Book Summary: “Military Revolution and Political Change” by Brian Downing

Title: Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe
Author: Brian M. Downing
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Downing explores the divergent pathways of European nations and sees their outcomes as caused by either the survival or the elimination of Medieval political traditions.

If you would like to learn more about how institutions evolved in Europe, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Much of modern Western governance started during Medieval Europe: citizenship rights, representative institutions, the rule of law, and a decentralized institutional basis for what could later become checks and balances on central authority.
  • During the Early Modern period monarchs began to replace feudal knights with large professional armies based upon infantry, gunpowder, fortifications and long supply chains.
  • To acquire the money to build these armies, they had to centralize power and destroy Medieval European political traditions.
  • Where they succeeded, as in Spain, Prussia and France, they create powerful centralized governments that destroyed representative institutions.
  • Where they failed, as in England and Netherlands, representative institutions, political rights and the rule of law were preserved. This enabled the peaceful evolution of modern democracies.
  • Where the nobles stopped any development of modernized armies, as in Poland, Livonia and Burgundy, they were conquered by foreign monarchs.

Important Quotes from Book

My focus is on the long-run conditions favoring the rise of democracy and dictatorship.

The import of European medieval institutions for the development of liberal democracy has been largely ignored by almost all modern social scientists.

I shall argue that constitutional arrangements predating modernization and military dangers in the newly forming state system were at least as important as agrarian relations in determining political outcomes in Western Europe. To put the argument in its barest form, medieval European states had numerous institutions, procedures, and arrangements that, if combined with light amounts of domestic mobilization of human and economic resources for war, provided the basis for democracy in ensuing centuries. Conversely, constitutional countries confronted by a dangerous international situation mandating extensive domestic resource mobilization suffered the destruction of constitutionalism and the rise of military-bureaucratic absolutism.

I have defined military-bureaucratic absolutism as a highly bureaucratized and militarized central state that rules without a parliament, either by destroying or circumventing it. Military-bureaucratic absolutism has effectively penetrated and assumed control over most local centers of power, and has taken on the role of managing the economy in order to maintain a large and growing army. Key social classes are subjugated, or, more commonly, placated by offices in the state and army. Military-bureaucratic absolutism is above the law; reason of state has taken precedent over strict observance of the law. Its control over the judiciary is such that political opponents can be prosecuted in the same manner as criminals. Military-bureaucratic absolutism replaced most if not all of the components of medieval constitutionalism and assumed the commanding heights of the country, from which, for centuries to come, it patterned the broad contours of the country’s social, political, and economic history.

More precisely than war or geopolitics, it is a new form of military organization and the means of financing it that are critical. Having benefited from themes in Weber’s works, I believe that military organization has been one of the basic building blocks of all civilizations, quite as important to political development as economic structures.20 Indeed, as shall be argued, military structures have even shaped the fundamental contours of economic ones. Feudal military organization, as begun by the Carolingians in the eighth century, predated and shaped the formation of the medieval state as well as the manorial economy. New forms of military organization began to appear in the sixteenth century, and, as these processes played themselves out, new state structures came into being, and, in some countries, forms of state-directed capitalism emerged.

The crown, though occasionally probing the limits of constitutional propriety, worked within a constitutional framework and was committed to it. But when constitutional institutions could no longer meet the expenses of modern warfare and defense of the realm, kings used the army against the estates and other components of constitutionalism, and transformed the small constitutional state into a large absolutist one, organized to maintain and expand the army. The perspective advanced here is not a narrow technological determinism that argues that military modernization and modern warfare lead simply to a new form of state and social organization.  The key to the rise of military-bureaucratic absolutism is not modernization and warfare themselves, but the mobilization of domestic resources to fund them.

I argue that England was not appreciably different from most of Western Europe in the Middle Ages or at the outset of the early modern period. The ancient freedoms and institutions vaunted by Macaulay and others also flourished in Sweden, France, and even Prussia. It was Western Europe and not just England that differed from the rest of the world.

Three principal conditions in medieval Europe provided a predisposition to democracy: a rough balance between crown and nobility, decentralized military systems, and peasant property rights and reciprocal ties to the landlord. Though one or more of these may have obtained in other parts of the world, the combination of all three, as well as the strength of each, was unique to Western Europe.

