Tag: early modern Europe

The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe

Princeton University Press officially released The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change last week, but copies have yet to arrive at online retailers.

However, you can preorder the book from Amazon right now, at a significant 27% discount, which brings the price down from $29.95 to 22.01 [update at 21h10m: currently 33% off at $20.21; gotta love that algorithm]. Plus, if you order through the Duck, you will automatically contribute to my daughter’s birthday fund!

Why should you purchase a copy? I can offer a veritable plethora of reasons. It has a very pretty cover, comes complete with artfully crafted original maps by Andrew Rolfson, and will change the way you think about international relations. Also, every copy sold makes it more likely that I’ll receive tenure.

Okay, I lied about the last two. But if you want to see what the blurbs say, read on….

“With this book, Daniel Nexon brings an assertive and iconoclastic voice to an already vibrant conversation among international relations theorists about how the modern international system took shape in early modern Europe. His stress on the combustible power of religious ideas and his innovative model of power and authority amount to a sophisticated and creative explanation of the international politics of this period and indeed of any period–including, he arrestingly argues, our own.”–Daniel Philpott, University of Notre Dame

“Daniel Nexon has woven a magisterial account of the impact of the Reformation on international politics. Using network theory and institutionalist analysis, he deftly crafts a composite theory that is relevant not only to the understanding of international change but also to the study of composite polities, empires, and nation-states. His study, furthermore, suggests how religion and institutional change can braid together to produce fundamental challenges to the existing international order. In so doing, he not only provides insights into the past but illuminates contemporary processes as well.”–Hendrik Spruyt, Northwestern University

“In its depth of theoretical insight and subtlety of reasoning, few recent books in international relations and history rival what Daniel Nexon has accomplished in this impressive piece of scholarship. The book’s fresh conceptualization opens new vistas on the past experiences, present conditions, and future trajectories of international relations. No theoretically inclined student can afford bypassing Nexon’s challenging ideas.”–Peter J. Katzenstein, Cornell University

“This is an extremely impressive book. Nexon not only illuminates a crucial and controversial moment in the history of international relations, but he does so in the context of making a vital theoretical and methodological contribution to the field. This is a very important study, and a superb piece of work.”–Richard Little, University of Bristol

“This book makes a significant contribution not only to international relations theory, but also to comparative politics. Nexon develops an innovative and productive way of viewing changing patterns of international relations, and he helps us to transcend the often-artificial divide between domestic and international politics. He also successfully transcends the debate between materialists and idealists. This book should be of interest to a broad audience.”–Mlada Bukovansky, Smith College

And you know that people asked to write endorsements never, never, ever exaggerate the quality of the product.

So what are you waiting for? Go justify my advance and increase the size of my daughter’s bloated playmobil collection.


A less technical version

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.


Answers for Brad DeLong

Brad reads my announcement of manuscript delivery, and raises a few important questions:

1. Do you really want to write “Franche-Compté” rather than “Franche-Comté”?

2. Do you really want to leave blurb-readers (and us!) hanging as to what your theory of state formation and the Wars of the Reformation actually is?

3. Jan de Vries and I, after class last Wednesday, were discussing why it was that transoceanic trade seems to have done something to strengthen the forces of tolerance, economic liberty, and representative government in the United Provinces and the United Kingdom, and to have done a great deal to strengthen the forces of religious intolerance and autocracy in Spain. Jan mentioned that he had somewhere at some point in the past seen a map of the travels of Charles of Ghent, and I would dearly love to be able to track it down…

Answers, of a sort, after the fold

1. Of course not. I hope that remains the most embarrassing error in the materials, but I expect additional misspellings, factual problems, and other sundry mistakes remain to be discovered.

2. That’s a fair point, and probably good immediate evidence for why Princeton University Press will rewrite the blurb. For semi-immediate gratification, here’s a (pre-copyedited) synopsis of the argument that I’ve cribbed together from the book’s introductory chapter:

This book addresses, first and foremost, this oversight: I provide an explanation for why the Protestant Reformations produced a crisis of sufficient magnitude to alter the European balance of power, both within and among even its most powerful political communities. I argue that the key to understanding this impact lies in the analysis of the dynamics of resistance and rule in the composite political communities that dominated the European landscape. Many of the most important political ramifications of the Protestant Reformations did not stem from any sui generis features of religious contention; they resulted from the intersection of heterogeneous religious movements with ongoing patterns of collective mobilization.

Religious contention, given particular formal properties and specific ideational content, triggered up to five processes extremely dangerous to the stability of early modern rule:

• It overcame the institutional barriers that tended to localize resistance against the rulers of composite states, thereby making widespread mobilization against dynastic rulers more likely.

