Dec 14, 2007

Book Review: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in Europe, 1300-1800

Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in Europe, 1300-1800 by Hillay ZmoraZmora, Hillay
New York: Routledge, 2001

Hillay Zmora is a senior lecturer in history at Ben Gurion University, specializing in early modern Germany and early modern European nobility. In Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in Europe, Zmora disputes the historical model of the clash between a declining nobility and a rising bourgeoisie in absolutist regimes in early modern Europe. Instead, Zmora argued that nobles, in general, adapted to changing sociopolitical environments, and that “it was the transformation of the medieval kingdoms into states which shaped the nobility.”

Zmora argued that one of the most important factors in state-formation – and in shaping European nobles – was the evolution of “endemic and incessant” warfare. The expenses associated with newer forms of waging war, argued the author, forced European monarchs to develop systems of revenue creation, which simultaneously necessitated that concessions be made to the nobility to facilitate the tax collection procedures. Zmora argued that the ability of French and Castilian kings to create and maintain permanent systems of taxation was interwoven with the rise of absolutist regimes in these states. Conversely, maintained Zmora, the experiences of the city-states of the Italian peninsula and the Austrian Habsburgs suggest that the inability to create permanent systems of taxation inhibits both the rise of absolutist regimes and, ultimately, strong nation-states.

Historians have sometimes associated the rise of absolutist regimes in Europe with a decline in the fortunes and power of the noble class. Zmora, however, argued that many nobles played an important role in facilitating the growth of state power, and that those nobles who enjoyed “proximity to the state relied on it for the better part of their livelihood” as a reward for their financial an political support of the state. Noble support for monarchs such as Charles V owed less to “personal affinity” as to “royal rewards,” argued Zmora, and the author noted that a “continuous reliance on the nobility was an ineluctable course of action.” Moreover, noted Zmora, relations between the state and the nobility should not be seen as a zero-sum game:
The analysis of the system of governors in various early modern states suggests that, for all the inherent conflicts, a strong monarchy and a strong nobility were not mutually exclusive. In fact, their power grew in tandem during the first half of the sixteenth century.
Changes in the structure of the courts of European monarchs, argued Zmora, were responsible for the rise of the Court as the “focus of political authority of the realm.” Chief among these changes was the movement away from itinerant courts that existed “on the back of the riding-horses, beasts of burden and wagons” and toward permanent, sedentary courts that were centers of culture and power. While noting that some nobles left behind accounts suggesting their fondness for the simplicity of manorial life, Zmora argued that European nobles began to see the Court as necessary component of their station in life, noting that nobles were attracted to the Court for practical considerations:
The principal reason why nobles repaired to the Court is that they had an eye for the main chance. In the first place, a lot of money circulated at the Court. It sometimes was the third largest area of state expenditure after warfare and debt service… It was also the point of contact par excellence for the political elites. With the expansion of the early modern monarchies, it became the apex of a vast patronage system that held the state together.
Zmora, while by no means parroting traditional historiographical models of absolutism, nonetheless disagreed with revisionist historians who call for the elimination of the term altogether. There might have been differences between the absolutist rhetoric of rulers such as Louis XIV and the political realities in these same ancien regimes, noted Zmora, but the concept of absolutism nonetheless remains a valid interpretation of the sociopolitical structures of the major early modern states. Zmora delineated the sources of the absolutist successes of Louis XIV :
The secret of Louis’s achievement was not Versailles in itself. It was rather that his initiative was more restorative than innovative. His genius lay in an uncanny knack for moulding and consolidating the social order in a manner that both increased his own authority and benefited the traditional élites.
Monarchy, Aristocracy, and the State in Europe is a synthesis, drawing heavily from French, German, and English sources, although the author also includes some archival material. At times, the theoretical generalizations developed by Zmora seem strained, though the author typically noted the exceptions to the models he put forth. The book follows a thematic approach to the topic, and referential material is provided in an endnote format for readers interested in further research on a given topic. Appendices include a 10-page bibliography and a cross-referenced index, though the index seems insufficient for the range of textual material. Some previous familiarity with the early modern European history would assist readers in textual comprehension, and the high level of theoretical discourse makes this text difficult to recommend for survey-level college history students. The text does serve as a thoughtful approach to the study of absolutism for non-specialist scholars, and would be a useful companion to the studies of upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.

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