FC79: The rise of the nation state during the Renaissance


FC79 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #2944.

Just as the turmoil of the Later Middle Ages had cleared the way for sweeping economic, cultural, and technological changes in Western Europe, it likewise produced significant political changes that led to the emergence of a new type of state in Western Europe: the nation state. It did this along five lines of development, four of them corresponding to various nation-states in Europe and the other having to do with the overall decline of the Church and nobles which helped lead to the revival of towns and middle class allied to the kings.

The later 1400's saw kings in Western Europe picking up the pieces left by the turmoil of the last century in order to build stronger states. However, this process of unification, or in some cases reunification, involved more violence and warfare. In England, the aftermath of the Hundred Years War saw a period of civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) over control of the throne. In the end, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, triumphed and restored order with such new government institutions as the Star Chamber.

France, badly hurt by the Hundred Years War, gradually reunified as the Valois kings regained control of Picardy (1477), Anjou (1481), and Brittany (1491). The greatest challenge to the French kings came from the powerful and aggressive Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Charles controlled both Burgundy and the Low Countries (Flanders and the Netherlands) and threatened to become a major power in his own right until he met disaster at the hands of the Swiss pikemen at the Battle of Nancy (1477). With this potent threat removed and Burgundy also back under French control, a strong unified French state was emerging by 1500 after some 150 years of conflict.

A unified Spain also was born by 1500. The key event here was the marriage in 1469 of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, which united most of Spain under their joint rule. (However, the two states continued to function largely as separate administrative entities for generations to come.) The final piece of the puzzle was put into place when the last of the Spanish Muslim states, Granada, was conquered in 1492. Among other things, this freed the new Spanish state to fund the voyage of a Genoese captain named Christopher Columbus who was looking for new routes to the spices of the East.

Even Germany, fragmented after centuries of feudal strife and the emperors' struggle with the Papacy, saw its fortunes seem to revive with the rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty that controlled the imperial throne at this time. This family, through a number of astute marriage alliances, would come to control Austria, the Low Countries, Hungary, and Spain along with its Italian possessions and American colonies. In fact, as impressive as this empire looked, it worked to Germany's disadvantage since it would trigger a number of wars to crush the Hapsburg "superpower"-- wars that would use Germany as a battleground and ruin it. Therefore, by 1500, nation states were evolving, having their own strengths and problems.

Strengths of the new nation-states consisted of four main pillars of support: money, which in turn enabled kings to pay for professional bureaucracies and mercenary armies, and control of the Church. This mixture of medieval and modern elements underscores the transition of Europe from the medieval to modern era.


The old medieval sources of revenue, such as feudal dues and income from royal lands and monopolies, were totally inadequate for the greater burdens, which the new types of government and army placed on Renaissance kings. Borrowing money against future tax revenues was a dead end that just got kings into deeper trouble, although that was commonly the practice. However, more regular taxes had to be collected. In France, the "extraordinary" taxes the townsmen had granted the crown to drive out the English in the Hundred Years War were collected annually and became a permanent tax, the taille. In Spain, the crown increased sales taxes to boost revenues. In England, the king was unable to get a high permanent tax granted to him by Parliament. He did increase his control over revenues for such things as customs on wool and cloth. Luckily, England was an island and in less need of a large expensive army and bureaucracy than states on the continent. Overall, Renaissance kings by 1500 were still faced with serious financial shortcomings. However, no one else in their realms possessed the resources to effectively challenge them. Along with their bureaucracies and armies, their finances presented a picture of the European state in transition from the medieval to the modern era.


consisted mainly of members of the middle class with the education and experience needed to run the government. Since kings were usually desperate for money, they resorted to selling government offices, a practice known as venality of office. This system had its good and bad points. The main good points were that it provided the king with some much needed cash and officials who showed more efficiency and loyalty to their king than the old feudal nobility had.

