On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State

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Sign In. Advanced Search. Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume Joseph R. Amherst College. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Article PDF first page preview. Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Thompson, Feudal Germany Chicago, , chs. Amann 20 ing churchmen, on the other hand, played an important role in secular affairs, as advisers to kings, as administrators, as rulers of ecclesiastical principalities.

The new leadership which grew up in the Church in the eleventh century at first sought only reform of the clergy. But it gradually became apparent that to reform the clergy the Church needed to be more independent of lay authority, and that to gain and preserve its independence the Church had to be centralized under the headship of the pope.

A reformed and strongly centralized Church was bound to have wide influence in secular affairs. Some reformers thought that it should have final authority in all problems of social and political relationships.

Joseph Strayer, On The Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970)

If Europe was to be really Christian, then it must have Christian leadership. Lay rulers resisted the claims of the Church and the resulting struggle the Investiture Conflict lasted for almost half a century. During the quarrel the old symbiosis of religious and secular authorities was seriously weakened. Kings lost their semi-ecclesiastical character and some of their control over Church appointments. The Church gained leadership, if not complete control, of European society.

The Church had separated itself sharply from secular political authorities; it was inand A. The Gregorian reformers had won a victory, even if it was a partial victory. By asserting its unique character, by separating itself so clearly from lay governments, the Church unwittingly sharpened concepts about the nature of secular authority.

Definitions and arguments might vary, but the most ardent Gregorian had to admit that the Church could not perform all political functions, that lay rulers were necessary and had a sphere in which they should operate.


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They might be subject to the guidance and correction of the Church, but they were not a part of the administrative structure of the Church. They headed another kind of organization, for which there was as yet no generic term. In short, the Gregorian concept of the Church almost demanded the invention of the concept of the State.

It demanded it so strongly that modern writers find it exceedingly difficult to avoid describing the Investiture Conflict as a struggle of Church and State. To yield to this temptation would be erroneous, but the reorganization of the political structure of Europe during and after the Conflict did prepare the way for the emergence of the state. For one thing, the claims of the revived Western Empire to universal domination could no longer be taken seriously.

On the medieval origins of the modern state,

When Church and Empire cooperated closely, as they had under 12 Besides the books mentioned in note 11, see G. Other rulers settled their disputes with the reformers independently and on better terms than did the emperor. Western Europe might be a religious unit, but it was clearly not a political unit.

Each kingdom or principality had to be treated as a separate entity; the foundations for a multi-state system had been laid. At the same time the Investiture Conflict reinforced a tendency which already existed: the tendency to consider the lay ruler primarily as a guarantor and a distributor of justice. The Gregorian reformers might believe that the Church defined what justice was, but even they admitted that in normal conditions it was the duty of secular rulers to see that justice was dispensed to the people.

The Feudal and Early Modern State | SpringerLink

It was even more important for kings to emphasize this function. If they no longer shared responsibility for the guidance and governance of the Church, if they were no longer "bishops for external affairs," then their only excuse for existence was to enforce justice. But if they were to enforce justice, then codes of law must be developed and judicial institutions improved. Both these steps, of course, are helpful in state-building, but they do not always come as early nor do they always have the importance which they did in Western Europe.

The fact that there was such a strong emphasis on law at the very beginning of Western European states was to have a profound influence on their future development. The state was based on law and existed to enforce law. The ruler was bound morally and often 23 politically by the law, and European law was not merely criminal law, as was that of many other regions; it regulated family and business relationships, and the possession and the use of property.

In no other political system was law so important; in no other society were lawyers to play such an important role. European states did not always attain their ideal of being primarily law-states, but that this was their ideal was an important factor in gaining the loyalty and support of their subjects. Perhaps the latest of the stimuli which led to the emergence of the European state was the rapid growth in the number of educated men during the twelfth century. In fact, the written document is the best guarantee of permanence and the best insulator between an administrator and personal pressures, which is precisely why citizens who want rules twisted in their favor always go behind the written document to the person who can quash it.

In the early twelfth century the number of men who could prepare records and documents was limited, and institutional development was equally limited. But part of the general European revival was a tremendous increase in the desire for learning; thousands of young men flocked to the schools and then took service with lay or ecclesiastical officials.

The Feudal and Early Modern State

By the end of the twelfth century the shortage of clerks and account13 C. Brunet, P. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, ch. Most young men took only the course in arts, which emphasized correct use of language and logic. Of those who went on to higher studies, by far the largest number enrolled in the schools of law. Teachers in these schools were famous throughout Europe and their students gained high positions, especially in the Church. Nevertheless, the influence of the academic study of law should not be exaggerated.

On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State

The first statebuilding institutions were already in existence before the law schools had begun to function, and Roman law was of little immediate use in most of Europe north of the Alps. England, Germany, and northern France used customary law, which was not taught in the schools; and men skilled in customary law could achieve remarkable results with little or no knowledge of Roman law. What was important about the study of Roman law was that it furnished a set of categories into which new ideas could be fitted and a vocabulary by which they could be described.

Thus the Roman idea of a distinction between civil and criminal law was helpful to English judges who were trying to write textbooks on the rapidly developing English common law. Woodbine New Haven, ; written in , he begins his substantive discussion with the statement: "Placitorum aliud criminale aliud civile" p.

But all of this would have been purely abstract learning if Western Europe had not already started the process of creating legal institutions.

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It was because they already had civil law, taxes, and even a vague idea of the state that thirteenthcentury Europeans could use and understand the Roman parallels. The existence of those parallels certainly helped to sharpen the definitions and clarify the thinking of judges and administrators. The fact that discussions of political theory were often expressed in terms of Roman law reinforced the already existing tendency to use law as the basis and justification for the creation of states.

But while the revival of Roman law facilitated and perhaps accelerated the process of state-building, it was certainly not the primary cause and probably not even a necessary condition.

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The discussion of the influence of Roman law has led us far past our original starting-point. Let us return to the early twelfth century and examine the political structures which were then emerging. We can begin with an important generalization: the first permanent institutions in Western Europe dealt with internal and not external affairs. This priority of internal institutions was helpful in several ways. There were obvious advantages to everyone in building an effective system of courts; it was harder to demonstrate the value of a standing army. Finally, there was less pressure on scarce human resources if the most competent and intelligent officials could be allowed to specialize, for the most part, in internal affairs.

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