While some will point to the Magna Carta and England as the birthplace of sovereignty they seem to be conflating democratic institutions with institutions of absolutism. Rather as we will see, the commonwealth, is a description of multiple systems, but is not by itself a sovereign principle. In fact the accelerated growth of the scope of Christendom in the eight century was a necessary condition for the formation of feudalism. And the relative resurgence of the security and trade subsystems where a necessary condition for the formation of the absolutist state. Our line of reasoning is novel but testable, plus we ought to be wary of claims about relative power which expect the system to shift when a rising hegemon defeats a decadent power.
The interregnum between the Rome ’s hierarchical sovereignty and the principles of bartered sovereignty established by Charles Martel, Charlemagne, and the Catholic Church saw a relative decline in literacy and written work. The church became the main repository of knowledge during this period and remained so for centuries afterwards. This is vitally important to understanding politics during the period for two reasons. First, leaders at the time had little tradition to draw from. Important thinkers such as Aristotle were lost to these generations. Second, we have fewer recollections and histories of the period from which to draw an understanding of their political system. The number of extant writings in Rome and ancient China by contrast give us a wealth of sources on which to draw out their principles of rule. However, we can lay out some of the basic problems that existed during this period with some degree of certainty. Even while the Roman Empire retained some influence in the west during the latter stages of the Western Roman Empire, the Merovingian kings began to establish their rule over the Franks and much of Northern Gaul. The Merovingians ruled according to Salic law. The term rule and law are here very dubious. The most important principle of Salic law for this study was the division of property among all of ruler’s sons. This rule ensured that the Merovingian period was characterized by internecine fighting among family members over inheritances. (See Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: the creation and transformation of the Merovingian world, Oxford University Press, 1988).
For example, Clovis—one of the most powerful of the Merovingian kings—gained a relative unprecedented level of power mainly through killing most of those closely related to him that had land or could make claims on his land. But upon his death his kingdom was divided into four for each of his sons. The warring began again. Primat, a chronicler of French history in the thirteenth century, relates the story of Clovis’ wife, Clotild, now a grandmother, being presented the option by her other sons to, “make a choice between two things: either your grandchildren will become clerics and be shorn with the scissors, or they will be killed with [a] sword; one of these two actions must be taken.” (Robert Levine, France before Charlemagne: a translation from the Grandes chroniques, 1990, pg. 68).
Clotild thinking her sons would not be so brutal as to do the latter chose not to send them into the priesthood. When her son Lothar, kills the first of the grandchildren Primat remarks, “Things turned out otherwise, for the treacherour Lothar took the eldest of the children, threw him to the ground, stuck a knife in his ribs and tooks his life and his kingdom.” (Ibid. pg. 69).
The most significant part of this is that the grandson’s very existence was proof of a future kingdom. Lothar’s act on future generations was an act of territorial consolidation. Adding to the problem was the fact that the Franks were not the only tribe in modern-day France. Gaul was divided into five different units: Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy, Aquitane, and Provence. (Guy Halsall, Social Identities and Social Relationships in Early Merovingian Gaul. In Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian period: an ethnographic perspective, edited by I. N. Wood, 1998, pg. 145).
Not only did the Merovingian kings have to contend for the control of the regions among their siblings, but when they lost control of those regions they had to contend with whoever had taken over that territory. Burgundy , in particular, proved to be a lasting problem for Frankish kings. Salic law provided the division of kingdoms among the king’s sons which weakened the descendants of the king vis-à-vis outside challengers and encouraged brutal wars between blood relatives. No sovereign principle existed at this point and the laws that filled the void were decidedly problematic. Lineages among the royal family were strictly controlled, but other social hierarchies were fluid and contingent. (Ibid. pg. 150).
The absence of a rigid social hierarchy reinforced the notion that conflicts could occur at any given time with a number of claims being both legitimate and important. While Frankish identity expanded in scope, Frankish rule was much more hit and miss. (Ibid. pg. 158).
Paul Fouracre explains that Frankish political institutions were based upon Roman law, but were far more brutal and far less regulated. Kings were expected to consult with other elites, but it was common not to. Law was as much a practical matter of expedience as it was a matter of justice. Killing dissidents and challengers was accepted in the course of business. Brutality of course is not mutually exclusive from a sovereign principle, but the fact that the incidents of brutality were spontaneous and contingent suggests that no real principle existed. It was a profoundly unstable period. (Fouracre, Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian period: an ethnographic perspective. Edited by I. N. Wood, 1998).
