The Emergence of European States

Based on Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, 2011) and Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change (Princeton, 1992)

From the fall of the Roman Empire until at least 1100 AD, there was nothing in Europe that could be called a state. Feudal lords held a great deal of power, but the fealty of their underlings was to them directly, and not to any abstract entity that would outlive them. States emerged in England and France over the period 1100-1300, and even later in the rest of Europe. Their development was the work of centuries, and it was not until the nineteenth century that liberal democracy emerged as the dominant form of European government.

Charles Tilly has graphically described Europe’s political organization at the beginning of the second millennium:

In the year 990 Muslim dominions controlled a major share of the Roman Empire’s former space: all of the Mediterranean’s southern shores and most of the Iberian peninsula, not to mention numerous Mediterranean islands and a few points along its northern coast. A loosely linked Byzantine empire extended from eastern Italy to the Black Sea’s eastern end, while to its north an even more indefinite Russian state stretched to the Baltic. A Danish kingdom wielded power from the western Baltic over to the British Isles, while shifting Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian principalities controlled the territory south of the Baltic. To their west lay a Saxon empire, claimant to the heritage of Charlemagne, while still farther in the same direction Hugh Capet ruled the kingdom of France.

None of these half-familiar place names, however, should disguise the enormous fragmentation of sovereignty then prevailing throughout the territory that would become Europe. The emperors, kings, princes, dukes, caliphs, sultans, and other potentates of AD 990 prevailed as conquerors, tribute-takers, and rentiers, not as heads of state that durably and densely regulated life within their realms. Inside their jurisdictions, furthermore, rivals and ostensible subordinates commonly used armed force on behalf of their own interests while paying little attention to the interests of their nominal sovereigns. Private armies proliferated through much of the continent. Nothing like a centralized national state existed anywhere in Europe.

Within the ring formed by these sprawling, ephemeral states sovereignty fragmented even more, as hundreds of principalities, bishoprics, city-states, and other authorities exercised overlapping control in the small hinterlands of their capitals. At the Millennium the pope, the Byzantine emperor and the Holy Roman emperor claimed most of the Italian peninsula, but in fact almost every important city and its hinterland operated as a political free agent…Except for the relative urbanization of the Muslim lands, the correlation between size of states and density of cities was negative: where cities swarmed, sovereignty crumbled.1

Five hundred year later, states were present in some parts of Europe, but there were still many forms of government:

Around Europe’s periphery, in 1490, stood rulers who dominated substantial territories: not only the Ottoman Empire, but also Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Muscovy, the lands of the Teutonic Order, the Scandinavian Union, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Naples. Those powers lived largely from rents and tributes, and ruled through regional magnates who enjoyed great autonomy within their own terrains; the magnates frequently resisted or even rejected royal power. Yet the great kings and dukes of 1490 were, on the whole, consolidating and extending their domains.

Inside the broken circle of the larger states, then, Europe remained a land of intensely fragmented sovereignty. A scattered Habsburg empire, it is true, was beginning to reach across the continent, while Venice dominated an important arc of the Adriatic. But the zone from northern Italy to Flanders, and east to the uncertain borders of Hungary and Poland, broke into hundreds of formally independent principalities, duchies, bishoprics, city-states and other political entities that generally could use force only in the immediate hinterlands of their capital; Germany alone included 69 free cities in addition to its multiple bishoprics, duchies, and principalities.2

And yet Europe in 1490 was on the brink of a political revolution, brought about by changes in the nature of military forces. These forces — and the need to finance them — triggered the consolidation of Europe’s state system. In 1490 there were between 80 and 500 states in Europe, depending on the definition of “state,” and the average state had about 300,000 inhabitants. In 1890 there were about 30 states, and the average state had 7.7 million inhabitants.3

States Developed First in England and France

What exactly is a state? For Joseph Strayer, the characteristics of a state begin with continuity: a state persists through time and occupies a relatively fixed geographical space; and its institutions are permanent and impersonal, continuing intact from one ruler to the next. As well, the state’s inhabitants are in general agreement on the need for an authority that is able to make final decisions, that “judges all and is judged by none.” The inhabitants are loyal to this authority, recognizing it as essential to their own peace and security.