The key to a rough balance between crown and nobility lies in the incomplete collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century and of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteenth, followed by the reemergence of imperial or princely authority, then contestation between center and locality.1 From this set of circumstances emerged compromises, power sharing, and a climate of partial trust and partial mistrust, which informed much of medieval constitutionalism before it settled into a stable system of consensual government.

There were several constitutional consequences. Foremost was the rise of representative or parliamentary bodies in which monarch, aristocracy, burghers, and clerics determined basic matters, including fundamental ones of taxation and war—issues to which we shall return throughout this study. Monarchs were, at least initially, eager to convoke assemblies; Macllwain observes that many monarchs believed parliaments would be mechanisms for turning the bothersome estates of the realm into dutiful instruments of royal policy.14 They were very much disappointed.

Second, towns evolved from ecclesiastical, military, and administrative centers into vital commercial centers, whose wealth and expertise did not go unnoticed by feudatories. Towns took advantage of crown-noble antagonisms, played one side against the other, and negotiated crucial freedoms. Burghers gave fixed sums of money (collected by burghers themselves, not royal bailiffs), artisanal weaponry, and administrative specialists to kings or nobles, and received in exchange fundamental rights, freedoms, and immunities, often stipulated in written charters.

A third consequence of the balance of power between crown and nobility comprises the modus vivendi, charters, and legal norms agreed to by both sides, usually the crown and the upper stratum of the aristocracy.

Among the aspects of modern liberal democracy that obtained in late medieval Europe are citizenship rights, representative institutions, the rule of law, and a decentralized institutional basis for what could later become checks and balances on central authority.


Russia, or at least its Muscovite core, lies in Europe, but its political history has little in common with that of the West. Indeed, Russia’s contact with the West was light until Peter the Great’s modernization efforts in the early eighteenth century. Almost none of the sources and components of medieval constitutionalism in the West is to be found. Russia was on an autocratic trajectory from its inception as a minor tributary state of the Mongol Empire.

Whereas the Frankish monarchy was quite weak, and hence had to bestow rights, immunities, and other contractual benefits upon military servitors, Muscovite princes dealt from strength. Having benefited from Mongol tutelage, the state was already sufficiently powerful that coercion could enter its relations with social classes, and there were none of the contractual amenities or reciprocal obligations of Western feudalism. The relationship was not between lord and vassal, but between master and servant.

Muscovite princes and tsars were cautious to prevent the rise of powerful economic elites. As soon as commodities became lucrative, they were declared state monopolies, thereby forcing all sales to the state at fixed prices that enriched state coffers.  Towns, with the short-lived exception of Novgorod, remained either subservient economic centers or administrative military outposts of tsarist officials.


Owing to the regime’s predilection for maintaining stability and avoiding incitement of another baronial war, Tokugawa rulers left most tozama daimyo latitude in governing their lands, and hence they had little interest in (or opportunity for, for that matter) developing representative power in the bakufu. The Tokugawa shogunate was a watchdog state that sought primarily to prevent conspiracy and rebellion, and never tried to build a national system like that found in early modern Europe. The means to that static end was a network of watchful officials and spies, forcing all daimyo, fudai and tozama alike, to reside or leave hostages under the shadow of Chiyoda castle.82 Grisly displays of brute force demonstrated the costs of resistance.


The rise and fall of dynasties in the Middle Kingdom resemble in some ways the numerous shogunates of pre-Meiji Japan. Whereas the shoguns failed to build a strong central apparatus, China had had a strong state at least since the Han period (202 B.C.-A.D. 220). China was periodically conquered by alien armies such as the Mongols and Manchus, or overwhelmed by internal movements, but dynastic change entailed either swift assumption or reconstruction of a strong state. To find a situation analogous to medieval Europe, we must go back to the Chou dynasty (1122 B.C.—771 B.C.), which had over a thousand fiefs with written charters stipulating rights and obligations. But Chou feudalism was without lasting significance; it disintegrated in the eighth century B.C. into a chaos of warring city-states.

In the century after the Mongol defeat, the M’ings articulated their control by building powerful state organs at various levels, controlling administration, the judiciary, the police, and an elaborate system of revenue collection.

