War, Warfare, Military and Early Modern Europe

New title just released:

Parrott, David. The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

This is a major new approach to the military revolution and the relationship between warfare and the power of the state in early modern Europe. Whereas previous accounts have emphasised the growth of state-run armies during this period, David Parrott argues instead that the delegation of military responsibility to sophisticated and extensive networks of private enterprise reached unprecedented levels. This included not only the hiring of troops but their equipping, the supply of food and munitions, and the financing of their operations. The book reveals the extraordinary prevalence and capability of private networks of commanders, suppliers, merchants and financiers who managed the conduct of war on land and at sea, challenging the traditional assumption that reliance on mercenaries and the private sector results in corrupt and inefficient military force. In so doing, the book provides essential historical context to contemporary debates about the role of the private sector in warfare.


Apropos our discussion about logistics, this book will hopefully provide an overarching framework for something early modern military historians have been exploring in their own areas for the past several decades. The broad claim isn’t particularly new (among others, Parrott illustrated it in his earlier Richelieu’s Army) but hopefully he’ll have a detailed argument that integrates more than just France in the mid-17C.

Early modern historians tend to see the late 17C-18C as the period when the central state began to take over (Lynn’s “Army Styles” has been the most recent broad framework). But even then, as we’ve already discussed, combatants still relied on lots of private financiers and companies for credit (secured by future tax receipts), which was then paid to other private contractors and their subcontractors to provide bread and (during winter quarters) fodder for the troops and horses, as well as transport. Even the regiments themselves were ‘owned’ by their colonels and the companies by their captains, which was yet another way the central state could rely on others’ wealth to raise, clothe and feed its troops. The same was true for the navy. Although fleets were increasingly composed of ships dedicated to military service, many of them were still constructed in private shipyards, and in some cases were even lent out to privateers when naval costs became too high, not to mention the permeable boundary between naval service on board a Royal Navy vessel and aboard a merchantman. The war on enemy trade was furthered by recruiting private privateers (full-time as well as opportunistic vessels issued letters of marque). Heck, the same was true for diplomacy, as we can find diplomats constantly begging their political masters back home to reimburse them for their expenditures incurred in the line of duty. It really is amazing how much effort was put into fighting these early modern wars, and how successful governments were in getting other people to put up their money towards the venture.


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5 responses to “War, Warfare, Military and Early Modern Europe”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    But but patronage!

    Seriously, this is a huge issue. While I’m somewhat hampered by not having read the theoretical literature I’m always waving at, we can’t talk about early modern capitalism without talking about the social entanglement of credit. You’re not rich, in the sense of being able to do business on credit, unless you have social position. So military service and its potential profit are a positive feedback loop in which the growth of the state services the interests of the magnate/politician/entrepeneur.

    • jostwald says :

      Yes, Erik, patronage. [Said in a patronizing tone ;)]

      Maybe I’m missing something (I should go back and read Rowlands/Drévillon more closely), but patronage seems like one of those things that helps explain the very general process and perhaps identify the specific individuals involved, but I always feel like it’s kinda obvious (much like gender and masculinity’s role in war), at least at the top, and not very ‘robust’ as an explanation, at least for government borrowing during wartime (which is what I’ll focus on here). Since we’re talking about kings and rulers borrowing lots of money from wealthy individuals, obviously they all had social capital, in addition to their economic capital – money buys social capital after all, and people with money tend to cozy up to those in political power. But I don’t know what more we conclude beyond that generality. Maybe it depends on how one views patronage – I assume it’s something constructed/fluid, there being more people willing to loan money (to gain social status perhaps) to a ruler than rulers looking to borrow, so there’s an excess of supply and a wealthy financier can convert that economic capital into social capital, until you run out of money, or until your patron gets supplanted at Court, or you get arrested for corruption. New creditors/clients still seem to come out of the woodwork, even after their predecessors got hosed, so I wonder how strong the specific patron-client relationship really is, or what it actually means.