A state of this kind arose first in England, where the king had no entrenched opposition :

Danish invasions wiped out all the old Anglo-Saxon dynasties except the House of Wessex. The slow re-conquest of central and northern England by the kings of Wessex in its turn wiped out the Danish ruling families…And when, as a result of the second Danish conquest of the eleventh century, certain great families began to take root in some shires, they were soon uprooted by William the Conqueror. While William gave extensive powers to the earls of certain frontier counties, these men were not able to establish powerful dynasties; and most of his followers received not compact territorial units, but widely scattered grants of manors and rights of government. By 1100 it was clear that no earl or baron had a sufficient concentration of land or power to create an autonomous provincial administration. If England was going to have permanent institutions they would be royal institutions.4

The first of these institutions was the Exchequer. The king’s own lands were dispersed across England, and he required agents wherever he had lands. The Exchequer ensured that the agents’ accounts were accurate and that the king received the revenues to which he was entitled. Its work created a web of contacts that enmeshed all of England. The second major institution was the justice system. The king’s courts were initially centralized and dealt only with disputes among nobles, but the addition of circuit judges extended the king’s justice to commoners, who came to prefer it to the justice of the Barons.

Baronial courts were weak and inefficient; they usually tried to compromise disputes and they were seldom able to give quick remedies to the dispossessed…The new procedure of the royal courts was designed to cut down delay, to get quick, easily enforceable decisions in cases where decisions had been hard to reach. There was a deliberate attempt to reduce complicated problems to simple questions that could be answered by men with little knowledge of law or of remote events. Thus in cases involving land tenure the most common question was “Who was last in peaceful possession?” not “Who has best title?” The question was answered by a group of neighbors, drawn from the law-abiding men of the district in which the property lay. They gave a collective response, based on their own knowledge and observations; there was no need for testimony and little opportunity for legal arguments. This procedure developed into trial by jury; the questions put to the jury became more diversified and more complicated until finally almost all disputes involving land or rights annexed to land could be settled by the verdict of a jury.5

Trial by jury was first used in civil cases, but by the middle of the thirteenth century, it was commonly used in criminal cases. The king’s justice, like the Exchequer, bound the English together. The third major institution was the Chancery, which provided direction to every agent of the king. All of these institutions were well established by 1200.

In fact English institutions were so well established that the government could run itself without much direction from the throne, as was shown during the ten-year reign of Richard I (1189-1199) when the king was in the country for only a few months. 6

By 1300 the king’s right to tax all property was recognized, as was his right to make laws that were binding on all of his subjects. Also by 1300, there was clear evidence of loyalty to the crown. When the barons rebelled against the king’s policies, for example, they did not seek to overthrow the king: they sought recourse in his law courts and in his royal council.7

Richard I, England's absentee king, and Philip Augustus at the siege of Acre in the Holy Land, 1191
Richard I, England’s absentee king, and Philip Augustus at the siege of Acre in the Holy Land, 1191

In 1200 there was still no sign of a French state:

Down to 1200 royal institutions in France were fully effective only in the royal domain of the Ile de France, the area in which the king had direct lordship over most of the land. The king drew almost no revenue from outside his domain, and his court was only occasionally used by suitors who lived outside the Ile de France. Throughout most of the country the final authority was not the king but the duke, count, or lord who dominated a feudal principality.8

The king’s consolidation of his territory was the first step towards the development of a state:

By 1200 he was strong enough to attack and defeat the strongest provincial ruler, the king of England, who held most of the west of France. The northwestern provinces of Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou were taken over by the French king, and this started a process of annexation which continued throughout the century. By war, marriage, and inheritance, almost all the larger principalities were added to the royal domain; only Brittany, Guienne, Burgundy and Flanders escaped.9

This consolidation raised problems of administration: the institutions through which the Ile de France had been governed were not adequate for the governance of a much larger territory, and each province had its own institutions and its own customs, which it was loathe to give up. Philip Augustus (1180-1223) found a solution to these problems:

He allowed each province to keep its own customs and institutions but sent out men from Paris to fill all important provincial offices. Thus Norman courts continued to enforce Norman law, but the presiding officers in these courts were not Normans but royal agents drawn largely from the old royal domain. Provincial pride was placated, while the king kept effective control of his new possessions.10

This solution allowed different cultures to be integrated into a single state. However, its implementation did require a large bureaucracy, which would be a feature of French government for hundreds of years. It might also have required the patience of Job.

