The Duck of Minerva

Moving Beyond Tilly

21 June 2013

Swiss Pike SquaresEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michael Martoccio, who is a PhD candidate of Early Modern History with a minor specialization in IR Theory at Northwestern University. His research broadly examines the role of cooperation in shaping political change in Europe, c. 1300-1700. His projects include a study of cooperation-building institutions in Central Italy, the late medieval market for sovereign rights, and a comparative analysis of city-leagues on both sides of the Alps. tl;dr notice: ~1800 words.

Tilly’s war-making/state-making thesis has taken a number of knocks recently. The turn from a geographically/historically-specific thesis to a global/ahistorical axiom caused much damage. Cultural explanations of state emergence also short changed those normative elements (the “claims-making, resistance, bargaining, and legitimation” components Dan mentions) of Tilly’s thesis. Dan’s post corrects many of these misinterpretations and recovers critical elements of Tilly’s legacy.

However, a number of unresolved issues remain in both Tilly’s original work and Dan’s revision. Tilly made two errors: (1) he over-calculated the coercive power of early modern sovereigns and undervalued the critical role of coordination dilemmas; and (2) he mislabeled the objects of analysis “states” and ignored the powerful effects of interwoven early modern hierarchies in preference for an anarchic state system of international interaction. Relationalism partially corrects these faults, but adds a few ahistorical categories that need to be unknotted.

Tilly (and all bellicentric models) begins with a simple claim: the Military Revolution (~1500- 1800) led to an increase in coercive state power. Variation in Europe was the product of how internal actors bargained with and/or balanced against the predatory urges of sovereigns.

Little consensus has formed around the nature of this “Revolution” (was it tactical or logistical?) and its operationalization – more wars, more military/civilian deaths, and larger armies have been floated as possible indicators. As Dan points out, further refinement of the causal mechanisms (the cost of military technology or the type of competition) and alternative non-Europeans cases (here, here, and here to name a few) have not so much falsified Tilly’s thesis as brought him back to his original context: Western Europe, c. 1600. Only if warfare “was primarily an occasion for the weakening of centralized state capacity” in this context would Tilly’s argument crumble.

Military and fiscal historians of the past decade have done just that. Instead of centralizing, early modern war remained in the hands of mercenary companies and private entrepreneurs until the late seventeenth century. While purely state-run militia remained the fantasies of ideologues (e.g. Machiavelli’s militia project, the French infantry legions) and failed for tactical reasons, keeping large numbers of even mercenaries under state control also collapsed for want of logistical support. This is a critical claim because it suggests that centralizing powers had an adverse, rather than a positive, impact on military effectiveness. Centralizers impeded arms distribution, weakened individual commanders’ decision-making, and fostered distain among their mercenary employees. During this earlier period (let’s call it the Mercenary Revolution (1350-1650) for want of a better term) freelance mercenary companies and full-time military entrepreneurs were the most efficient-per-unit wielders of violence, not clunky sovereign authorities.

The makers of political institutions then faced an international environment in which winning a successful war would demand they overcome numerous coordination problems with these mercenaries. These coordination failures (re: principal-agent problems) produced an uncertain international system. Other elements added to systemic uncertainty. High levels of mercenary raiding made even peripheral systemic actors susceptible to the vagaries of distant disputes. Italian and German states, for instance, found themselves in the middle hundreds of years of dynastic civil war (Angevin-Aragonese; Hapsburg-Valois). Dynastic institutional elements produced additional uncertainty. Although perhaps less unstable at the macro-comparative level and varying across the continent, European dynastic marriage patterns created the potential for conflict every other generation. One cannot understand, for instance, how a misplaced lance piercing the eye of Henri II spiraled into over one-hundred years of internecine conflict without placing dynasties into the model.

This leads me to the conclusion that for most of the political actors of Europe, most of the time, political institutions needed to solve problems of cooperation and coordination, not coercion. The political economy of most minor systemic actors (e.g. city-states) as well as larger “hegemonic” players (e.g. Spain) shows that early modern actors had to overcome barriers to cooperation, not coercion, to generate revenue. The same was true with system-wide diplomatic patterns. Actors pooled limited resources for collective protection (e.g. city-leagues), bound each other to mutually-beneficial non- aggression treaties, and, for dynastic actors, diversified (sometimes dangerously thin) their progeny. Although exceptions exist (England, maybe France), the military-coercive threats of leaders paled in comparison to the coordination dilemmas. Perhaps this explains why Tilly’s title always rang false to me: cooperation, not capital, is the converse of coercion.

The institutions actors used to solve these coordination dilemmas and the identity of these actors brings us to the second part of Tilly’s theory: the units of analysis. Dan is completely correct in praising Tilly on this point. One of Tilly’s central payoffs was to say that no one political form emerged from medieval Europe.

Others have pushed these multiple equilibria at the unit level of the sovereign territorial state and the systems level. Individual case exceptions, however, always complicate these schemas and undermine their contributions. Conversely, attempts to typologize every institutional outcome from Free Peasant Communities in East Friesland to leagues of towns (Hanse, Swabian League) to vast empires can leave us with an over-abundance of institutional forms (see Blockmans typology); no model can correct for innumerable outcomes. The porous boundary between the early modern domestic and international spheres is the root cause of this unit-level dilemma.