Kings were expected to consult with other elites, but it was common not to. Law was as much a practical matter of expedience as it was a matter of justice. Killing dissidents and challengers was accepted in the course of business. Brutality of course is not mutually exclusive from a sovereign principle, but the fact that the incidents of brutality were spontaneous and contingent suggests that no real principle existed. It was a profoundly unstable period. Charles Martel entered into this environment as Mayor of the Palace for the last Merovingian king. This title implied the role of chief administrator. By the end of the Merovingian dynasty it had evolved to mean effective ruler. At this point the Merovingian kings were a fairly pathetic lot given more to avarice, drinking, and whoring than the actual business of rule. Charles Martel established his own authority by defeating the Moors and the Burgundians. His military success led him to ultimately ignore the succession of the Merovingian line and establish his own family as the rulers of the Franks. (Edward James, The origins of France: from Clovis to the Capetians, 500-1000, 1982, pg 152).
So began the Carolingian period. But the essential problem of rule remained. Rather than focus on a decision rule like primogeniture he chose to create a basic set of feudal arrangements. This is perhaps unsurprising; feudal arrangements are more consistent with pre-existing Salic institutions than primogeniture would have been. The political institutions were likewise consistent with Merovingian rule. Independent rulers persisted throughout much of Gaul in the forms of counts. The Carolingian innovation following from Charles Martel was to add another set of authority figures, missi, and bind all of these forms of nobility to the king.(Since the titles are interchangeable, the missi will also be referred to as dukes).The principle, which was entrenched more deeply by Martel’s grandson Charlemagne, can be summarized as, ‘From fealty comes survival; from survival comes advancement.’ The general instability of Merovingian rule encouraged widespread violence. With Carolingian rule came a stable principle. Instead of constantly warring over inheritances—though this would persist in a more limited form throughout the feudal era—a basic negotiation principle became entrenched. The Salic laws which allowed for the distribution of lands among sons and the election of new kings when a family line died out was not truly eliminated until Hugh Capet had his son Robert crowned king, without dividing lands, while he still lived in 987. (François Louis Ganshof, Frankish institutions under Charlemagne. Providence , 1968).
If all local rulers were loyal to the king their bargaining position would be improved vis-à-vis other local rulers. But none had the legitimacy to enforce their claims directly.
Charlemagne was a micromanager. As the most central figure in the formal creation of a Frankish principle of bartered sovereignty Charlemagne created rules which reflected his keen interest in the administration of the kingdom. In a number of Charlemagne’s capitularies—set of rules released by Charlemagne or in his name— he reaffirms the basic logic of bartered sovereignty. In the Capitulare de Villis he reaffirms the basic hierarchy of the fief distinguishing between serfs and freemen, stewards, mayors, and the various tradesmen that keep an estate running.( H. R. Loyn and John Percival, The Reign of Charlemagne: documents on Carolingian government and administration, 1976, pp 64-73).
Other capitularies such as the Capitulare missorum Generale and the Divisio Regnorum dealt more directly with the business of rule. Beyond dealing with issues such as incest, private judgment, corruption and the like Charlemagne specifically outlaws patricide and fratricide. This is an obvious reversal of earlier Merovingian practices. This can be understood at its core as a principle of bartered sovereignty. Instead of creating a stable hierarchy through a rigidly controlled family tree, the basic rules of allegiance and servitude are negotiated as a matter of expedience. All public lands became state lands and were handed out based upon rank and fealty. Fealty among the counts and dukes was regulated by a separate set of ministers called the missi. The fealty oaths taken by local lords prior to Charlemagne’s rule were fairly weak. According to the Chronicle of Fredegar, a contemporaneous account of the period prior to Charlemagne’s rule the oaths were frequently broken and renegotiated. (See Chronicle of Fredegar).
One instructive sequence of events was when Charlemagne’s father, Pippin III, restored a fortress and gave it to Remistanius a local lord in order to oppose another, Waiofar. Later Remistanius would defect and pledge loyalty to Waoifar. In order to deal with this betrayal Pippin plotted with the Saracens, traditional Frankish enemies, to capture Remistanius and hand him over for judgement by Pippin. By hanging Remistanius Pippin was able to gain the fealty of most of Waiofar’s supporters. (J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The fourth book of the Chronicle of Fredegar. London , 1960, Ch. 46 – 51 pp 114-119).