Local officials were supervised by provincial officials who were supervised by regional officials who were supervised by councils, courts, and chambers sitting in Paris. There was a constant flow of orders, rebukes, judicial decisions, and requests for information running from central to local authorities, and an equally constant flow of protests, appeals, excuses, and explanations running the other way.11

The sovereignty of the French king was established by the end of the thirteenth century. As in England, the law was central to his authority: every legal case could be appealed to the king and no farther.

Constitutional Government in the Middle Ages

The period from 1300 to 1450 was marked by the slow development of the existing states and by the emergence of additional states. The emergent states tended to follow the French model, as many of them were attempting to unite diverse cultures into a single state.12

The limits of sovereign authority was a central issue. No ruler was strong enough to impose unpopular measures over determined opposition: he almost always needed the cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of powerful regional leaders. For the state to succeed, there had to be a means for these leaders to express their opposition to unpopular measures, and to work out their differences with the king. This necessity gave rise to the representative assembly.

Representative assemblies appeared everywhere: in Italy, Spain, and southern France early in the thirteenth century; in England, northern France, and Germany anywhere from fifty to one hundred years later…The principles that important decisions should be made publicly, that customs should not be changed without general agreement, that consent was necessary when the superior needed extraordinary additions to his income, that “what touches all should be approved by all,” could be found in treatises on feudal law, customary law, and the revived Roman law. Even more important, these ideas formed part of the general climate of opinion; they were held by men who had never read a book or heard a lecture on law.

Thus all governments had to find a way by which the politically active, propertied classes could give consent. It was already common practice for a few men to speak for a large corporate group, such as town or monastery, in a court of law; it seemed reasonable to allow a few men to represent their groups when customs were being altered or when taxes were being imposed. These representatives could be brought to enlarged meetings of high courts in order to hear the reasons for decisions; they could be called to special meetings, national or regional, to hear matters of general concern discussed. Consent was expressed more by the act of appearing at the court or at the meeting than by formal voting; it is several generations before we hear of debates and votes.13

National assemblies were not the earliest evidence that Europe was laying the foundations for constitutional government. Local assemblies, simple forms of citizenship rights, and a limited recognition of the rule of law, already existed:

Towns flourished in the medieval period and provided basic citizenship rights, distinguishing town dwellers from the villeinage outside the walls. Throughout Europe’s patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, and bishoprics there were elective representative assemblies (parliaments, estates, cortes) where nobles, burghers, clerics, and sometimes even peasants determined basic matters of government within a consensual framework with the prince. The principle of royal subordination to law was reasserted by the baronage at Runnymede and elsewhere.14

Brian Downing has argued that by the late medieval period, there was a network of essentially constitutional governments across Europe, and that similar kinds of government did not arise to any significant degree outside of Europe. He has identified three factors that predisposed Europe to constitutional government, and that were largely absent elsewhere in the world.

First, power was split between barons and princes. The Carolingian Empire had included most of Western Europe during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814), but nevertheless had been only weakly centralized. It began to collapse as soon as Charlemagne was laid in his grave. The Holy Roman Empire was assembled out of the eastern portions of the Carolingian Empire but it, too, had only loose control over its territories. It began to collapse in the early thirteenth century. The weakening of these empires enabled the re-emergence of powerful barons, who acted as counter-balances to ambitious princes. The barons had their own ambitions, but recognized that they gained from an alliance with a more powerful prince. The princes in turn recognized that they could not maintain their influence in the more distant parts of their realms without the cooperation of the local barons. These considerations gave rise to uneasy alliances between princes and barons. The barons slowly acquired more rights, sometimes through explicit pacts such as England’s Magna Carta (1215) and Sweden’s Land Law (1350), and sometimes through a gradual erosion of princely power.

