The Business of War. Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN: 9780521735582; 448pp.; Price: £18.99
University of Essex
Date accessed: 6 June, 2023
After a period in which much historical attention has been directed to the rise of the early modern state, it now seems to be becoming fashionable to take the state out of the centre of the picture again. Perhaps this is attributable to the way in which the nation state’s role has increasingly been brought into question in post-Cold War Europe, with the collapse of multi-ethnic states such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the growth of separatism in many European regions, and the rise of supra-national bodies such as the EU. The social role of the state itself remains controversial, the subject of ongoing debates on both sides of the Atlantic, and affected by the growth of interest in charities, NGOs, and a putative ‘Big Society’. In the case of the historical profession, it is no doubt salutary to shift perspectives from time to time, if only to maintain some freshness of approach. In the case of David Parrott’s new analysis of the role of private enterprise in early modern warfare, the result of such a shift is a very welcome and stimulating addition to our knowledge.
Parrott situates his analysis in the undisputed context of an early modern Europe in which the scale of warfare grew steadily, both in terms of the size of armies and, he stresses, the duration of conflicts. This arose in the early 16th century and developed steadily through to the Thirty Years War and beyond, into the so-called ‘age of absolutism’. Rulers thus faced a huge challenge in making their fiscal resources meet the demands of their military ambitions; the problem of how to raise and provision armies was one of the greatest of the age, yet, as Parrott points out (pp. 261–4), the multitude of military manuals published in early modern Europe make next to no comment on these practical and financial difficulties, partly because they were such difficult and deep-rooted problems.
Historians have always tended to suggest rulers solved these problems by improving the workings of the state – raising more taxes, employing more officials, and expanding their authority, often at the expense of representative institutions. This was the argument of the ‘military revolution’ thesis proposed by Michael Roberts and defended by Geoffrey Parker. Warfare was thus accorded a central role in modern European history, providing a motor to turn the medieval state into the modern one. Considering what we know about the weaknesses of the operation of early modern states, the notion that warfare drove the creation of the modern state has always, perhaps, been one of the more unlikely elements of the military revolution thesis. The chambers full of bureaucrats busily toiling away to govern the state and administer the army in any kind of rational way were simply not there, and nor were the soldiers or police to impose their orders on the populace.
Parrott, however, challenges much of this overall narrative much more fundamentally. In place of states steadily growing to meet the demands of warfare, he shows that instead it was private enterprise that was called upon to fill many of the gaps and smooth out many of the bumps left by the state’s weakness. It has always been clear that private enterprise had a significant role in early modern warfare, and there is a considerable, albeit scattered, literature on mercenaries, privateering, military contracting and so on, in a variety of periods and national contexts. The argument presented here, however, is much more wide-ranging, suggesting convincingly that military enterprise was in fact virtually omnipresent in early modern warfare, and consequently deserves much greater consideration than it has received.
The first part of the book (chapters one to three) provides an overall survey of military enterprise between about 1500 and 1650, primarily looking at armies but also at naval warfare. There are detailed accounts of topics such as the renowned Swiss mercenaries and German landsknechts in the 16th century as well as the rival armies of the Thirty Years War in the 17th. There are also more surprising topics, such as the role of private enterprise in the French Wars of Religion, the Spanish Army of Flanders, the French and Spanish galley fleets, and elsewhere. This constitutes a very valuable survey, comparatively short, and accessible to good undergraduate students of war and society, a field which still has surprisingly few useful textbooks.
One of the key arguments here and throughout the book is that much of what we think we know about military enterprise is inaccurate. Prime amongst these is the supposed shortcomings of mercenaries. It is almost impossible now to place the word ‘mercenary’ in a positive context. Yet, as Parrott argues, there is no real reason to think that they were poor-quality men, cowardly, liable to treachery or desertion, or motivated more by pay or plunder than by accomplishing their employers’ objectives. Very often, the reverse was true. Furthermore, as Parrott also discusses with relish, the patriotic dream of citizen militias defending their homeland (a dream cherished by many authors of whom Machiavelli was only the best-known), was in practice just that, since few militias were markedly successful, at any rate in aggressive warfare. Mercenaries were often essential. Another long-established myth that should be mentioned is the supposed superiority of Dutch infantry training, a key exhibit in the military revolution thesis, which is convincingly dismissed as the propaganda of a small state doubting its own legitimacy and military might. These argumentative, effective exercises in debunking are one of the book’s most enjoyable features.
