Objectives, research questions and context

The main objectives of this project are:

  1. To identify and investigate the activities of the ‘shadow agents’ of war during the period c.1400 to c.1600.
  2. To assess how an understanding of the ‘shadow agents’ of war contributes to the historiography of war by bringing to light individuals, groups, and sources previously marginalised or ignored by military history.
  3. To assess how a new understanding of war, based on the investigation of the shadow agents of war, contributes to the historiography of the Renaissance.
  4. To explore how the shadow agents of war contribute to an understanding of the potential intersections of military, labour, gender, cultural, and animal histories.
  5. To exploit the impact opportunities arising from the rich collections of war-related images and objects in institutional collections to create a greater public understanding of how shadow agents form an important part in warfare in all periods of history.

Research Questions:

The shadow agents of war are those men, women, children and animals who sustain war by means of their preparatory, auxiliary, infrastructural, or supplementary labour. These shadow agents work in the zone between visibility and invisibility, existing in the shadows of history. Our project proposes a history of these obscured people: women and children in combat, in defence of home and hearth, or acting as foragers; heralds, surveyors, bureaucrats, and envoys who undertook key organizational roles; ancillary service workers such as surgeons, armourers, merchants and arms dealers; and traditionally marginalised groups such as bandits, guerrillas, refugees, and animals. This history will not only rescue such figures from posterity’s condescension but will also contribute to studies of the complex relationship between society and war, between civil and military spheres, and to the history of the Renaissance, and the history of war more broadly.

By highlighting the work of those who crossed between civil and military areas of life our project will complicate models of the relationship between the soldiers and civilians which have underpinned master narratives of the rise of the nation-state, the militarisation of society and the exercise of ‘total’ war. Broadly speaking, how do the histories of para- or non-state actors challenge the primary role assigned to formal state institutions in the exercise of violence? To what extent did the shadow agents of war affect or respond to military institutions and any broader militarisation of society? How was the boundary between soldier and civilian constructed or complicated by these shadow agents and how might this shed light on the exercise of ‘total’ war in the Renaissance?

Our project will focus on shadow agents during the Renaissance (c.1400-c.1600) because that time has usually, and not coincidentally, been assigned a fundamental role in both military history and in the history of state formation. Just as soldiers brought their ‘social baggage’ with them into war, so a close examination of the shadow agents of war will throw considerable new light on the social and cultural history of the Renaissance (Wilson, 2008: 31), as well as on its economic organisation.

The project has been organised into two distinct, overlapping, research themes. The first theme focuses on labour in recognition of the fact that war demands so much work.  The war machine was driven by the labour of animal bodies and certain people were employed only for their bodies: builders, sappers, and sex workers. Others laboured with high levels of expertise – in Renaissance Italy these included men and women with expertise in heraldry, animal handling, mathematics, technology, finance, and medicine. Our focus on labour will reconsider the historical intersections of war-as-work: how war provoked makers and knowledge-crafters to produce practical and mental or cultural tools that could be used in violent conflict.

The second, closely related theme is experience. The reconstruction of the experiences of war is especially fraught with difficulty given the inherent problems of contemporaneous or accurate record-keeping at a time of social disruption and individual existential threat. Moreover, the impact of violence or of active involvement of war on individual memory and history writing can be severe. Our project aims to contribute to the process of reconstructing the experience of war by searching out and examining materials in archives and libraries written by shadow agents which have previously been overlooked or ignored. There is a great deal of material in the rich collections of Europe which have escaped the eye of the traditional military historian and these voices call out for some accounting and for further research.

Research Context:

A study of the shadow agents of war during the Renaissance (c. 1400-c.1550) is of fundamental importance to European social, political, economic, and cultural history since it can contribute to research in five major interlinked fields of research: 1. The ‘military revolution’; 2. The rise of the fiscal-military state; 3. Civil-military relations; 4. The intersection of labour, gender and the state; and 5. The history of animals in warfare.

In the first place it has been argued that between c.1450-c.1750 Europe underwent a politico-military transformation, usually called the ‘military revolution’, by which the nation-state increasingly monopolized legitimate violence by means of unprecedentedly large standing armies governed by centralized authorities and administered with complex military institutions, technologies and practices (Tilly, 1992; Rogers, 1995; Ertman 1997). This process also entailed a ‘civilising process’ (Elias, 1994) by which the state codified and suppressed socially unacceptable forms of violence and promoted a militarised ‘social discipline’ on society (Oestreich, 1982). This process culminated in the exercise of ‘total war’ in the modern (post-1750) period characterised by mass mobilisation and the development of a ‘home front’ largely directed towards military success (Wilson, 2008).

One key element in this transformation was ‘militarism’, which in its narrow sense encompasses the values and ideals of the military, but more broadly underpins a ‘militarised’ society or state in terms of the recruitment, quartering of troops, taxation, organisation of supplies and labour, and creation of fortress cities which are deemed necessary to prepare for war (Regan, 1994). The dynamic relationship between civil and military spheres has been variously presented in terms of a Clausewitzian trinitarian model of the balanced interaction of people, army, and government; a Weberian model of the state monopoly of legitimate violence; and, more recently, a rapprochement between soldiers and society involving a fusion of military and civil spheres, sometimes involving the expansion of the ‘war zone’ and ‘total war’, or a complementary demarcation of priorities and responsibilities (Cornish, 2012; Wilson, 2012).

