Most of us today are now used to the idea of the state. It is generally agreed that the world’s surface is divided between impersonal organizations working through officials marked out in special ways, and that such organizations provide the final public authority for any given area. Often, states are thought in some way to represent people or nations. But whether they do or not, states are the building blocks from which most of us would construct a political account of the modern world.
None of this would have been intelligible to a European in 1000; five hundred years later much of it might well have been, depending on who the European was. The process by which the modern state emerged, though far from complete by 1500, is one of the markers which delimit the modern era of history. The realities had come first, before principles and ideas. From the thirteenth century onwards many rulers, usually kings, were able for a variety of reasons to increase their power over those they ruled. This was often because they could keep up large armies and arm them with the most effective weapons. Iron cannons were invented in the early fourteenth century; bronze followed, and in the next century big cast-iron guns became available. With their appearance, great men could no longer brave the challenges of their rulers from behind the walls of their castles. Steel crossbows, too, gave a big advantage to those who could afford them. Many rulers were by 1500 well on the way to exercising a monopoly of the use of armed force within their realms. They were arguing more, too, about the frontiers they shared, and this expressed more than just better techniques of surveying. It marked a change in emphasis within government, from a claim to control persons who had a particular relationship to the ruler to one to control people who lived in a certain area. Territorial was replacing personal dependence.
Over such territorial agglomerations, royal power was increasingly exercised directly through officials who, like weaponry, had to be paid for. A kingship which worked through vassals known to the king, who did much of his work for him in return for his favours and who supported him in the field when his needs went beyond what his own estates could supply, gave way to one in which royal government was carried out by employees, paid for by taxes (more and more in cash, not kind), the raising of which was one of their most important tasks. The parchment of charters and rolls began by the sixteenth century to give way to the first trickles and rivulets of what was to become the flood of modern bureaucratic paper.
Such a sketch hopelessly blurs this immensely important and complicated change. It was linked to every side of life, to religion and the sanctions and authority it embodied, to the economy, the resources it offered and the social possibilities it opened or closed, to ideas and the pressure they exerted on still plastic institutions. But the upshot is not in doubt. Somehow, Europe was beginning by 1500 to organize itself differently from the Europe of Carolingians and Ottomans. Though personal and local ties were to remain for centuries overwhelmingly the most important ones for most Europeans, society was institutionalized in a different way from that of the days when even tribal loyalties still counted. The relationship of lord and vassal which, with the vague claims of pope and emperor in the background, so long seemed to exhaust political thought, was beginning to give way to an idea of princely power over all the inhabitants of a domain which, in extreme assertions (such as that of Henry VIII of England that a prince knew no external superior save God) was really quite new.
Necessarily, such a change neither took place everywhere in the same way nor at the same pace. By 1800 France and England would have been for centuries conceivable as notions in a way that Germany and Italy were still not. Wherever it happened, the heart of this was usually the steady aggrandizement of royal families. Kings enjoyed great advantages. If they ran their affairs carefully they had a more solid power base in their usually large (and sometimes very large) domains than had noblemen in their smaller estates. The kingly office had a mysterious aura about it, reflected in the solemn circumstances of coronations and anointings. Royal courts seemed to promise a more independent, less expensive justice than could be got from the local feudal lords. In the twelfth century, too, a new consciousness of the need for law began to appear and kings were in a powerful position to say what law was to run in their courts. They could therefore appeal not only to the resources of the feudal structure at whose head - or somewhere near it - they stood, but also to other forces outside. One of these, which was slowly revealed as of growing importance, was the sense of nationhood.
This idea (which modern man takes for granted) we must be careful not to antedate. No medieval state was national in our sense. Nevertheless, by 1500 the subjects of the kings of England and France could think of themselves as different from aliens who were not their fellow subjects, even if they might also regard people who lived in the next village as virtually foreigners. Even two hundred years earlier this sort of distinction was being made between those born within and those born outside the realm and the sense of community of the native-born was steadily enhanced. One symptom was the appearance of belief in national patron saints; though churches had been dedicated to him under the Anglo-Saxon kings, only in the fourteenth century did St George’s red cross on a white background become a kind of uniform for English soldiers when he was recognized as official protector of England (his exploit in killing the dragon had only been attributed to him in the twelfth century and may be the result of mixing him up with a legendary Greek hero, Perseus). Another was the writing of national histories (already foreshadowed by the Dark Age histories of the Germanic peoples) and the discovery of national heroes. In the twelfth century a Welshman more or less invented the mythological figure of Arthur, while an Irish chronicler of the same period built up an unhistorical myth of the High King Brian Boru and his defence of Christian Ireland against the Vikings. Above all, there was more vernacular literature. First Spanish and Italian, then French and English began to break through the barrier set about literary creativity by Latin. The ancestors of these tongues are recognizable in twelfth-century romances such as the Song of Roland, which transformed a defeat of Charlemagne by Pyrenean mountaineers into the glorious stand of his rearguard against the Arabs, or the Poem of the Cid, the epic of a Spanish national hero. With the fourteenth century came Dante, Langland and Chaucer, each of them writing in a language which we can read with little difficulty.