In chapters four and five, Parrott moves on to in-depth thematic analyses of aspects of the business of war. These chapters focus almost entirely on the Thirty Years War, which is very much the book’s centre of gravity (and indeed has long been regarded as the high point of military entrepreneurship). This was a period in which armies reached a remarkable level of privatisation, operating almost – though never wholly – independently from their parent sovereign authorities.
Chapter four looks at the impact of military contracting on the operational effectiveness of armies. Essentially, Parrott argues that the mercenary armies of the Thirty Years War were vastly more effective than usually thought, especially later in the war, as they became smaller, leaner and tougher, and as commanders became increasingly accustomed to working in the peculiar conditions of that war. The argument here is that mercenary armies were more and not less effective than state-run armies, and Parrott argues that this was due to these armies being confederations of privately-owned regiments in which each colonel had a vested interest in improving the quality of his product. This argument does not seem wholly convincing, inasmuch as the increasing quality of the soldiers had as much to do with their experience, discipline and so on as it did with the terms of their service, and this chapter seems at times to drift into, effectively, an analysis of the operational context of the Thirty Years War – a valuable exercise in itself, but possibly not one which arises out of the central themes of the book. It is also (in this reviewer’s opinion) surprising that by focusing on the operational level rather than the strategic in order to assess the effectiveness of the mercenary armies, this section of the book begins to read like an apologia for the conduct of the Thirty Years War itself. Parrott demonstrates (and praises) the operational brio of the commanders of the 1630s and 1640s, referring to their ‘close synthesis of means and ends’ (p. 195). This is persuasive, even masterly, operational analysis. But it creates an odd disjunction, since it appears to overlook their failure to achieve strategic results. However effective these armies were at many aspects of their job, the war still went on for three decades without achieving very much on the political level. By contrast, the French and Spanish monarchies are criticised for their ‘lumbering’ style of military operation, which accomplished little in a campaign season, but one can at least say that Louis XIV’s wars achieved concrete results and expanded the frontiers of France.
Chapter five returns more directly to the central themes of the book, looking at how money was made from war, and how the structure of international business and finance provided advantages to soldiers and military planners, again primarily focusing on the Thirty Years War. This is again a valuable synthesis, highlighting the astonishing capability, versatility and range of the elite international merchants and financiers of the day, something which, as Parrott points out, stands in stark contrast to the often shambling efforts of contemporary states. This chapter also discusses the motivations of those who offered their services as military entrepreneurs, pointing out ways in which they gained both financially and in terms of ‘social validation’ for those from humbler or mercantile backgrounds – an elegant summary, although probably offering relatively little to surprise most readers.
In the book’s final chapter, Parrott traces continuities and changes into the later 17th century and beyond. He argues that there was real change in this period, as the state finally began to get its act together. States became less dependent on enterprisers to provide them with ready-made regiments, and they exercised much greater control over navies. They still made use of private enterprise, but increasingly this was a matter of supplying goods or ships rather than whole units of men (and after all, virtually any state would expect to purchase some ready-made goods from the private market). Alongside this, chapter six sketches in important and interesting ways the response of the late 17th- and 18th-century state (especially in France) to essentially the same problems as it faced 150 years earlier: the need for yet more soldiers and more spending, and still-inadequate finances, especially in view of the difficulty of taxing the nobility. In place of the growth of state control of the army, there was a continued dependence on clientage, venality and private investment on the part of a nobility still committed to warfare, even as Louis XIV projected a facade of royal authority. According to this reading, armies only genuinely changed their character after the late 18th-century rise of revolutionary or citizen armies in which the status of the soldiers plummeted as battlefield casualties spiralled. This section of the book is less detailed than those looking at the 16th and early 17th centuries, being more of an interpretative essay than a definitive analysis, but it provides an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to the period covered by the book.