• It undermined the ability of rulers to signal discrete identities to their heterogeneous subjects, thereby eroding their ability to legitimate their policies on a range of issues, from religion to taxation.

• It provided opportunities for intermediaries to enhance their own autonomy vis-à-vis dynastic rulers; religious contention complicated the tradeoffs inherent in the systems of indirect rule found in composite polities.

• It exacerbated cross pressures on rulers—by injecting religious differentiation into the equation, by increasing the likelihood of significant resistance to central demands, and by creating often intense tradeoffs between political and religious objectives.

• It expanded already existing channels, as well as generating new vectors, for the “internationalization” of “domestic” disputes and the “domestication” of inter-state conflicts.

Given the right circumstances—a transnational, cross-class network surrounding religious beliefs and identities—the spread of the Protestant Reformations therefore activated many of the existing vulnerabilities in early modern European rule. Not every instance of religious contention, of course, triggered all of these dynamics. Variation in institutional forms, the choices made by agents, and other contextual factors also influenced how these mechanisms and processes played out in particular times and places. And non-religious contention sometimes triggered similar processes. On balance, however, the injection of religious identities and interests into ongoing patterns of resistance and rule made cascading political crises more likely than they might otherwise have been.

This explanation contributes to this book’s secondary task: to assess the status of the early modern period as a case of international change. Was the early modern period, as Philpott suggests, a “revolution in sovereignty” or otherwise, as traditionally understood in international-relations theory, a key moment in the emergence of the modern state system? My answer involves two claims. On the one hand, the Protestant Reformations shaped the development of the sovereign-territorial order, but in far more modest ways than many international-relations scholars assume. On the other hand, a better analytic approach to the concepts of “continuity and change” in world politics allows us to see what kind of a case of change the Reformations Era represents: one of the rapid emergence of new actors—transnational religious movements—altering the structural opportunities and constraints of power-political competition.

The third, and final, goal of this book is to specify precisely such an analytic framework for the study of international continuity and change. I develop an approach to this problem, called “relational institutionalism,” in the second chapter. It combines key aspects of sociological-relational analysis with historical-institutionalist sensibilities. This framework provides the theoretical infrastructure for my explanation of the book’s primary puzzle, as we all as for how we should understand early modern Europe as an instance of international change. But I also intend it to serve as a novel way of approaching inquiry into continuity and transformation in world politics. Relational institutionalism, I argue, incorporates insights from the major prevailing approaches to the study of international relations; it also provides a way of reconciling some of their apparently very different claims about the fundamental dynamics that drive international relations.

3. I largely avoid the debates over state formation and “regime type,” but I expect that the standard answers apply: differences in institutions, economic and fiscal strategies, and key related choices, explain much of the divergent impact of overseas trade. Jan de Vries, in fact, is far more qualified to provide answers that I am.

A. The Spanish Habsburgs adopted policies very early on that placed a disproportionate tax burden on the productive areas of Castile’s economy while creating significant exemptions for its aristocracy; their bargain, set decisively in motion after the Comuneros revolt, weakened the ability of the Cortes to effectively represent urban interests while, over time, shifting political-economic power increasingly away from them. This wasn’t sufficient to render them irrelevant, but they lost the degree of influence that the “third estate” achieved in England and the Dutch Republic.

B. One would, of course, want to add a great deal about the development of early capitalism in the Low Countries, the conditions that made such developments possible, and the ways in which both England and the Dutch pursued overseas wealth via merchant capitalists intent on penetrating Spanish Habsburg monopolies in the Americas and East Asia.

C. The Spanish Habsburgs, moreover, resolved their “pluralism” problems by effectively excluding Protestants, suppressing (and then expelling the bulk of) the Moriscos, and so forth. Britain, and the Dutch in particular, ultimately accommodated–even if, by contemporary standard, in a fairly limited way–to the existence of large religious groups in their territories that did not accept the doctrines and rituals of their state churches. Significant Catholic and non-conforming populations persisted in both polities throughout this period, even, with sometimes violent results, within their state-sanctioned churches. So both developed vibrant trading classes under conditions of religious heterogeneity, while Castile developed neither.

Finally, Deborah Boucoyannis’ dissertation, “Land, Courts and Parliaments: The Hidden Sinews of Power in the Emergence of Constitutionalism”, provides a novel approach to some of these questions.

Re: Charles of Habsburg’s travels. The important point is, as Brad suggests, that he maintained a mobile court. Philip II ended this practice, with consequences that form a part of my account of the dynamics of resistance and rule in the Spanish Monarchy.


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