Workshop report: the European Fiscal-Military System Advisory Board

On Wednesday 17 March 2021, the European Fiscal-Military System project held its second annual meeting with the members of its Advisory Board. The inaugural meeting in March 2020 had taken place at All Souls College on a sunny Oxford Monday at the end of Hilary term, mere days before the United Kingdom entered the first of three sustained lockdowns: it was the last time we as a team had seen each other in the flesh. That first meeting was a valuable opportunity for us to discuss our nascent research plans for our case-studies – and the direction and aims of the project as a whole – with a public audience and with two of the Board: Svante Norrhem and Guy Rowlands, who both joined by video link as we sat around a table in the Wharton Room. A year later, our familiarity with digital meetings meant that it was perfectly natural that such an event was held via Zoom, and this in turn allowed us to attract an even larger audience of interested academics to participate in the morning session, open to members of the public.

We received a wide range of important and interesting questions, with a number of participants asking us to expand upon how the fiscal-military system actually functioned in practice. We reflected upon the actors involved – merchants, diplomats, entrepreneurs, bankers, statesmen, and indeed the common soldier and his wider networks of kinship. We also acknowledged that we are dealing with different forms of asset – manpower, financial expertise, technological knowhow (such as the manufacture of guns at Brescia or Liège). In turn we need to consider who the customers for such assets were, and the conditions which stimulated their needs, as well as the connections and networks they employed to secure adequate finance, weaponry, recruits, horses, and so forth. Our project does not necessarily intend to intervene directly in the long-running debate over Europe’s military revolution – or military evolution – but we are fully conscious that the changing character of war from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries is an aspect that we must acknowledge and engage with, to show how warfare became more continuous and therefore produced more customers and clients in an increasingly sophisticated and well-ordered system. The methodology we have chosen to employ – the investigation of this system through the prism of a number of hub cities – provoked questions on how we are engaging with scholarship on city-centred economies, and we are indeed aware that the business of war did not always represent the principal sector of any hub’s economy! The regional nature of some of the hubs – such as Genoa serving as a hub for warfare in northern Italy, or Amsterdam and Antwerp for campaigning in the Netherlands – cannot be ignored either. And the inevitable question as to when we can see the system come fully into existence – and indeed, when it began to peter out – is one that we are continuing to grapple with.

The afternoon session featured deeper discussion of some of the questions above, and presentations from each member of the Advisory Board on their own research: Marjoelin t’Hart discussed her work on merchant networks and smuggling in the late 18th-century Dutch Republic; while Svante Norrhem’s current project on servants in aristocratic households has important implications for Europe’s knowledge economy. Guy Rowlands is currently writing a monograph on the French artillery in the 17th and 18th centuries which asks crucial questions about the importance of corruption and venality, and the extent of private enterprise in the French military-industrial complex. Chris Storrs is continuing to produce fascinating research on the House of Savoy’s diplomatic and military presence in northern Italy and in Europe more generally. And Patrick O’Brien – whose long record of excellent scholarship on Britain’s fiscal maturity speaks for itself – was eager to question each of us on how we felt our hubs change the way in which warfare was organised.

Our discussions – and cordial arguments! – led us to agree that there are certain aspects of our joint research that deserve more attention, namely the nature of war as business; the significance of networks of finance, knowledge, and information; and the social and cultural impacts of war in the early modern period. To that end, we are planning a number of further events and seminars, and continuing to plan archival research under the shadow of the pandemic. These past fifteen months have been a stern test of our collective resilience as researchers, but we are eager to press on with presenting our findings and ideas! We have a regular blog series which can be accessed on the project’s homepage: and please do follow us on Twitter: @FiscalMilitary