Chinese towns were centers of imperial administration or military garrisons: administrative commanding heights from which the mandarinate dominated the surrounding countryside. So crucial were towns to the functioning of the region that, during periods of war, generals attached primacy to vanquishing towns, secure in the knowledge that the environs would necessarily come under their control.109 Imperial control in the towns was overwhelming.

The Military Revolution in Europe:

The era of the armored knight originated with the system of military benefices built by Charles Martel to deal with the Saracen threat. The system was more fully developed throughout Europe by Charlemagne, Otto the Great, and William the Conqueror.  

Medieval warfare was not a national or territorial matter so much as it was the temporary coalescence of individuals trained, for the most part by themselves, in the art of war.

The challenge to the aristocratic social order posed by the urban bourgeoisie was predated, by several centuries, by one posed by impertinent peasants and townsmen who, banded together into disciplined phalanxes of pikemen, proved invulnerable to the charges of heavy cavalry. The superiority of these formations only slowly became apparent to warrior elites blinded by narcissism and defensive of their military-based privileges.

Infantry and the superb tactical use of them were decisive in all but the latter phases of the Hundred Years’ War (1337- 1453). .. These stunning defeats led ultimately to Charles VH’s liquidation of the French feudal military system and adoption of infantry phalanxes and artillery.

Gunpowder delivered a second blow to the feudal military, but not the mortal one often supposed: pike-wielding infantry did that.

Spain, largely unencumbered by constitutional government, was the first to build a modern army for its wars against the Ottomans; Austria, facing Turkish pressure and trying to hold the Empire together, built a large mercenary army; France and Sweden responded in kind to Habsburg armies during the Thirty Years’ War; and Prussia underwent the transformations shortly thereafter. Insular England relied primarily on local militias for a much longer period.

The technology and composition of warfare were changing in three principal ways: the preeminence of firearms, functional specialization, and new forms of fortification.

Rapid growth in size constituted a second fundamental change in armies of the early modern period.

Three main propositions are set forth. First, by virtue of particular institutions and power relations that developed during the medieval period, much of Europe had an appreciable predisposition toward democratic government. Decentralized constitutional political structures in Europe had no counterparts in Muscovite Russia, China, Japan, or anywhere else.

Second, warfare in parts of early modern Europe led to military modernization using domestic resources, and that was at least as important for authoritarian political outcomes as labor-repressive agricultural systems and a weak commercial impulse.

Countries faced with heavy protracted warfare that required substantial domestic resource mobilization suffered the destruction of medieval constitutionalism and the rise of a military-bureaucratic form of government. Second, where war was light, or where war needs could be met without mobilizing drastic proportions of national resources (through foreign resources, alliances, geographic advantages, or commercial wealth), conflict with the constitution was much lighter. Constitutional government endured and provided a basis for the development of democracy. Third, where war was heavy and protracted, where domestic politics prevented military modernization and political centralization, and where the benefits of foreign resources, alliances, geography, or economic superiority were not available, the country lost its sovereignty to strong expansionist states.

In Prussia military modernization required drastic mobilization of its resources, which destroyed the estates, local government, the rule of law, and personal rights. Military-centered absolutism replaced constitutional government.

England, on the other hand, was fairly removed from the heavy warfare raging on the continent.

Poland faced numerous powerful enemies but failed to modernize its army of gentry cavalry hosts. Because of the weakness of the elective monarchy and the political power of the gentry class, military modernization was impossible… Whereas Prussian and French constitutions fell to internal monarchal power, Poland’s succumbed to foreign military-bureaucratic absolutisms.

Sweden and the Netherlands are perhaps the most theoretically informative cases. Although deeply involved in protracted wars, Sweden fought them on foreign soil, and relied on the resources extracted from enemy and neutral countries. Pressures on the constitution were thus slight. Constitutional government in the Dutch Republic was greatly aided in its long wars by alliances with major powers, geographic barriers to invaders, and the enormous wealth brought in by commerce. Merchant oligarchs served as an inexpensive, ersatz state.

I argue that the impetus to democracy in Sweden, as well as in England and the Netherlands, came not from any single social class, but rather from several, and from the institutional momentum of the medieval estates, local governments, personal freedoms, and independent judiciaries—in short, from the momentum of medieval constitutionalism

If you would like to learn more about how institutions evolved in Europe, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s