Peter Burke

  • State and Society in Europe 1550-1650 by Victor Kiernan
    Blackwell, 309 pp, £12.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 226 47080 6

Every student and every teacher knows the importance of the ‘seminal article’, which packs into a few pages more ideas than many books. In the field of European history, one such article was ‘Foreign Mercenaries and Absolute Monarchy’, published in 1957 by Victor Kiernan. Professor Kiernan has many historical interests, and he moved on to The Revolution of 1854 in Spanish History (1966), and The Lords of Human Kind (1969), a discussion of 19th-century European attitudes to the rest of the world.

Now, in retirement, he has come back to absolute monarchy, or more exactly to the relation between society and the state all over Europe in a century, 1550-1650, in which (Poland and the Dutch, Swiss and Venetians apart) the political centre made substantial gains at the expense of the periphery: the age of Richelieu and Gustavus Adolphus, Selim the Grim and Ivan the Terrible.

What has emerged is in many ways just the sort of book one might have expected from Professor Kiernan. It is the work of a man who is prodigiously well-read, in about eight European languages, in touch with recent research (though a few important new studies seem to have slipped past him), but also familiar with almost forgotten classics like R.B. Smith’s Italian Irrigation (1852) or F.W. Hasluck’s splendid Christianity and Islam under the Sultans (1929). The work of a man whose literary culture, like his historical culture, is wide and deep, whose own prose is concise, vigorous and full of such memorable phrases and images as ‘the huge, rusty, grandfather-clock mechanism of Spain and its empire’. The book is enlivened still further by the author’s dry humour. This study of the business of government does not take rulers or officials too seriously. The monarch is presented as no more than ‘a glorified landowner’; the officials, or ‘quill-drivers’, as Kiernan prefers to call them, as parasites, the ivy round the oak. As for the nobles, if active, they are ‘vampires’, a ‘locust-army’: if passive, they are ‘effete’, ‘yawning their lives away on their estates’. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are described with sympathy.

The point of it all is to describe and explain the relationship between state and society, in all its regional variations, over one crucial century in Europe’s political development. There are 12 regional chapters, of which those on Scotland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire are particularly fresh and lively. Readers are warned at the outset that the author has ‘no new master-key or set of equations to offer’. Professor Kiernan’s framework might be described as Marxism tempered by empiricism. He is less inclined than Marx was to see ‘classes’ in the modern sense in the 16th and 17th centuries. He is no economic or social determinist, but on the contrary thinks of politics as at least partially autonomous, describing absolutism as ‘likely to drift apart from society’ because ‘absorbed in the satisfaction of its own wants’. Marx combined with Parkinson, perhaps.

Professor Kiernan may have no master-key, but he does have a model: a general picture of the relationship between society and the state in this period which distinguishes it from the late Middle Ages and also from the 18th century. Marxists describe the 16th and 17th centuries as ‘the transition from feudalism to capitalism’. If they are asked to explain the success of the centralising, ‘absolute’ monarchies – a serious problem for all historians of the period – they tend to answer in one of two ways. One possibility is to emphasise capitalism, to explain centralisation by the rise of the middle class, and to speak, like the Soviet historian A.D. Lublinskaya, of the ‘progressive’ role of the monarchy and its alliance with the bourgeoisie. The second option is to emphasise feudal survivals, and to suggest that absolute monarchy came into existence because it worked to the advantage of the nobility. This was the view taken by another Soviet historian of France, the late Boris Porshnev, and, with more qualifications, it is the view taken by Perry Anderson. It is this second option which Victor Kiernan chooses. He describes absolute monarchy as ‘the aristocratic state’, avoiding terminological disputes about the nature of feudalism but stressing that this form of political organisation existed ‘primarily for the benefit of the landed nobility’, who jostled for ‘the best places at the trough’.

Another major problem for the historians of absolute monarchies is to decide whether their rise is to be explained in internal or external terms: as an ‘evolution’ determined from within, or as the by-product of a military revolution which increased the cost of war and forced rulers to demand more from their subjects. Professor Kiernan comes down on the side of the internalists, on the grounds that the state was aristocratic and that the aristocracy loved war. But this was equally true of the Middle Ages ...

To my mind, the political changes of the 16th and 17th centuries are only intelligible on the assumption that a society can produce a state apparatus too heavy for it to support and a military machine which it can neither afford nor get rid of – paradoxes which plague us as much today as they did in the 17th century.

A third problem for historians of absolute monarchy is to explain the regional variations. The most obvious social contrast in early modern Europe was between the east and the west. West of the Elbe, the towns were flourishing but the nobility was going through a crisis: east of the Elbe, it was the other way round. However, centralising states can be found on both sides of the river. Professor Kiernan insists that there was a difference. ‘In Eastern Europe ... absolutism did not grow “naturally” as in the west, but was imposed by external force as in Bohemia ... or by an autochthonous government with foreign backing, as in the old Habsburg lands’. I must admit that I cannot follow him here. What about Russia? And if absolutism can be described as the ‘aristocratic state’, why is it less ‘natural’ in the east, where the aristocracy was powerful, than in the west?

At this level of generality, Professor Kiernan is much less clear and much less sure of himself than Perry Anderson, whose Lineages of the Absolutist State is addressed to more or less the same problems. Anderson offers a glittering, chrome-plated model. Kiernan’s is rather more battered, more empiricist, perhaps more durable, despite its tendency to split at the joints. Some of the splits, or inconsistencies, are the price of writing briefly and clearly about a large and complex subject; others are the result of the decision to organise the book by region rather than by problem. Analytical at sentence level, it is narrative and descriptive at the level of paragraphs and chapters, and lacks the bite of the author’s earlier work. Professor Kiernan is aware of the more rigorously analytical approach to his subject offered by Charles Tilly, Samuel Finer and Stein Rokkan, but he does not really engage with their work.

There is still room for a book which would discuss the relationship between state and society in the early modern period in a more systematic way, and explain the paradox of centralisation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, orders were transmitted at the speed of a galloping horse and enforced at the speed of a marching army. The central government was generally so weak that it had to contract out to private enterprise key tasks such as raising taxes and raising troops. Under this ‘trickle-up, trickle-down’ system, much of what the people paid in taxes never reached the government, and much of what the government paid to the ‘military entrepreneurs’ never reached the troops. There was only one official to every five hundred people, and in some states the central government did not have the power to appoint its own officials, who treated their offices as property which could be bought sold, inherited, even auctioned. How, in these conditions, centralisation could take place remains something of a puzzle – even though important clues were provided, 24 years ago, by Victor Kiernan’s ‘Foreign Mercenaries and Absolute Monarchy’.