As a consequence, the notion that the military formed a ‘total’ institution separate from society (Goffman, 1961) has been superseded by historical studies which show how closely soldiers, even as they were theoretically sequestered in barracks, were entangled with wider society (Loriga, 2007). A considerable body of work has addressed this entanglement, largely in terms of the impact of armies on wider society (Best, 1982; Childs, 1982; Tallett, 1992; Keegan, 1994; Grimsley and Rogers, 2002; Charters, Rosenhaft and Smith, 2012). However, some work has also involved the exploration of the shadowy boundary between soldiers and civilians and some reconceptualisation or expansion of traditional categories. For example, the ‘military community’ (sometimes called ‘camp followers’) has been firmly expanded to include women and children (Lynn, 2008), while a study of military enterprisers has suggested a revision of the model of the fiscal-military state in which the monopoly of legitimate violence is exercised through direct control of the state’s agents (Parrott, 2012).

The ‘militarisation’ of early modern society or the production of a ‘military culture’ (Wilson, 2008) in this way involved the marshalling of a considerable array of resources, including the development of technology and the use of military enterprisers, but also bureaucracy and other technologies of power. Some historians have argued that the development of such complex organisations and the effective use of resources for the sake of war involved close co-operation with civilians, especially elites, in innovative ways (Glete, 2001), while others have underlined the difficulties which non-elite communities could experience to meet their military obligations (Ongaro, 2017). Historians have brought the military and social together to a pronounced degree with respect to weaponry, emphasising that instruments of war might have been adopted or resisted according to the play of social and political priorities as much as with respect to the claims for greater technological efficacy (Ellis, 1986). A full understanding of the technological innovation of the ‘military revolution’, or indeed of military development in any period, requires a careful assessment of these social and cultural conditions. In the early modern period the spread of knowledge, notably the quantification of space and time, was as important to such innovation as financial capital or mobile labour (Black, 2002).

Historians of the French Wars of Religion (1562-1629), the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), and the Thirty Years War (1618-48) have led the way in examining the relationship between military and civil spheres most productively, notably with respect to the role of women (Neuschel, 1997; Finley-Croswhite, 1997; Sandberg, 2004; Wilson, 2005), but also to guerrillas and pioneers (Wilson, 2009), and to bureaucrats and other administrators (Glete, 2001). By contrast, while military historians have identified Italy as a crucible for the development or testing of important new military technology, including artillery and the defensive bastion or trace italienne (Hale, 1985), and also as the testing ground for state development in which military power and the exercise of war were critical (Chittolini, 2007) there has been relatively little comparable work on military activities understood from a socio-political and cultural, as well as technological or military, perspective (Pepper and Adams, 1986). Indeed, until recently the study of the militarisation of Italian society has often focused on linguistic, literary or artistic material (Hale, 1990; Verrier, 1997, 2003; Fontana et al., 2004; Fontaine and Fournel, 2015) or on localised studies of women during the Florentine-Pisan war (1494-1507) (Luzzati, 1973; Franceschini, 1987). But more recent work on heralds (Gagné, 2014), prisoners of war (Zug Tucci, 2016), the organisation of local communities for war (Ongaro, 2017), as well as a broader history of civilians in the Italian Wars (1494-1559) (Bowd, 2018), indicates a growing interest in the question of military-civil relations, the militarisation of society, and the place of shadow agents of war in the formation of fiscal-military regional states in Italy.

Such an intersection can be analysed in the same way as the relationship between labour, gender, and the state for the knowledge and labour of ‘shadow agents of war’ may be compared with the knowledge and labour of soldiers. Like other workers, soldiers were involved in a variety of forms of labour relations (with a state or feudal employer, for example) which can be considered in terms of income, duration of service and legal constraints (Zürcher, 2013). Military and civil conditions of labour could be hard to distinguish. Thus, long-distance seasonal workers such as sixteenth-century Dutch dike builders were sometimes threatened with military-style discipline, while groups like navvies were riven by nationalism, driven by the rewards of plunder and organized in a military fashion like soldiers. At the same time, early modern military service did not preclude continuing involvement in crafts (Lucasson, 1994), while sappers in early modern armies were valued above all for their skills in excavating and constructing temporary and permanent defenses.

This nexus of state, war, and labour has been enriched by a number of gendered studies. For example, in terms of the ‘aggressive ideal of masculinity’ among the political classes which supposedly shaped early-modern Swedish state formation, or the models of household and estate management activities for noblewomen in France and Italy (Neuschel, 1997; Finley-Croswhite, 1997; Sandberg, 2004; Hallenberg, 2013), which meant they ‘constituted and represented … the warrior class’. Moreover, the ‘two-supporter’ model of spousal contribution to the household which has emerged from studies of early modern work, including that of soldiers’ wives (Ågren, 2016), points towards a productive and socially inclusive model for reframing military history, while it is possible to argue that the common early modern presentation of female martial skills in a narrow or naturalized fashion conforms to the standard applied to other skilled, but formally untrained, working women.

Animals also provided labour for war and shaped the way war was waged. The place of animals in the history of warfare and the means by which the animal body and animal behaviour affect military tactics and outcomes still requires sustained scholarly attention, despite the ‘animal turn’. The role of Renaissance military animals is hitherto neglected, the scholarship to date focussing predominantly on modern warfare, particularly the first and second world wars (Hediger, 2012; Baldin, 2007). This project will develop the research of Bowd and Cockram on the animal and animal handler in Renaissance Italy (2017) and will draw on valuable work on the medieval warhorse and on early modern cavalry; on horse armour, and equestrianism in the face of gunpowder technology; the horse and breeding within image management and display; and on the affective and practical relationship of the horse and rider working in ‘unity’ (David, 1989; Schiesari, 2014; DiMarco, 2008; Shaw, 2013). In addition to equines, animal agents of the Italian wars include oxen for hauling, animals used as weapons and for defence (eg. mastiffs), for communication, for morale, for food and to protect supplies (eg. ships’ cats), as well as the risk of animals as pests and disease vectors.


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Published by Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).

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