant Reformations without reference to the institutional structures and dynamics of early modern European states. How, my readers might ask, could it be otherwise? Some of the most influential international-relations literature on international change in early modern Europe, I answer, pays very little attention to patterns of resistance and rule. Scholars too often content themselves with taking a “before” and “after” picture and then explaining the changes in-between primarily through an assessment of the content of new religious beliefs and identities. This kind of analysis provides us with a great many insights, but it spends too much time in the realm of the spirit—of ideas, doctrines, and what constructivists call constitutive norms—and not enough in the profane world of political disputes over taxation and governance.

Princes, magnates, urban leaders, and ordinary people in early modern Europe pursued wealth, power, security, and status through the medium of existing authority relations and well-rehearsed forms of political contention. Their political struggles, within the confines of existing political communities, almost invariably involved disputes over the extent of local rights and privileges, the scope and distribution of taxation, and the relative power of different social classes. Such conflicts often included what we would now call an “international” dimension. Princes, magnates, and even urban leaders sometimes negotiated, conspired, or allied with outside powers. Rulers exploited internal conflicts to advance their power-political interests and make good their territorial claims.

Early modern European states were neither radically decentralized “feudal” entities nor modern nation-states. Many historians now use the term “composite state” to describe the heterogeneous political communities that dominated the early modern European landscape. Whether confederative or imperial, ruled by hereditary or elected princes, or operating as autonomous republics, most early modern European states were composed of numerous subordinate political communities linked to central authorities through distinctive contracts specifying rights and obligations. These subordinate political communities often had their own social organizations, identities, languages, and institutions. Local actors jealously guarded whatever autonomy they enjoyed. Subjects expected rulers to uphold their contractual relationships: to guarantee what they perceived as “customary” rights and immunities in matters of taxation and local control.

By the end of the fifteenth century, dynastic norms and practices almost completely dominated European high politics. Rulers and would-be rulers competed to extend not only their own honor, prestige, and territory, but also that of their dynastic line. They did so through principles—marriage, conquest, inheritance, and succession—that, as Vivek Sharma argues, “were the primary organizing principles of European government for over six centuries.” As Richard Mackenney notes, for “those who governed, the interests of the family were all important” and that, in consequence, “the survival or extinction of the dynasty was the difference between peace and war, and the accidents of inheritance shaped the power blocs of Europe as a whole.”

Dynastic rulers enjoyed important advantages over other political leaders, including superior access to the means of warfare and greater political legitimacy in the context of political expansion and consolidation. Such advantages meant that the most significant pathway of state formation in the late medieval and early modern periods was dynastic and agglomerative. In Wayne te Brake’s words, “most Europeans lived within composite states that had been cobbled together from preexisting political units by a variety of aggressive ‘princes’ employing a standard repertoire of techniques including marriage, dynastic inheritance, and direct conquest.”

Charles of Habsburg’s expansive monarchy presents the most spectacular case of dynastic agglomeration. Between 1515 and 1519, Charles acquired—as a result of contingencies of dynastic marriage, death, insanity, and political maneuvering—a realm including present-day Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, parts of what is now Italy, Germany, and Austria, as well as Spain’s New World possessions. He became King of the Romans and, later, Emperor, which placed him in charge of the unwieldy Holy Roman Empire. His wealth, territories, and his status as Emperor, “raised the spectre of a Habsburg universal monarchy in Europe, fuelled by the bullion of the Indies and the trade of Seville.”

Martin Luther began his public call for reformation of the Catholic Church in 1517. Historians and social scientists continue to debate why, and to what extent, Luther’s actions sparked an explosion of heterodox challenges to the institutional structure and theological principles of the Catholic Church. But his influence, and that of other religious leaders and movements, led to over a century and a half of tumult across Latin Christendom. The Reformations did so, as I have suggested, because of the ways they intersected with the underlying dynamics of early modern European politics.

Early modern European composite states suffered from chronic instabilities. They were, as we have seen, agglomerations of different peoples and territories divided by distinctive interests and identities. They enjoyed comparatively weak coercive and extractive capacity and relied largely on indirect rule through magnates, urban oligarchs, and other elites who often pursued their own interests and agendas. Endemic dynastic conflicts, for their part, outstripped the extractive capacities of early modern states, engendering resistance and rebellion among their subjects. Dynastic composite states, moreover, experienced recurrent succession crises. Dynastic succession only functioned smoothly if a ruler lived long enough to produce a competent male heir old enough to assume the reins of power. In an era of high infant mortality and minimally effective medical care, disputed successions occurred with great frequency.

