Meta-review of “The Last Christian Peace”

I’m the kind of person who can’t help cringing equally when I read praise of my work and when I read criticism, so going through the reviews of this book has been a challenge.  This is especially the case because I really poured myself into this book in a way that I didn’t with my two prior works.  I wrote it with no advisor and did not submit it to an editor until I was satisfied with it, so the book is really what I wanted it to be and not something created to please others.  Then, too, it was the culmination of 20+ years of thinking and reading about the Peace of Westphalia, so I had plenty of opportunity to consider what I wanted to say.  (In fact, I remember sitting in the archives at the Quai d’Orsay doing research for my dissertation in 1993 and wondering what one would say about the negotiations in general, and formulating my first ideas at that time.)

I am fortunate that almost all the reviews I have read so far have been thoughtful and balanced.  (There is one notable exception that seems to be the result of a cursory skimming, but I won’t single out that review here.)  I am also delighted that almost every reviewer has understood the main lines of my argument.  I would like to give myself some credit for that, because I edited and re-edited and re-re-edited the entire manuscript repeatedly until I could make sense of everything without having to puzzle it out.  This was especially problematic for the conclusion, where I had lots of ideas but had no clear overall sense of what I wanted to say until I had re-written the whole thing several times.  I was on much firmer ground on the narrative parts, but those, too, had to be worked over several times to produce a discussion in which each sentence followed from the last without logical jumps, unintroduced concepts, or simple lack of clarity.  (If the writing on this site does not match the quality of the book, it is not surprising, because I write most of this in a single sitting and put little effort into reworking it.)

Obviously, my writing still fell short of what it could have been in some respects.  One reviewer lamented “several awkward sentence constructions,” which actually doesn’t seem too serious in a book of 200,000 words.  Only one reviewer complained that the text was “excessively detailed and often simply confusing,”   noting that I “[yield] too easily to the temptation to digress.”  The only place I confess to leaving in more detail than I needed was in the discussion of Denmark, because I just find Christian IV so fascinating a figure.  Even there, I cut out one of my favourite stories in a very late draft when I realized that it was too peripheral.

It is a long book, I admit.  I wanted to tell the whole story, not just hit the high points.  It would doubtless have been much shorter if there had been other English-language narratives where readers could find more information; as there weren’t, I felt compelled to include a lot of specifics even though I knew it would make the book longer and more confusing.  Perhaps I need to produce a condensed version next. (Actually, at a very early stage I had proposed a book of about 200 pages and was advised that it needed to be longer.)

Fortunately, most reviewers found the narrative at least tolerable, using phrases such as a “detailed but comprehensible account,” an “engaging account” and a “lucid overview,” and a “clear and concise outline of all these aspects…of the complex tableau of the actual negotiations.”  One reviwer said I was successful “in the balancing act of going into the negotiation details where necessary (without, however, losing himself in them) and, on the other side, the constant struggle to write in a way intelligible to all” (my rough translation from the German).  On the whole, I am very pleased with this assessment.

My goal was to write a book that anyone could pick up and read.  Perhaps I undermined my own efforts by making the book so long.  I will only say that length is rarely an object if the author writes clearly enough.  I remember starting to read Thomas Pakenham’s 738-page “Scramble for Africa” book, a subject about which I knew nothing and thought I cared little, but getting so intrigued that I finished it a few days later.  I would not claim that I write as well as Pakenham, only that no one complains about the length if he is enjoying what he reads.  The reviewer for “Choice” began his review with “Here is everything you could want to know about the Peace of Westphalia, and more.”  I felt that the “and more” was intended to suggest that the book could have been shorter.

One reviewer noted (correctly) that the book was written for an American audience without a background in the subject. I was probably too ambitious, but I figured that specialists could skip the stuff they already knew, and non-specialists would be grateful for anything that gave them a handle on the subject.  I tried to introduce unusual concepts with comparisons to the modern world, especially America, because my experience is that one such comparison, however crude, can be more use that pages of detailed explanations.  Only one reviewer commented on this specifically, and said that he appreciated my “adroit” use of modern examples.  I am grateful to my foreign reviewers for not holding these examples aimed at an American readership too much against me, which I feared they would.

On the other hand, I correctly assumed that European reviewers would focus on the shortfalls of my scholarship more than American ones.  This is largely because hardly anyone in America actually specializes in the Peace of Westphalia, whereas numerous historians in Europe do so.  One reviewer complained that I was behind the times in my discussion of ceremonial and language, which I will admit to, because I honestly do not understand the significance of much of what I have read on these subjects.  The fact that I missed out on a recent biography or two of Ferdinand III I attribute partly to the declining interest in political history (hence libraries are slower to acquire such works than they used to be) and partly to the fact that I have not been a professional academic for over 15 years.  It is difficult enough to get access to scholarly research, especially in foreign languages, when one is not associated with a university.  I am fortunate that the University of Virginia, which is in my home town, allows all state residents to check out books, so it is actually easier for me than it would be in many other states.  However, getting things through interlibrary loan, where they can be found at all, means paying a significant chunk of money:  money that I do not expect to recoup through sales.  Nor could I find these books even in the Library of Congress, which is close enough that I could (and did) visit to look at other sources not available locally.  I also wish I could have seen one of several recent biographies of Axel Oxenstierna, but I haven’t located them, either.

