Medieval States and the Modern State: Some Reflections on Then and Now

My paper was entitled Medieval States and the Modern State: Some Reflections. As such, it was quite wide-ranging and I hope it covered a substantial topic of interest not just to specialists in my own field (later medieval history) but also to those in attendance whose areas of specialism were widely divergent from my own. That, at least, was the plan: graduate seminars like the ones organised by the Hull Graduate Committee should be fun, inclusive and thought-provoking, without some of the detail required for a conference paper delivered to an audience of specialists. It was with such considerations in mind that I thought I would give an indication of some of the considerations framing my own doctoral work and juxtapose these ideas against the rise of the modern states and the place the modern state has in our world today. This essentially meant that I wanted to give something of a genealogy of the state as the concept moved from a medieval one fused with the person of the ruler to the modern one of an abstraction, separated from both the person of the ruler and the people being ruled. This allowed me to bring several highly relevant and interesting comparisons into the second half of the talk (namely the looming issued of the recent EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump).

We began a fun seminar by sorting out who wanted red wine and who wanted white (it is with pride that I can claim to have suggested the ingenious idea of wine beforehand). After this important business was concluded, I began the paper proper by outlining some of the historiography of medieval states. In particular, I looked at the influence of modern notions of the state and the impact modern definitions of the state and its purposes have had on the study of medieval polities and their structures. One of the most important figures here is the great German sociologist Max Weber, whose thoughts on the state have been very influential because he was clever enough and convincing enough to provide a common language for both modernists and medievalists. Weber thought that states should be defined by territoriality, legitimacy and a monopoly on the use of physical force. These parameters have dominated the search for what can be termed ‘The Medieval Origins of the Modern State’. I raised the point that medieval states could fundamentally differ from the criteria put forward by Weber (and indeed, other modern notions of the state) in a number of ways. Building on this, I concluded that medieval states were fundamentally different because a) the exercise of public authority rested unavoidably on networks of private power and b) notions of statehood were inextricably linked to the person of the king. Medieval people spoke not about The State, as we do, but about the state of the king and the kingdom. Together, these two key areas of contrast suggest that we need not look for the The State, in the modern sense of the word, but for the medieval state with all its dynamics and complexities, even if that state does not correlate to ideal-type modern states. Furthermore, I suggested that, for a small, elite section of the population, medieval states were a co-operative exercise between the landowning classes and the crown, who depended on each other for legitimacy and order and for intention to be put into action in the localities. A great land-owner in the fourteenth century might reflect that he or she was part of the state; state and society collapsed into each other, and one could see itself represented and reflected by the other.

This brought us onto the issue of modern states. I began this section by briefly summarising the development and spread of modern ideas of the state that can be seen in the ‘early modern’ period, especially from the mid-sixteenth century. The state came to be seen as an abstraction separate from the king and from his people and its preservation became the primary duty of politicians. Reason of State developed. Along with the spread of these ideas of the state as an eternal abstraction, changing methods of enforcement (for example the creation of standing armies and police forces) meant that modern states moved away from the interdependence with the landed elite groups that characterises medieval states. The main object of this section was to provide background for a remarkable feature of the Brexit campaign and of the US election. This was essentially the use of classic Reason of State arguments as an integral part of both campaigns. The triumph of the Leave campaign and of Trump testifies to the continuing power the nation-state has as a saleable commodity. The slogans for both campaigns were very illustrative: Take Back Control, and Make America Great Again. In these powerful messages, people are sold the idea of the state. Take Back Control of what, from who? Take Back Control of the state, of course, from a European Union encroaching on Britain’s sovereignty and thus on the state. Through the language of reason of state, powerful notions of the modern state had provided an important tool for these campaigns.

I ended with a comparative reflection that attempted to link the consecutive sections of the talk. I suggested that, as a co-operative venture in which public authority rested on a series of private networks and ‘bottom-up’ processes, medieval states reflected the society they served, because they had too. This ‘political society’ was a small one comprising landed and mercantile elites. In our modern democracy, the state should reflect all of us: the voters, those with a say in the shape and composition of government. As the recent Brexit result and Trump’s victory have shown, this is clearly not the case, and large parts of society feel ostracized and are pushing for change, while other parts of society are disengaging from political processes altogether. We opened discussion by talking about why this might be the case and what we (or, indeed, anyone) might do to try and make the frameworks in which we all live more inclusive and less divided. I greatly enjoyed the ensuing discussions, which lasted for about 20 minutes before the seminar finished. We talked about various problems and observations; for example, the role of the media in selling an idealised state was raised, considered and analysed. I feel that we raised a number of issues, both historical and contemporary, and that people enjoyed comparing the medieval and the modern and talking about where we fit into the state.

Matt Raven

Report on a paper read to the Hull History Postgraduate Seminar on 24th November 2016


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