a distinct caste . . . ’10 Poland and the Netherlands were not the only exceptions to absolutist rule in Europe - there was also Venice, where an archaic constitution ensured the rule of a handful of noble families. And there was the salient exception of England, which had left its absolutist era behind with the end of the Stuart dynasty and had established the sovereignty of Parliament through the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But these were exceptions! which simply highlighted the motley impression of the overall picture without changing its basic character. By and large, as far as Europe was concerned, a predominantly secular state, freed from the tutelage of the church and wielding sovereign power, had emerged from the feudal system of the middle ages and the Renaissance. In the civil and religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the struggle for supremacy in the state, and hence the issue of sovereignty had been decided. State and ruler - at least in theory - had become one and the same. To quote a celebrated definition of the state by Max Weber, the sovereign commanded ‘the monopoly of legitimate physical force’.11 In other words, under the absolutist system the state had put an end to civil war by assuming control over the lives of its subjects. Only the state had the right to demand of its subjects that they should, in the event pf war, be prepared to die, or to kill other individuals from another state. This power included the right to take life-or-death¡decisions in the form of penal sentences or pardon. All other; features of the absolutist state derive from these facts: the sf|Vfereign’js public display of his own person, the celebration jlfi'his god-like power over life and death and his power to pardon, his patronage in matters
of religion and in the church, the subjugation of rival power groups, particularly the church and the - generally aristocratic - estates, the creation of a hierarchically organized bureaucracy performing its function impartially and dealing institutionally rather than personally with the population, and the establish- ment of a standing army. This would be in theory the perfect absolutist state, but the European states were never more than an approximation to this ideal. In reality the area beyond the direct control of the state during the era of absolutism was as a rule considerably greater than in our own time. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the state was defined in the last analysis by its monopoly of the use of force both within and beyond its frontiers. War was the ultima ratio régis , as might be read on the Prussian cannon, i.e. the final, but still legitimate instrument of royal foreign policy. The threshold of this ultima ratio was in fact relatively low; the main reasons for going to war included the claim of one state on the territory of another, but another-reason might simply be the weakness of a particular state that tempted neighbouring states to adjust frontiers - and there was also a monarch’s ambitious desire for military triumph. The community of European states found
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- Spring '19
- Sovereignty, Absolute monarchy, Monarchy