Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wars and Medieval Rulership

Mass prosperity was developed first by in North-Western Europe and its offshoot societies in North America and the Antipodes. The first non-European society to also adopt that achievement was Japan. To understand why, we need to look to their similar, yet entirely independent, medieval periods of Latin Christendom and Japan and the institutional developments there from.

Joseph Strayer’s classic essay On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State is a fine read on the medieval roots of the modern. Though it seemed to me that the apparent "mystery" he refers to of greater propertied cooperation with the state in the late C15th and early C16th (pp 91-92) was a result of seeping change in the balance of coercive power. Crossbows and handguns, plus greater royal administrative capacity (so troops could increasingly be centrally paid, trained & equipped), were undermining the value of the knight (i.e. the propertied warrior elite and retainers) as protectors of the realm and enforcers of order and their independent coercive power socially downwards. Similarly, the castle as a base of operation were eclipsed by royal artillery parks. As centrally trained, paid and equipped mass once again dominated warfare, and knightly castles were replaced by royal forts, the propertied classes had less leverage against royal authority and more need to rely on it. Hence they became more tractable. The final mark in the process is the disappearance of the tournament as a great public display – too much danger, too much expense for too little pay-off. And so the medieval becomes the modern.
Yet it is not merely technological change in itself that does it (however important that might be). This is demonstrated by the case of Japan, which never suffered the collapse in trade, literacy and administrative capacity of post-Roman Europe and where the samurai persisted for three centuries after the introduction of gunpowder weapons by the Europeans in the C16th. (The Japanese being the Japanese, they were soon making better arquebuses and using them more effectively than the Europeans.) The extra element Europe had that Japan didn’t was foreign threat. The effort and expense of the institutional and social transformation required to change to mass gunpowder weapons drove European states to the point of bankruptcy and beyond. But if one state didn’t, its neighbour did. Keeping up with the Valois or the Hapsburgs was an expensive business. Within 20 years of Japan being confronted an equivalent level of foreign threat (Commodore Perry and his ‘black ships’ followed by gunboats of the European Powers), samurai society had gone the way of knightly society. The samurai, like the knights, being replaced by tax-paid peasants with guns. And, again, the medieval became the modern.

Which is a way of saying I found Warrior Rule in Japan both a great read in its own right and very revealing about medieval European history, given that it was an independent, non-Christian (and, for that matter, non-Germanic) evolution which nevertheless produced a series of remarkable similarities. They even had their very own C14th schism – the period of Southern and Northern Courts (1336-1392).

It can be hard keeping track technical Japanese terms (the difference between jito and shugo for example) and that Warrior Rule is selections from the Cambridge History of Japan is also a little awkward, since references are made of chapters not included. But reading about the slow unfolding of warrior rule as coercive leverage worked itself out was fascinating. And it improves one's grasp on the complexities of Japanese institutional development (for example, that talking as if the shogunate became 'the government' is far too simple).

Just to list some of the similarities, in no particular order, between medieval Europe (900-1500) and medieval Japan (1100-1860): temperate agriculture; geographic area very accessible by sea but separated by significant geographical barriers, particularly mountain ranges; later marriage; continuous institutional development over long period from at least C8th AD onwards (in particular, never conquered by steppe nomads), warrior elite as "permanent investors" (rather than "temporary share-croppers"), chivalry & bushido (glorification of the moral warrior); heraldry; diversified political structures with high degree of institutional autonomy; the novel; eroticisation of love & death in a literary tradition of tragic love affairs; primogeniture; highly developed legal codes with competing jurisdictions; replacement of servile with free peasantry; extensive wage labour; elected village and guild offices; wealthy & powerful merchant class; property rights, including corporations and extensive market in land; highly developed financial markets: including tradeable shares, bills of exchange, futures contracts.

To study each in the context of the other, and their differences from other societies and civilizations, can be a deeply revealing exercise.

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