Only occasionally was a broken oath cause in itself for cutting off future diplomatic ties. The missi were only marginally capable of asserting the king’s over-lordship in relation to these fealty oaths. After Charlemagne came to power the local struggles were mostly suppressed and most of the wars took place on the outer bounds of the Frankish kingdom among the Saracens, the Burgundians, and the Saxons. A separate principle bound slaves and freemen alike to their local land. In the Double Capitulary of Thionville Charlemagne sets out the principle that all owe fealty to the king unless they owe fealty to somebody else. Specifically he states, “Concerning the swearing of oaths, that fealty should not be sworn to anyone except to us, and by each man to his [own] lord with a view to our interest and that of the lord himself; excepted are those oaths which are rightly owed by one man to another One instructive sequence of events was when Charlemagne’s father, Pippin III, restored a fortress and gave it to Remistanius a local lord in order to oppose another, Waiofar. Later Remistanius would defect and pledge loyalty to Waoifar. In order to deal with this betrayal Pippin plotted with the Saracens, traditional Frankish enemies, to capture Remistanius and hand him over for judgement by Pippin. By hanging Remistanius Pippin was able to gain the fealty of most of Waiofar’s supporters. (Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. 1960. The fourth book of the Chronicle of Fredegar. London: Nelson. Ch. 46 – 51 pp 114-119).
Yet all of the kingdom was ultimately bound to Charlemagne’s judgment. In the original state of bartered sovereignty there were provisions balancing the appetites of the nobles with the poverty of the masses. The missi were responsible for administering this basic level of justice and Charlemagne was remarkably involved in the entire process. At this level bartered sovereignty is incredibly effective and stable. The problem is that as a sovereign principle it relies almost entirely upon the skill of those involved in the bartering. The commonly accepted notion of feudalism flowed from the flaws of Charlemagne’s successors. Nobles became more elitist and control over them weakened. Local nobles were able to form their own petty kingdoms. Bartered sovereignty from the end of Charlemagne’s rule in 813 AD to the issuance of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 shifted power back and forth between the king—when there was one—and the local nobility. Bargaining ability would prove to be central throughout much of this period. Given these constraints the interpersonal bonds of bartered sovereignty became an impersonal institution. North and Thomas recognized this fact some time ago, noting that as far as the fief went the input negotiations between lord and serf— as opposed to slavery, fixed wages, or fixed rents—were the optimal arrangement given the limitations at the time. (Douglass Cecil North and Robert Paul Thomas, The rise of the Western world; a new economic history. Cambridge [ Eng. ] 1973).
Between elites the responsibilities of a vassal to his lord and a lord to the church varied on an as needed basis. Where the church and the ideological subsystem were relatively dominant they arbitrated the competing claims of various lords. The church was the only dominant structure over most of the European world order at the time and so was often the case that the Church was involved in arbitrating claims. However, the church was weak in one fundamental manner: it had no army of its own. It had its own vassals, but could not organize its own army. Thus the relative power of the lords provided a bargaining position wherein they could secure both the stamp of legitimacy and the authority to undertake whatever campaigns they saw as necessary. After all, it is easy to claim that the internecine violence of the time was caused by brigands and marauders, but it was equally attributable to the competing land claims of lords and vassals among each other. Violence during this period was a fact of life. The relative zone of peace provided by Christendom merely made this violence more predictable.The social subsystems of the feudal period presented an interesting set of problems and led to the Origins and Evolution of Bartered Sovereignty. At the beginning of the Carolingian period Christianity had split into a number of variants. The center of the Catholic Church remained in Rome, but the emperor had moved to Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire formed another center of religion and it was one which tried to exert control over the Catholic Church, but with limited effect. Arianism, which had developed in Alexandria during the decline of the Western Roman Empire , had persisted among the Germanic tribes. (Michel R. Barnes and Daniel H. Williams, Arianism after Arius: essays on the development of the fourth century Trinitarian conflicts, 1993).
Christianity was pervasive in Europe at the time, but there was no unified hierarchy by which all belonged and all believed similarly. At the same time military tactics had shifted fundamentally away from massive infantry wars. Small armies and roving bands ofcavalry had become the norm. Cities had collapsed in favor of the massive patronage networks of latifundia, but the latifundia could not sustain the other major benefits of cities as centers of learning and exchange. Markets became itinerant and illiteracy became commonplace. Given these limitations forming a cohesive world order becomes incredibly difficult.
Charlemagne’s rule proved to be central not only in creating new principles of rule, but in creating the space in which these principles could become dominant. As indicated above, the principles of bartered sovereignty created by Charlemagne and his grandfather, Charles Martel were of a limited variety. All fealties were focused on one central figure, the king. They responded to the basic infrastructural limitations of their immediate kingdoms. Charles Martel could not control all of the various nobles in the territories he had conquered personally, he therefore created the missi to administrate in his name while he granted the counts and dukes their various fiefs. The problem became pronounced as Charlemagne began to conquer outlying kingdoms and to build the Frankish Empire. One thing aided him greatly in this endeavor: his close relations with the Catholic Church in Rome .