This is a book, then, that contains a great deal that is interesting, revealing and thought-provoking. What of its overall thesis, that privatized military activity was much more significant than historians have believed? At heart, this is clearly true: historians have underplayed private enterprise, not entirely whitewashing it, but tending to mention it in their accounts of the period as a sideline or a dead end. So the central argument of the book stands, and historians of early modern warfare are indebted to Parrott for it. It is important to place it in proportion, however, and the precise significance of this argument must be carefully considered. Firstly, despite the importance of private enterprise in the conduct of warfare, the fact is that this ever-growing military activity still took place under the aegis, and for the greater glory, of the state or the ruler. It could be argued that it was immaterial whether the state’s agents were ‘private’ or ‘public’ – its reach was still growing. A second, related, issue is the difficulty of drawing clear lines between ‘public’ and ‘private’ in this period. Where did the state end and the private sector begin? In the case of troop-raising, for example, how we choose to differentiate between a ‘mercenary’ and a ‘regular soldier’ may not make a great deal of sense in early modern practice. In both cases (allowing for variations in recruiting practices), a ruler might provide an individual captain with funds and with authority to raise men and send him off to recruit a company of soldiers. In both cases, the state paid; in both, the captain gained financially (in terms of salary or private profit). It is not always easy to identify whether we should identify this as ‘private’ or ‘public’; indeed, to place too much stress on whether this was public or private risks falling into precisely the trap of thinking too much in Weberian terms that one is seeking to avoid. One might argue that if a military enterpriser was employed by a state, working for it and receiving income from it (or profiting by its permission), then in effect he became part of that state, part of that ‘public’ sector. In that sense, Parrott’s argument becomes more about the nature of the state than its extent. A more explicit discussion of this problem would have been interesting.
In a sense all of this reminds us that early modern states themselves had remarkably small ‘public sectors’, according to strict definitions. Many of their employees (certainly in the English context with which this reviewer is most familiar) were part-timers, amateurs, even unpaid; they often confused their own funds and those of the state. But as Parrott often shows, negotiated co-operation between different groups in society could still allow the state to achieve its end, through public or private means. Either way, the state was almost invariably paying the piper and calling the tune; its power was growing, one way or another. The blurred line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ means that it is extremely difficult, and perhaps even meaningless, to try to draw a clear line between them. But if Parrott’s point was to raise the question, to challenge the framework of the debate, then in this he succeeds.
In many ways, therefore, this is a very impressive book, a work of high synthesis. One cannot fail to admire Parrott’s scholarship, not so much in terms of manuscript sources (in fact I did not spot a single manuscript listed in the notes or bibliography), but in a vast range of often obscure French, German, Italian, Dutch and Scandinavian literature as well as English. Few historians can have delved so deeply into the literature of so broad a chronological and geographical range of case studies. One slightly surprising exception, however, is the almost total neglect of any part of the British Isles, whose early modern military history is undergoing a significant revival in which the links between English and continental military practice are an important theme. There is almost no mention of the Civil Wars, and the New Model Army only gets two brief mentions. Given that Hungary, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and so on get fair amounts of coverage, the exclusion of England, Scotland and Ireland seems bordering on perverse.
Ultimately, there’s no doubt that this is an important contribution to the literature of European warfare and of the European state throughout the early modern period. Although the book contains a great many good things, the detail and general argument has relatively little that is completely new. What is new is the way in which it is assembled into a generally persuasive and compelling argument, one that will demand the attention of anyone working in the field, requiring them to adjust their overall narratives of the period, re-evaluate their assumptions, and think about the roads not taken in the history of European warfare, societies and states.
I am most grateful to Neil Younger for his generous and perceptive review of The Business of War. It is a pleasure for the author when a reader has taken the time to think and reflect at length about a review, and has drawn out out not just the larger argument but many points of detail. Amongst these it is good to see highlighted the key assertion that from the 16th century the greatest military problem faced by European states was not so much the increasing size of armies but the increasing duration of warfare, though I would argue that this was no less an opportunity for private military contractors to develop the scale and sophistication of their activities. And after reading too many of them, I am happy that my point about the marginal utility and, in many cases, outright irrelevance of contemporary military manuals strikes a sympathetic chord.