Relationalism partially solves this problem by moving away from an objective, modern state as the outcome to, as Dan says in his book, “networks of networks.” These networks (composite states) were themselves formed from “patterns of social ties” and “social roles comprising categorical identities.” These ties came in the form of “established contractual relations that implicitly or explicitly specified varying rights and obligations between center and periphery,” or, to put it more bluntly in “the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century public organization was always based on a pact.” Making, keeping, and breaking such agreements deserve more attention.

Whether horizontal agreements (bilateral treaties, multilateral leagues) or vertical pacts (submission agreements, pseudo-feudal ties), these contracts not only formed the primary institutional mechanism by which actors resolved the manifold coordination problems of the Mercenary Revolution, but, I suggest, should be the object of analysis itself for the study of early modern politics.

Writing contracts impacted the system at a number of levels. Amalgamations of older feudal agreements and contemporary commercial contracts, multipart pacts bundled numerous mechanisms to mitigate a range of systemic uncertainties including protection from external mercenaries, impartial internal justice, and validation of dynastic marriage. Making pacts also involved significant upfront costs. Long lines of communication meant that bargains required multiple embassies and many months to finalize. In between, junior partners and intermediaries mobilized agreements for their own objectives. All bilateral agreements, moreover, typically hide latent multilateral negotiations. Bargaining wars could take place among multiple potential bidders; competing actors offered future subordinates competitive terms.

Once created, codified agreements exhibited their own independent character regardless of the shifting preferences of their signees. This, I would argue, was the point: these repositories of relationships, rights, and associations brought a precious stability to an otherwise disorderly political ecosystem. Pacts’ institutional character can best be observed in the very preservation of such agreements in the great archival collections of Europe. New lords, at the moment of any handover of authority, furiously copied previous agreements. Actors generally kept their agreements, or, to paraphrase Downs (tug PDF), good news about contracting was good news about cooperation. A common legal culture spearheaded by a tightly-knit notarial elite (men, it must be noted, approved by Imperial right), increased publication of such agreements through printing, and widespread reputational costs made actors weary about not overstepping the bounds of an agreement. To combat the “stickiness” of accords, actors developed institutional mechanism to allow both for future redrafting (exit clauses, ritualized re-negotiation, and yearly stipends/taxes), linking individual clauses to the larger agreement, or co-signing individual actor’s compliance onto the reputation/credit of other actors.

In spite of these contractual mechanisms, actors did break agreements. Yet such violations rarely led to conflict. Most notability the Holy Roman Emperor at times mediated between aggrieved parties (as Osiander notes). In areas of weaker international hierarchy, actors turned toward judge- arbitrators to resolve disputes. Actors could also turn toward their dynastic betters to help assuage broken accords.

In all agreements (horizontal-vertical; multilateral-bilateral) the social position of actors proved critical. Actors were far from equitable. A range of hierarchies crisscrossed Ancien Régime Europe from the strong form legal hierarchy of the Holy Roman Empire to the formalized parliaments of numerous kingdoms to more malleable, albeit no less real, ranks and titles. The Republic of Florence provides an effective example of such multiple hierarchies. Florence was, in turn, the universal ruler of hundreds of small communities (known as the contado), the partial ruler of a numerous formerly independent city- states (the distretto), the legal representative of numerous petty lords and signori (the raccomandati), the purchaser of military contracts of independent mercenary companies (the condotta), and a member of legally-binding city protection leagues (the talie) while remaining through this period a de jure subject of the Holy Roman Emperor. These hierarchies fall somewhere in between the strict domestic/international divide of realist IR and the more abstract network analytics of central authorities, local intermediaries, substitutable elites, and ordinary people.

Putting coordination (not coercion) and the institutional mechanisms designed to facilitate cooperation at the heart of the early modern story raises three questions for scholars of Early Modern political change:

  1. How did a range of actors bargain in order to mediate the unique coordination dilemmas of the Mercenary Revolution?
  2. When/how did actors design, comply, and break agreements in an international environment of hierarchy, rather than anarchy?
  3. How can the densities of overlapping and competing hierarchies (Imperial-legal, arbitrational, dynastic-familial) explain long-run variation in political outcomes across the range of political actors in Europe (i.e. states, leagues, empires)?

As Dan concludes, Tilly’s thesis always was meant to explain a modern phenomenon, the emergence of the state, which was the concern of modernist nineteenth thinkers – Smith, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etc. Tilly, I would add, also reflected these thinkers’ particular geographic/national viewpoints – London, Berlin, and Paris. A theory founded in Europe’s post-modern capitals – administrative (Brussels/ Strasbourg – European Parliament), financial (Frankfurt – ECB), and educational (Florence – EUI) – would look much different. Riven by endemic levels of uncertainty, bound together through formal pacts and bargains, and impeded from change by the high structural impediments of formal hierarchies, the large swatch of middle Europe then looks to be the norm of early modern political life; England, France, and Prussia are the outliers.
*”tug PDF” denotes a temporarily ungated PDF from a publisher. In this case, Cambridge University Press has kindly agreed to ungate the article mentioned. tug PDFs are available for around a week. [back]