What’s This “Early Modern” of Which You Speak?

So where does someone who self-identifies as an “early modern European military historian” start? Ah yes, “early modern.” (Don’t you worry, Clausewitz and Trenchard, you’ll get yours eventually.)

How to define “early modern”? Not easy. Historians necessarily divide up the past into discrete-ish periods for convenience, and hopefully we have some reason behind our madness. But historians can’t agree on what’s the best kind of madness, which means there are competing interpretations of what ‘early modern’ means. Heck, historians have been arguing over periodization since at least the Renaissance and Petrarch’s “Dark Ages” As it turns out, in a recent ‘open peer-review’ online article Newton Key points out that the very term “early modern” really only caught on c. 1970, and then primarily among English-speaking historians. Despite its subsequent recognition in the U.S., few can agree on when exactly it was.

It doesn’t help that the sub-periods which “early modern” is supposedly composed of themselves overlap in confusing ways: Italy’s artistic Renaissance might have begun in the mid-14th century, England’s Renaissance is said to extend well into the 17th century, while women may not have had a Renaissance at all. Reformation historians, for their part, feel comfortable looking back into the 15th century and some argue the Counter-Reformation continued well into the 18th. The forlorn 17th century generally lacks any kind of modern designation whatsoever, other than the vague appellation of “Baroque,” or a generalized period of “crisis.”

How far back the Ancien Régime (or Old Regime) extends is up for debate; the extent to which it coincides with the Enlightenment is yet another question I’ll bring up only to ignore. Fortunately, there’s a bit more consensus as to when the early modern period ends, with the dawn of the French Revolution. But historians are an argumentative lot, which means that they frequently ignore these artificial boundaries: some scholars insist on the early modern parallels with the ‘modern’ era of revolutions, while other scholars talk about the long 18th century (c. 1688 to 1815/1830). With so many countries and so many subjects of study, feel free to draw your own boundaries. Somebody will undoubtedly disagree with you.

So I hope I will be forgiven for not insisting on too strict of a time frame when describing early modern European military history. Anyone familiar with the standard narrative presented in History of War 101 (and the wars of the period 1450-1800 in particular) already knows the traditional time frame: from Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 to the eve of 1789 and the momentous changes ushered in by the French Revolution. Inevitably, recent historians have sought to breach the walls between the periods, insisting that neither Charles VIII nor Napoleon were all that revolutionary. We can leave that discussion for a later day – for now it’s just worth remembering that there are many different understandings of when ‘early modern’ was.

The result, as I see it, is a field of early modern European military history segmented into three broad eras, usually grouped around the constellation of wars at their center:

  1. Some scholars focus on the earlier early modern age, extending from the Renaissance era’s experimentation with gunpowder into the bloody age of religious wars, culminating in the middle of the 17th century (I suppose you could divide them between Renaissance and Reformation if you wanted, for religion’s sake). This broad period includes the most popular wars (in English-language works at least): the Thirty Years War and the British Civil Wars. Historiographically, these major wars tend to be treated separately, and predominantly in national terms: English history has long been infamous for its insularity, and while the Thirty Years War was indeed a continent-wide affair, the historical literature on this period tends to be rather parochial, possibly a reflection of the less cosmopolitan nature of the age, as much as the multiplicity of languages required to master the subject from multiple countries’ perspectives. There is definitely change afoot, however, witness recent collective histories of the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War.
  2. My research falls squarely in the middle of the early modern period, with a focus on the belligerent age of Louis XIV and William III, c. 1660 – c. 1715. Compared with the earlier era, the historiography of the Louisquatorzian age has been more cosmopolitan in its focus, with English historians directly engaging historians of France, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Italy. The 1988 commemoration of the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s 1688 invasion of England (the “Glorious Revolution”) seems to have created a lasting connection between British, Dutch and French historians in particular (see for example the Williamite Universe).
  3. A third group of early modern military historians focuses on the later early modern period, the 18th century, or what some refer to as the Military Enlightenment. Here the cosmopolitan nature of the Republic of Letters and royal courts is reflected in the historiography, although it is noteworthy that Anglo-American scholars are still much more comfortable in treating British and French topics rather than expanding outward towards the periphery of western Europe.

