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William Robertson

A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769)

[72] Section II

Note editoriali

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

View of the progress of society in Europe with respect to the command of the national force requisite in Foreign Operations.

Improved State of Society at the Beginning of the Fifteenth Century - The Concentration of Resources in European States - The Power of Monarchs; their Revenues and Armies - Affairs of different States at first entirely Distinct - Progress of Combination - Loss of Continental Territory by the English - Effects upon the French Monarchy - Growth of Standing Armies, and of the Royal Prerogative under Louis XI - His Example imitated in England and in Spain - The Heiress of Burgundy - Perfidious Conduct of Louis XI. towards her - Her Marriage with Maximilian, Archduke of Austria - Invasion of Italy by Charles VIII - The Balance of Power - Use of Infantry in Armies - League of Cambray against Venice.

Such are the events and institutions which, by their powerful operation, contributed gradually to introduce regular government and polished manners in the various nations of Europe. When we survey the state of society, or the character of individuals, at the opening of the fifteenth century, and then turn back to view the condition of both at the time when the barbarous tribes, which overturned the Roman power, completed their settlement in their new conquests, the progress which mankind had made towards order and refinement will appear immense. [73] Government, however, was still far from having attained that state, in which extensive monarchies act with the united vigour of the whole community, or carry on great undertakings with perseverance and success. Small tribes or communities even in their rudest state, may operate in concert, and exert their utmost force. They are excited to act, not by the distant objects or the refined speculations which interest or affect men in polished societies, but by their present feelings. The insults of an enemy kindle resentment; the success of a rival tribe awakens emulation: these passions communicate from breast to breast, and all the members of the community, with united ardour, rush into the field in order to gratify their revenge, or to acquire distinction. But in widely-extended states, such as the great kingdoms of Europe at the beginning of the fifteenth century, where there is little intercourse between the distant members of the community, and where every great enterprise requires previous concert and long preparation, nothing can rouse and call forth their united strength, but the absolute command of a despot, or the powerful influence of regular policy. Or the former, the vast empires in the East are an example; the irresistible mandate of the sovereign reaches the most remote provinces of his dominions, and compels whatever number of his subjects he is pleased to summon to follow his standard. The kingdoms of Europe, in the present age, are an instance of the latter; the prince, by the less violent but no less effectual operation of laws and a well-regulated government, is enabled to avail himself of the whole force of his state, and to employ it in enterprises which require strenuous and persevering efforts.

But, at the opening of the fifteenth century, the political constitution in all the kingdoms of Europe was very different from either of these states of government. The several monarchs, though they had somewhat enlarged the boundaries of prerogative by successful encroachments on [74] the immunities and privileges of the nobility, were possessed of an authority extremely limited. The laws and interior police of kingdoms, though much improved by the various events and regulations which I have enumerated, were still feeble and imperfect. In every country, a numerous body of nobles, who continued to be formidable notwithstanding the various expedients employed to depress them, watched all the motions of their sovereign with a jealous attention, which set bounds to his ambition, and either prevented his forming schemes of extensive enterprise, or obstructed the execution of them.

The ordinary revenues of every prince were so extremely small as to be inadequate to any great undertaking. He depended for extraordinary supplies on the good-will of his subjects, who granted them often with a reluctant, and always with a sparing hand.

As the revenues of prince were inconsiderable, the armies which they could bring into the field were unfit for long and effectual service. Instead of being able to employ troops trained to skill in arms, and to military subordination, by regular discipline, monarchs were obliged to depend on such forces as their vassals conducted to their standard in consequence of their military tenures. These, as they were bound to remain under arms only for a short time, could not march far from their usual place of residence, and being more attached to the lord of whom they held, than to the sovereign whom they served, were often as much disposed to counteract as to forward his schemes. Nor were they, even if they had been more subject to the command of the monarch, proper instruments to carry into execution any great and arduous enterprise. The strength of an army, formed either for conquest or defence, lies in infantry. To the stability and discipline of their legions, consisting chiefly of infantry, the Romans, during the times of the republic, were indebted for their victories; and when their descendants, forgetting the institutions which [75] had led them to universal dominion, so far altered their military system as to place their principal confidence in a numerous cavalry, the undisciplined impetuosity of the barbarous nations, who fought mostly on foot, was sufficient, as I have already observed, to overcome them. These nations, soon after they settled in their new conquests, uninstructed by the fatal error of the Romans, relinquished the customs of their ancestors, and converted the chief force of their armies into cavalry. Among the Romans this change was occasioned by the effeminacy of their troops, who could not endure the fatigues of service, which their more virtuous and hardy ancestors had sustained with ease. Among the people who established the new monarchies into which Europe was divided, this innovation in military discipline seems to have flowed from the pride of the nobles, who, scorning to mingle with persons of inferior rank, aimed at being distinguished from them in the field, as well as during peace. The institution of chivalry, and the frequency of tournaments, in which knights in complete armour entered the list on horseback with extraordinary splendour, displaying amazing address, force, and valour, brought cavalry into still greater esteem. The fondness for that service increased to such a degree, that, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the armies of Europe were composed almost entirely of cavalry. No gentleman would appear in the field but on horseback. To serve in any other manner he would have deemed derogatory to his rank. The cavalry, by way of distinction, was called the battle, and on it alone depended the fate of every action. The infantry, collected from the dregs and refuse of the people, ill armed and worse disciplined, was almost of no account.

As these circumstances rendered the operations of particular kingdoms less considerable and less vigorous, so they long kept the princes of Europe from giving such attention to the schemes and transactions of their neighbours as might lead them to form any regular system of [76] public security. They were, of consequence, prevented from uniting in confederacy, or from acting with concert, in order to establish such a distribution and balance of power as should hinder any state from rising to a superiority which might endanger the general liberty and independence. During several centuries, the nations of Europe appear to have considered themselves as separate societies, scarcely connected together by any common interest, and little concerned in each other’s affairs or operations. An extensive commerce did not afford them an opportunity of observing and penetrating into the schemes of every different state. They had not ambassadors residing constantly in every court, to watch and give early intelligence of all its motions. The expectation of remote advantages, or the prospect of distant and contingent evils, was not sufficient to excite nations to take arms. Such only as were within the sphere of immediate danger, and unavoidably exposed to injury or insult, thought themselves interested in any contest, or bound to take precautions for their own safety.

