Recent article on military finance

Swart, Erik. “‘The field of finance.’ War and taxation in Holland, Flanders and Brabant, ca. 1572-1585.” Sixteenth Century Journal 42 (Winter 2011): 1051-1071.

Abstract: The Dutch province of Holland has solicited much research in the context of the link between war and political development, an important theme in early modern historiography. During the Dutch Revolt in the late sixteenth century it became the core and financial bedrock of a new, powerful, and very prosperous polity: the Dutch Republic. Why Flanders and Brabant, larger and traditionally wealthier, failed where Holland succeeded and were retaken by King Philip II’s army has never been explained. One difference was the structurally narrower political base in Brabant and Flanders; compared to Holland fewer people had a part and stake in the government. But the main problem in the former provinces was a structural lack of finances. From 1578 the war was right on top of them, which made the collection of newly introduced taxes impossible and attempts at administrative reorganization fruitless. War destroyed the tax base in Brabant and Flanders, while Holland’s taxes were the foundation of its success.


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9 responses to “Recent article on military finance”

  1. Campmaster says :

    Swart’s Last of the Landsknechts book has been on my “to buy” list for quite a while, and in general I find it intriguing to see a scholar placing more emphasis on William of Orange’s management of the war than on his successor’s (particularly Maurice). It is also interesting to see someone expounding on the relationship of the nascent Dutch army and older military traditions such as those of the Landsknechts. Anyway, the article you have posted seems to put much more emphasis on the fiscal side of things, which indicates that Swart’s perspective is (thankfully) not limited to the purely tactical/military-organizational aspects of the conflict. Nonetheless, I agree with Parker’s rebuttal of Swart’s main thesis, namely that the survival of Holland had very little to do with William of Orange’s reforms (military, fiscal, or otherwise) and more to do with the mutinies of the elite Spanish tercios after the departure of Alba. I’d add that the man’s personal influence on the army had arguably been the only thing keeping these long unpaid troops on the field. Geography probably played a part as well.

    Here’s Parker’s rather interesting review of one of Swart’s books:

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not familiar with the Swart landsknecht book and can’t find it online. Do you have a full cite? I assume it’s not Krijgsvolk: Militaire professionalisering en het ontstaan van het Staatse leger, 1568–1590.

      I haven’t had time to look through Olaf van Nimwegen’s book of the The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, but the Dutch Revolt does seem to have prompted a sustained discussion of its fiscal-military state, whether it be Parker, ‘t Hart, Tracy, Swart…

      Re: Maurice vs. William. Generally speaking, I’ve always thought it was dangerous for historians to claim that their subject/period/place was the ‘first’ occurrence, since it’s just begging for others (medievalists, ancient historians, Chinese or Ancient Near Eastern historians…) to come along and say “Oh, my guys did that centuries earlier.” Can we make it a rule, historians? A pledge to avoid further ‘first’ claims?

  2. Erik Lund says :


    I did it, and I’m not sorry.

  3. Campmaster says :

    Regarding Swart’s writings on the Landsknechts, he had actually written an article and not a book on that; and since I was talking off the top of my head I also confused the name which actually is “From Landsknecht to Soldier”. My bad there. Here’s a summary:

    I tried to find the whole article a long while back but couldn’t. I do wonder however, if Swart has any major books on these subjects in English.

    Regarding “first” claiming I tend to agree with you. I suppose the problem is the historical-Darwinian tendency to see every change as evolution, and the related technological determinism that mantains that new methods always render old ones obsolete. It also must make historians feel better about the period they are studying to inflate its’ importance as a crucial part of some sort of teleological scheme of historical development, especially when at the end of such development is “modernity”. Hence we have Military Revolution historians who claim this or that EM army(usually the Dutch or Swedish) was the “first modern army”.

    However, sometimes historians are encouraged by their very subjects to reach conclusions of “evolution”. Dr. David Parrott argued in Richelieu’s Army that Maurice of Nassau and some of his followers consciously spread the notion that their army had achieved a permanent superiority over their opponents through organizational-tactical reform in order to lend credibility to the newborn Dutch Republic; Polybius also claimed that the Romans had developed an inherently superior tactical-organizational system.