Many of these sources of instability, however, also conferred specific benefits to dynastic rulers. First, the composite quality of early modern states created strong firewalls against the spread of resistance and rebellion. Because subjects in different holdings had different identities and interests, and because they were ruled via distinctive contractual relations, they had little motivation or capacity to coordinate their resistance against the centralizing impulses of their rulers.

Second, the underlying bargains of composite states reflected and exacerbated the stratification of early modern European society along divisions of class and status. Composite states distributed rights and privileges among urban centers, aristocrats, and rural society in such a way that for one group to gain an advantage meant a diminishment in the position of another. Rulers exploited these fault lines through strategies of extending differential privileges, such as granting exemptions to nobles to secure their loyalty during periods of urban unrest.

Subjects riven by class and regional differences could not easily join together to oppose their rulers. Dynastic agglomerations, therefore, usually only suffered widespread internal conflict under three conditions: when exogenous shocks, such as famines, led to generalized unrest, when rulers severely overreached in their demands and thus provoked simultaneous uprisings, or when a succession crisis drew in contending elites from across the dynastic agglomeration in the high stakes struggle over who would control the center.

Early modern struggles over central and local control, taxation, and the distribution of rights and privileges were often contentious; they usually ended in blood and tears. But only under specific circumstances did they spiral out of control and risk collapsing central authority. The spread of heterodox religious movements intersected with sources of chronic instability in early modern Europe and made them more dangerous. At the most basic level, once a dispute over tax collection took on religious dimensions, the stakes became even higher: the ultimate fate of one’s immortal soul. The interjection of religious disputes into routine political disagreements rendered them much more difficult to resolve.

The spread of heterodox religious movements also created new social ties centering around common religious identities and grievances. These ties often crossed regional, class, and even state boundaries. In doing so, they created the potential for the most dangerous kinds of resistance to rulers—insurrections that were well-funded, militarily capable, and highly motivated, and that mobilized diverse peoples and interests against their rulers.

Religious disagreements were neither necessary nor sufficient to produce such rebellions. Religious conflict played, at best, an indirect part in the Catalan (1640-1652) and Portuguese (1640-1668) revolts against the Habsburgs or the French Fronde (1648-1653). All of the major “wars of religion,” in fact, involved disputes over some combination of taxation, local autonomy, succession, factional control of the court. Religious movements, particularly if they had limited class or regional appeal, might actually hinder individuals and groups from forming effective alliances against their ruler’s demands. The Dutch Revolt (1572-1609), the Schmalkaldic Wars (1546-1547), the French Wars of Religion (1562-1629), and other religious-political conflicts in early modern Europe all display aspects of this complex relationship, in which the spread of reformation interacted with the structure and dynamics of resistance and rule to produce both a variety of different specific outcomes and an overall crisis in the European political order.

What then, were the ultimate implications of the Protestant Reformations on international change in early modern Europe? Not, I argue, the emergence of a sovereign-territorial state system in 1648. The Reformations stretched early modern states to their limits. They nearly collapsed the French composite state and produced an independent Dutch polity locked in conflict with their erstwhile Habsburg overlords. The Reformations directly undermined the Habsburg bid for hegemony and weakened the dynastic agglomerative path of state formation. It expanded the conditions of possibility for the future construction of national, sovereign states by linking religious differences to territory. As J.H. Elliott writes of Castile and England: “as strong core states of composite monarchies,” both, “sharpened their own distinctive identities during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, developing an acute, and aggressive, sense of their unique place in God’s providential design.”

As many international-relations theorists note, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked the rise of new theories of sovereignty, of notions of “reason of state,” and of the balance of power. The Reformations contributed to these developments. Most of the important theories of sovereignty developed in the period were reactions to the turmoil produced by religious conflict. Conflicts between dynastic and religious interests forced statesmen and scholars to justify their policies through doctrines of “necessity” and other conceptual innovations that held, in essence, that long-term religious goals should be made subservient, in the short-term, to security and power. We cannot fully appreciate such conceptual changes in the absence of an understanding the practical political consequences of the Reformations.

State institutions, if not the specific contours of dynastic agglomerations, weathered the storm of the Reformations. This fact suggests that we need to be extremely careful about overplaying the broad impact of religious contention on the emergence of the modern state. Shifts in the nature of warfare and economic relations ultimately contributed more to the emergence of a Europe composed of sovereign-territorial and national-states than did the introduction of new religious ideas. But recognizing the more subtle impact of the Reformations on European state formation should not blind us to their importance in the study of international relations and international change.