Whoever records of any of the more considerable European states during the two last centuries, must write the history of Europe. Its various kingdoms throughout that period have been formed into one great system, so closely united, that each holding a determinate station, the operations of one are so felt by all, as to influence their counsels and regulate their measures. But previous to the fifteenth century, unless when vicinity of territory rendered the occasion of discord frequent and unavoidable, or when national emulation fomented or embittered the spirit of hostility, the affairs of different countries are seldom interwoven with each other. In each kingdom of Europe great events and revolutions happened, which the other powers beheld with almost the same indifference as if they had been uninterested spectators, to whom the effect of these transactions could never extend.

[77] During the violent struggles between France and England, and notwithstanding the alarming progress which was made towards rendering one prince the master of both these kingdoms, hardly one measure, which can be considered as the result of a sagacious and prudent policy, was formed in order to guard against an event so fatal to Europe. The dukes of Burgundy and Bretagne, whom their situation would not permit to remain neutral, engaged, it is true, in the contest; but in taking their part, they seem rather to have followed the impulse of their passions than to have been guided by any just discernment of the danger which threatened themselves and the tranquillity of Europe. The other princes, seemingly unaffected by the alternate successes of the contending parties, left them to decide the quarrel by themselves, or interposed only by feeble and ineffectual negotiations.

Notwithstanding the perpetual hostilities in which the various kingdoms of Spain were engaged during several centuries, and the successive occurrences which visibly tended to unite that part of the continent into one great monarchy, the princes of Europe hardly took any step from which we may conclude that they gave a proper attention to that important event. They permitted a power to arise imperceptibly, and to acquire strength there, which soon became formidable to all its neighbours.

Amidst the violent convulsions with which the spirit of domination in the see of Rome, and the turbulent ambition of the German nobles, agitated the empire, neither the authority of the popes, seconded by all their artifices and intrigues, nor the solicitations of the emperors, could induce any of the powerful monarchs in Europe to engage in their quarrel, or to avail themselves of many favourable opportunities of interposing with effect and advantage.

This amazing inactivity, during transactions so interesting, is not to be imputed to any incapacity of discerning their political consequences. The power of judging with sagacity, [78] and of acting with vigour, is the portion of men of every age. The monarchs who reigned in the different kingdoms of Europe during several centuries, were not blind to their particular interest, negligent of the public safety, or strangers to the method of securing both. If they did not adopt that salutary system which teaches modern politicians to take the alarm at the prospect of distant dangers, which prompts them to check the first encroachments of any formidable power, and which renders each state the guardian, in some degree, of the rights and independence of all its neighbours, this was owing entirely to such imperfections and disorders in the civil government of each country, as made il impossible for sovereigns to act suitably to those ideas which the posture of affairs and their own observation must have suggested.

But during the course of the fifteenth century, various events happened which, by giving princes more entire command of the force in their respective dominions, rendered their operations more vigorous and extensive. In consequence of this, the affairs of different kingdoms becoming more frequently as well as more intimately connected, they were gradually accustomed to act in concert and confederacy, and were insensibly prepared for forming a system of policy, in order to establish or to preserve such a balance of power as was most consistent with the general security. It was during the reign of Charles the Fifth that the ideas on which this system is founded first came to be fully understood. It was then that the maxims by which it has been uniformly maintained since that era were universally adopted. On this account a view of the causes and events which contributed to establish a plan of policy more salutary and extensive than any that has taken place in the conduct of human affairs, is not only a necessary introduction to the following work, but is a capital object in the history of Europe.

The first event that occasioned any considerable alteration [79] in the arrangement of affairs in Europe, was the annexation of the extensive territories which England possessed on the continent to the crown of France. While the English were masters of several of the most fertile and opulent provinces in France, and a great part of its most martial inhabitants was bound to follow their standard, an English monarch considered himself rather as the rival, than as the vassal of the sovereign of whom he held. The kings of France, circumscribed and thwarted in their schemes and operations by an adversary no less jealous than formidable, durst not enter upon any enterprise of importance or of difficulty. The English were always at hand, ready to oppose them. They disputed even their right to their crown, and being able to penetrate, with ease, into the heart of the kingdom, could arm against them those very hands which ought to have been employed in their defence. Timid counsels and feeble efforts were natural to monarchs in such a situation. France, dismembered and overawed, could not attain its proper station in the system of Europe. But the death of Henry V of England, happily for France, and not unfortunately for his own country, delivered the French from the calamity of having a foreign master seated on their throne. The weakness of a long minority, the dissensions in the English court, together with the unsteady and languid conduct which these occasioned, afforded the French a favourable opportunity of recovering the territories which they had lost. The native valour of the French nobility heightened to an enthusiastic confidence by a supposed interposition of heaven in their behalf, conducted in the field by skilful leaders, and directed in the cabinet by a prudent monarch, was exerted with such vigour and success, during this favourable juncture, as not only wrested from the English their new conquests, but stripped them of their ancient possessions in France, and reduced them within the narrow precincts of Calais and its petty territory.

[80]As soon an so many considerable provinces were reunited to their dominions, the kings of France, conscious of this acquisition of strength, began to form bolder schemes of interior policy, as well as of foreign operations. They immediately became formidable to their neighbours, who began to fix their attention on their measures and motions, the importance of which they fully perceived. from this era, France, possessed of the advantages which it derives from the situation and contiguity of its territories, as well as from the number and valour of its people, rose to new influence in Europe, and was the first power in a condition to give alarm to the jealousy or fears of the states around it.

Nor was France indebted for this increase of importance merely to the reunion of the provinces which had been torn from it. A circumstance attended the recovery of these, which, though less considerable, and less observed, contributed not a little to give additional vigour and decision to all the efforts of that monarchy. During the obstinate struggles between France and England, all the defects of the military system under the feudal government were sensibly felt. A war of long continuance languished when carried on by troops bound and accustomed to keep the field only for a short time. Armies composed chiefly of heavy-armed cavalry were unfit either for the defence or the attack of the many towns and castles which it became necessary to guard or to reduce. In order to obtain such permanent and effective force as became requisite during these lengthened contest, the kings of France took into their pay considerable bands of mercenary soldiers, levied sometimes among their own subjects, and sometimes in foreign countries. But as the feudal policy provided no sufficient fund for such extraordinary service, these adventurers were dismissed at the close of every campaign, or upon any prospect of accommodation; and having been little accustomed to the restraints of discipline, they frequently turned their arms against the country which they [81] had been hired to defend, and desolated it which cruelty not inferior to that of its foreign enemies.