A central part of Charlemagne’s wars was the elimination of heretical Christians in Gaul. Charlemagne was generally considered to be a benevolent ruler, but the punishments meted out to Arians and other heretical sects were almost always brutal and almost always ended with death. While brutal this had the long-term effect of rapidly expanding the scope of the Catholic ideological subsystem through Western Europe. The pope remained weak in relation to the Byzantine Emperor however. The coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans on Christmas day in the year 800 had the lasting effect of giving the power of legitimizing future emperors to the pope. Einhard in The Life of Charlemagne The Medieval Sourcebook(2005), notes that, “It was then that he received the titles of Emperor and Augustus [Dec 25, 800], to which he at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.” (See also: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/einhard1.html).
Furthermore in proclaiming Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor it effectively made the Frankish Empire the proxy for Christendom. Other portions of the Mediterranean world remained within the Catholic scope, but were less subordinate to Catholic rule. The wax and wane of this power over time proves crucial to explaining the feudal world order. It was the legitimizing force of faith mapped onto the impressive military conquests of Charlemagne that defined what Christendom could be. (Donald A. Bullough, Carolingian renewal : sources and heritage, 1991, pg. 146).
It was for later leaders to wrestle over what it was. While the power to crown the Holy Roman Emperor remained a powerful tool in the pope’s arsenal it was another associated tool that proved to be most important: excommunication. In Charlemagne’s campaigns he was able to extend and unify Christendom, but the pope’s power to excommunicate provided an important counterbalance to the power of the Frankish kings and, the Holy Roman Emperor. In France this had the long-term effect of creating a unified area in which ideological hierarchies were rather static, but which remained outside the direct control of the French kings. There has been a debate about the precise nature of warfare and war-making in early feudal period. Accounts of Charles Martel’s victory over the Moors at Poitiers in 732 suggest that the Moors fought on horseback while the Franks may have ridden to the site of the battle, but battled on foot. Similarly, there is some evidence that the stirrup—which was one of the more crucial inventions in history— was becoming prevalent during the period of Charlemagne’s rule. However, one cannot say for certain that cavalry was the central tool of war until after the turn of the millennium. (Lynn Townsend White, Medieval technology and social change, Oxford University Press, 1966).
Regardless, what is apparent about warfare in Europe at the time was that it had become the pursuit of the elites. This is not to suggest that only the elites fought, but that it was organized according to elite status. This is in contrast to formal status built through military service. The days of massive legions had long since passed. The absence of a large, organized army severely limited the designs of any king. Armies were built indirectly through local nobles and their vassals and serfs instead of through a direct method of conscription. When a campaign was over the army disbanded. Enforcing borders and protecting frontiers with this sort of military force was limited at best. The limitations were pervasive, but the social hierarchies were localized. The specific nature of the lord-vassal relationship became more and more particularized after Charlemagne’s death. Dunbabin notes that: The quality of lordship symbolized by the fidelity or vassalage varied markedly. Princes, counts, and also kings, could always afford to make heavy demands on their own armed warriors; they could sometimes impose the characteristics of vassalage on their relations with their subordinate aristocrats, whether officers or not, but often had to be content simply with Bullough notes that the increasing power of the French court and the resurgence of centers of learning in France supported the assertion of Frankish power in ecclesiastical issues when the monarchs in Constantinople were either uninterested or powerless to stop this accretion of authority. The difference between fidelity oaths and vassalage was the difference between non-interference agreements and mutual-aid obligations respectively. (Jean Dunbabin, France in the making, 843-1180, 2000, pg 115).
Furthermore vassals often had multiple obligations. Because of the limitations in warfare there were significant limitations in the types of territories that could be built. Even the frontiers of the Frankish Empire during the height of Charlemagne’s power were merely nominal and were frequently nonexistent. The security subsystem was constrained both by technology and by the nature of the lord-vassal relationship. There is more to this era than simply the negotiations of French elites however. This feudal arrangement allowed for what Michael Mann calls, “the extraction of surplus labor through ground rent by a class of landlords from a dependent peasantry” (Mann,The sources of social power: Volume 1: A history of power from the beginning to AD 1760. pg . 375).
Though Charlemange was able to stretch out the boundaries of the French kingdom he was hamstrung by the weakness and poverty of the cities. Charlemagne was generally generous with the church, but his chief advisor and biographer, Einhard, was occasionally forced to demand gifts from local bishops in order to fund the state. (Ganshof). The revenues from state production and limited taxation were not sufficient to keep the state solvent. The amount of capital available for investment and its fluidity were severely limited; the economy as a whole was forced to move from gold to silver coinage. Charlemagne was able to establish standards of coinage and weight, but was limited in his ability to enforce those standards. (James).
