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Response to Review no. 277

May I first of all say how extremely flattered I am by Dr Frost’s generous review, still more how pleased to read an assessment by an historian who has not only understood the key arguments of my book, but has been given the space in which to expound and examine them in detail. I am of course delighted that a specialist who works on so many cognate themes relating to war, politics and society in the seventeenth century, but with his base firmly located in Central/Eastern Europe, should find convincing my contentions about the multiple challenges posed to the French state by warfare in the decades after 1620. I much appreciate Dr Frost’s compelling suggestion that there may be a shared genealogy of European military history, in which each state system needed, at some point in the early modern period, to cope with a period of profound military crisis. Rather than postulating clumsy and inappropriate social-science models to explain the relationship between warfare and state development, this notion preserves the possibility of the individual and the distinctive in responses by particular states (compare France in the 1660s with Sweden in the 1680s), while nonetheless arguing that the growth of a “new military world” of permanent armies and very different military/societal relationships stems from a conscious reaction either to a period of military failure or, at very least, to unsustainable forms of existing military organization.

In response to Dr Frost’s pertinent query about just how much continuity and how much change would I admit in the French military system of the 1630’s and 1640’s, I concede that there is an element of ambiguity in my argument here, and am grateful to him for giving me the chance to try to clarify matters. I certainly would not wish to deny that the scale of the French military establishment grew in the years after 1634 to reach levels which were historically unprecedented. The striking point, which I hope that the book makes clear, is that this increase is, in absolute terms, not very impressive. If Henri II could maintain a military establishment of 50,000 troops during the 1550’s, then a total French army of 70-80,000 men in the 1630’s would not, at first sight, seem the sort of burden threatening the complete breakdown of the political and social structures of the state. Explaining why, firstly, the French crown, which could raise what seem reliably attested military forces of more than 300,000 troops by the 1690s, should have proved unable to mobilize one quarter of that number fifty years earlier, is one part of my project in writing the study. Considering, secondly, why this relatively small military establishment should have imposed such crippling burdens on the fiscal, administrative and judicial structures of the state, absorbs another major part of the study. The answers in large part reflect what Dr Frost here, and on other occasions, has recognized as the key determinant of military success and failure in the early modern period: the extent to which the crown and its central administrators are able to mobilize and harness the political and social commitment of the wider elites. Successful war-making states need explicitly to link the army, at the level of the officer-corps, with the social prestige and political role of the elites – in France, this meant nobles of the sword, of the robe, or indeed bourgeoisie aspiring to noble status. For a variety of reasons considered at length in the book, this identification of the army and the conduct of foreign policy with the aspirations of the elites was not achieved under Richelieu, nor, a fortiori, under Mazarin. Historians’ preoccupation with the novelty and apparent sophistication of some of the theoretical justifications for the conduct of domestic politics and foreign policy under Richelieu, should not obscure the essential failure to win the political elites around to any form of consensus in the war effort, nor the burdens that the army imposed on those members of the elites who were involved in military service. This failure was compounded by the rebarbative character of rule by narrow ministerial clique, the systematic manipulation of the elites in terms of perceived loyalty or disloyalty as ministerial clients or créatures, and the widespread resentment of a system of government whose raison d’être appeared most obviously the spectacular enrichment of its leading personnel through the manipulation of a ramshackle fiscal system.

The obvious question in these circumstances is, as the reviewer asks, how France emerged as a winner at both Westphalia and the Peace of the Pyrenees? I sympathise with Dr Frost’s frustration that I tackle the military and diplomatic side of Mazarin’s ministry sketchily, and perhaps too sketchily. I can only plead the horror that my supportive and long-suffering editor at CUP would have felt had I attempted to add something approximating to Mazarin’s Army to my existing manuscript. But it does seem desirable in the light of some recent and perceptive research on French policy in the 1640s to offer my opinion that the success of the French military after Richelieu’s ministry does not undergo a sudden and dramatic upward trajectory. Rocroi and Lens should not necessarily modify an existing picture any more than the French victories at Aveins in 1635 or Leucate in 1637. They were battles, like so many others, with very limited strategic consequences. The real success story of the 1640s was the French army of Germany (for the most part composed of German mercenary regiments). It was this force, operating according to the self-financing and self-sustaining principles of entrepreneurial warfare in the Empire, and in close cooperation with an equivalent Swedish campaign army, which ultimately pushed the Bavarians into a reluctant cease-fire and threatened the Habsburg Austrian lands by 1647-8. Operating with minimal dependence upon support from the centre – Mazarin’s strategic interference was almost invariably pernicious – and under the command of Turenne and, at times, of Condé (the last and perhaps the two greatest military entrepreneurs of the century), a confrontational military strategy brought substantial gains. Elsewhere the story is a familiar picture of grinding attritional warfare, lengthy and resource-costly sieges offering modest strategic advantages and all too frequently offset by setbacks in other theatres. A glance at the campaigning in Italy and in Catalonia would provide an obvious corrective to any over-sanguine interpretation of the French war-effort in the 1640s and 1650s.

Perhaps the obvious point about France’s capacity to muddle through to a successful peace in 1659 despite chronic organizational failure, and what was in fact a decreasing capacity to mobilize resources in the face of elite hostility, is that it should not be taken in isolation. The largest part of any answer to how France had won by 1659 would rest on the comprehensive case laid against France’s chief rival in Sir John Elliott’s The Count-Duke of Olivares (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1986). My quarrel with a traditional, “progressive” French historiography of Richelieu’s ministry is that assumptions about centralized institutional modernity have been imposed on a practical situation that bears little or no relation to any such model. But Richelieu’s government was far from alone in its administrative failures, half-hearted exploitation of resources and self-defeatingly ambiguous attitudes to the elites in army and state. It was precisely John Elliott’s exploration of both the personal and institutional failures of Olivares’ regime which encouraged my view that these were not in fact problems that France was better able to resolve than her rivals by adopting some kind of ‘high road’ to institutional modernity. And in a political world which was everywhere more dominated by the imperatives of favouritism, clientage and dynastic priorities than traditional interpretations would allow, there is a crude sense that resources over the long term will tell: that France’s economic and demographic resilience was better able to sustain 25 years of battering and military/administrative weakness than was Spain or the Austrian Habsburgs.

From the above, I hope it is clear that I would draw a substantial distinction between warfare down to 1659, which for the most part I consider to share all the structural and organizational problems and weaknesses of Richelieu’s war-effort; and war as organized and fought during Louis XIV’s personal rule on the basis of an army which had been subject to a massive and self-conscious organizational overhaul, and now stood in a fundamentally different relationship to the aspirations and self-perception of the French elites. That the armies of Louis XIV conquered more Spanish territory in a single campaign in 1667-8 than in 25 years of war under Richelieu and Mazarin speaks sufficiently of the change. Whatever the problems subsequently faced by the hugely inflated armies of the 1690s and beyond, the army of the 1660s represented a deliberate response to the all-embracing military crisis of the ministries of Richelieu and Mazarin, and a response which proved all too successful in enhancing the military capacity of Louis XIV’s state.