Neil Faulkner looks at how the transition from feudalism to capitalism introduced a new model of unified states, centralised government, royal armies, internal repression and national-dynastic wars.

The Battle of Pavia (1525) - a clash of rival 'new monarchs'

The wave of revolt against Europe’s feudal order in the late 14th and early 15th centuries ended in defeat.

The rising social forces – minor gentry and rich peasants producing for the market, small traders and artisans in the towns, the entrepreneurs of new industries, the seafarers, boatmen, and dockers – were not yet strong enough to break through. When the masses revolted against hunger and impoverishment, there was as yet no class sufficiently numerous, organised, and clear-sighted to provide revolutionary leadership.

But the old world could not be restored. Early feudalism had been based on military service by knights and labour service by peasants. Late feudalism was based on money and the market. Kings hired professional mercenaries as soldiers, and peasants paid rents and feudal dues in cash.

‘Market feudalism’ – as it has been called – created demand for urban crafts, industrial enterprise, long-distance trade, and money-lenders. This in turn created demand for the agricultural output of market-oriented farmers.

Money became the measure of everything. All goods and services were commodified. Social relations were recast in the form of commercial contracts. Gold-lust dissolved the personal retinues of the feudal order.

The old ideas inherited from the past could not explain the new social realities. The ancient dogmas of the Church, encrypted in the Latin of scholars and monks, seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Through enterprise and invention, through skill and hard work, through their own solid efforts, people were remaking the world. The ‘humanist’ movement expressed a new confidence in humanity’s capacity for improvement. A ‘Renaissance’ in scholarship and the arts developed in the hot-house atmosphere of booming 15th and 16th century towns.

To the pedantic scholasticism of medieval theologians was counter-posed the learning of the ancients embodied in Greek and Latin texts. To the predictability of traditional religious images was counter-posed an innovative naturalistic art filled with energetic figures bursting with vitality and creativity.

The Renaissance was epitomised by three great Italian masters – the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564), and the painter Raphael (1483-1520).

Feuding barons become scheming courtiers under the absolutist monarchs of the 16th centuryBut the Renaissance affected the whole of Europe. The acknowledged leader of the humanists was the Dutchman Erasmus (1466-1536), the greatest novel of the period was written by the Frenchman François Rabelais (1494-1553), and the scientist who worked out, contrary to the doctrines of the Church, that the planets revolved around the Sun was the Pole Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).

The Renaissance was all-encompassing. It provided the cultural language of an entire epoch. Both Protestant revolution and Catholic reaction would clothe themselves in Renaissance trappings during the ideological turmoil of the later 16th century.

Above all, the Renaissance became the style of the new monarchies forged in its midst.

In 1491, the King of France married the heiress of the Dukedom of Brittany and thereby completed the unification of the country. His successors, in particular Francis I (1515-1547), then built a strong, centralised, absolute monarchy.

Nobles were forbidden to possess cannon or raise troops. The Paris Parlement ceased to be a deliberative assembly and became simply a court of law. The Concordat of 1516 subordinated the Church to the Crown. The royal state employed 12,000 officials to carry out its orders. Both secular and clerical aristocracy became courtiers dependent on royal favour.

In 1489, the marriage of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon prepared the way for the unification of Spain. Here, too, a royal absolutism was constructed. Nobles and towns lost power to royal agents, and the Cortes was restricted to mere statement of grievances.

The Holy Inquisition was raised into a ruthless instrument of state terror. ‘Heretics’ were fined, imprisoned, flogged, tortured, strangled, and burnt alive. In time, with the unification of Germany and Spain under Charles V (1519-1556), and in face of the challenge of the Protestant Reformation, the Inquisition became a pan-European system of repression.

Henry VIII - an advanced absolutism based on 'middle class' supportIn England, the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) proved to be the last civil war of the feudal period. The Tudor monarchs who ruled from 1485 turned barons into courtiers, nationalised Church property, ruled in alliance with Parliament, and laid the foundations of English naval power.

Mass national consciousness developed under the Tudors. People increasingly thought of themselves as ‘English’ rather than as members of either a county community or a feudal retinue. Shakespeare’s plays often echo the new mood. Henry V and his soldiers were ‘a band of brothers’ made equals by patriotic blood-sacrifice.

Military competition between the new monarchs gave urgency to the nascent nationalism of their respective states. Between 1494 and 1559, Europe was convulsed by conflict between the Valois, who ruled France, and the Habsburgs, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire (Germany and Central Europe) and Spain. Northern Italy was the principal battleground.

These were wars between mass armies of cannon, cavalry, musketeers, and pikemen that only large states could afford. Regional magnates and small states succumbed. Backward states had to adapt to survive under the imperative of military competition.

van the Terrible - a backward absolutism based on terrorThe more backward the economy, the more brutal the absolutism. The Muscovite Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) employed foreign mercenaries to build his empire and crush internal opposition from the traditional boyar aristocracy. The backwardness of the Russian economy meant that the absolutist state had no real base of social support. Civil society was simply cowed from above by sadistic terror.

The new monarchies spanned a period of transition. Feudalism was fast decaying, but the emergent bourgeoisie of market-oriented farmers, merchants, and industrialists was not yet strong enough to take power and remodel society in its own image. Neither one thing nor the other, early 16th century society was fluid and unstable.

State absolutism was the result. With the support of the rising middle, the state was powerful enough to suppress feudal anarchy. But having transformed over-mighty subjects into compliant courtiers, it resisted the more radical demands of parliamentary assemblies and popular rebels.

The new monarchies balanced between weakened and increasingly dependent feudalism and embryonic capitalism.

That is why the Italian Wars (1494-1559) were multi-faceted, with feudal, dynastic, national, and, latterly, politico-religious dimensions. They were the wars of a period of transition.

And, through the dynamic of competition, the new model – unified states, centralised government, royal armies, the crushing of internal dissent, the waging of national-dynastic wars – imposed itself, in one form or another, on the whole of Europe.

Nor was the impact of the new monarchies confined to Europe. The economic forces erupting inside the continent were, at the same time, spilling across the world in a wave of colonial violence. This will be our next subject.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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