      Reading a bit on the English, they could fund their wars against Louis XIV because William III had connections with Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam, London and elsewhere, so in that sense the Dutch connection (and sheltering of Jewish communities) was important. But the English and Dutch governments weren’t going to be able to tap this credit (i.e. take advantage of those patronage relationships) unless they had the tax revenues to back it up, i.e. something beyond that particular patron-client relationship (ruler-creditor). If the creditors cozied up to said ruler because he was rich, doesn’t this mean patronage wasn’t the causal factor but rather a result? The close relationship between William and the Machados, the Pereiras, the Medinas… did not prevent other Amsterdam merchants from selling bills of exchange to Louis XIV, so at the least, patron-client relationships crossed political/ideological boundaries, which again makes me wonder what it does explain. It seems that what we’re really talking about is patronage at most providing a preferential credit rate, or patronage “explaining” why creditor Y chose to lend to ruler X, and not creditor Z lending to ruler X. But then again, creditors X and Z would only lend because England’s trade and tax revenues are increasing throughout the period, because they thought they could make their investment back. And this patronage network doesn’t prevent the clients (i.e. the creditors) from getting wiped out – I believe there’s a long history of that whenever Spain or France declared bankruptcy, or unilaterally modified the terms. The English didn’t care enough about Solomon de Medina (bread contractor for the Dutch and English from 1707-1711) to prevent him from going bankrupt by 1712, perhaps because a couple of his sub-creditors took over the bread contract that very same year. More broadly, in 1711 Harley and Tories come to power, the Whiggish Bank of England refused to loan the new ministry money, so Harley, tanks to British naval power, created the South Sea Company and raised a ton of cash (for a venture that would collapse in 1720). In short, there seems to be a sucker born every minute and anyone in government is going to find someone willing to gamble on buying government debt, which makes me think that the patron-client relationship doesn’t have much strength, or else is quickly created and dissolved as the financial situation dictates. If your country has revenue streams, you can find creditors regardless of pre-existing connections (if patronage networks are required for borrowing, it’s that much easier to quickly make new friends), but if you don’t have revenue streams, even your best friends are going to be hesitant to loan you very much.

      When Samuel Oppenheim died in 1703 and the Austrians faced a credit crunch, what happened? I know their troops suffered more and they borrowed from the Maritime powers (and raised a few loans from the London markets), but what else? I assume they found new creditors elsewhere, possibly poorer ones, or ones demanding a higher rate of interest, or maybe comparable rates? Presumably they did what any other country in the same situation would do, and their creditors made similar demands to what any other creditor would do. So what specific knowledge do the specific patronage networks of the House of Habsburg add to our understanding of Austria’s war funding? [This is separate from the only partially-related issue of how one spends their money]

      But maybe I’m not making much sense here?

      I can see patronage playing more of role in raising regiments, but here too, I would think it would depend on how profitable (socially or monetarily) being a captain/colonel was, which might or might not be affected by the influence of patronage. Things can get really confused when the Court is divided between various factions, so that your social profitability is dependent on how well your particular patron’s faction performs at Court. Then, at some point no amount of patronage will find a ruler more provincial nobles to raise companies or more men to be enlisted by their local patrons – by 1708 the English were fresh out of recruits, forcing them to turn to massive press gangs and clearing the jails. Does this limit have anything to do with patronage, or is this just demographics? The Maritime powers were able to minimize their dependence on patronage by hiring German mercenaries by the 10,000s.

      In short, I think it’s a worthwhile topic, but I’m not yet sure how it all fits together. Any help would be appreciated.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    David Parrott argues instead that the delegation of military responsibility to sophisticated and extensive networks of private enterprise reached unprecedented levels.

    This federation makes sense on a lot of levels, from binding the nobility closer to the crown (as noted by Erik above) to avoiding the cost and political danger of a very large standing army and navy. Additionally, given the limitations of contemporary communication and bureaucracy, decentralization makes a lot of sense.

  3. Gavin Robinson says :

    There are some good examples from the English Civil War that I hope get a mention in the book. Peter Edwards has done lots of work on horse dealers, and I’ve refined it a little bit, but he did all the important stuff first. In 1644, Parliament had enough tax revenues to buy lots of remounts. The Eastern Association employed officers as commissaries to buy individual horses directly from the public, but Essex’s army made a big contract with the horse dealers and left them to find the horses. In 1645, the New Model Army carried on using the same dealers as Essex’s army and didn’t adopt the Eastern Association system. These dealers are a possible exception to Erik’s rule that wealth and credit were linked to social position. Horse dealers in general were looked down on by the rest of society and often stereotyped as dishonest. These particular dealers were probably better than most but were still fairly obscure. At least one was a freeman of London and owned an inn at Smithfield, but they’re hard to put into conventional social hierarchies. They dealt with the aristocracy without ever being part of it. In 1645-46 a group of 5 dealers turned over about £46,000 just on their New Model Army contracts, although we don’t know how much profit they made. They did often demand part payment in advance, which could imply that they weren’t always willing or able to buy stock on credit.

    Also Nusbacher’s work on feeding the New Model Army showed that most food was probably brought via London by private victuallers and sold directly to the soldiers, as the amounts of food bought by the state were far too small to feed the whole army for long. Ben Coates argued against that, but I came up with some counter arguments in this blog post.

    • jostwald says :

      Interesting. I know that Solomon de Medina, bread contractor to the Maritime Powers, also asked for an advance on his yearly contracts, and that was while he had other financial backers. So I don’t know what to conclude about access to credit based off of whether they demanded partial advance payment or not. Another possibility might be that it was a sign of good faith, especially since Medina was frequently begging the English government for reimbursement on losses accrued in previous years.

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