The main drawback was that such a system bred corruption, since money, not ability, was often the key to gaining office. Bureaucrats tended to assume their own consciousness as a class, maintaining a common silence to thwart any attempts to weed out corruption. They could often successfully resist or slow down reforms or other policies they did not like. But, for all the problems the new bureaucracy created, it was still more efficient than the old feudal system and gave kings a far greater degree of control over their states.

The new warfare

Renaissance armies told a similar story, being somewhat unruly but still better than their feudal predecessors. The ranks were now filled with mercenaries who fought until the king's money ran out. This gave the king much longer campaigning seasons than the forty days that feudal vassals typically owed. But it could still present some serious, and, at times, embarrassing problems. As soon as the king ran out of money, such armies would often desert or refuse to fight any longer. Also, since they were not usually natives of the state they were fighting for, they often had no qualms about plundering the people they were supposedly defending. Despite these drawbacks, Renaissance armies gave kings in Western Europe much tighter control over their states, largely because they were so expensive that no one but kings could afford to maintain them.

Part of that expense lay in the new type of warfare emerging by 1500. Although heavily armored knights were still prominent, their role was being reduced by two new ways of fighting, one medieval and one modern. One was massed formations of pikemen, reminiscent of the old Greek and Macedonian phalanxes, who formed the core of the Renaissance army. Until the early 1500's, the Swiss were reputedly Europe's best pikemen, and every prince wanted Swiss mercenaries in his army, no matter what the cost. In the 1500's, German pikemen, known as landsknechte, and Spanish pikemen would rival the Swiss in their reputations for ferocity on the battlefield.

The other new and expensive element emerging in the new warfare was gunpowder. Hanging on the flanks of each pike square were men wielding primitive muskets. Such guns were heavy, hard to load, and even harder to aim accurately. They also presented the danger of blowing up in their users' faces. Still, they could be very deadly when fired in massed volleys, having a range of up to 100 meters. Gradual but constant improvements, such as the matchlock that freed both hands for aiming, made them increasingly effective throughout the 1400's and 1500's. As a result, the number of musketeers, and their cost, gradually climbed throughout this period. The combination of guns' firepower with the solid pike formations proved to be the most potent military innovation of the Renaissance. It ruled Europe's battlefields until the later 1600's when better muskets and the bayonet phased out the pikeman for good.

Artillery was another important, but expensive, element in the Renaissance prince's army. Smaller and more mobile cannons were made for use in pitched battles as well as sieges. There was no standardization in the Renaissance artillery corps, each cannon being made by an independent contractor. The French, with Europe's best artillery, had 17 separate gauges of artillery requiring 17 different sizes of shot. The Hapsburg emperor, Charles V, had 50 different gauges. Obviously, this could create untold confusion in the heat of battle.

The advent of artillery made the tall thin walls of medieval castles obsolete, since they were so easily breached by cannons' firepower. However, this did not make fortifications obsolete. By the early 1500's, a new style of fortifications, the trace Italienne, was coming into use and slowing down, if not stopping artillery. These new fortifications were much thicker and more elaborate than their medieval predecessors, having multiple sets of walls, moats, and bastions set at different angles to one another to provide flanking fire from various directions against any enemy assaults. As with muskets and artillery, these new forts were so expensive that only kings could afford them or, more properly, afford to go into debt to bankers to buy them. And, by the same token, this increased the kings' power and put any rebellious nobles more at the kings' mercy.

This new type of warfare and army showed the beginnings of some aspects we associate with modern warfare. For one thing, it was expensive because of the size of its armies and the new technology. It was also very destructive to the inhabitants who were unlucky enough to be in the path of these plundering mercenaries and their hordes of camp followers. The seventeenth century general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, once said he could better support an army of 50,00 than one of 20,000 since it could more effectively plunder the countryside. This says a lot about supplying such armies and its effect on military strategy: fight in the enemy's territory and make him pay for the war. Finally, the new warfare was much bloodier than the medieval warfare that preceded it. We find nobles complaining because any low born peasant with a small amount of training and a gun could blow them out of the saddle. Even more significantly, the humanists condemned warfare for its bloodiness, no matter to what class. Throughout the modern era, that outcry has slowly gained force with the growing destructiveness of warfare.