The fact that I did not cite Paul Sonnino’s work “Mazarin’s Quest” has a more prosaic explanation.  He found no value in my book on Mazarin, and I was equally impressed with his.

Other reviewers regretted that there was no list of unprinted primary sources, or the fact that most of the primary sources I used were from the French correspondence with which I was already familiar.  I plead guilty.  I would have loved to have had the occasion to read more primary material, but it would take a lifetime to do that, and I have a day job that takes most of my time.  I cited as many primary sources as I could, because there are so many interesting quotations, but my goal was to produce a synthesis rather than a piece of original research.

Of courser, some reviewers found factual errors, which I knew was inevitable even though I went to extraordinary lengths to avoid them.  (Where possible, by finding out the truth; elsewhere, by rewording what I said to avoid saying something that might be wrong.)  I have nothing to complain about here; I will only note that I found out about one particularly embarrassing error through a blog by an art historian, of all places.  This gentleman discovered that I misplaced the sack of Rome by two years, placing it in 1525 rather than in 1527.

I was pretty certain that the chapter I called “Structures” would be one of the most popular, and it has proved so.  Several reviewers commented on the value of this section, one of them noting that “it is refreshing to read an assessment of the peace’s historical significance that is informed by a detailed understanding of diplomacy’s practice, rather than its theory.”  I might add that I also enjoyed writing this chapter a great deal as well.

It seems that almost every reviewer noted the book’s chronological structure, and while I don’t disagree with them, I was actually worried that the narrative was getting too squeezed by the introduction and conclusion, which are more topical (although the introduction does contain a significant amount of narrative leading up to the peace conference).  Only one reviewer, to my surprise, complained that the title (“The Last Christian Peace”) was rather tenuously supported.  I deliberately used that title to be provocative and to establish a setting that conflicts with the common assumption that Westphalia was the origin of the modern state system.  I could not help thinking about Huizinga’s famous book on “The Waning of the Middle Ages” which he wrote in deliberate contradiction of the idea of a Renaissance — a rebirth — in the 15th century.  (No, I’m not comparing myself to Huizinga, only noting that our titles serve a common purpose.)  Reviewers generally proved willing to accept my view of Westphalia as looking backward as much as it looked forward, and were tolerant of my attempt to describe the peace in parallel with the baroque age.  One reviewer did note that I argue “in leaps by analogy,” and perhaps this was part of what she had in mind.  I did try to emphasize that the “baroque” label was more of a helpful way of thinking about the negotiations than an attempt to slap another label on them, and I was grateful that one reviewer specifically mentioned my discussion of the more modernizing aspects of the peace.  One reviewer commented that I could have made more of dynasticism, which I suppose I could have; however, I did give the subject its own section in the conclusion, and another reviewer remarked on my discussion of the tension between dynastic and national interests.

Almost every reviewer commented on my view that Westphalia was not the origin of the idea or practice of state sovereignty, and none of them took issue with it.  The 1999 article I wrote in the International History Review seems to have brought a lot of people around.  Actually, I think that stumbling on to Prudhon’s article in which he appears to be the first person to connect Westphalia and sovereignty might be the most convincing evidence I have found; even more, in a way, than all the specific arguments showing that it was no such thing.  It seems easier, to me, to believe that something was made up if you can point to a specific moment that someone came up with the idea.

Apart from the comments that the book was written clearly, I am most proud that people found it an accurate summary.  Various reviewers noted that it is “a convincing interpretation of motivation and behaviour in shaping the negotiations,” “overall a solid and balanced summary…pulled into a coherent picture,” and valuable “for an understanding of the pressures and circumstances under which negotiators at Munster and Osnabruck actually worked.”

Only one reviewer commented specifically that the book was suitable for use in teaching the subject.  If there is one thing I could wish, it is that more historians would agree on this.  One of the values of the deep background, both the political geography and the physical structures of negotiation, was that it would make the book suitable for undergraduates learning about early modern diplomacy in general.  Although, to be honest, I’m not sure there are any such students, or more than a handful in any event, so out of favour is diplomatic history these days.

Reviews that are cited here (not in alphabetical order, sorry):

Robert Tiegs. Review of Croxton, Derek, Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2014.

David Parrott. The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 87, No. 4 (December 2015), pp. 931-932

Robert Bireley, The Historian, Volume 77, Issue 4, pages 831–832, Winter 2015

Robert von Friedeburg, English Historical Review 2016 130: 1560–1562

Michael Rohrschneider, Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung: Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 567-9

Peter Wilson, The American Historical Review (2015) 120 (3): 1130-1131.

Claire Gantet, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 2014/4 (n° 61-4/4 bis), pp.165-66.

Choice Reviews Online (I regret that I can no longer find the author and text of this review)

Not cited are the generous historians who reviewed my book for Palgrave and who provided cover quotations.Everything Peace of Westphalia

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