A body of troops kept constantly on foot, and regularly trained to military subordination, would have supplied what was wanting in the feudal constitution, and have furnished princes with the means of executing enterprises to which they were then unequal. Such an establishment, however, was so repugnant to the genius of feudal policy, and so incompatible with the privileges and pretensions of the nobility, that during several centuries no monarch was either so bold or so powerful as to venture on any step towards introducing it. At last Charles VII, availing himself of the reputation which he had acquired by his successes against the English, and taking advantage of the impressions of terror which such a formidable enemy had left upon the minds of his subjects, executed that which his predecessors durst not attempt. [.1445 ]. Under pretence of having always ready a force sufficient to defend the kingdom against any sudden invasion of the English, he, at the time when he disbanded his other troops, retained under arms a body of nine thousand cavalry, and of sixteen thousand infantry. He appropriated funds for the regular payment of these; he stationed them in different places of the kingdom, according to his pleasure, and appointed the officers who commanded and disciplined them. The prime nobility courted this service, in which they were taught to depend on their sovereign, to execute his orders, and to look up to him as the judge and rewarder of their merit. The feudal militia, composed of the vassals whom the nobles could call out to follow their standard, as it was in no degree comparable to a body of soldiers regularly trained to war, sunk gradually in reputation. The strength of an army was no longer estimated solely by the number of cavalry which served in it. From the time that gunpowder was invented, and the use of cannon in the field became general, horsemen cased in complete armour lost all the [82] advantages which gave them the pre-eminence over other soldiers. The helmet, the shield, and the breast-plate, which resisted the arrow or the spear, no longer afforded them security against these new instruments of destruction. The service of infantry rose again into esteem, and victories were gained, and conquests made, chiefly by their efforts. The nobles and their military tenants, though sometimes summoned to the field, according to ancient form, were considered as an encumbrance upon the troops with which they acted, and were viewed with contempt by soldiers accustomed to the vigorous and steady operations of regular service.

Thus the regulations of Charles the Seventh, by establishing the first standing army known in Europe, occasioned an important revolution in its affairs and policy. By taking from the nobles the sole direction of the national military force, which had raised them to such high authority and importance, a deep wound was given to the feudal aristocracy, in that part where its power seemed to be most complete.

France, by forming this body of regular troops, at a time when there was hardly a squadron or company kept in constant pay in any other part of Europe, acquired such advantages over its neighbours, either in attack or defence, that self-preservation made it necessary for them to imitate its example. Mercenary troops were introduced into all the considerable kingdoms on the continent. They gradually became the only military force that was employed or trusted. It has long been the chief object of policy to increase and to support them. It has long been the great aim of princes and ministers to discredit and to annihilate all other means of national activity or defence.

As the kings of France got the start of other powers in establishing a military force in their dominions, which enabled them to carry on foreign operations with more vigour, and to greater extent, so they were the first who [83] effectually broke the feudal aristocracy, and humbled the great vassals of the crown, who, by their exorbitant power, had long circumscribed the royal prerogative within very narrow limits, and had rendered all the efforts of the monarchs of Europe inconsiderable. Many things concurred to undermine, gradually, the power of the feudal aristocracy in France. The wealth and property of the nobility were greatly impaired during the long wars which the kingdom was obliged to maintain with the English. The extraordinary zeal with which they exerted themselves in defence of their country against its ancient enemies, exhausted entirely the fortunes of some great families. As almost every province in the kingdom was, in its turn, the seat of war, the lands of others were exposed to the depredations of the enemy, were ravaged by the mercenary troops which their sovereigns hired occasionally, but could not pay, or were desolated with rage still more destructive by the peasants, in different insurrections. At the same time, the necessities of government having forced their kings upon the desperate expedient of making great and sudden alterations in the current coin of the kingdom, the fines, quit-rents, and other payments fixed by ancient custom, sunk much in value, and the revenues of a fief were reduced far below the sum which it had once yielded. During their contest with the English, in which a generous nobility courted every station where danger appeared, or honour could be gained, many families of note became extinct, and their fiefs were reunited to the crown. Other fiefs, in a long course of years, fell to female heirs, and were divided among them, were diminished by profuse donations to the church, or were broken and split by the succession of remote collateral heirs (1).

Encouraged by these manifest symptoms of decline in that body which he wished to depress, Charles VII, during the first interval of peace with England, made several efforts [84] towards establishing the regal prerogative on the ruins of the aristocracy. But his obligations to the nobles were so many, as well as recent, and their services in recovering the kingdom so splendid, as rendered it necessary for him to proceed with moderation and caution. Such, however, was the authority which the crown had acquired by the progress of its arms against the English, and so much was the power of the nobility diminished, that, without any opposition, he soon made innovations of great consequence in the constitution. He not only established that formidable body of regular troops, which has been mentioned, but he was the first monarch of France who, by his royal edict, without the concurrence of the states-general of the kingdom, levied an extraordinary subsidy on his people. He prevailed likewise with his subjects to render several taxes perpetual, which had formerly been imposed occasionally, and exacted during a short time. By means of all these innovations, he acquired such an increase of power, and extended his prerogative so far beyond its ancient limits, that, from being the most dependent prince who had ever sat upon the throne of France, he came to possess, during the latter years of his reign, a degree of authority which none of his predecessors had enjoyed for several ages (2).

That plan of humbling the nobility which Charles began to execute, his son Louis XI carried on with a bolder spirit and with greater success. Louis was formed by nature to be a tyrant; and at whatever period he had been called to ascend the throne, his reign must have abounded with schemes to oppress his people, and to render his own power absolute. Subtle, unfeeling, cruel; a stranger to every principle of integrity, and regardless of decency, he scorned all the restraints which a sense of honour, or the desire of fame, imposes even upon ambitious men. [85] Sagacious, at the same time, to discern what he deemed his true interest, and influenced by that alone, he was capable of pursuing it with a persevering industry, and of adhering to it with a systematic spirit, from which no object could divert, and no danger could deter him.