The isolation of these different periods is reinforced since each tends to have its own organizing metaphors and questions of interest. Traditionally, early modern European military historians have had two obvious audiences: those interested in the period, and those interested in the place (though usually it’s a combination of the two). One traditional route for military historians has been to draw their research questions from broader period discussions. Did warfare have a Renaissance? How influential was religion in the Age of Religious Wars? How dynastic and limited were the 18th century wars of succession? What were the precursors to the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars?… We are starting to see these period boundaries break down, but it is hard to ignore the zeitgeists littered throughout the historical literature.

Geography also plays a defining role, as historians tend to work in their national silos. Chronology applies here as well, since military historians are usually drawn to the successful parts of ‘their’ country’s past, whether that’s Sweden’s Lions of the North, Louis XIV’s early reign, Marlborough’s campaigns in the Spanish Succession, or Frederick the Great’s wars. While historians of a specific country are most comfortable in their particular period, when the more adventurous among them do decide to strike out, they are most likely to travel into other periods of their country’s past, rather than cross geographical boundaries in the same period. French military historians study French history across the early modern period (Lynn’s Giant of the Grand Siècle), while English historians study “England’s” wars (Elizabeth’s wars, Britain’s Civil Wars, and the successional struggles of the 18th century). Thus early modern European military historians’ questions tend to be shaped not only by the temporal context, but by national historiography as well. Thus they ask questions like: how did England became a fiscal-military state? How did the French military function in successive ages of absolutism and then Enlightenment? Here too change is slowly appearing. The study of mercenaries, a historiography itself born with Renaissance Italy’s condottieri, offers one means by which a more cosmopolitan view of early modern European warfare might evolve.

Language enhances this national focus: the vast majority of early modern European military historians writing in English – and there aren’t many of us to cover 400 years of history across the breadth of Europe – focus on western Europe. There are a few notable exceptions, scholars who try to keep us Anglo- and Franco-philes from forcing all of Europe into English and French models: Peter Wilson for Germany; Christopher Storrs and Geoffrey Parker representing the Mediterranean; while northern Europe has Robert I. Frost and Paul Lockhart (who’s recently gone over to the dark side). Despite their best efforts, French and English (British) topics continue to dominate.

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that few Continental-language works get translated into English, whereas Anglophone scholars such as John Keegan, Geoffrey Parker and John Lynn have had their work translated into other European languages. Anglo-American historians of 18th century Germany, for example, read the most recent literature on the Frederican army published in German, but the conclusions of this German historiography are usually limited to that small circle of German historians, at least until an Anglophone scholar translates their arguments to a broader, English-speaking audience (see Peter Wilson and Dennis Showalter). The most recent attempt to bring current German military historiography to a worldwide audience via the World Wide Web (the newly-launched Portal Militärgeschichte) appears to consist solely of German content, lacking even a Welcome page in English. I won’t even mention the sad fate of Dutch military history (and yes, they had a military) when left in the hands of English historians; because of the widespread ignorance of their tongue, Dutch scholars are increasingly seek to publish their results in English.

The most recent trend in history generally is the emphasis on thematic history. In this respect, early modern European military historians naturally have allies among military historians of other periods – not surprisingly, strategic, operational and tactical subjects predominate. We have also begun focusing on any number of more specific thematic subjects across a wider chronological and (less-often) geographical scope: logistics, battle, siege warfare, military administration and finance, laws of war, to name a few. Here too we continue to reside within comfortable national tendencies, with the French increasingly interested in battle (André Corvisier, Jean-Pierre Bois, Hervé Drévillon), while recent English historians have become smitten with military administration regardless of the country under study (David Parrott, Guy Rowlands, J.S. Wheeler). Geoffrey Parker’s Military Revolution has been the most successful example of the attempt to ask a topical question that could be applied across multiple places as well as periods – early modernists have been divided over whether this is a good thing or not. We should also incorporate broader themes (and methodologies) such as gender and culture under this same umbrella, as Brian and Mark have recently discussed. Early modern military history is evolving, but slowly.

These various historiographical schools create a real tension for the early modern European military historian: do you ask questions of interest to modern military historians, to non-military early modernists, to Louisquatorizian specialists, or to English Stuart historians? Can you satisfy more than one of these audiences? Can you make your study of 18th century France relevant to 16th century Italian military history? Good questions all.