If the central authority was weak, the nobles began at once to encroach; usurpations were in a few years translated into rights, and it was difficult, if not impossible, for the king to recover what had been lost.15

The towns, which were growing in economic power, allied themselves with one side or the other according to their own interests. They provided cash subsidies, armaments, and administrative skills. In exchange for this support, they received charters that endowed their citizens with certain rights and immunities. These towns then developed their own governments and judiciaries, further freeing themselves from the power of the nobles.

Second, the armies of barons and kings were built upon feudal levies and militias whose service had a contractual basis. Feudalism was based upon an exchange between a lord and his king or overlord: the lord was granted lands that he could economically exploit, in return for military services in times of war. This exchange was not governed by mere fealty — not “sealed by sacred vows after a prayerful, purifying vigil” — but by customary law and by negotiation. A lord had certain rights on his own lands that his overlord could not infringe. His military service also had a contractual basis, but not one that described every contingency. The king could coax and counsel the barons, but he could not dictate to them:

Parliaments of the late medieval period evolved, in part, from the Carolingian assemblies of military vassals. Consistent with the essentially contractual nature of military service, Carolingian kings convoked assemblies of knights in which matters of general policy and impending military campaigns were discussed by all, the king first among equals. This practice continued throughout the medieval period until the warrior assemblies merged with the baronial curia regis and estate representations.16

Militias were an important source of armed force in areas where knights were ineffective (because the terrain was unfavourable, as in Switzerland or Scandinavia, or because the enemy’s tactics neutralized them, as they did in England’s battles with the Welsh and Scots). Men who joined a militia were almost always granted some form of citizenship rights in exchange for their services. In Scandinavia, for example,

…the village hundreds…levied infantry formations from the male population, who, in return, were given voice in popular assemblies. As if to underscore the relationship between military service and participation in local government, members of the assembly arrived with their weapons and indicated assent to a motion by raising their javelins.17

Third, there was a legal basis for the interactions between peasant and lord. On the manor the lord’s dealings with the peasants were as much bound by customary law as were his dealings with his overlord. There were certainly times when a lord pushed the boundaries of allowable conduct, but brazen or repeated transgressions might cause his peasants to flee, imperilling his livelihood. The lords recognized that adherence to the law advanced their own long-term interests.

Assemblies at every level from the town to the nation, citizenship rights of varying form, and acceptance of the rule of law were the basis of medieval constitutional government. Liberal democracies could be built upon these foundations — but they not always were. The people of medieval Prussia, for example, were as free as any people in Europe (including England), but Prussia nevertheless evolved into a ruthlessly authoritarian state. Whether a country built upon its constitutional foundations, or dismantled them, was largely determined by its response to a military revolution.

The Military Revolution

Medieval armies were cheap — not a large draw on the king’s treasury — and ineffective. They were cheap because the costs of feudal levies and militias were downloaded to the manors and towns. The only major capital costs borne by the king were for the construction of stone fortifications, and these costs were spread over many years. The armies were ineffective for a number of reasons, but the overarching factor was that they lacked discipline. The feudal levies were dispersed across the country, and rarely brought together for maneuvers. Lacking all experience with co-ordinated movement, they could employ only the most basic tactics on the battlefield. The knights themselves lacked any notion of a chain of command: their loyalty was to the king and they were willing to take orders only from him. Even then, they could be distracted by the opportunity to plunder or to showcase their own valor. And all of this presumes that the feudal levies actually reached the battlefield. Feudal lords conceded that they owed military service to the king, but they readily disputed the size of the force required of them, or the period of service, or the area of deployment. If subinfeudation ensnared them in conflicting loyalties, they were likely to remain neutral and let others do the fighting.

The purpose of an offensive war was to gain control of territory, a difficult thing to do in the age of stone fortifications. A medieval army could roam across the countryside, terrorizing the villagers and burning the crops, but the country’s wealth and power lay within its castles and fortified cities. Once the gates were shut, the only way to gain control of a fortified area was to lay siege to it. The besieger’s weapon was starvation, but if the defenders had been able to bring in supplies ahead of the siege, they held the advantage. The attackers would be forced to forage for food, surviving on whatever the defenders had failed to carry away. Their improvised camps would become steadily less sanitary and more prone to disease. The conscripts would pine for their fields and farms, left untended while they fought for other men’s interests. And after weeks or even months of siege, the attackers could be thwarted by the arrival of a fresh, motivated and well-fed relieving army. In the Hundred Years’ War, France’s siege defences mattered more than England’s celebrated battle victories at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

The attackers would attempt to breach the walls with catapults, of course, but these devices relied on either torsion or a counterweight to launch projectiles. The weight of the projectiles and the force with which they were thrown were simply too small to do much damage to stone fortifications.