The maxims of his administration were as profound as they were fatal to the privileges of the nobility. He filled all the departments of government with new men, and often with persons whom he called from the lowest as well as the most despised functions in life, and raised at pleasure to stations of great power or trust. These were his only confidants, whom he consulted in forming his plans, and to whom he committed the execution of them; while the nobles, accustomed to be the companions, the favourites, and the ministers of their sovereigns, were treated with such studied and mortifying neglect, that if they would not submit to follow a court in which they appeared without any shadow of their ancient power, they were obliged to retire to their castles, where they remained unemployed and forgotten. Not satisfied with having rendered the nobles of less consideration, by taking out of their hands the sole direction of affairs, Louis added insult to neglect; and by violating their most valuable privileges, endeavoured to degrade the order, and to reduce the members of it to the same level with other subjects. Persons of the highest rank among them, if so bold as to oppose his schemes, or so unfortunate as to awaken the jealousy of his capricious temper, were persecuted with rigour, from which all who belonged to the order of nobility had hitherto been exempt; they were tried by judges who had no right to take cognisance of their actions, and were subjected to torture, or condemned to an ignominious death, without regard to their birth or condition. The people, accustomed to see the blood of the most illustrious personages shed by the hands of the common executioner, to behold them shut up in dungeons, and carried about in cages of iron, began to [86] view the nobility with less reverence than formerly, and looked up with terror to the royal authority, which seemed to have humbled or annihilated every other power in the kingdom.

At the same time, Louis, being afraid that oppression might rouse the nobles, whom the rigour of his government had intimidated, or that self-preservation might at last teach them to unite, dexterously scattered among them the seeds of discord, and industriously fomented those ancient animosities between the great families, which the spirit of jealousy and emulation, natural to the feudal government, had originally kindled, and still kept alive. To accomplish this, all the arts of intrigue, all the mysteries and refinements of his fraudulent policy, were employed, and with such success, that at a juncture which required the most strenuous efforts, as well as the most perfect union, the nobles never acted, except during one short sally of resentment at the beginning of his reign, either with vigour or in concert.

As he stripped the nobility of their privileges, he added to the power and prerogative of the crown. In order to have at command such a body of soldiers as might be sufficient to crush any force that his disaffected subjects could draw together, he not only kept on foot the regular troops which his father had raised, but, besides augmenting their number considerably, he took into his pay six thousand Swiss, at that time the best-disciplined and most formidable infantry in Europe (3). From the jealousy natural to tyrants, he confided in these foreign mercenaries, as the most devoted instruments of oppression, and the most faithful guardians of the power which he had usurped. That they might be ready to act on the shortest warning, he, during the latter years of his reign, kept a considerable body of the them encamped in one place (4) [87].

Great funds were requisite, not only to defray the expense of this additional establishment, but to supply the sums employed in the various enterprises which the restless activity of his genius prompted him to undertake. But the prerogative that his father had assumed of levying taxes without the concurrence of the states-general, which he was careful not only to retain, but to extend, enabled him to provide, in some measure, for the increasing charges of government.

What his prerogative, enlarged as it was, could not furnish, his address procured. He was the first monarch in Europe who discovered the method of managing those great assemblies, in which the feudal policy had vested the power of granting subsidies and of imposing taxes. He first taught other princes the fatal art of beginning their attack on public liberty, by corrupting the source from which it should flow. By exerting all his power and address in influencing the election of representatives, by bribing or overawing the members, and by various changes which he artfully made in the form of their deliberations, Louis acquired such entire direction of these assemblies, that, from being the vigilant guardians of the privileges and property of the people, he rendered them tamely subservient towards promoting the most odious measures of his reign (5). As no power remained to set bounds to his exactions, he not only continued all the taxes imposed by his father, but he made great additions to them, which amounted to a sum that appeared astonishing to his contemporaries (6).

Nor was it the power alone or wealth of the crown that Louis increased; he extended its territories by acquisitions of various kinds. He got possession of Rousillon by [88] purchase; Provence was conveyed to him by the will of Charles de Anjou; and upon the death of Charles the Bold, he seized with a strong hand Burgundy and Artois, which had belonged to that prince. Thus, during the course of a single reign, France was formed into one compact kingdom, and the steady unrelenting policy of Louis XI not only subdued the haughty spirit of the feudal nobles, but established a species of government, scarcely less absolute or less terrible than eastern despotism.

But, fatal as his administration was to the liberties of his subjects, the authority which he acquired, the resources of which he became master, and his freedom from restraint in concerting his plans as well as in executing them, rendered his reign active and enterprising. Louis negotiated in all the courts in Europe; he observed the motions of all his neighbours; he engaged, either as principal or as an auxiliary, in every great transaction; his resolutions were prompt, his operations vigorous; and upon every emergence he could call forth into action the whole force of his kingdom. From the era of his reign the kings of France, no longer fettered and circumscribed at home by a jealous nobility, have exerted themselves more abroad, have formed more extensive schemes of foreign conquest, and have carried on war with a spirit and vigour long unknown in Europe.

The example which Louis set was too inviting not to be imitated by other princes. Henry VII, as soon as he was seated on the throne of England, formed the plan of enlarging his own prerogative by breaking the power of the nobility. The circumstances under which he undertook to execute it were less favourable than those which induced Charles VII to make the same attempt; and the spirit with which he conducted it was very different from that of Louis XI. Charles, by the success of his arms against the English, by the merit of having expelled them out of so many provinces, had established himself so firmly in the [89] confidence of his people, as encouraged him to make bold encroachments on the ancient constitution. The daring genius of Louis broke through every barrier, and endeavoured to surmount or to remove every obstacle that stood in his way. But Henry held the sceptre by a disputed title; a popular faction was ready every moment to take arms against him; and after long civil wars, during which the nobility had often displayed their power in creating and deposing kings, he felt that the regal authority had been so much relaxed, and that he entered into possession of a prerogative so much abridged, as rendered it necessary to carry on his measures deliberately, and without any violent exertion. He endeavoured to undermine that formidable structure, which he durst not attack by open force. His schemes, though cautions and slow in their operation, were well concerted, and productive in the end of great effects. By his laws, permitting the barons to break the entails of their estates, and expose them to sale; by his regulations to prevent the nobility from keeping in their service those numerous bands of retainers, which rendered them formidable and turbulent; by favouring the rising power of the commons; by encouraging population, agriculture, and commerce; by securing to his subjects, during a long reign, the enjoyment of the blessings which flow from the arts of peace; by accustoming them to an administration of government, under which the laws were executed with steadiness and vigour; he made imperceptibly considerable alterations in the English constitution, and transmitted to his successor authority so extensive, as rendered him one of the most absolute monarchs in Europe, and capable of the greatest and most vigorous efforts.

