Saturday 22 August 2015

Crisis? What Crisis?

My summer reading has encompassed J. H. Elliott’s ‘Spain, Europe and the Wider World’. This is a collection of (fairly) recent essays and, as such, is wide ranging. A fair bit is on the cultural history of the Spanish court, as opposed to say that of England, France or Brussels. In itself that is quite interesting. As Elliott notes somewhere, even when peace came at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the courts did not stop competing. Their diplomats, even as they negotiated treaties of truces were instructed to look out for neat pieces of artwork for their master’s collections. To some extent, high culture was a continuation of the war, but by other means.

I bet no set of wargame campaign rules include the use of art as a weapon. I do not think that even Tony Bath managed that.

Anyway, in one essay Elliott returns to the question of whether there was a general crisis in the world in the 1640’s, or in the seventeenth century generally. There were, he notes, rebellions aplenty in the middle of the century: Scotland, Ireland, England, Portugal, Catalonia, Naples, Upper Austria among others, and those just in the 1640’s. In spite of the normal instability of early modern societies this does seem to be rather a peak of rebellious activity, and, further, some of the revolts were even successful, such as those of Portugal and England.

These crises were set against the background of the ‘little ice age’ where the weather was terrible. For societies which still relied on traditional agriculture, this was a disaster in terms of peasant society being unable to cope with the stress of poor crop yields and higher prices for food. The courts, also, started to distance themselves from the populations. The elaborate masques of Charles I, or the plays of Philip IV bore little relation to the experience of the populations. Major palace building projects and investment in the visual arts, as noted above, did little to endear the monarch to the population either.

Here, then, we have some of the conditions for a rebellion or revolt. A stressed population, hunger, conspicuous consumption by the elite and a lack of understanding between the people and their leaders. Add in a toxic brew of representational bodies believing that their rights, or activities or, in some cases, religion were under threat, and perhaps we can see why some bits of Europe broke out in armed uprising.

Of course, each rebellion was of a different nature. They regions of revolt differed in detail. The Scots had (despite their king becoming James I) lost a fair bit of autonomy and were governed by a council which took orders from London. In Naples there was a fairly similar lack of leadership. If the leading nobles of the place lost trust in the monarch, then revolt was more likely. And, in what Elliott calls the ‘Europe of composite states’, absentee monarch added to the political problems. When you, as a noble, are dependent on royal largess for your continued prestige, financial probity and increased domain both territorially and politically, and that monarch is a long way away, then you are, perhaps, more likely to take a view that the revolting peasants have reasonable grievances and need a bit of leadership from yourself.

The local conditions then vary, and every rebellion is contingent. However, a consistent point of view about these rebellions might be possible. Paul Kennedy’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ introduces the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’. Here, a power (he starts with sixteenth century Spain) has more strategic problems than it has resources to cover. Thus Spain had to face the Turks in the Mediterranean, a chaotic France, and heresy across Europe, the Dutch revolt, war with England and defend her possessions in the Indies (both east and west after taking over Portugal). The overstretch of resources that this implied left the monarchy vulnerable; there simply was not enough money to go around, enough military resource equal to all the tasks.

At a smaller scale, Charles I’s government had a similar problem. It was a composite monarchy of three kingdoms, and two of them were only slightly under control. Of course, the king himself managed quite adequately to upset people in all three kingdoms, but his regime clearly did not have the resources to contain rebellion in any one part of the realm, let alone two or three. Sometimes the wonder of the sixteen-thirties in Britain is how long it took people to get around to revolting.

From a wargamer’s perspective this is all rather useful and interesting. We can consider a wargame, let alone a campaign, as an exercise is resource allocation. We have certain resources – an army – with certain capabilities. We have a set of goals, normally driving the enemy army off the field. We also have an evolving set of threats to our resources and goals, that is, the presence and activity of the opposing army. Within each turn we might have even more limited resources, that is, our ability to order some of our troops to do stuff.

The trick is to work out which are the most important and assign our resources to that item. The complementary approach is to attack our enemy’s resources and overstretch him. If he cannot meet all the threats we pose, then one of those threats should be able to overwhelm him. Thus, while Charles I could, just about, manage in peace time, the moment he needed to raise an army he was broke and needed taxation authorised by Parliament.

From some perspectives, this might sound a bit depressing, or at least culturally conditioned. Kennedy’s main point is that in a war of alliances, the side with the last dollar wins. In  a wargame, the side with the best resource management wins. This starts top sound rather like wargaming by accountancy. Where we might ask, is the heroism, the brilliant manoeuvre, the defining battle of the age? Or is modern wargaming simply a game of resource allocation and accountancy?


  1. It's fascinating stuff. I've been reading a book called 'Crisis in Europe 1559 - 1598', and that reflects the same things. I hadn't realised how crucial the gold and silver from the Americas was to Spain's global strategy. Before that started to come in with some regularity, they were really on the back foot financially. I particularly hadn't realised how the campaigns in the Netherlands were so dependent on the money turning up on time.
    You begin to realise why Don Juan of Austria, a good general but a lousy accountant, died landless.

    1. And, of course, you get those English / Dutch sea dogs raiding your treasure fleets, causing bankruptcy.

      In all my reading of history, my respect for rubbish generals has increased. It was a major achievement to get a force into the field that could actually fight. Everything else was chrome, really.

    2. Aye, before the age of general staffs, the "invention" of logistics and strong central government (taxation etc) it was a big acheivement to keep an army in the field. If you could do that and be the last one in the field you had a good chance of winning. A bit like dour football coaches who "build from the back".

    3. I think it shows why some of these campaign games are misrepresenting history is claiming that monarchs actually knew what resources they had. Most were living way beyond their means, hanging on and hoping for the best, while hiding the reality from themselves, their councils and their creditors.

      I guess that is why the military entrepreneur became so influential (Wallenstein) and also, as government centralised, declined rapidly in importance. But an army in the field is much better than one in the imagination....