We must not exaggerate the immediate impact. For centuries yet, family, local community, religion or trade were still to be the focus of most men’s loyalties. Such national institutions as they could have seen growing among them would have done little to break into this conservatism; in few places was it more than a matter of the king’s justices and the king’s tax-gatherers - and even in England, the most national of late medieval states, many people might never have seen either. The rural parishes and little towns of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, were real communities, and in ordinary times provided enough to think about in the way of social responsibilities. We really need another word than ‘nationalism’ to suggest the occasional and fleeting glimpses of a community of the realm which might once in a while touch a medieval man, or even the irritation which might suddenly burst out in a riot against the presence of foreigners, whether workmen or merchants. (Medieval anti-Semitism, of course, had different roots.) Yet such hints of national feeling occasionally reveal the slow consolidation of support for new states in western Europe.
The first to cover anything like the areas of their modern successors were England and France. A few thousand Normans had come over from France after the invasion of 1066 to Anglo-Saxon England to form a new ruling class. Their leader, William the Conqueror, gave them lands, but retained more for himself (the royal estates were larger than those of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors) and asserted an ultimate lordship over the rest: he was to be lord of the land and all men held what they held either directly or indirectly of him. He inherited the prestige and machinery of the old English monarchy, too, and this was important, for it raised him decisively above his fellow Norman warriors. The greatest of them became William’s earls and barons, the lesser ones among them knights, ruling England at first from the wooden and earth castles which they spread over the length of the land.
They had conquered one of the most civilized societies in Europe, which went on under the Anglo-Norman kings to show unusual vigour. A few years after the Conquest, English government carried out one of the most remarkable administrative acts of the Middle Ages, the compilation of the Domesday Book, a huge survey of England for royal purposes. The evidence was taken from juries in every shire and hundred and its minuteness deeply impressed the Anglo-Saxon chronicler who bitterly noted (‘it is shameful to record, but did not seem shameful for him to do’) that not an ox, cow or pig escaped the notice of William’s men. In the next century there was rapid, even spectacular development in the judicial strength of the Crown. Though minorities and weak kings from time to time led to royal concessions to the magnates, the essential integrity of the monarchy was not compromised. The constitutional history of England is for five hundred years the story of the authority of the Crown - its waxing and waning. This owed much to the fact that England was separated from possible enemies, except to the north, by water; it was hard for foreigners to interfere in her domestic politics and the Normans were to remain her last successful invaders.
For a long time, though, the Anglo-Norman kings were more than kings of an island state. They were heirs of a complex inheritance of possessions and feudal dependencies which at its furthest stretched far into southwestern France. Like their followers, they still spoke Norman French. The loss of most of their ‘Angevin’ inheritance (the name came from Anjou) at the beginning of the twelfth century was decisive for France as well as for England. A sense of nationhood was further nurtured in each of them by their quarrels with one another.
The Capetians had hung on grimly to the French crown. From the tenth century to the fourteenth their kings succeeded one another in unbroken hereditary succession. They added to the domain lands which were the basis of royal power. The Capetians’ lands were rich, too. They fell in the heartland of modern France, the cereal-growing area round Paris called the Ile de France, which was for a long time the only part of the country bearing the old name of Francia, thus commemorating the fact that it was a fragment of the old kingdom of the Franks. The domains of the first Capetians were thus distinguished from the other west Carolingian territories, such as Burgundy; by 1300 their vigorous successors had expanded ‘Francia’ to include Bourges, Tours, Gisors and Amiens. By then the French kings had also acquired Normandy and other feudal dependencies from the kings of England.
This is a reminder that in the fourteenth century (and later) there were still great fiefs and feudal principalities in what is now France, which make it improper to think of the Capetian kingdom as a monolithic unity. Yet it was a unity of sorts, though much rested on the personal tie. During the fourteenth century that unity was greatly enhanced by a long struggle with England, remembered by the misleading name of the Hundred Years War. In fact, English and French were only sporadically at war between 1337 and 1453. Sustained warfare was difficult to keep up; it was too expensive. Formally, though, what was at stake was the maintenance by the kings of England of territorial and feudal claims on the French side of the Channel; in 1350 Edward III had quartered his arms with those of France. There were therefore always likely to be specious grounds to start fighting again, and the opportunities it offered to English noblemen for booty and ransom money made war seem a plausible investment to many of them.