In Spain, the union of all its crowns by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella; the glory that they acquired by the conquest of Granada, which brought the odious dominion of the Moors to a period; the command of the great armies which it had been necessary to keep long on foot, [90] in order to accomplish this; the wisdom and steadiness of their administration; and the address with which they availed themselves of every incident that occurred to humble the nobility, and to extend their own prerogative, conspired in raising these monarchs to such eminence and authority, as none of their predecessors had ever enjoyed. Though several causes, which shall he explained in another place, prevented their attaining the same powers with the kings of France and England, and preserved the feudal constitution longer entire in Spain, their great abilities supplied the defects of their prerogative, and improved with such dexterity all the advantages which they possessed, that Ferdinand carried on his foreign operations, which were very extensive, with extraordinary vigour and effect.

While these princes were thus enlarging the boundaries of prerogative, and taking such steps towards rendering their kingdoms capable of acting with union and force, events occurred which called them forth to exert the new powers which they had acquired. These engaged them in such a series of enterprises and negotiations, that the affairs of all the considerable nations in Europe came to be insensibly interwoven with each other; and a great political system was gradually formed, which grew to be an object of universal attention.

The first event which merits notice, on account of its influence in producing this change in the state of Europe, was the marriage of the daughter of Charles the Bold, the sole heiress of the House of Burgundy. For some years before her father’s death, she had been considered as the apparent successor to his territories, and Charles had made proposals of marrying her to several different princes, with a view of alluring them, by that offer, to favour the schemes which his restless ambition was continually forming.

This rendered the alliance with her an object of general attention; and all the advantages of acquiring possession of her territories, the most opulent at that time, and the [91] best cultivated of any on this side of the Alps, were perfectly understood. As soon, then, as the untimely death of Charles opened the succession, the eyes of all the princes in Europe were turned towards Mary, and they felt themselves deeply interested in the choice which she was about to make of the person on whom she would bestow that rich inheritance.

Louis XI, from whose kingdom several of the provinces which she possessed had been dismembered, and whose dominions stretched along the frontier of her territories, had every inducement to court her alliance. He had, likewise, a good title to expect the favourable reception of any reasonable proposition he should make, with respect to the disposal of a princess who was the vassal of his crown, and descended from the royal blood of France. There were only two propositions, however, which he could make with propriety. The one was the marriage of the dauphin, the other that of the count of Angouleme, a prince of the blood, with the heiress of Burgundy. By the former he would have annexed all her territories to his crown, and have rendered France at once the most respectable monarchy in Europe. But the great disparity of age between the two parties, Mary being twenty and the dauphin only eight years old; the avowed resolution of the Flemings, not to choose a master possessed of such power as might enable him to form schemes dangerous to their liberties; together with their dread of falling under the odious and oppressive government of Louis, were obstacles in the way of executing this plan, which it was in vain to think of surmounting. By the latter, the accomplishment of which might have been attained with ease, Mary having discovered some inclination to a match with the count of Angouleme (7), Louis would have prevented the dominions of the house of Burgundy from being conveyed to a rival power, and in return for such a splendid establishment for the count of Angouleme [92], he must have obtained, or would have extorted from him, concessions highly beneficial to the crown of France. But Louis had been accustomed so long to the intricacies of a crooked and insidious policy, that he could not be satisfied with what was obvious and simple; and was so fond of artifice and refinement, that he came to consider these rather as an ultimate object, than merely as the means of conducting affairs. From this principle, no less than from his unwillingness to aggrandize any of his own subjects, or from his desire of oppressing the House of Burgundy, which he hated, he neglected the course which a prince less able and artful would have taken, and followed one more suited to his own genius.

He proposed to render himself, by force of arms, master of those provinces which Mary held of the crown of France, and even to push his conquests into her other territories, while he amused her with insisting continually on the impracticable match with the dauphin. In prosecuting this plan he displayed wonderful talents and industry, and exhibited such scenes of treachery, falsehood, and cruelty, as are amazing even in the history of Louis XI. Immediately upon the death of Charles, he put his troops in motion, and advanced towards the Netherlands. He corrupted the leading men in the provinces of Burgundy and Artois, and seduced them to desert their sovereign. He got admission into some of frontier towns by bribing the governors; the gates of other were opened to him in consequence of his intrigues with the inhabitants. He negotiated with Mary; and, in order to render her odious to her subjects, he betrayed to them her most important secrets. He carried on a private correspondence with the two ministers whom she chiefly trusted, and then communicated the letters which he had received from them to states of Flanders, who, enraged at their perfidy, brought them immediately to trial, tortured them with extreme cruelty, and, unmoved by the tears and entreaties of their sovereign, [93] who knew and approved of all that the ministers had done, they beheaded them in her presence (8).

While Louis, by his conduct, unworthy of a great monarch, was securing the possession of Burgundy, Artois, and the towns on the Somme, the states of Flanders carried on a negotiation with the emperor Frederic III, and concluded a treaty of marriage between their sovereign and his son Maximilian, archduke of Austria. The illustrious birth of that prince, as well as the high dignity of which he had the prospect, rendered the alliance honourable for Mary, while, from the distance of his hereditary territories, and the scantiness of his revenues, his power was so inconsiderable, as did not excite the jealousy or fear of the Flemings.

Thus Louis, by the caprice of his temper, and the excess of his refinements, put the House of Austria in possession of this noble inheritance. By this acquisition, the foundation of the future grandeur of Charles V was laid; and he became master of those territories, which enabled him to carry on his most formidable and decisive operations against France. Thus, too, the same monarch who first united the interior force of France, and established it on such a footing as to render it formidable to the rest of Europe, contributed, far contrary to his intention, to raise up a rival power, which, during two centuries, has thwarted the measures, opposed tyhe arms, and checked the progress of his successors.

