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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 282-283

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Book Review

The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe, c. 1200-1815.

The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe, c. 1200-1815. Edited by Richard Bonney (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999) 544pp. $110.00

Much of the political and economic history of Europe, from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, was driven by the demands of fisc, as states sought the tax revenues needed to fund the continent's recurrent wars. When they lacked the money to fight, states might have to summon representative institutions, thus taking the first steps toward parliamentary government. Or they might try to crush whatever repre-sentation already existed, thus taking steps toward autocracy. Another alternative was to borrow money, default on existing loans, or undertake dubious financial innovations, such as selling government offices. Whatever the states finally did, it is clear that the connection between taxes and politics is a ripe topic for historical analysis, and, in recent years, a number of historians and social scientists--Bonney among them--have taken it up, creating what has sometimes been called "the new fiscal history."

For over a decade, Bonney has been at the helm of a project that aims to write a new fiscal history of European states from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. His team has already produced one comparative volume and a second one devoted to detailed aspects of European [End Page 282] fiscal history. Soon they will publish a third tome as well, which will unveil a new model of change in European fiscal history. 1

The multi-authored book under review is part of this team effort. Its intentions are not primarily comparative; rather than surveying broad parallels from country to country, it instead presents detailed independent case studies of the fiscal development of a dozen countries or regions, including England, France, Castile, the Holy Roman Empire, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. It does not claim to cover all these countries and regions evenly or uniformly. The sources and available scholarly expertise preclude doing so. Nor do the book's chapters all use the same model, or even the same categories, to describe how each region's fiscal system operated. As a result, some readers may be a bit frustrated, because they will not easily be able to compare, say, the fraction of government expenditures that went for warfare in Poland with the fraction spent on war in England.

Nonetheless, the book will certainly be a valuable source for historians and social scientists who want to understand the fiscal systems of early modern Europe and how they varied and evolved. Not only does the book provide essential information about the level and nature of taxes, but it also takes up the issues that are often overlooked in older fiscal histories, such as government borrowing and the nature of government expenditures. (Related evidence from the other work that the team has done is available on the World Wide Web site that Bonney has established.) Like the other books done by Bonney's team, this volume will prove particularly important for those who want to generalize about the relationship between warfare, taxation, and political development.


Philip T. Hoffman
California Institute of Technology


1. Richard Bonney (ed), Economic Systems and State Finance (Oxford, 1995); W.M. Ormrod, M.M. Bonney and Richard Bonney (eds), Crises, Revolutions, and Self-Sustained Growth: Essays in European Fiscal History, c 1130-1830 (Stamford, 1999).



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