For England, these struggles supplied new elements to the infant mythology of nationhood (largely because of the great victories won at Crecy and Agincourt) and generated a long-lived distrust of the French. The Hundred Years War was important to the French monarchy because it did something to check feudal fragmentation and broke down somewhat the barriers between Picard and Gascon, Norman and French. In the long run, too, French national mythology benefited; its greatest acquisition was the story and example of Joan of Arc, whose astonishing career accompanied the turning of the balance of the long struggle against the English, though few Frenchmen of the day knew she existed. The two long-term results of the war which mattered most were that Crecy soon led to the English conquest of Calais and that England was the loser in the long run. Calais was to be held by the English for two hundred years and opened Flanders, where a cluster of manufacturing towns was ready to absorb English wool and later cloth exports, to English trade. England’s ultimate defeat meant that her territorial connection with France was virtually at an end by 1500 (though in the eighteenth century George III was still entitled ‘King of France’). Once more England became almost an island. After 1453 French kings could push forward with the consolidation of their state undisturbed by the obscure claims of England’s kings from which the wars had sprung. They could settle down to establish their sovereignty over their rebellious magnates at their leisure. In each country, war in the long run strengthened the monarchy.
Processes which laid out the groundwork for a national consolidation were also to be seen at work, if sometimes haphazardly and fitfully, in Spain. By 1500 the Spanish had a mythical underpinning for a national history in the story of the Reconquest. The sense of a long drawn-out war of religion with Islam gave Spanish nationhood a special shape and flavour. The Reconquest was indeed sometimes preached as a crusade. It was a cause which could unite men of very diverse background and origins. Sometimes, too, Christian kings had worked with Moorish allies and there had been periods of peaceful coexistence when no strong sense of religious exclusiveness seemed to divide peoples living side by side in the peninsula. Yet the Reconquest was also a series of colonial wars to repossess and exploit lands conquered by Arab armies centuries before. Under varying impulses, therefore, the frontiers of the Christian kingdoms moved slowly forward. In the mid-twelfth century Toledo was again a Christian capital (with its greatest mosque pressed into service as a cathedral), and in the thirteenth the Castilians overran Andalusia and the Aragonese seized the Arab city of Valencia. In 1340, when the last great Arab offensive was defeated, success brought the threat of anarchy as the turbulent nobles of Castile strove to assert themselves. The monarchy took the burghers of the towns into alliance. The establishment of stronger personal rule followed the union of the crowns of Aragon and Castile by the marriage in 1479 of Los Reyes Catolicos, ‘the Catholic Monarchs’, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. This made easier both the final expulsion of the Moors and the eventual creation of one nation, though the two kingdoms long remained formally and legally separate. Only Portugal in the peninsula remained outside the framework of a new Spain; she clung to an independence often threatened by her powerful neighbour.
Little sign of the ground-plans of future nations was to be found in Germany. Potentially, the claims of the Holy Roman Emperors were an important and broad base for political power. Yet after 1300 they had lost virtually all the special respect due to their title. The last German to march to Rome and force his coronation as emperor did so in 1328, and it proved an abortive effort. A long thirteenth-century dispute between rival emperors was one reason for this. Another was the inability of the emperors to consolidate monarchical authority in their diverse dominions.
In Germany, the domains of successive imperial families were usually scattered and disunited. The imperial election was in the hands of great magnates. Once elected, emperors had no special capital city to provide a centre for a nascent German nation. Political circumstances led them more and more to devolve such power as they possessed. Important cities began to exercise imperial powers within their territories. In 1356, a document traditionally accepted as a landmark in German constitutional history (though only a registration of established fact), the Golden Bull, named seven electoral princes who acquired the exercise of almost all the imperial rights in their own lands. Their jurisdiction, for example, was henceforth absolute; no appeals lay from their courts to the emperor. What persisted in this situation of attenuated imperial power was a reminiscence of the mythology, which would still prove a temptation to vigorous princes.
An Austrian family, the house of Habsburg, eventually succeeded to the imperial throne. The first Habsburg to be emperor was chosen in 1273, but he remained a solitary example for a long time. The imperial greatness of the house lay ahead, for the Habsburgs were to provide emperors almost without break from the accession of Maximilian I, who became emperor in 1493, to the end of the empire in 1806. And even then they were to survive another century as the rulers of a great state. They began with an important advantage: as German princes went, they were rich. But major resources only became available to them after a marriage which, in the end, brought them the inheritance of the duchy of Burgundy, the most affluent of all fifteenth-century European states and one including much of the Netherlands. Other inheritances and marriages would add Hungary and Bohemia to their possessions. For the first time since the thirteenth century, it seemed possible that an effective political unity might be imposed on Germany and central Europe; Habsburg family interest in uniting the scattered dynastic territories now had a possible instrument in the imperial dignity.