Transporting currency was also a dangerous undertaking. Extending credit for long distance purchases was limited in scope because of church rules against usury and was therefore limited small Jewish populations throughout Europe . The net result of these limitations was to limit the size of cities and the scope of markets. Towns remained small and relatively disconnected save for religious pilgrims, nomads, and traveling fairs. The fairs themselves which represented the widest ranging of the markets were itinerant and somewhat unpredictable. The process of ruralization that had begun in the late Roman era continued through the Carolingian dynasty despite the numerous innovations undertaken by Charlemagne.The European world order by the time of Charlemagne’s death thus, was for all purposes a Frankish world order. The initial structure of the European world order in the immediate aftermath of the decline of the Roman Empire is often characterized as fragmented as well as highly personalized. Joseph Strayer says of the period that, “The Roman idea of the state was quickly forgotten in the troubled period of invasions and migrations . . . In the early Middle Ages the dominant form of political organization in Western Europe was the Germanic kingdom, and the Germanic Kingdom was in some ways the complete antithesis of a modern state. It was based on loyalties to persons, not to abstract concepts or impersonal institutions.” (Joseph Reese Strayer, On the medieval origins of the modern state, 1970, Pg 13).
In Frankish Gaul, which was on the fringes of the empire to begin with rule certainly was highly personalized. The beginning of the Carolingian dynasty saw Frankish Gaul become the center of the Western European world order. In conquest Charlemagne was able to define the frontiers of that world order and in death he left a legacy of fragmented deterritorialized polities. While the economic and security systems collapsed precipitously the Church did rise up to replace the fading embers of Roman identity. By the time that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo Christianity had effectively formed a cohesive ideological system over much of Europe . The invasions and migrations had—as far as was possible during the time—largely ceased. Europe emerged from centuries of turmoil as a Catholic continent. In so doing one cannot underestimate the importance of that faith. The common creed that united the Frankish world order enabled other important relationships including those bonds of kith and kin that were central to bartered sovereignty. Various secular and religious norms bound Europe together. The pope held the power to excommunicate and crown kings. Used wisely these powers expanded the scope of Christendom and created some degree of conformity within it. Similarly, the power of kings to grant vassalage created the means to protect their vast land holdings while at the same time defending Christendom where necessary. In the wake of Charlemagne’s death the Frankish Empire began to fragment. This happened partly because Salic tradition remained and competing claims to inheritances would come to divide the kingdom, and partly because his sons lacked the basic acumen for rule that he possessed. By the time Charlemagne died, his son Louis, the sole remaining direct heir, was known more for acumen in piety than in politics. He lacked any skill at mediating the rising conflicts among the nobility. (Dunbabin).
During his reign numerous civil wars began to rend the empire and upon his death the empire was finally divided between his three sons, who warred among themselves over the remains until the Treaty of Verdun in 843. It was these remnants, constantly divided, that created the basis for the characteristic heteronomy of the medieval era.
The Frankish world order was at once bound together by the ideological subsystem, Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire , and was progressively fragmenting as another part of ideological subsystem, Salic law, continued to carve up feudal lands.
As the kingdom began to fragment the other subsystems were limited in scope and capacity; the elites were incapable of abetting the fragmentation. Cities in this period were as much a part of the negotiations as anything else with the bishoprics autonomy traded for right of investiture given to the kings. The autonomy of the cities was traded for the right of the kings to appoint the bishops. There was no secular authority during this phase of bartered sovereignty.