The next event of consequence in the fifteenth century was the expedition of Charles VIII. into Italy. This occasioned revolutions no less memorable; produced alterations, both in the military and political system, which were more immediately perceived; roused the states of Europe to bolder efforts; and blended their affairs and interests more closely together. The mild administration of Charles, a weak but generous prince, seems to have revived the spirit and genius of the French nation, which the rigid despotism of Louis XI his father, had depressed, and almost extinguished [94]. The ardour for military service, natural to the French nobility, returned, and their young monarch was impatient to distinguish his reign by some splendid enterprise. While he was uncertain towards what quarter he should turn his arms, the solicitations and intrigues of an Italian politician, no less infamous on account of his crimes than eminent for his abilities, determined his choice. Ludovigo Sforza, having formed the design of deposing his nephew, the duke of Milan, and of placing himself on the ducal throne, was so much afraid of a combination of the Italian powers to oppose this measure, and to support the injured prince, with whom most of them were connected by blood or alliance, that he saw the necessity of securing the aid of some able protector. The king of France was the person to whom he applied; and without disclosing his own intentions, he laboured to prevail with him to march into Italy, at the head of a powerful army, in order to seize the crown of Naples, to which Charles had pretensions as heir of the house of Anjou. The right to that kingdom, claimed by the Angevin family, had been conveyed to Louis XI by Charles of Anjou, count of Mayne and Provence. But that sagacious monarch, though he took immediate possession of those territories of which Charles was really master, totally disregarded his ideal title to a kingdom, over which another prince reigned in tranquillity, and uniformly declined involving himself in the labyrinth of Italian politics. His son, more adventurous, or more inconsiderate, embarked eagerly in this enterprise; and, contemning all the remonstrances of his most experienced counsellors, prepared to carry it on with the utmost vigour.

The power which Charles possessed was so great, that he reckoned himself equal to his arduous undertaking. His father had transmitted to him such an ample prerogative, as gave him entire command of his kingdom. He himself had added considerably to the extent of his dominions, by his prudent marriage with the heiress of [95] Bretagne, which rendered him master of that province, the last of the great fiefs that remained to be annexed to the crown. He soon assembled forces which he thought sufficient; and so impatient was he to enter on his career as a conqueror, that, sacrificing what was real for what was chimerical, he restored Rousillon to Ferdinand, and gave up part of his father’s acquisitions in Artois to Maximilian, with a view of inducing these princes not to molest France while he was carrying on his operations in Italy.

But so different were the efforts of the states of Europe in the fifteenth century, from those which we shall behold in the course of this history, that the army with which Charles undertook this great enterprise did not exceed twenty thousand men. The train of artillery, however, the ammunition, and warlike stores of every kind provided for its use, were so considerable, as to bear some resemblance to the immense apparatus of modern war (9).

When the French entered Italy, they met with nothing able to resist them. The Italian powers having remained, during a long period, undisturbed by the invasion of any foreign enemy, had formed a system with respect to their affairs, both in peace and war, peculiar to themselves. In order to adjust the interests, and balance the power, of the different states into which Italy was divided, they were engaged in perpetual and endless negotiations with each other, which they conducted with all the subtlety of a refining and deceitful policy. Their contests in the field, when they had recourse to arms, were decided in mock battles, by innocent and bloodless victories. Upon the first appearance of the danger which now impended, they had recourse to the arts which they had studied, and employed their utmost skill in intrigue in order to avert it. But this proving ineffectual, their bands of effeminate mercenaries, the only military force that remained in the country, being fit only for the parade of service, were terrified at the aspect of real war, [96] and shrunk at its approach. The impetuosity of the French valour appeared to them irresistible. Florence, Pisa, and Rome, opened their gates as the French army advanced. The prospect of this dreadful invasion struck one king of Naples with such panic terror, that he died (if we may believe historians) of the fright. Another abdicated his throne from the same pusillanimous spirit. A third fled out of his dominions, as soon as the enemy appeared on the Neapolitan frontiers. Charles, after marching thither from the bottom of the Alps, with as much rapidity, and almost as little opposition, as if he had been on a progress through his own dominions, took quiet possession of the throne of Naples, and intimidated or gave law to every power in Italy.

Such was the conclusion of an expedition, that must be considered as the first great exertion of those new powers which the princes of Europe had acquired and now began to exercise. Its effects were no less considerable, than its success had been astonishing. The Italians, unable to resist the impression of the enemy who broke in upon them, permitted him to hold on his course undisturbed. They quickly perceived that no single power, which they could rouse to action, was an equal match for a monarch, who ruled over such extensive territories, and was at the head of such a martial people; but that a confederacy might accomplish what the separate members of it durst not attempt. To this expedient, the only one that remained to deliver or to preserve them from the yoke, they had recourse. While Charles inconsiderately wasted his time at Naples in festivals and triumphs on account of his past successes, or was fondly dreaming of future conquests in the East, to the empire of which he now aspired, they formed against him a powerful combination of almost all the Italian states, supported by the emperor Maximilian, and Ferdinand, king of Aragon. The union of so many powers, who suspended or forgot all their particular animosities, that they might [97] act in concert against an enemy who had become formidable to them all, awakened Charles from his thoughtless security. He saw now no prospect of safety but in returning to France. An army of thirty thousand men, assembled by the allies, was ready to obstruct his march; and thought the French, with a daring courage, which more than countervailed their inferiority in number, broke through that great body, and gained a victory, which opened to their monarch a safe passage into his own territories, he was stripped of all his conquests in Italy in as short a time as it had taken to acquire them; and the political system in that country resumed the same appearance as before his invasion.

The sudden and decisive effect of this confederacy seems to have instructed the princes and statesmen of Italy as much as the irruption of the French had disconcerted and alarmed them. They had extended, on this occasion, to the affairs of Europe, the maxims of that political science which had hitherto been applied only to regulate the operations of the petty states in their own country. They had discovered the method of preventing any monarch from rising to such a degree of power, as was inconsistent with the general liberty; and had manifested the importance of attending to that great secret in modern policy, the preservation of a proper distribution of power among all the members of the system into which the states of Europe are formed. During all the wars of which Italy from that time was the theatre, and amidst the hostile operations which the imprudence of Louis XII and the ambition of Ferdinand of Aragon carried on in that country, with little interruption, from the close of the fifteenth century to that period at which subsequent history commences, the maintaining a proper balance of power between the contending parties became the great object of attention to the statesmen of Italy. Nor was the idea confined to them. Self-preservation taught other power to adopt it. It grew to be fashionable and universal. From this era we can trace the [98] progress of that intercourse between nations, which has linked the powers of Europe so closely together; and can discern the operations of that provident policy which, during peace, guards against remote and contingent dangers; and, in war, has prevented rapid and destructive conquests.