Gunpowder weapons came into use by the early fourteenth century, and by the middle of the fifteenth century, they were powerful enough to decisively shift the advantage to the besiegers.

When the French finally expelled the English from Normandy and Aquitaine, in the campaign of 1450-3, they knocked through castle walls of the English strongholds with cannon; at precisely the same time the Turks were battering down the walls of Theodosius at Constantinople with monster bombards (the Turkish taste was for guns so large that they sometimes had to be cast in situ before a siege began). In 1477 Louis XI of France (1461-1483) further extended his area of control over his ancestral lands by using cannons against the castles of the dukes of Burgundy.18

The revolution in siege warfare meant that defenders had to be as active as attackers: armies mattered more because stone walls mattered less.

Armies were undergoing their own revolution. Disciplined foot soldiers were at its core. Pikemen acting in concert defeated knights at Courtrai in 1302. English longbowmen defeated knights at Crécy in 1346 and at Agincourt in 1415. By the early fifteenth century the power of a disciplined infantry was widely recognized, and the tactical value of knights was in sharp decline. Knights nevertheless endured for another century, in part because they were self-financing and therefore cheap, and in part because they were an integral part of medieval society. Doing away with the knights would have meant doing away with a whole social order (“those who neither prayed nor laboured”).

The Battle of Pavia in 1525
The Battle of Pavia in 1525

The revolution in discipline was followed by a revolution in numbers, instigated by the Ottomans. Historically, European armies had been small: Charlemagne’s army had fewer than 5,000 soldiers; the largest crusader army had fewer than 10,000 soldiers. In the late fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks, having conquered the Byzantine Empire, surged into Europe. Their army contained something like 100,000 soldiers. Europeans could either match the Ottomans’ numbers or be vanquished. Spain, leading the fight against the Ottomans, became the first nation to build a large army. Austria, fighting both for the survival of the Holy Roman Empire and to hold back the Ottomans — they laid siege to Vienna in 1529 — was the next nation to build a large army.

The siege of Vienna in 1529
The siege of Vienna in 1529

The Ottomans were checked, but the armies were not dispersed. Instead, other countries joined the military build-up. The table below shows how some of Europe’s armies grew.19

Armies evolved as they grew. By 1550 a major army was divided into three parts of roughly equal size: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The infantry was more often equipped with firearms, rather than pike or bow. The cavalry eschewed the knight’s heavy armour and cumbersome weapons, and emphasized speed and mobility. Both infantry and cavalry trained in maneuvers and developed specializations. An army had once been mustered only in times of war, but now the intensity of a soldier’s training required a permanent army. The soldiers had to be recruited, fed, housed, and equipped: new organizations developed to perform these functions. Fortifications were rebuilt in the trace italienne style, which muted the impact of cannon fire and gave the defenders concentrated fields of fire.

Fiscal Stress and the Lure of Authoritarian Government

The military changed from a small intermittent expense to a large continuous expense. The estates had time and again funded their nation’s wars, but now drew back. They were not prepared to underwrite expenditures of this magnitude, and they feared that the king would use a standing army to pare back their rights. These fears were realized in several countries, including Prussia and France. Other countries — including Sweden, the Netherlands, and England — were able to thread the needle, modernizing their armies without sacrificing constitutional government.