To suggest otherwise is problematic for a number of reasons, but it is most important as regards that lord-serf relationship. From serfs to lords and bishops, from lords and bishops to the pope loyalty and suffering were inherently intertwined. And from the pope down to the meanest serf they were in turn bound to the land given the meager production that was possible at the time. Serfs themselves retained a bargaining position simply because agricultural production and technology had declined so markedly from the end of the Roman Empire . The entire arrangement was open to frequent renegotiation based upon the exigencies of the moment. Thus bartered sovereignty was the logical outcome given the spatial constraints of the time with each linked together by common beliefs, but too weak to enforce any lasting hierarchy upon each other and too impoverished to escape. The Frankish kingdom continued to dwindle, but the Frankish world order persisted in much of Europe. The limited scope of the trade and security subsystems continued to divide Europe , while Christendom continued to hold it together. The shift from a wholly unstable system into a prolonged period of bartered sovereignty is thus somewhat easy to explain. What remains more difficult to explain is the second phase of this European transformation: from bartered sovereignty to administrative sovereignty. The Carolingian Dynasty died in 967 AD with death of Louis V. Without a male heir to inherit the kingdom it fell to a council to appoint the new king. After some debate Hugh Capet was elected king. The kingdom that he accepted was by this point divided by not only by fief, but by currency and language. Capet himself was notable not so much for how he lived, but how he died. Nearing death he oversaw the coronation of his son, Robert II, as King of France. This had a profound effect upon the Frankish world order. Capet’s desire to ensure his family’s power had the long term effect of undermining Salic law.Primogeniture would not become common in France for some time, but a stable line of succession for the kingship did become more or less accepted practice.At the turn of the millennium the French social and economic environment began to improve rapidly. The kingdoms would continue to fragment and the principle of bartered sovereignty would persist, but numerous changes began to substantially affect the course of French history. The changes in technology and wealth were not, in and of themselves, the proximate causes of change in the sovereign principles of the European world order. In fact, the end of the Carolingian line had a profound affect on the stability of the Frankish— now becoming French—world order. Set loose from its moorings the various nobles continued to assert their authority through a principle of bartered sovereignty, but that authority came to define smaller and smaller territories. Regino of Prüm, noted in the tenth century, that: After Charles [the Fat’s] death, the kingdoms which had obeyed his will, as if devoid of a legitimate heir, were loosened from their bodily structure into parts and now awaited no lord or hereditary descent, but each set out to create a king for itself from its own inner parts. This event roused many impulses towards war, not because Frankish princes, who in nobility, strength, and wisdom were able to rule kingdoms, were lacking, but because among themselves an equality of generosity, dignity, and power increased discord. No one surpassed the others that they considered it fitting to submit themselves to follow his rule. Indeed Francia would given rise to many princes fit to govern the kingdom had not fortune in the pursuit of power armed them for mutual destruction. (Paul Edward Dutton, Carolingian civilization: a reader, 1993, pg 507).
With the end of the Carolingian line at hand the stabilizing force of a strong king loosed upon France an anarchy of contending powers intent on asserting their legitimate claims, but lacking the power or charisma to insist on fealty. The emerging French polity was stabilized by the accession of Hugh Capet, but was still wracked with the competing claims of local lords. Hugh Capet, himself was only safe in region nearest the Île de France. Two major events during this period began to change the violent status quo that defined medieval France: the resurgence of French agricultural production and the economy, and the diminishing power of the Catholic Church in Europe . The next two sections will explore the import of these events in the evolution of the French state. Cities reemerged in the period between 1000 AD and the beginning of the Hundred Years War (1336 AD), characterized by increasing competition over the growing resources of the continent. From this point the French state grew in fits and starts. “The transformative story of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was the economic and governmental colonization of formerly underdeveloped and undergoverned internal spaces. In counties, castellanies, and fiefs of all sorts, the number of towns, villages, and parishes increased, forests were cleared, new fields planted, and markets founded.” (Geoffrey Koziol, Political Culture. In France in the central Middle Ages: ages 900-1200, edited by M. Bull, 2002, pg 59).
The increasing wealth did not make bartered sovereignty obsolete, but reversed the process fragmentation that followed from the Treaty of Verdun and highlighted the integrative possibilities of bartered sovereignty rather than the disintegrative capacity which had been dominant. Wealthier lords began to assert their dominance over weaker ones. Fealty became more stable as lords gained the ability to punish defectors. Cities and agricultural production became central to the increasing power of lords rather than islands of resistance to feudal capriciousness. Under Pope Urban II we see the beginning of the European Crusades to liberate Jerusalem. The Crusades did have the ultimate effect of breaking Europe out of a period of profound isolation while simultaneously distracting the pope from the more general affairs of Europe. With the end of this isolationism trade began to reemerge. This happened first and foremost in Italy . But France held some of the more fertile land in Western Europe and together with Flanders was able to begin to produce surplus product. The trade that developed between Flanders and England around this time was crucial to world history. The growth of industry and trade around this period led the nobles to view their fiefs as more than simple land grants whereby they would pay their debts to the king. They became profitable endeavors. The basic feudal arrangement remained, but the units which they described began to change fundamentally. The fief became an estate, the town became a center of production rather than a refuge of the meek, and the church shifted from dominating presence to mediator, teacher, and landholder. Cities over time became more than mere vessels of opposition to the feudal structure; they became alternatives to that structure. The bishoprics and independent cities survived the expansion of feudalism precisely because they were a part of the feudal structure.(Strayer).Their relative autonomy was bartered between elites as a matter of course. Autonomy was not assumed, but was merely guaranteed temporarily as a function of force or diplomacy. Their power in this instance flowed not from counter-balancing the king and his vassals, but by providing leverage to them or to the church. The long-term effect of this of course was to instill a true sense of independence within the cities. Regardless of their position within the system their own beliefs created the impetus for change.