This was not the only effect of the operations which the great powers of Europe carried on in Italy. They contributed to render general such a change, as the French had begun to make in the state of their troops; and obliged all the princes, who appeared on this new theatre of action, to put the military force of their kingdoms on an establishment similar to that of France. When the seat of war came to be remote from the countries which maintained the contest, the service of the feudal vassals ceased to be of any use; and the necessity of employing soldiers regularly trained to arms, and kept in constant pay, came at once to be evident. When Charles VIII marched into Italy, his cavalry was entirely composed of those companies of gendarmes, embodied by Charles VII, and continued by Louis XI; his infantry consisted partly of Swiss, hired of the Cantons, and partly of Gascons, armed and disciplined after the Swiss model. To these Louis XII added a body of Germans, well known in the wars of Italy by the name of the black bands. But neither of these monarchs made any account of the feudal militia, or ever had recourse to that military force which they might have commanded, in virtue of the ancient institutions in their kingdom. Maximilian and Ferdinand, as soon as they began to act in Italy, employed similar instruments, and trusted the execution of their plans entirely to mercenary troops.

This innovation in the military system was quickly followed by another, which the custom of employing Swiss in the Italian wars was the occasion of introducing. The arms and discipline of the Swiss were different from those of other European nations. During their long and violent struggles in defence of their liberties against the house of [99] Austria, whose armies, like those of other considerable princes, consisted chiefly of heavy-armed cavalry, the Swiss found that their poverty, and the small number of gentlemen residing in their country, at that time barren and ill cultivated, put it out of their power to bring into the field any body of horse capable of facing the enemy. Necessity compelled them to place all their confidence in infantry; and in order to render it capable of withstanding the shock of cavalry, they gave the soldiers breast-plates and helmets as defensive armour, together with long spears, halberts, and heavy swords, as weapons of offence. They formed them into large battalions, ranged in deep and close array, so that they could present on every side a formidable front to the enemy (10). The men-at-arms could make no impression on the solid strength of such a body. It repulsed the Austrians in all their attempts to conquer Swisserland. It broke the Burgundian gendarmerie, which was scarcely inferior to that of France, either in number or reputation; and when first called to act in Italy, it bore down, by its irresistible force, every enemy that attempted to oppose it. These repeated proofs of the decisive effect of infantry, exhibited on such conspicuous occasions, restored that service to reputation, and gradually re-established the opinion, which had been long exploded, of its superior importance in the operations of war. But the glory which the Swiss had acquired, having inspired them with such high ideas of their own prowess and consequence, as frequently rendered them mutinous and insolent, the princes who employed them became weary of depending on the caprice of foreign mercenaries, and began to turn their attention towards the improvement of their national infantry.

The German powers having the command of men, whom nature has endowed with that steady courage and persevering strength which form them to be soldiers, soon [100] modelled their troops in such a manner, that they vied with the Swiss both in discipline and valour.

The French monarchs, though more slowly, and with greater difficulty, accustomed the impetuous spirit of their people to subordination and discipline; and were at such pains to render their national infantry respectable, that as early as the reign of Louis XII several gentlemen of high rank had so far abandoned their ancient ideas, as to condescend to enter into that service (11).

The Spaniards, whose situation made it difficult to employ any other than their national troops in the southern parts of Italy, which was the chief scene of their operations in that country, not only adopted the Swiss discipline, but improved upon it, mingling a proper number of soldiers, armed with heavy muskets, in their battalions; and thus formed that famous body of infantry, which, during a century and a half, was the admiration and terror of all Europe. The Italian states gradually diminished the number of their cavalry, and, in imitation of their more powerful neighbours, brought the strength of their armies to consist in foot-soldiers. From this period the nations of Europe have carried on war with forces more adapted to every species of service, more capable of acting in every country, and better fitted both for making conquests, and for preserving them.

As their efforts in Italy led the people of Europe to these improvements in the art of war, they gave them likewise the first idea of the expense with which it is accompanied when extensive or of long continuance, and accustomed every nation to the burden of such impositions as are necessary for supporting it. While the feudal policy subsisted in full vigour, while armies were composed of military vassals called forth to attack some neighbouring power. and to perform, in a short campaign, the services which they owed to their sovereign, the expense of war was extremely moderate. A small subsidy enabled a prince to [101] begin and to finish his greatest military operations. But when Italy became the theatre on which the powers of Europe contended for superiority, the preparations requisite for such a distant expedition, the pay of armies kept constantly on foot, their subsistence in a foreign country, the siege to be undertaken, and the towns to be defended, swelled the charges of war immensely, and, by creating demands unknown in less active times, multiplied taxes in every kingdom. The progress of ambition, however, was so rapid, and princes extended their operations so fast, that it was impossible at first to establish funds proportional to the increase of expense which these occasioned. When Charles VIII invaded Naples, the sums requisite for carrying on that enterprise so far exceeded those which France had been accustomed to contribute for the support of government, that before he reached the frontiers of Italy, his treasury was exhausted, and the domestic resources, of which extensive prerogative gave him the command, were at an end. As he durst not venture to lay any new imposition on his people, oppressed already with the weight of unusual burdens, the only expedient that remained was to borrow of the Genoese as much money as might enable him to continue his march. But he could not obtain a sufficient sum, without consenting to pay annually the exorbitant interest of forty-two livres for every hundred that he received (12). We may observe the same disproportion between the efforts and revenues of other princes, his contemporaries. From this period taxes went on increasing; and during the reign of Charles V. such sums were levied in every state, as would have appeared enormous at the close of the fifteenth century, and gradually prepared the way for the still more exorbitant exactions of modern times.