In 1660 Prussia contained the lands of Brandenburg, Pomerania, and East Prussia (annexed at the end of the Northern War). Each of these three domains had a history of constitutional government. As they had in many other places, the estates of Brandenburg and Pomerania had traded financial support for representation:

The estates of Brandenburg and Pomerania were first convoked in the late thirteenth century when demesne revenue no longer sufficed to pay for even small state expenditures…By the early seventeenth century the estates had developed into able representative bodies that shaped foreign policy, supervised and audited the crown’s undertakings, influenced the appointment of ministers and local administrators, and handled the collection of taxes and tolls they had

The Teutonic Knights had rigidly controlled East Prussia for two centuries before they, too, had been forced to make concessions:

It was not until the disastrous war with Poland in the early fifteenth century that the Order found itself facing fiscal and political crises. Funds dried up and levies refused to fight. The Order had no alternative but to convoke an estates whose rights and liberties were later guaranteed by the Polish crown. By the next century, the Order had been secularized and disbanded.21

In each of these lands there was also a strong history of local government: towns held charters, governed themselves, formed alliances, and developed judiciaries. Many peasants were free, and those still in feudal service had only very light obligations. The basis for constitutional government was well-established:

The rights of the people were as clearly understood, and perhaps as securely guarded, as anywhere in Europe.22

The unravelling of these rights had much to do with the desperate situation in which Prussia found itself.

At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Brandenburg and Pomerania were bracketed by two powerful and aggressive countries, Poland and Sweden. Their own military forces were small — haphazard local militias and obsolete cavalry — so it was unlikely that their borders could be defended against any purposeful incursion. The Elector was able to strengthen these forces only slightly, by persuading the estates to fund a small standing army in exchange for additional privileges.

When Brandenburg and Pomerania became embroiled in the Northern War (1655-60), the Elector desperately needed further military funding, but the estates refused it. The Elector then proclaimed his right to impose taxes without the estates’ approval, and sent out the army to collect the new taxes. The estates had no counter to this tactic and were rendered powerless. They attempted to reassert themselves after the war had ended, but in 1672, war broke out with France. The Elector again needed military funding, and used the army to shut down all opposition to his demands. Prussian constitutional government was at an end.

The Prussian army grew to be large, modern and powerful. Its resource demands were very great, and since Prussia was predominantly agricultural and quite poor, the extraction of these resources was difficult. This task fell to the General War Commissariat. By 1672 the Commissariat was an integral part of government, with its own budget and its own tax system. It had a central command center in Berlin, officials in all of the provinces, and more officials at the local level. The local officials supplanted civilian officials in the administration of justice, and came to dominate both the mayors and the police. Justice itself became an instrument of state policy. More offences began to look like treason, and more offences were punished with the death penalty.

Many of the nobles were absorbed into the Commissariat or into the officer corps. Since most nobles had inherited small and poor estates, state service was a boon to them, and the distinction between the state’s welfare and their own became blurred. Merchants and manufacturers also came to rely on the state. Strategically important sectors of the economy were nationalized, but firms in the other sectors continued to be privately owned. Many private companies benefited from large state purchases, and some were the recipients of substantial state investment. The government’s focus was the security of its military supply chain, though, so the broader economy remained underdeveloped. No middle class emerged.

The peasants lost almost all of their rights. They could be pressed into the army or into work crews according to the government’s fiat. Their attempts to avoid impressment led to the Kantonsystem, in which every peasant was forced to remain in his own canton, where he received military training and where he worked the land according to the state’s demands. Under this system, the country became a “training school for soldiers.” And Prussia, despite its long history of constitutional government, became an authoritarian state.


Sixteenth-century France had

… a vigorous multicentered system of consensual government that maintained the principles of representation, rule of law, and for many, a measure of personal liberty.23

The Estates General, its national assembly, was weak, but it was purposely weak. Regional diversity was accommodated by shifting political power down to the regional and local governments. There were strong regional assemblies, as well as chartered and self-governing towns. Even the taxes were set locally.

The French army had not yet modernized. It was small, and with the exception of artillery, it employed few modern weapons. There was little specialization: it was still more of an armed rabble than a disciplined military force. All of these things meant that France had not yet confronted the cost of the military revolution.

Modernization was forced upon France by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). The war began as a conflict in Bohemia but escalated rapidly. Spain entered the war, nominally in support of Austria (both were ruled by Habsburgs), but more plausibly to advance its own territorial ambitions. In 1634 France found itself with Spanish armies on its borders with the Netherlands, with Germany, and with Spain itself. The crown, intent on forestalling a Spanish invasion, increased military spending by two-thirds over a single year. It also unilaterally imposed new taxes and forced loans to cover this additional spending. These appropriations were strongly resisted by parlements,24 estates and towns, frequently to the point of armed conflict. The crown was forced to impose a new system of tax collection, and to restrict the rights of many established political institutions.