So now you know the chronological and geographical margins of early modern European military history, and how academics’ language skills shape what we know and what we don’t know. You also now know why, whenever someone says “Early modern warfare was like <fill in the blank>,” you should automatically ask “Which early modern?”

4 thoughts on “What’s This “Early Modern” of Which You Speak?

  1. Just to confuse things even further, the early-modern war module in my MA course covered 1618-1815. For my BA, early-modern covered about 1500-1800. I’d never come across the term before I went to university. I remember a discussion on LiveJournal years ago where some people said that the Enlightenment came after early-modern and wasn’t part of it.

  2. Geoffrey Parker and Christopher Storrs covering “the Mediterranean”? I understand they are experts in 17th century Cypriot local militias? It is astounding to see how:

    – Anglo-Saxon authors still have difficulties in mentioning the Spanish Monarchy, concealing it under labels such as “the Mediterranean”, “the Empire”, etc.

    – Spain is always linked with the “Mediterranean” as if it did not have an Atlantic dimension.

    As for the Portuguese, alas, not a single mention despite centuries of loyalty.

    • A sensitive topic, in this supposedly post-nationalist age. From a necessarily Anglo perspective (necessary given me and the likely SMH audience), the point I was making regarding historiography is in fact sympathetic to CP’s concern: “Spain” (Castile, Léon, Catalonia…) and Portugal and “Italy” (Savoy, Piedmont, Genoa, Milano….) are, from the dominant Anglo-American perspective, conflated under the rubric “Mediterranean” if only because so few write about *all of those countries combined* in English – I suppose we could thank Braudel for that. There are indeed military historians of early modern Spain and Italy, but to the extent that they do not write in English or French, their ideas will be limited beyond their own borders. Hence my discussion of national and language silos.
      One could certainly take a more Atlanticist approach, although my perception is that, from a military perspective at least, the pan-Atlantic approach focuses almost exclusively on the French and English North American perspective, rather than Latin America. Personally, I would be interested to see discussion on local 17C Cypriot militias, but I can’t imagine which academic publisher would be willing to publish such a work (at least in English, which is the historical lingua franca these days).
      For one previous post on my Skulking blog where we discuss the challenges applying modern national concepts and boundaries to early modern messiness, and of the need for using historical short-hand that necessarily simplifies the reality, see here.

  3. Here’s how “early modern” works.

    i) You need guys to teach Reformation in upper years, so they handle the Sixteenth Century, and are thus Germanists. They were trained up to teach earnest young folk in Midwestern Bible schools, and they really, really care about theology. Eventually, they wander off to talk about the Sonderweg, hence Hitler, and then they get the money, and then they get the women. Sixteenth Century military history used to be very boring for them, but then Geoffrey Parker invented the Military Revolution, which is just like the Reformation, so they’re gold. Spanish Road, anyone?

    ii) You need guys to teach the Enlightenment in upper years, and so they handle the Eighteenth Century, and are French specialists. They have a signed picture of Peter Gay in their office, and hang out with philosophers. Continental military history in this period has an American connection, so they wander from the bloody fields of Silesia to mid-Atlantic to America, and then skip ahead a century and talk about the Civil War, and then they get the money….

    iii) If you’re really in the hole for an early modernist instructor, you can get the Renaissance guys to push it up a century or two. They’re Italianists, of course, and like literature and stuff. No-one cares about fifteenth century military history, luckily, but one Romance language is pretty much like another, and the Mediterranean is just this big place full of sun-drenched peninsulas, and, like, olive oil and stuff. So as long as they can fake an interest in conquistadores and Columbus, you can throw enough material into the lecture to keep the boys awake. The avenue to large amounts of media attention and money are less clear, but, then, we’re talking about hipster medievalists.

    You’ll notice in this schematic, the seventeenth century doesn’t exist. At all. (Unless you ask your Britishists or your Russianists.) That’s because the Thirty Years War ate it.

    Also not existing are seventeenth century France and eighteenth century Germany. They’re off in the same nether realm as early modern Italy and the post Eighty Years War Netherlands. Fortunately, nothing happened in those countries during those periods. A historian would have mentioned it if it did. Eric Cochrane doesn’t count, and it’s not like anyone ever finished those early Schama books, anyway.

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