On the central argument, as Younger indicates, The Business of War is an attempt to challenge the seemingly unshakeable hold that a basic model of ‘military revolution’ has gained in the thinking of most early modern historians who have not steeped themselves in recent debates about military technology and military cultures, territorial and organizational anomalies in waging war, or looked at ‘ground level’ studies of military administration. Although much of the case for such state-formation elsewhere – in studies of local government, fiscal and administrative institutions, and in the aims and scope of government – is being dismantled, the attraction of linking military change to centralization and bureaucracy in the state remains strong. If Business of War can provoke more critical thinking about the institutional and political contexts in which early modern war was waged, it will have made its contribution. The reviewer correctly points out that the material of the book is drawn from a wide range of secondary sources, and makes little direct use of primary source material. This was a decision made when planning and writing the book. Manuscript and printed sources could have been used more extensively to discuss aspects of military contracting, whether relating to the recruitment and financing of units, operational decision-making, or even French military exceptionalism, but that would have detracted from the central aim: using extant secondary work to argue that there are different ways of looking at the issues of military organization and the role of the state in early modern Europe. To argue from primary material rather than secondary studies would risk confirming the tacit opinion that the study of mercenaries and private contracting in this period was an antiquarian dead-end, of no real significance to the central direction of early modern history, and only to be pursued through special pleading via obscure archival sources.
The chronological and geographical range of the book, whose length was restrained to some extent by an already generous and long-suffering Cambridge University Press, inevitably proved problematic. I chose an extended chronological range to show the emergence and flourishing of military enterprise as a more comprehensive development than the essentially timeless phenomenon of ‘hiring mercenaries’. The sixth chapter, dealing with the continuation and partial transformation of military enterprise in the later 17th and 18th centuries remains more of an interpretative essay than detailed study, and is an area where much more can – and I hope, will – be said. 18th-century contracting for the provisioning, transport and support-services, and the construction and maintenance of military weapons, equipment and hardware, has already benefitted from some outstanding and wide-ranging work in the last five years, some of which unfortunately only came to my attention as Business of War went to press. Meanwhile, regimental and company proprietorship and the evolution and varieties of military venality, which are both central to the relationship between officer-corps and state administrators, still deserve much more detailed attention. In opting for chronological breadth, I undoubtedly sacrificed some geographical range. Younger’s point about the marginalization of British case-studies and examples in the book is regrettably true, and I failed to take into account until too late the remarkable flourishing of recent work and debate on military organization and military systems in the Three Kingdoms, and its significance for my arguments.
The review further identifies a major issue standing behind the debate about private contracting, central administration and the growth of the state. Traditional statist accounts simply ignored the evidence that administrative and financial responsibility for recruiting, maintaining and deploying armies and navies was outsourced to private contractors. But it could nonetheless be argued that wholesale decentralization of military activities was a decision made by the state, and one taken to achieve and maximize its ultimate political purposes. From the perspective of the creation of a more powerful state, both as an international actor and in terms of its coercive potential and ‘reach’ at home, the debate about public versus private administration could thus be seen as more about means than ends: the latter remained the same however flexible the state was in choosing its agents. Moreover it may well be difficult, in the complex, real world of 17th- and 18th-century administrators, to draw a sharp distinction between private and public activity. Private military financiers and suppliers sought, and often obtained, simultaneous posts in the public military administration, while French army officers were both nominal state employees and large-scale creditors of their units. Even explicitly private contractors were still offering the state services from which they benefitted, albeit not in terms of a salary. How far should these examples be separated from the state’s ‘formal’ administrators, who frequently worked both for a (small) official salary and additional sources of reimbursement which depended on privatizing their activities to collect fees and bribes?
These are certainly valid points, but they nuance administrative structures and methods that do have significance in their own right. In present-day debate, the issue of the privatization of prisons, military support services, fiscal or other government activities polarizes political opinion in ways that go beyond basic economic considerations. To both supporters and opponents they are seen to change the nature of the state’s relationship to its citizens and the means by which political activity can be legitimated. We have evidence that the same preoccupations influenced governments in the 16th and 17th century, even as financial exigency pushed them inexorably down the path to decentralization. The Spanish Council of State regularly asserted that contracting-out military activity was an affront to the crown’s sovereign powers, and periodically experimented – usually disastrously – with the selective re-introduction of direct state administration. French ministers and generals fulminated against the self-interest and inappropriateness of private supply contracting, even while they were often participants in cartels to undertake this supply. By the 18th century we have examples of political opinion forcing the abandonment of military contracting and its replacement with direct supply. In one sense contracting is certainly about optimizing the capacity of the state to meet its military needs; but it is no less the case that the choice of mechanisms to achieve this changes the nature of the state in fundamental ways. The traditional view of war and state-building is concerned, explicitly or tacitly, to legitimate the modern state as the product of conscious and directive centralization. Accepting that for most of their history, European rulers have operated through the co-option of private agents, their finance and their expertise, even in an area deemed as central to the identity and claims of the state as military organization, represents something more than simply a cost-efficient choice of administrative method. If the coercive power of the state grew as a result of reliance on military enterprise, this reliance was itself politically significant and argues for considerable discontinuities in administrative practice and in the formation of what is widely recognized as the modern nation-state. A comparison with non-European states – Imperial China comes obviously to mind – where civil and military administration was far more consistently and thoroughly centralized, points to some important historical divergences.