Combined with the revival of Roman law, the rediscovery of Aristotle, and a number of other philosophical revelations the late Middle Ages shifted the power to the cities because the cities presented a philosophical alternative to the feudal structure. The revival of trade, the return of a monetarized economy, and secular contracts in the Middle Ages all had a profound effect on the French world order. It was not just that cities experienced a marked and important resurgence, it was the manner in which it happened. The expansion of cities both in size and in number followed directly from the expansion of long-distance trade. This expansion of trade was in turn enabled by the gradual and growing obsolescence of interpersonal contracts. The early medieval era was based on narrow allegiances and kinship ties . . . Such personal ties and lack of confidence in the material environment made economic exchange difficult to conduct . . . The necessity to have circumscribed areas of clear jurisdiction, and the desire to substantiate private property combined with the necessity for more formalized interaction which could exist independent of the specific actors, renewed interest in Roman law. (H. G. Koenigsberger, George L. Mosse, and G. Q. Bowler. 1989. Europe in the sixteenth century. 2nd ed.)
Overcoming the temporal and spatial limitations on trade in Europe was thus the chief achievement of cities and merchants. The subsequent explosion of trade in numerous goods—wool and linens chief among them—led to most of the key changes including the enclosure movement in England, the rapid expansion of cities in modern France, Italy, and Germany, and the eventual schism in the Catholic Church. In France the lord-serf relationship began to disappear in favor of more productive relationships more reminiscent of late Roman times than of the harsh penurious existence enforced on many laypeople during the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. One facet of this new relationship between the lord and laypeople was the bannum which required all inhabitants, serfs, freemen, and otherwise to use the lord’s mills and granaries, and to pay tolls on the use of public goods like roads and bridges. In exchange the lords were largely responsible for increasing the safety of those public areas and expanding the arable land in the fief. (Constance Bouchard, Rural economy and society. In France in the central Middle Ages: ages 900-1200, edited by M. G. Bull, Oxford, 2002, pg. 92).
The rise in production generally went along with a decrease in serfdom and in increase in wages for those tenant farmers. The increase in wealth had the ultimate effect of increasing the strength of bartered sovereignty from the bottom up. The improvement in production increased territorial consolidation and decreased the need for the lord-vassal relationship. As the number of vassals decreases the principle of bartered sovereignty becomes increasingly incoherent. And in 1075 AD the second significant shift took place. A crisis between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII, known as the Investituture Conflict radically changed the hierarchy within Christendom and ultimately began to undermine the centrality of the Catholic Church in European politics. Kings had long held the right to choose and appoint bishops in their kingdoms. While this right had been uncontroversial prior to this period, Pope Gregory VII had eliminated the right of investiture by papal decree. King Henry IV of Germany had insisted on the right of kings to put bishops into office. Henry’s response essentially called for Gregory to step down as pope. Gregory subsequently excommunicated Henry. This led to the famous and often mythologized event in 1076 at the castle in Canossa near Milan . As the story goes, Henry stood in the snow (perhaps barefoot, perhaps in a hairshirt) for three days seeking absolution. Gaining that Henry was eventually crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The conflict between pope and emperor simmered however and Henry eventually threw Gregory in jail and appointed a new pope. While Gregory’s eventual downfall is significant, equally significant is that this excommunication was taken seriously. The power of the pope to define who existed within and without Christendom had profound consequences for both rulers and laypeople. To be excommunicated essentially excluded that person or that ruler from international society. Certainly, for King Henry, the threat of exclusion was a threat to his current kingdoms. While the Investiture Conflict mainly involved the Holy Roman Empire and England it had profound effects on the Frankish world order. The Crusades had reawakened the linkages of the Charlemagne’s world order which had lain dormant for many centuries. However, the Church reforms—including investiture rights and demands of priestly celibacy—had the effect of limiting the scope of papal power. (H. E. J. Cowdrey, Popes and church reform in the 11th century, 2000).
The ideological subsystem did not collapse, but the secularization of royal power had the long-term effect of isolating the Catholic Church and progressively limiting the geographic scope of the papal hierarchy. Because of these reforms secular kings would inevitably come to replace the ideological subsystem of the church with an ideological hierarchy centered on their own charisma. By 1200 AD the kings were still too weak individually to assert their authority against the church however the new principle dividing secular and ecclesiastic rule provided a jumping off point for further innovations. The role of the church as an ideological subsystem went beyond simply defining the laity, legitimizing the lords and vassals, and extending the ecumene. The church became the protector of extant knowledge with varying degrees of success. In so doing official written law fell under the jurisdiction of the church. This had two main effects. First, God’s word as written in the bible and as interpreted by the church became the first, and universally accepted, source of law in all of Christendom. (Marcus Bull,The Church. Edited by M. Bull, France in the central Middle Ages: ages 900-1200, 2002,135).
