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Book Review


Tonio Andrade and William Reger (eds), The Limits of Empire: European Imperial Formations in Early Modern World History. Essays in Honor of Geoffrey Parker. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012. Pp xxvii + 386. Index. $139.95.


     As the sub-sub-title of this volume indicates, the essays in The Limits of Empire are all written in honor of Geoffrey Parker, an eminent historian of early modern Europe, by former students of his as well as others who have been otherwise touched by his research and writings. The introduction to the essays states rather assertively that "few people of his generation have had such an important influence on our understanding of the early modern world" (ix), and a brief glance at Parker's bibliography, as well as the number of former students who are now themselves academics in the field, suggests that this is not hyperbole. A Festschrift, a collection of essays to honor an eminent academic in a given field, is often a contrived affair with the several essays hanging together only loosely around the person being feted. Such is not the case in the present volume, however, for while the essays are all in honor of Professor Parker, they are also bound together by the theme noted in the title: the limits of empire.

     While it is a truism that the early modern period saw the formation of many powerful and broad empires, including the Qing Empire in China and central Asia, the Mughal Empire in South Asia, the Habsburg Empires of Europe and the New World, the Ottoman Empire, and the Dutch Maritime Empire, these essays are all concerned rather with the limitations of the imperial endeavor, in this case mostly the European empires. Denice Fett, for example, in an essay entitled "Information, gossip, and rumor: the limits of intelligence at the early modern court, 1558-1585," illustrates that despite measures that monarchs may have taken to prevent the spread of news from the royal court, every political entity in Europe had informants that did their best to gather intelligence and send it back to their own rulers. On the other hand, she also demonstrates that despite these well-placed connections, it was not always possible for other rulers to obtain reliable and timely information. Thus in the same essay the author manages to demonstrate the two-way limitations on intelligence in the early modern period using the Spanish court as a case study.

     In a similar vein, Paul Dover uses the Spanish imperial intelligence system to show that Phillip II, despite an overwhelming amount of information flowing into Spain from Europe and the new World, failed to turn that information into "irresistible power." The reason, he speculates, is that Phillip II's obsessive personality prevented him from acting on information that he worried was incomplete, thus leading to ever more intelligence, which in turn led ultimately to a case of information overload. Thus, this "world of paper" both facilitated Spanish foreign relations, but also served as a limitation as decision making was often paralyzed over fears of incomplete or faulty information. This theme is also explored by Bethany Aram in an essay entitled "Distance and misinformation in the conquest of America." Aram notes that distance served as a double-edged sword in the colonial administration of a far-flung empire. On the one hand, officials at the imperial court lamented that the copious information, by the time it reached them, was often outdated, or simply wrong, and that this led to tremendous difficulties in decision-making. On the other hand, local officials on the periphery of the empire could use distance and the prevalence of misinformation to their distinct advantage in order to, for example, delay implementing royal decrees of which they were not in favor.

     In a fascinating essay on brawling in the sprawling Dutch Maritime Empire, Pamela McVey states that "brawling…provides an interesting example of the limits Dutch men set on themselves in the absence of official authority" (238). McVey examines brawling culture in Batavia and Albany and notes that in both cases the men of the United East India Company (VOC) adhered to an elaborate set of unwritten rules that can be discerned through the official accounts of these brawls. For example, it appears that blows to the face were unacceptable and that men by and large limited brawls to those of their own social status. These rules of engagement were remarkably uniform across the empire, although, of course, local variations did exist. This essay is an interesting study in the limits that the functionaries of the Dutch Empire put on themselves in the realm of personal probity and the structure of honor violence.

     While it is impossible for this review to touch upon all fifteen of the essays, they all in some way deal with the limitations of empire. The choice of this topic is a fitting one as this was a theme that Geoffrey Parker himself engaged with in his research. As the editors note in the introduction, the essays all "share a Parkerian focus on the limits of empire, which is to say that they all seek to understand the centrifugal forces—sacral, dynastic, military, diplomatic, geographical, informational—that plagued imperial formations in the early modern period" (1).

     While the several essays are without exception well thought-out, meticulously researched, and pertinent to the overall subject of the festschrift, it would be difficult for the non-specialist to engage with the material since none of the essays include background or introductory information to their subjects. For example, in Andrew Mitchell's essay entitled "Por dios, por patria: the sacral limits of empire as seen in Catalan political sermons, 1630-1641," the reader more or less has to know the background to the Spanish empire under Phillip IV in order to fully understand the essay. This is true for most of the essays, especially the essays that deal with the intricate inter- and intra-imperial politics of early modern Europe. This should not be seen as a criticism of the essays themselves, or even of the volume as a whole, as the editors are up front about the nature of the book. Indeed, the editors should be applauded that they have managed to take fifteen rather disparate essays and weave them together into an overarching, coherent topic. While the essays in this volume are enlightening to specialists in the respective fields, it would be difficult to use them in the undergraduate classroom without significant background and context. Having said that, these essays are prime examples of historiography written by experts in their fields, so perhaps they would be suitable for a course in historical methodology or in senior-level history courses.

     Finally, the concluding sixth of the book is a biographical essay by Geoffrey Parker himself, which makes for quite entertaining reading. Every historian will be able to relate to episodes in Parker's long and distinguished career, and all will no doubt be inspired by Parker's exceptional archival acumen and his methodological prowess, if not by his tremendous historiographical output.

Michael Laver is associate professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches East Asian history, as well as classes on European Interaction with Asia. His research focuses primarily on the Dutch East India Company and early modern Japan. His most recent work is entitled The Sakoku Edicts and the Politics of Tokugawa Legitimacy, published byCambria Press in 2011. He is currently finishing a manuscript on Dutch gift-giving in early modern Japan. He can be reached at


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