The last transaction, previous to the reign of Charles V, that merits attention on account of its influence upon the state of Europe, is the league of Cambray. To humble the [102] republic of Venice, and to divide its territories, was the object of all the powers who united in this confederacy. The civil constitution of Venice, established on a firm basis, had suffered no considerable alteration for several centuries; during which the senate conducted its affairs by maxims of policy no less prudent than vigorous, and adhered to these with an uniform consistent spirit, which gave that commonwealth great advantage over other states, whose views and measures changed as often as the form of their government, or the persons who administered it. By these unintermitted exertions of wisdom and valour, the Venetians enlarged the dominions of their commonwealth, until it became the most considerable power in Italy; while their extensive commerce, the useful and curious manufactures which they carried on, together with the large share which they had acquired of the lucrative commerce with the East, rendered Venice the most opulent state in Europe

The power of the Venetians was the object of terror to their Italian neighbours. Their wealth was viewed with envy by the greatest monarchs, who could not vie with many of their private citizens in the magnificence of their buildings, in the richness of their dress and furniture, or in splendour and elegance of living (13). Julius II, whose ambition was superior, and his abilities equal, to those of any pontiff who ever sat on the papal throne, conceived the idea of this league against the Venetians, and endeavoured, by applying to those passions which I have mentioned, to persuade other princes to join in it. By working upon the fears of the Italian powers, and upon the avarice of several monarchs beyond the Alps, he induced them, in concurrence with other causes, which it is not my province to explain, to form one of the most powerful confederacies that Europe hadf ever beheld, against those haughty republicans.

The emperor, the king of France, the king of Aragon, and the pope, were principals in the league of Cambray, to [103] which almost all the princes of Italy acceded, the least considerable of them hoping for some share in the spoils of a state, which they deemed to be now devoted to destruction. The Venetians might have diverted this storm, or have broken its force; but with a presumptuous rashness, to which there is nothing similar in the course of their history, they waited its approach. The impetuous valour of the French rendered ineffectual all their precautions for the safety of the republic; and the fatal battle of Ghiarraddada [Ghiara d’Adda] entirely ruined the army on which they relied for defence. Julius seized all the towns which they held in the ecclesiastical territories. Ferdinand re-annexed the towns of which they had got possession on the coast of Calabria, to his Neapolitan dominions. Maximilian, at the head of a powerful army, advanced towards Venice on the one side. The French pushed their conquest on the other. The Venetians surrounded by so many enemies, and left without one ally, sunk from the height of presumption to the depths of despair; abandoned all their territories on the continent; and shut themselves up in their capital, as their last refuge, and the only place which they hoped to preserve.

This rapid success, however, proved fatal to the confederacy. The members of it, whose union continued while they were engaged in seizing their prey, began to feel their ancient jealousies and animosities revive, as soon as they had a prospect of dividing it. When the Venetians observed these symptoms of distrust and alienation, a ray of hope broke in upon them; the spirit natural to their councils returned; they resumed such wisdom and firmness, as made some atonement for their former imprudence and dejection; they recovered part of the territory which they had lost; they appeased the pope and Ferdinand by well-timed concessions in their favour; and at length dissolved the confederacy, which had brought their commonwealth to the brink of ruin.

Julius, elated with beholding the effects of a league which [104] he himself had planned, and imagining that nothing was too arduous for him to undertake, conceived the idea of expelling every foreign power out of Italy, and bent all the force of his mind towards executing a scheme so well suited to his enterprising genius. He directed his first attack against the French, who, on many accounts, were more odious to the Italians than any of the foreigners who had acquired dominion in their country. By his activity and address, he prevailed on most of the powers, who had joined in the league of Cambray, to turn their arms against the king of France, their former ally; and engaged Henry VIII, who had lately ascended the throne of England, to favour their operations by invading France. Louis XII resisted all the efforts of this formidable and unexpected confederacy with undaunted fortitude. Hostilities were carried on, during several campaigns, in Italy, on the frontiers of Spain, and in Picardy, with alternate success. Exhausted, at length, by the variety as well as extent of his operations; unable to withstand a confederacy which brought against him superior force, conducted with wisdom and acting with perseverance; Louis found it necessary to conclude separate treaties of peace with his enemies; and the war terminated with the loss of everything which the French had acquired in Italy, except the castle of Milan, and a few inconsiderable towns in that duchy.

The various negotiations carried on during this busy period, and the different combinations formed among powers hitherto little connected with each other, greatly increased that intercourse among the nations of Europe, which I have mentioned as one effect of the events in the fifteenth century; while the greatness of the objects at which different nations aimed, the distant expeditions which they undertook, as well as the length and obstinacy of the contest in which they engaged, obliged them to exert themselves with a vigour and perseverance unknown in the preceding ages.

[105] Those active scenes which the following history will exhibit, as well as the variety and importance of those transactions which distinguish the period to which it extends, are not to be ascribed solely to the ambition, to the abilities, or to the rivalship of Charles V and of Francis I. The kingdoms of Europe had arrived at such a degree of improvement in the internal administration of government, and princes had acquired such command of the national force which was to be exerted in foreign wars, that they were in a condition to enlarge the sphere of their operations, to multiply their claims and pretensions, and to increase the vigour of their efforts. Accordingly the sixteenth century opened with the certain prospect of its abounding in great and interesting events.

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(1) Boulainvilliers, Histoire de Gouvernment de France, Lettre XII.

(2) Histoire de France par Velly et Villaret, tom. XV, 331, &c. 389, tom XVI, 324. Variations de la Monarchie Françoise, tom. III, 162.

(3) Mém. de Comines, tom. I, 367. Dan. Hist. de la Milice Françoise, tom. I, 182.

(4) Mém. de Com. tom. I, 381.

(5) Mém. de Comin. tom. I, 136. Chron. Scandal. tom. II, p. 71.

(6) Mém. de Com. tom. I 334. Charles VII levied taxes to the amount of 1.800.000= francs; Louis XI raised 4.700.000=. The former had in pay 9.000 cavalry and 16.000 infantry; the latter augmented the cavalry to 15.000, and the infantry to 25.000. Ibid. tom. I, 384.

(7) Mém. de Comines, I, 358.

(8) Mém. de Comines, liv. V chap. 15, p. 309, &c.

(9) Mézéray, Hist. tom. II, 777.

(10) Machiavel’s Art of War, b. II, chap. II, p. 451.

(11) Brantome, tom. X, p. 18. Mém. de Fleuranges, l43.

(12) Mém. de Comines, lib. VII, c. 5, p. 440.

(13) Heliani Oratio apud Goldastum in Polit. Imperial. p. 980.

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