By 1500 almost all European sovereign states possessed, at least in rudimentary form, most of the social and political organs of a modern state. They had two essential instruments: a professional diplomatic service and a professional army. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the steady development of modern diplomatic agencies and methods.
Governments established central foreign offices or ministries, sent diplomats and regular missions to foreign courts, and organized espionage under cover of open diplomacy. Formal peace conferences were held and formal treaties were signed. To govern these formal relations a set of rules or expectations began to take shape.
The apparatus of interstate politics was developed most elaborately in Renaissance Italy, especially in the diplomatic service of the Republic of Venice. The detailed reports Venetian ambassadors sent back to the councils from their residences abroad are careful political and social studies of the personalities and lands involved, in which the relative merit of gossip and rumor—the latter often used by diplomats to further their ends—was weighed.
The diplomat was often an important maker of policy in his own right. With travel very slow, his government could not communicate with him in time to direct him in detail, and he often had to make important decisions on his own. Good or bad diplomacy, good or bad intelligence about foreign lands, made a vital difference in a state’s success or failure in the struggle for power.
The armed forces made still more difference. Freed from the restrictions of feudal warfare, the officer class could plan, drill, and campaign on a fairly large yet manageable scale. The common soldiers for the most part were mercenaries. (The word soldier comes from solidus, Latin for “piece of money.”) Some of these mercenaries were recruited at home, usually among the poor and dispossessed, sometimes by impressment. Others were foreigners who made a career of soldiering, particularly the Swiss and Germans; thousands of them served in the armies of Francis I of France, together with contingents of Englishmen, Scots, Poles, Italians, Albanians, and Greeks.
Early modern armies showed many feudal survivals in organization and equipment. The officer class continued to preserve many of its old habits of chivalry, such as the duel. If the feudal lord no longer brought his own knights, his descendant as regimental colonel often raised his own regiment and financed it himself. Desertion was common, as was whipping as punishment. Each regiment might wear a prescribed uniform, but entire armies did not, so that in battle it was difficult to tell friend from foe. Weapons were of a great variety.
Reminders of hand- to-hand fighting survived in the sword and in the pike, a long shaft used by foot soldiers against the armored knight and his mount. Hand firearms—arquebus, musket, pistol, and many others—were slow-loading and slow- firing and could seldom be accurately aimed. The cannon, unstandardized as to parts and caliber and hard to move, fired solid balls rather than exploding shells. Armies on the march lived mostly off the land, even when they were in home territory. But they were beginning to organize their supply and to use engineers.
Both the growth of military technology and the differences of national temperament were reflected in the shift of military predominance from Spain to France about 1600. Spain excelled in infantry, where the pike was a major weapon. France excelled in artillery, engineering, and fortification. By the sixteenth century France was overpopulated in relation to its resources, as Spain and England were not, so that many Frenchmen sought to be mercenaries and were content to learn the less romantic military tasks.
Meanwhile, the first modern navies were also being developed. In the Renaissance, Venice took the lead with its arsenal and its detailed code of maritime regulations. Naval organization, naval supply, the dispatch and handling of ships, all required more orderly centralized methods than did an army; navies could not tolerate lack of discipline and planning. As in the armies, the officer class was predominantly aristocratic.
During the sixteenth century, naval supremacy passed from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, where it rested briefly with Spain and then passed in the seventeenth century to the northern maritime powers of Holland, France, and England. These shifts were the result of changes in marine architecture, maritime technology and knowledge, and alterations in both the balance of power and the organization of centralized states.
Of course, these instruments of foreign policy were both shaped by, and helped to shape, the economic developments of the “long sixteenth century.” The upswing in population, trade, and prices made war more likely. New commercial trends that first appeared in port cities, where new money entered the European economy, gave the municipal governments of these cities greater say in the affairs of state and made the ports increasingly attractive targets of diplomacy or battle.
Still, failures in diplomacy and in military strategy were most important in the decline of the Hanseatic League, in the disruption of trade between Italy and the Levant, in the rise of English competition in the Mediterranean cloth trade, and in the reshaping of the political and religious map of Europe. After mid-century it was apparent that the Dutch and English were moving into a dominant position at the expense of the Spanish, French, and the Habsburg (or Holy Roman) Empire.