The corps of intendants gained power during the Thirty Years’ War. The intendants were much like the local agents of Prussia’s Commissariat: they were spread throughout the provinces, and their duty was to oversee local officials. Now they collected the new taxes and forced loans, sometimes with the assistance of the military. Legal cases involving treason or tax evasion were heard by the intendants rather than the parlements. The intendants reported to the crown on the activities of local leaders, and sometimes involved themselves in local elections. The crown justified these measures as a necessary expedient in time of war. Widespread discontent among people of all ranks precipitated the rebellion known as the Fronde (1648-53); but the king triumphed, and in the Fronde’s aftermath, the intendants were much stronger and the constitutional assemblies essentially powerless.

France might appear at this point to be as authoritarian as Prussia, and certainly that was its king’s intention: Louis XIV firmly believed that kings ruled by divine right. Yet, France and Prussia differed in several important ways.

First, France was far less militarized than Prussia. In 1760, for example, one in every 14 Prussians was serving in the military, whereas only one in 86 Frenchmen was doing so. France was also much richer than Prussia, making the financial burden of modernization easier to bear.

Second, the Prussian noble relied on the state for a substantial part of his income, but the French aristocrat did not.

The French rural economy was more vigorous and enjoyed successful harvests throughout most of the eighteenth century. Viniculture, tax framing, and simply capitalizing on feudal privileges that squeezed surplus from peasants assured the basis of an economically independent aristocracy. While many had entered state service, they had done so through the spacious and accommodating portals of venality, which afforded the officeholder personal and political independence based on contract. In exchange for cash payment, the purchaser acquired the right to income derived from a heritable office, whereas the Prussian bureaucrat or the Russian service noble was dependent on the salary or benefice he earned solely by satisfactory execution of duty.25

The Prussian nobles identified with the state out of simple self-interest. The French nobles stood at one remove from the state: as long as the state did not try to end their privileges, notably venal offices and tax immunities, they remained quiescent. Their power was latent but intact.

The middle class became another independent source of power. The French government recognized the importance of a strong economy, and adopted a policy of encouraging both domestic manufacturing and foreign trade. The initial impact of these policies was to create an alliance between the state and the commercial sector. By the eighteenth century, however, the merchants and manufacturers had no further need of government support, and were growing alarmed at the crown’s profligacy. The harmony between the state’s interests and their own was no longer apparent to them.

Third, the constitutional institutions of Prussia were essentially eradicated, but those of France were allowed to continue in a diminished role. The parlements, estates, and local governments went quiet under the onslaught of authoritarianism, but rebounded as soon as the crown weakened.

The financial burden of France’s military adventures was evident by the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1752, with no major wars underway, 42 percent of the French budget was devoted to military spending and 21 percent to debt service. France’s war spending in the late eighteenth century, coupled with the loss of colonial revenue and setbacks in the domestic economy, forced the crown to steadily increase taxes. The aristocrats openly and successfully challenged the crown when it attempted to annul their tax immunities. The parlements and provincial estates, which had begun to reassert themselves after the death of Louis XIV in 1715, openly opposed the crown, and were so deeply entwined with provincial administration that they could not be suppressed. The debt crisis deepened, and in 1789, French authoritarianism collapsed. Stable government was not re-established in France until late in the nineteenth century.


Despite the upheavals of the seventeenth century — civil war, the Commonwealth, the Glorious Revolution — strong central government and constitutional government developed together in England. The Stuart kings had been determined to make the English government more authoritarian, but they had failed. Parliament’s persistent refusal to fund a standing army was a significant factor: such armies had been used oppressively in both Prussia and France. Parliament’s refusal also meant that England’s military had not modernized by the end of the seventeenth century.

Parliament could take this position because the English Channel was a superb defensive bulwark. England spent very little on its army; it even spent very little on its navy.

