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9-08-2015, 15:02

Politics and power, 1450–1600

Ousted from his offi cial position in the early sixteenth century, when a rival faction came to power, the Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) had time to contemplate the politics in which he had been so thoroughly enmeshed. “A prince [by which he meant any ruler], should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline,” he wrote. “When princes think more of luxury than of arms, they lose their state.” 1 Several decades later, the English scholar and historian Polydore Vergil (1470?–1555) agreed with Machiavelli that too great a concern with wealth was destructive for rulers. In his Anglia historia , written about 1540, Vergil described King Henry VII (ruled 1485–1509), the father of the current monarch, in largely glowing terms, as “distinguished, wise and prudent … brave and resolute.” He ended on a sour note, however: “All these virtues were obscured by avarice … [which] is surely a bad enough vice in a private individual, whom it forever torments; in a monarch indeed it may be considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone, and distorts those qualities of trustfulness, justice, and integrity by which the state must be governed.” 2 Machiavelli and Vergil were both extremely perceptive observers of the politics of their era. Political power is always related to the ability to command resources from society, and in the fi fteenth century the increasing cost of warfare favored rulers of large territories who could extract resources effectively and effi ciently. Building on taxation systems and bureaucracies that had been gradually developing over several centuries, astute monarchs in Britain, France, and Spain further consolidated their power, developing tax policies that would support large armies when necessary instead of relying on nobles to supply them. They and their offi cials increased the size and scope of central institutions and government activities, and issued many more statutes and ordinances than monarchs had earlier. Through shrewd marital strategies, they created alliances with noble houses within their own territories and with ruling houses in other countries, which also strengthened their power. They backed explorers and pirates in their quest for riches from beyond the sea, and made use of new theories of rulership, which subsequent monarchs would extend even further. In the sixteenth century, monarchs restricted the independent power of the church, either by removing their territory from allegiance to the pope in the cases of England and Scotland, or by asserting royal power over the church in the cases of France and Spain. These western European monarchs thus created what have since been called “nation-states,” setting a pattern that was later followed by northern and eastern European monarchs as they created nation-states such as Denmark/Norway, Sweden, and Russia. The growth of the nation-state, fi rst in western Europe and then elsewhere, has long been viewed as the key political development of this era. In his study of the Renaissance, the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt celebrated rulers and their offi cials who viewed the state as “a work of art … the outcome of refl ection and calculation,” something to be created, shaped, and expanded, not simply inherited and governed. 3 Like Machiavelli and Vergil, Burckhardt viewed the actions and ideas of rulers as the most important factors in the creation of nation-states, and paid particular attention to the way they handled warfare, fi nances, and alliances. Burckhardt was writing in 1860, the point at which Germany and Italy were being transformed – again by rulers, offi cials, and generals – from divided political entities into nations. It seemed to him, and to many others, that nations were an inevitable fi nal stage in political development. Events of the twentieth century appear to reinforce this idea. Revolts against European colonization in the period after World War II resulted in the establishment of new nations in Asia and Africa. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the late twentieth century resulted in the creation of smaller units, such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Croatia, but these are also understood to be nations. They all send representatives to the United Nations, a body whose title reinforces this conceptualization of world politics. Various ethnic groups around the world today are carrying out bitter military campaigns against their national governments, but their aim is also to establish new independent nations. These historical and contemporary movements have made a world consisting of discrete nations seem almost natural, but they have also led scholars as well as activists and revolutionaries to consider the concept of a “nation” more closely – just what makes a “nation”? What makes it something that people are willing to die (or kill) for, when they would not be willing to die for their city or their favorite sports team or their family business, though they may have strong loyalties to all of these? One of the most infl uential theoreticians on this question has been Benedict Anderson, who defi nes the nation as “an imagined political community.” 4 By “imagined,” Anderson does not mean fake or artifi cial, but intellectually and culturally created or brought into being. His defi nition thus fi ts very well with Burckhardt’s description of the state as a “work of art … the outcome of refl ection and calculation,” and both scholars see the creation of such political entities as beginning in the period covered in this chapter. They focus on very different processes and actors, however. While Burckhardt – and many political historians since – focus on rulers, Anderson investigates the ways that writers and bureaucrats used the new medium of print to transform certain vernacular languages into print languages, as we discussed in chapter 1 . These print languages became a medium both of “national” unifi cation and of drawing distinctions from others, used fi rst in some parts of Europe, then by revolutionaries in the Americas, and then around the world. Printed essays, poetry, music, newspapers, and other works inspired loyalty to nations or to ideas of nations that were not yet political realities, and dying for one’s country came to assume what Anderson terms “moral grandeur.” Though historians have sometimes focused only on one or the other, the creation of nation-states by rulers through warfare and taxes and by writers through songs and symbols was actually closely linked. Effective rulers used both warfare and the new medium of print to build up their power and to begin to transform what had been a dynastic realm into a “nation.” They quickly adopted the new print technology and the newly developing national languages to make sure their new laws and decrees were circulated and understood throughout their territories. They supported writers and artists who linked royal power with national strength and prosperity. They absorbed – through war or marriage or a combination of these – smaller dynastic realms on the edges of their holdings, gradually creating more distinct “national” boundaries, which were reinforced by differences in print languages on either side of these borders. This process was not always successful, however, and did not happen everywhere, as the story of Hungary makes clear. In the middle of the fi fteenth century, under the leadership of John Hunyadi (1387–1456), a Hungarian nobleman of Romanian descent, the Hungarians defeated the Ottoman Turks. Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus (1443– 90) became king of Hungary in 1458. Like the monarchs in western Europe, Matthias Corvinus strengthened royal power, patronized the arts, and developed sound tax policies. Major works were translated into or written in Hungarian, which is in a completely different language family than most European languages. A period of disorder followed Corvinus’s death in 1490, however, and the nobles reasserted their power, which in turn led to a peasants’ revolt. Using a huge army and siege cannon, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, and Hungary was divided into the small principality of Transylvania in the east, dependent on the Ottomans, and western and northern territories ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs. Hungary thus did not become a nation, or even a unifi ed political unit. It was instead divided between two of the strongest powers in Europe – the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburgs – both of which were dynastic realms that never developed into nation-states, but still lasted as political entities until the early twentieth century. Various linguistic and ethnic groups within them – including the Hungarians – dreamed of creating nations, but these remained literally “imagined communities” until the nineteenth or twentieth century. Thus the growth of nation-states is a signifi cant development during this period, but it is important to remember that most Europeans did not live in what we would understand as nations in 1600. In addition, though more Europeans could read and write in 1600 than in 1450, the vast majority could not, so they had little access to the developing national print languages; their sense of belonging to something beyond their village was provided by religion, not language or politics.

 

 

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