In the space of a decade in the early 16th century, three teenagers succeeded to the most powerful thrones in Europe and ruled over three-quarters of the continent and two-thirds of its people. The intense competition between them generated constant wars, propelled the reformation forward and moved the focus of the cultural Renaissance northwards from Italy. Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, and Charles V of Spain and the holy Roman empire filled such large canvases, both literally and figuratively, that historians long ago pegged them as "new monarchs".
Ruling directly with professional advisers, more efficient bureaucracies and larger armies, they subdued rival aristocrats and planned the absolutist monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries.
And yet. These two new textbooks in Renaissance history tell a common story of resilient aristocracies, enduring local traditions and largely conservative monarchs who governed more by the seat of their robes than by proto-absolutist theory.
In Renaissance Monarchy , Glenn Richardson compares Henry, Francis and Charles as military leaders, governors and patrons. He compares each monarch's handling of these three areas, explaining the traditional structures within which they had to work, the success or failure of their efforts to establish both personal authority and a dynasty, and the way each took the others as a model and rival. The negotiations of each with the others and with his own, often factious, aristocrats is clearly described, and Richardson conveys considerable contextual information on English, French, Spanish and Dutch society without weighing down the narrative. It is genuinely transnational, interdisciplinary and comparative, and Richardson's skill at conveying the dynamic between structures and personalities makes it a particularly readable, useful and persuasive textbook.
In Renaissance and Reformation France , six authors contribute chapters on 16th-century French social structure, economy, politics, gender and religious life before, during and after the wars of religion. Editor Mack Holt opens with a chapter sketching the cultural and political situation c.
1500, and concludes by carrying the collection's themes forwards to 1648, when royal pretensions triggered revolt. The separate chapters are effectively woven into a single text and style, and the authors' treatment of themes is ample enough to make this a useful text for courses in early-modern European history generally, and not simply the history of France.
Both texts are advanced surveys aimed at undergraduates in the early to middle years of university. These students now tend to have a stronger grounding in social than in political history and are usually perplexed by religion, which shapes so much in the period. The two texts here are thoroughly informed by recent research. They convey the political background without getting weighed down by excessive detail, and explain religious culture without trivialising the subject or patronising students.
Largely synchronic, they nonetheless show how certain events move traditional societies in new directions. The reader learns how early-modern society worked, an excellent preparation for more advanced work. Both have topical bibliographies to direct students to that work. The single shared weakness: few illustrations of a very visually minded period.
Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, University of Toronto, Canada.
Renaissance and Reformation France 1500-1648. First edition
Editor - Mack P. Holt
ISBN - 0 19 873166 3 and 873165 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £37.50 and £14.99
Pages - 263