The Church

was still the largest single landholder in Western Europe, making it mandatory for kings to control this vital source of revenue and propaganda. Luckily for the kings, the Church's power and prestige were seriously weakened by the popular discontent and corruption that climaxed with the Great Schism. In France, kings had gained the loyalty of the local clergy against the Italian higher clergy appointed by the popes and won their struggle to rule the French clergy in the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges in 1438. This recognized the king's claim to the Gallican Liberties, transferring the direct loyalty of the French clergy from the pope to their king.

Elsewhere, the story was similar. In England, during the Avignon Papacy of the 1300's, kings had limited the right of foreign clergy to visit England and also restricted English clergy in their right to appeal to foreign (i.e., papal) courts. In Spain, the crown came to dominate the Church and, with it, the Inquisition. In all these countries, levying Church taxes was subject to the approval of the kings, who often made a deal to get a percentage of the taxes for themselves.

In addition to the structure of the emerging nation-state, peoples' attitudes toward that state were also in transition from a very personal feudal outlook to a broader concept of a nation. There was a growing awareness among various peoples that there were factors, such as language and culture, making them unique as nations. But the form of nationalism we are familiar with was still several centuries away. During this transitional period, the loyalties of people focused largely on the person of a king rather than on the nation's people as a whole.

Limits to the Renaissance state's power

We should keep in mind that, while the Renaissance state was a vast improvement over the feudal anarchy of the Middle Ages, it was still rudimentary and highly inefficient when compared to the modern state. There were three main limitations to state building at this time.

First of all, the decentralized chaos of the Dark Ages had given rise to a multitude of local institutions and customs, rights, and inherited titles and offices. France alone had some 300 local legal systems dating back to a time when there was essentially no central government, while there were 700 in the Netherlands. The force of tradition with centuries of history to back it up made it well nigh impossible for kings to do away with these offices, customs, and privileges. A good example of this were the parlements, local French courts which could modify the king's laws, delay enforcing them, or even refuse to enforce them if they thought those laws interfered with long established local customs and traditions. As a result, kings were forced either to work around the old offices by creating new parallel offices that would very gradually take over their functions, or incorporate the old offices into the new state apparatus. What this meant was that any regularization of government institutions and practices on a national scale was still centuries away.

A second problem was the continued existence and aspirations of the nobles. While we have seen them suffering from a prolonged decline since the High Middle Ages, they remained somewhat resilient as a class. One big reason for this was that they were still seen as the class to belong to, and many middle class merchants and bankers were eager to buy noble titles and lands so they could carry on like the nobles of old. A prime example of this was the Fuggers of Augsburg, Germany, the richest banking family in Europe, who bought noble titles and lands and passed into idle noble obscurity. Aiding this process were the kings who were always in need of cash and willing to sell noble titles and offices to anyone with the money. As a result, fresh blood kept infusing the nobility with new life. Unfortunately, these nobles, of whatever origin, could still be quite troublesome and lead revolts against their rulers, as happened in the Netherlands (1566), England (1569), and France (1582).

A third problem was the kings' inability or unwillingness to stay out of debt and pay their armies and bureaucrats. This encouraged corruption in the government and plundering and desertion by the mercenaries, which further reduced the kings' revenues and ability to pay their bills, leading to more loans at high rates of interest, and so on. Finally, although kings could control their national churches, they could not control the medieval mentality still linking politics and religion and causing disastrous wars over religious issues. This especially became a problem after 1560 in the repeated religious wars between Protestants and Catholics.

The "New Diplomacy"

Despite these problems, a new and more dynamic type of nation state was emerging by 1500. And once kings had affairs within their own borders reasonably under control, they started extending their involvement in diplomacy outside of their states. By 1500, we see Western Europe starting to function as an integrated political system, whereby one state's acts affected all the other states and triggered appropriate reactions. This new interdependence and sensitivity to other states' plans and actions sparked the beginnings of modern diplomacy. Two factors aided this process of outward expansion, and, once again, they were a mixture of medieval and modern forces.