    From my own study of history I get the impression that warfare at least has changed much less than we appreciate between the introduction of fortifications and horsemanship on the one hand and the advent of WMDs on the other. There’s also the fact that most generals and military organizers and adminsitrators often had a backward-looking approach to military reform rather than an “evolutionary” intention to innovate anything. Lendon talked extensively in Soldiers and Ghosts about how Greeks claimed to be imitating Homeric models whenever they introduced military change; and then there is also the notorious tendency of Renaissance reformers to claim to follow the example of the Roman Legions (clearly visible in Maurice). There is also purely practical change that occurs unintentionally, both through expedient changes introduced by commanders and high-ups in order to respond to a certain situation and/or through economic-enviromental developments.

    • jostwald says :

      The pace of change over time (evolution-revolution) has certainly become a popular topic in EMEMH over the past several decades. A recent permutation is Oxford’s “Changing Character of War” program, and the edited collection Hew Strachan, ed., The Changing Character of War (Oxford, 2011)). Military historians haven’t done a very good job of laying out models of change as they relate to pre-modern warfare. Cliff Rogers came closest when he adopted Gould’s punctuated equilibrium model, but I think deciding on what ‘shape’ the change curve describes requires a lot more data points before we could estimate the rate of change from year to year/decade to decade. And we’d need lots of different measures: army size, mobility, infantry vs. cavalry, artillery, logistics, organization…

      Re: permanent superiority, they make a rather bold claim. Many of the late 17C (English) manuals I’ve read explicitly acknowledge how warfare has changed over time (gunpowder often singled out as particularly important), as well as recognize that future events will change it further.

      I find the universalist definition of “modern” warfare often revolves around vigor: battle-seeking, shock tactics… A motivating factor for my book.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        A significant (IMHO) restraint on change in warfare was Command and Control Technology, both strategic and tactical. Prior to the telegraph, the last major innovation in strategic C&C was the invention of writing. Until the introduction of portable radios, tactical C&C choices were audible and/or visual signals (fairly short range) or messages sent by courier (slow).

      • jostwald says :

        Parker has a chapter on the strategic communication gap in The Grand Strategy of Philip II – he emphasized that the irregularity of communications was as challenging as the actual fact of significant delays, i.e. it’s one thing if it always takes 5 weeks to hear from Brazil, it’s another if sometimes it takes 3 weeks and other times 4 months, in which case messages can get crossed and mixed up along the way (we saw this reflected in the first newspaper post on asynchronous communications). I point out to my students how early modern letters always begin by letting the recipient know which letters of theirs the author has received (and often when they received it). It’s also common to find in the correspondence statements along the lines of “We just received four of your packets together…”.
        I recall Braudel including an isocline (i.e. a contour map) map indicating time to communicate between various cities – I don’t remember if it was in his Mediterranean book or the Identity of France. Other than that, offhand I can’t recall seeing estimates of the time needed to communicate over long distances (i.e. with royal post stages, pony express…), other than published postal timetables – there must be some somewhere. In any case, there’s plenty of info in the sources to calculate this, since bureaucratic recipients often wrote the date on which it was received at the top of the incoming letter (esp. the Dutch).
        You do find the occasional mention in the sources of the strategy used by Rohan & Gondor in Middle Earth: fire beacons strung across long coastal distances. Such messages had to be quite basic though.

        What types of changes in warfare would have been limited by communication speed? Coordination between forces obviously, but I wonder if other factors would’ve made faster communication less limiting than we might think (today reaction times are certainly blunted by information overload). Kinda like how plant growth is limited by any of three main factors, e.g. there can be tons of light and warm temperatures, but a plant can only grow so much without water (I think somebody has a similar ‘law’ to that effect regarding nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium).

      • Gene Hughson says :

        At the strategic level, long and variable transit times as well as unreliable transport all affect C&C, requiring either a great deal of lattitude for subordinates or moving the CinC closer to the action, although that isn’t an option when multiple theaters are in play. Thanks for the reminder about the beacon fires, I had forgotten about those and semaphores as well. There are some limitations there, but I have to concede that there was an innovation there as well.

        The tactical level is where C&C technology was most constrained. Commanding dispersed bodies of men and coordinating their actions is extremely difficult without radio. I suspect this contributed to the usage of massed formations for attack long past the point of viability.

      • jostwald says :

        Re: latitude for subordinates. Exactly. Hence the silliness of many “cabinet war” claims. A decade ago I gave a talk at the SMH where I argued that Louis XIV got tired of having to ‘push’ his generals to be more aggressive (when he wanted them to be), so he replaced them with more aggressive generals like Villars, since it was easier to pull back Villars than push Villeroi, though at times he had trouble pushing Villars too. The paper was based on just the Low Countries. It’s not publication quality, but any discussion might be interesting so I’ll post it.

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