The Elizabethan fleets that defeated the Armada and interdicted Spain’s colonial commerce were not composed of state-financed ships of the line. Most of the ships were independent privateers, whose governmental letters of mark afforded a modicum of legality for an undertaking many might readily brand piracy. (One suspects Philip II did.) During almost two decades of naval warfare with Spain (1585-1603), England spent on average only £55,000 per year on naval forces…Spain spent approximately ten million ducats (4 ducats = £1) on the Armada alone…Privateers proved quite successful in preventing French or Spanish land forces (whose superiority was above question) from quickly demonstrating the backwardness of the English military.26

Even when England at last modernized its military, it did so without imposing enormous costs on the people, thereby avoiding the constitutional crisis that had occurred in some modernizing countries. Almost as soon as the Glorious Revolution ended (1688), England went to war with France, a militarily advanced nation. France, under the rule of Louis XIV, was attempting to dominate all of Europe, and England could not ignore the threat to its sovereignty. But neither could other European countries, so when England went to war, it had many allies (the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Prussia) with whom it shared the costs. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, France had 400,000 soldiers but England had barely more than one-fifth of that number. The end of the Glorious Revolution also saw the founding of the Bank of England. The costs of subsequent wars were spread over many years because they were largely financed through loans organized by the Bank of England. And finally, England’s parliamentary government evolved rapidly during the eighteenth century. Procedures for dealing with wars and their financing were developed: where once there had been a risk of constitutional crisis, there was now only routine.

“States Made War and War Made the States”

Charles Tilly’s maxim encapsulates much of European history. A ruler who seeks control over resources will try to push out his borders. The resources produced by a state are roughly proportional to its area, while the resources required to defend it are more closely related to its perimeter. Pushing out the borders generally increases area faster than it increases the perimeter, increasing the state’s available resources. Of course, for every ruler attempting to push out his borders there is another trying to maintain his borders. The military revolution shifted the advantage away from the defender and toward the attacker, with the consequence that Europe experienced centuries of intense violence. The Thirty Years’ War alone killed about eight million people, with some estimates running as high as eleven million people.

War, and the state’s preparation for war, had a very great impact on the organization of the state. But a state’s preparation for war was never its choice alone. What would Prussia have become, if its borders had not been under pressure from two powerful and aggressive neighbours? What would England have become, if it had not had the English Channel as its defensive perimeter?

  1. Charles Tilly, Capital, Coercion, and European States (Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 38-40.
  2. Charles Tilly, Capital, Coercion, and European States, pp. 41-2.
  3. Charles Tilly, Capital, Coercion, and European States, pp. 46-7.
  4. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, pp. 36-7.
  5. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, pp. 39-40.
  6. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, p. 42.
  7. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, pp. 45-7.
  8. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, p. 49.
  9. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, p. 50.
  10. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, p. 50.
  11. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, p. 52.
  12. The value of the French system is confirmed by England’s long struggle to incorporate Scotland and Wales into its more rigid system.
  13. Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, pp. 64-6.
  14. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 18.
  15. Z. N. Brooke, quoted by Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 21.
  16. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 24. Here, an “estate” is a class of people that would, eventually, have a voice in government. The estates consisted of the nobility, the clerics, and at some times and in some places, the peasantry and/or “burghers” (wealthy townspeople). However, the same word is sometimes used to describe an assembly that represents the interests of a class of people. The Estates General, a French national assembly, is an example of this usage.
  17. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 24.
  18. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (Vintage Books, 1993), p. 320.
  19. These numbers are from Table 1 in Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 69.
  20. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 85.
  21. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 86.
  22. Herbert Tuttle, History of Prussia (1884). Quoted by Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 88.
  23. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 118.
  24. Parlements were not parliaments. They began as judiciaries governed by the crown. They became self-governing during the Hundred Years’ War, when English territorial incursions severed their contact with the crown. They sometimes took on the governance of likewise stranded chanceries. Over time they developed into powerful institutions. “They gave counsel to the crown, enjoyed the right of consultation on basic constitutional matters, and at times even approved or rejected treaties. Their most important power, however, was to register royal laws and policies…Inasmuch as they had police as well as other regional authorities under their administrative control, parlements possessed certain features of local government.” (Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 117.)
  25. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 131.
  26. Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 165.