The Business of War

The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe
David Parrott
Cambridge University Press   429pp   £50

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For nearly a century historians and sociologists have reflected on Max Weber’s idea that a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is a defining characteristic of the modern state. For half a century they have debated the thesis that the establishment of such a monopoly depended on a military revolution located in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Gunpowder weapons on land and sea could give their owners overwhelming military superiority, but permanent, professional armies and navies were required to deploy them to best effect. Only national states, driven by repeated war to consolidate their powers, had the fiscal and bureaucratic means to sustain such forces. Independent-minded nobles and cities, peasant rebels, bandits and pirates were slowly but surely subjugated and the modern state was born. The mercenary service, undeniably widespread in medieval and early modern Europe, for all its colourful characters, its Hawkwoods and its Wallensteins, was a dead end in historical development, fit only for rulers who could not aspire to a proper national army, like that of Napoleon’s glorious France or Bismarck’s mighty Prussia.

In his first book, Richelieu’s Army (2001), David Parrott undermined this model by showing how protracted war drove France not to resolute centralisation of state power over armed force, but to desperate devolution. Now he dismantles it from another angle. Early modern Europe, he argues, was characterised by a spectrum of public-private partnerships in the waging of war. The state’s monopoly of military resources was a 200 year fad: born in the romantic nationalism of the French Revolution, it crumbled with the nuclear age and the end of military service. Now, with Sandline, Blackwater and Halliburton, normal service has been resumed.

Parrott charts the evolution of military enterprise from the age of the Italian condottieri and the fearsome Swiss infantry to the great generalissimos of the Thirty Years War and the privateers of Dunkirk, Plymouth and La Rochelle. He explores both how they organised their business and why they pursued it. The golden age of enterprise depended on a notion of soldiering in the ranks or service aboard ship as a craft, in which veterans would hire themselves out to captains who promised reasonable hope of victory and some say in how the unit conducted itself. It needed investors who saw a well-run regiment as a fair prospect for venture capital in comparison with corrupted government bond markets and trade networks ravaged by war. It drew on the credit and supply networks of international business concerns based in Amsterdam, Hamburg and Genoa, shifting food and armaments up and down the river networks that shaped where armies could manoeuvre. But it also harnessed the desire of noble captains for the glory, status and political power that accrued to the successful commander. Rather than dying with the overreaching Wallenstein it was perfected by the leaders of the smaller, more mobile armies of the 1640s.

Like the best works of revisionism the book also shows which parts of the old picture still make sense. Louis XIV and his imitators did place a new emphasis on royal sovereignty in war and did find the taxes to keep larger peacetime armies than ever before. But they did so by allowing officers a financial stake in their regiments and by selling the posts meant to regulate the army to leaders of business connections, eager to profit from state power. Big navies of broadside-firing ships of the line from the 1650s did breed bureaucrats like Pepys, but contracted out most of their supply functions. Soldiers around 1700 were increasingly low-paid, hyper-drilled and barracks-bound, but this had as much to do with the replacement of matchlocks with the deadlier flintlocks as with the apotheosis of the military state. This splendid survey prompts many further questions, both about how particular systems worked and why some changed and others did not, but the history of early modern warfare will never look the same again.

Steven Gunns is the author, with David Grummitt and Hans Cools, of War, State and Society in England and the Netherlands, 1477-1559 (Oxford University Press, 2007)

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