By that time the empire had virtually ceased to matter south of the Alps. The struggle to preserve it there had long been tangled with Italian politics: the contestants in feuds which tormented Italian cities called themselves Guelph and Ghibelline long after those names ceased to mean, as they formerly did, allegiance respectively to pope or emperor. After the fourteenth century there was no imperial domain in Italy and emperors hardly went there except to be crowned with the Lombard crown. Imperial authority was delegated to ‘vicars’ who made of their vicariates units almost as independent as the electorates of Germany. Titles were given to these rulers and their vicariates, some of which lasted until the nineteenth century; the duchy of Milan was one of the first. But other Italian states had different origins. Besides the Norman south, the ‘kingdom of the Two Sicilies’, there were the republics, of which Venice, Genoa and Florence were the greatest.
The city republics represented the outcome of two great trends sometimes interwoven in early Italian history, the ‘communal’ movement and the rise of commercial wealth. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, in much of north Italy, general assemblies of the citizens had emerged as effective governments in many towns. They described themselves sometimes as parliamenta or, as we might say, town meetings, and represented municipal oligarchies who profited from a revival of trade beginning to be felt from 1100 onwards. In the twelfth century the Lombard cities took the field against the emperor and beat him. Thereafter they ran their own internal affairs.
A golden age for Italy was just beginning which was to last well into the fourteenth century. It was marked by a striking increase of wealth, based on both manufacturing (mainly of textiles) and commerce. But its glory was a cultural efflorescence, which was expressed not only in what contemporaries saw as a rebirth of classical learning, but also in the creation of a vernacular literature, in music, and in all the visual and plastic arts. Its triumphs were widely diffused throughout the peninsula, but above all were visible in Florence, under the nominally republican but actually monarchical government of the Medici, a family whose fortune was rooted in banking. The greatest beneficiary of the revival of trade, though, was Venice. Formally a Byzantine dependency, it was long favoured by the detachment from the troubles of the European mainland accorded by its position on a handful of islands in a shallow lagoon. Men had already fled there from the Lombards. Besides offering security, geography also imposed a destiny; Venice, as its citizens loved later to remember, was wedded to the sea, and a great festival of the Republic commemorated it by the symbolic act of throwing a ring into the waters of the Adriatic. Venetian citizens were forbidden to acquire estates on the mainland and instead turned their energies to commercial empire overseas. Venice became the first west European city to live by trade. It was also the most successful of those who pillaged and battered on the eastern empire after winning a long struggle with Genoa for commercial supremacy in the East. There was plenty to go around: Genoa, Pisa and the Catalan ports all prospered with the revival of Mediterranean trade with the East.
Much of the political ground-plan of modern Europe was, therefore, in being by 1500. Portugal, Spain, France and England were recognizable in their modern form, but although in Italy and Germany the vernacular had begun to define nationhood, there was no correspondence in them between nation and state. State structures, too, were still far from enjoying the firmness and coherence they later acquired. The kings of France were not kings of Normandy but dukes. Different titles symbolized different legal and practical powers in different provinces. There were many such complicated survivals; constitutional relics everywhere cluttered up the idea of monarchical sovereignty, and they could provide excuses for rebellion. One explanation of the success of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, was that by judicious marriages he drew much of the remaining poison from the bitter struggle of great families which had bedevilled the English Crown in the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. Yet there were still to be feudal rebellions to come.
One limitation on monarchical power had appeared which has a distinctly modern look. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be found the first examples of the representative, parliamentary bodies which are so characteristic of the modern state. The most famous of them all, the English parliament, was the most mature by 1500. Their origins are complex and have been much debated. One root is Germanic tradition, which imposed on a ruler the obligation of taking counsel from his great men and acting on it. The Church, too, was an early exponent of the representative idea, using it, among other things, to obtain taxation for the papacy. It was a device which united towns with monarchs, too: in the twelfth century representatives from Italian cities were summoned to the diet of the empire. By the end of the thirteenth century most countries had seen examples of representatives with full powers being summoned to attend assemblies which princes had called to find new ways of raising taxation.
This was the nub of the matter. New resources had to be tapped by the new (and more expensive) state. Once summoned, princes found representative bodies had other advantages. They enabled voices other than those of the magnates to be heard. They provided local information. They had a propaganda value. On their side, the early parliaments (as we may loosely call them) of Europe were discovering that the device had advantages for them, too. In some of them the thought arose that taxation needed consent and that someone other than the nobility had an interest and therefore ought to have a voice in the running of the realm.