A political history of medieval and early modern Europe

Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern EuropeBirth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Thomas Ertman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ertman gives a very helpful comparative history of the development of different European states, categorizing them as patrimonial absolutist (mainly France and Spain), bureaucratic constitutionalist (England/Great Britain), bureaucratic absolutist (mainly Prussia), and patrimonial constitutionalist (Poland and Hungary). The absolutist/constitutionalist contrast is well-known, but the patrimonial/bureaucratic contrast adds an interesting twist. In patrimonial systems, officials view positions of power as their own property, while bureaucratic systems place a premium on trained and qualified officials.

It’s understandable that Ertman favors the British system of strong central government with oversight by a Parliament responsible to local communities within the realm. After all, Britain outmatched its competitors in power, stability, and the ability to finance its wars in the early modern period. It was an age of centralizing states that were at war with each other, and so it makes sense to focus on how the states met this challenge. Yet there does seem to be a conceptual bias toward the centralized nation-state, and I wonder how a book that had a different standard for political development might have looked. I also would have liked to see more on Habsburg Austria.

Those are quite small nits to pick considering Ertman’s accomplishment in producing a history of over 1000 years of political development in Western Christendom.

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