Among the older methods still used to consolidate and improve a prince's position, the most notable was the marriage alliance. Rulers still thought of their states as their property. That property could be passed on to their sons, and it could be added to by marrying into another ruling family and assuming all or part of that family's property (i.e., state) as part of the deal. A number of such marriages took place in this period. Henry VII of England married Elizabeth of York, the heiress of his chief rival to the throne, a union that gave him undisputed claim to the crown. Charles VIII of France married Anne of Brittany and tied that region much more closely to the French king's interests.

Certainly the most spectacular example of dynastic empire building through marriage was the Hapsburg Empire, which controlled most of Western Europe in the first half of the 1500's. In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, thus uniting Spain under one house, although the two governments functioned separately for some time. Meanwhile, the Hapsburg emperor, Maximillian, had wed Mary, duchess of Burgundy, and added Burgundy and the Low Countries (Flanders and Holland) to his family lands in Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, their son, Philip, married Ferdinand and Isabella's daughter, Joanna, to seal an alliance in reaction against the French invasion of Italy in 1494. The product of that union, Charles V (Charles I of Spain), inherited most of Western Europe: Germany, Austria, the Low Countries, most of Italy, and Spain with its American holdings. As the contemporary saying put it: "Others make war, but you, happy Austria, make marriages."

Marriage alliances alone were not enough to keep one diplomatically safe. For one thing, they created nearly as many problems as they solved. Since the network of marriage alliances was so extensive and interlocking there were almost always numerous claimants for vacant thrones whenever a ruler died childless. Such a situation often triggered wars, despite the original intention of the marriage alliance to stop such wars. Second, the Renaissance, with its increased political interdependence between states, created shifting alliances to maintain or improve their positions. This required a ruler to keep a much closer eye on what other states were doing so that they could not surprise him by switching alliances or suddenly declaring war. This led to permanent resident ambassadors, forerunners or our own modern diplomats.

Like so many other innovations, the idea of keeping permanent ambassadors at other rulers' courts originated in Italy. Previously, negotiations between states involved sending special ambassadors only for special occasions, such as a treaty of alliance or celebrating a dynastic marriage. By 1450, a delicate balance of power had evolved in Italy between its five main states: Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papal States, and Naples. The weakest of these states, Florence, felt nervous about its more powerful neighbors and wanted to maintain the balance of power to keep any one of them from threatening its own security. Therefore, it started maintaining permanent resident ambassadors at the other states' courts.

During the Renaissance, these officials were mainly of lower noble and middle class origin. They were expected to maintain themselves in the high style of their home court while being engaged in information gathering, which amounted to little more than spying. They had to send weekly letters home, often in code, repeating all pertinent facts, rumors, conversations, and character descriptions they could come up with. All this was done at their own expense, which many of them could not afford. We have letters from such men, pleading with their home governments not to force them to serve. Usually such pleas were to no avail.

There was no diplomatic immunity then, and the resident ambassadors suffered accordingly. Foreign courts saw them as spies and treated them as such, subjecting them to hostile treatment, insults, surveillance, imprisonment, and even torture. To add insult to injury, the home government often did not believe the letters these men sent home and kept spies at the court to watch their own diplomats. When important negotiations were to take place, the home government still appointed special ambassadors of high noble status to do the job.

In 1494, the French king Charles VIII invaded Italy. This prompted the intervention and fateful marriage alliance of Spain and the Holy Roman emperor, Maximillian, mentioned above. It also touched off a series of wars that devastated Italy and ended its leadership in European affairs. All these wars and shifting alliances caused the great rulers of Europe to start maintaining permanent ambassadors at each other’s courts. Over the years, as resident ambassadors became a permanent fixture of diplomacy in Europe and the world, their status and treatment would improve. Florence's policy of maintaining a stable balance of power would also spread northward and become a cornerstone of European diplomacy in the centuries to come.