Engaging with one other point made by the reviewer, perhaps I might also explain my lengthy excursus into military operations during the Thirty Years’ War in chapter four of the Business of War. Both historically and historiographically, the war has always occupied a key position in accounts of early modern war and politics. The standard picture of a futile, stagnant conflict which devastated swathes of Germany and west-central Europe to no strategic purpose, presents the war as a turning point. Depicting commanders as self-interested and risk-averse military contractors, primarily concerned to safeguard their military investment and extract contributions from occupied territory, the war taught European rulers a harsh lesson in the consequences of leaving war to the generals. After 1648 they escaped the consequences of their short-sighted folly by turning their back on military contracting, supposedly creating a new style of state-controlled and -financed army. Essential to this argument, of course, is the perennial opinion that military enterprise was not just morally dubious, but an ineffective way of waging war. Thus the abandonment of enterprise in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War is a logical response to an obvious problem, indeed even carries the air of historical inevitability about it.
Hence my own concern to demonstrate, through both actual operational thinking and case-studies, that these armies were anything but the passive, ineffectual forces so often represented, hobbled by incompetent and inadequate logistical support, with commanders who had no interest in forcing an end to the conflict, and soldiers who were little more than vagrants under arms, undisciplined and unsuitable for any rigorous campaigning. I certainly hoped that the operational case studies, from Pappenheim and Colaert to Torstensson, Mercy and Hatzfeld, would give pause to this picture of sterility and stasis. I take seriously therefore, Neil Younger’s criticism that, without showing that the strategic dimension of the war was also transformed, this extensive discussion of operational effectiveness may seem like special pleading, indeed an apologia for the conduct of the war. If the commanders, troops and their operations were so much more effective, why was ultimate victory – the aim of strategy – so elusive? But the answer could be straightforward: the strategic dimension is not only about winning a war, but equally about not losing it. This is a notion entirely familiar from studies of, say, the Seven Years’ War, but rarely applied to the earlier conflict. I have long puzzled over a historical rhetoric which consistently attributes both organizational and vast resource superiority to the anti-Habsburg coalition in the Thirty Years’ War. Habsburg defeat, above all from 1635, is presented as inevitable, and histories of the Thirty Years’ War too often read as a litany of allied successes against hide-bound and resource-strapped powers. In such a situation it might therefore be expected that, even without great military competence, victory would have been achieved rather sooner than 1648, as the demoralized armies of the Habsburg powers and their one remaining ally, Bavaria, recognized the futility of their situation and cut their losses by accepting harsh terms rather than incremental military defeat. Instead the war was fought continuously from 1635, neither as a futile exercise in Habsburg self-delusion, nor as a stagnant and meaningless process of territorial occupation and inertia. The Habsburg and Bavarian forces could not win the war against their enemies, but they could all-but fight them to a standstill, repeatedly pushing them back from home territory, and threatening to destabilize positions deep in occupied territory. Shared operational methods and effectiveness made allied progress against the Habsburg forces slow, bloody and subject to reverses. It was not until after 1645 that the tide of war started to turn more decisively in favour of the anti-Habsburg coalition, and the outcome of the Peace of Westphalia is of course far removed from an unconditional surrender imposed by states who were confident of their ability to increase military pressure at will. The operational dimension does explain rather precisely both the formidable threat posed by the armies of the Thirty Years War to rulers and their territories, and the apparent failure to achieve a strategically decisive outcome.