I couldn’t miss this new book on early modern wars. Author’s backlog was respectable enough to make me first-day-buyer (I heartily recommend his April’s Blood book about plot against Medicis). I have already finished it by now and here is a brief note (I do not consider myself competent enough for a detailed review).
The book is interesting and well written. The author had put some real emotions into the text, but kept it moderate, so the book is far from dry but is not too irksome in pushing of moral appraisals. However, I am subjective here, because I share most of author’s thought on state, war and their effect on society.
That is not a truly new research, because most of the book is based on modern historical monographs and articles and most firsthand accounts are well-known to the connoiseur of early modern warfare. Nevertheless, a rare perspective in assessing the information gives a lot of novelty to the book in proper elucidation of the chosen theme. The book is dedicated to taking “war and society” approach to the exteme. You won’t find here anything about generals, weapons, tactics or battles. All that is left is the grizzly grizzliness of war: plunder, plague, mortality rate, hunger, sieges, sack, violence, fate of civilians and poor soldiers. As such, it is a wonderful overview, especially for those who still have illusions about Europe’s past and European mentality. Certain European brutalities of warfare are unique and thus really shocking to look at from Russian experience.
The essence of the book may be captured in the following quotes:
The monstrosities of the early modern state were most visible in Europe’s great powers. They put huge armies into the field, as we have seen, but could not afford to keep them there, save by means of theft and violence against their own people, not to speak of what their armies did to other peoples. They tended to treat their ordinary soldiers like the scum of the earth, broke every contract with them, and yet demanded their loyalty or were ready to see them flogged, mutilated, branded, shipped out as galley slaves, or hanged when they deserted. […] When their armies went unpaid or hungry, the plunder and ravaging of rural communities was also a norm for the great powers. And they often proved to be largely worthless in their efforts to handle the mortal questions of wartime logistics.
IF PRINCES EXPOSED THE LIMITS of their authority by turning to the necessary assemblies or diets for more taxes, as warlords they were able to assert themselves more menacingly. For even with their limited means, they managed to provoke or start wars, then faced their people with the fait accompli. Once a war started or an invasion threatened, the all too convenient “facts on the ground” argument tended to constrain assemblies into voting for more revenue. Again and again in the Italian Wars, in the French Wars of Religion, in the Netherlands, in the Thirty Years War, and in the Northern Wars around the Baltic Sea, princes sent armies into the field, knowing perfectly well that they, the rulers, would quickly run out of what it took to keep them there: cash and credit. […] The inevitable came next: Their soldiers ended by finding the wherewithal for war in the houses of enemy civilians, by scraping it from the backs of their own peasantry and modest townsfolk, or, in dire circumstances, by taking it from the pockets of their elites.