Soldiers in Western Europe, c. 1500–1790

TitleSoldiers in Western Europe, c. 1500–1790
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsTallett, Frank
EditorZürcher, Erik-Jan
Book TitleFighting for a Living: A Comparative History of Military Labour, 1500–2000
PublisherAmsterdam University Press

Particularly after the second half of the seventeenth century, when armed forces grew exponentially, armies typically ranked as the largest single employers within states. Thus, soldiers constituted the most numerous unified labour force within Europe. A consideration of troops within the framework of labour history is accordingly both appropriate and also long overdue, especially since in certain circumstances soldiers acted very much like modern workers. However, generalizations about soldier-labour in Europe during the early modern period – taken here to encompass those decades falling roughly between 1500 and 1790 – have to be advanced cautiously and hedged around with caveats. This is for three principal reasons. First, there was considerable variety of practice both within and between polities with regard to the employment of soldiers, which makes generalization hazardous. Secondly, the period was characterized by considerable changes of practice. This chapter will seek to do justice to these changes in the space available without misrepresenting the reality of complex and uneven developments. Thirdly, precisely because the exploration of soldier-labour is so important and almost unprecedented, the effort must be undertaken with care so as to avoid distorting categories and conclusions by imprudently constructing generalizations about military labour from the study of the civilian workforce or by too freely imposing concepts generated by modern labour studies onto an earlier era. As military institutions and practices are incorporated within a broader labour history, it is important to respect the integrity of the military past. These points need to be borne in mind not least of all with regard to the many and varied forms of recruitment that were to be found in the early modern period.

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