In disputes among the various elites the logic of argumentation often followed from quite carefully and precisely from various interpretations of the bible. Second, the interpretations of other sources of law that were commonly used, chiefly Roman law, were always consonant with biblical law. God was the lawgiver and his universe was arranged according to an unknowable set of laws, but a set of laws that was surely perfect. The Investiture Conflict cut to the very heart of this issue. But it did so unevenly. By the end of the Investiture Conflict—resolved in the Concordants of London and Worms—England and Germany established principles by which they could flout, or at least subvert, the will of the pope in the appointment of bishops and other members of the ecumene. (See also Uta-Renate Blumenthal,The investiture controversy: church and monarchy from the ninth to the twelfth century, 1988; Frederick Karl Morrison, The investiture controversy; issues, ideas, and results. 1971).
These negotiations reinforce the notion that bartered sovereignty was still the dominant principle at the same time that the church was in a relatively weaker position to theroyalty The conflict left France rather unscathed, but the last remaining vestige of the Frankish world order had begun to crumble. The ideological subsystem became smaller, more isolated, and more particular. France became one of the first areas loosed from the bonds of Christendom. The politics of the Holy Roman Empire became the chief occupation of the popes in the central Middle Ages. The Chronicle of the Abbey of Morigny shows how the abbot was engaged in negotiations with kings and lords to secure church lands. (See also Richard Cusimano and Morigny A translation of the Chronicle of the abbey of Morigny, France, c. 1100-1150, 2003).
Until the Avignon papacy during the Hundred Years War, France pursued its own development rather than the arcane politics of the papacy. The decline of Christendom hastened the decline of the Frankish world order, but bore in the seeds of a resplendent French world order. The church found its power over the laity severely circumscribed over time. In its place grew the secular authority of kings, nobles, and merchants. The puzzle that has challenged other systems change theories and which is still perplexing is simply this: if the decline of feudalism began around 1000 AD as agricultural practices began to improve and the secular power of kings began to assert itself how come it took another 600 years for the absolutist state to fully emerge? Early in the second millennium AD we do see improvements in the ability of the French to support themselves. However, this did not coincide with French kings exerting themselves upon the lesser lords in any cohesive and meaningful way. It took quite some time for war to approach the Clausewitzian ideal of organized armies dedicated to organized political outcomes for extended periods of time. Even the Crusades followed a feudal logic of organization rather than any specific raison d’état.
Thus while the hierarchies which it had traditionally defined were becoming more marginal, the trade subsystem on the other hand was resurgent and though plagues and famines would continue to limit the rate of growth the direction of growth was undeniable. (Michael Jones, The crown and the provinces in the fourteenth century. In France in the later Middle Ages, 1200-1500, edited by D. Potter, Oxford , 2003).
The meager existence that the early Middle Ages provided was slowly being replaced by a better, more stable existence. Yet bartered sovereignty continued to structure the world order. Interpersonal bonds of fealty continued to be the medium through which politics at every level occurred. It is thus significant that none of these changes were the proximate causes of the rise of administrative sovereignty. The birth of the absolutist state in the late 16th century was foretold by the changes occurring in the 11th and 12th centuries, but it was not predicated by them. (David Parker, The making of French absolutism, 1983).
At this point little has been said about changes to the security subsystem and this is because little did change during this period. However, during the subsequent period of the Avignon papacy and the Hundred Years War the security subsystem changed in significant ways soon followed, by the hundred years War.
The Île de France—that central part of France incorporating Paris and the outlying valleys—was particularly well-suited to the growth of Western Europe because it was situated near many waterways and other transportation routes. In the period following the Investiture Conflict Philip II (Philip Augustus) engaged in numerous wars and diplomatic engagements that expanded the French sphere of influence and, by proxy, the French state. Territorial consolidation at the local level solidified the hierarchy among the king and the princes. However, territorial demarcation was still absent from the picture.204 The common ideas that one holds for a French state still did not exist to this point. There was not a common language in the territories we now consider France . The modern French language is derived from the dialect, langue d’oil spoken around the Île de France. In all of France , particularly the south (Languedoc ) vassalage continued to characterize numerous elite relationships negotiated and renegotiated constantly. The period of the 12th and 13th centuries was one of the first eras of rebirth, but did not correspond in any respect to the consolidation of the French kingdom. There was no France to speak of in any cohesive sense though the core of it would grow out of the kingdom of Western Francia under the leadership of the Capetian kings. (Roger Price, A concise history of France , Cambridge 2005, pg. 26).
As late as the 15th century the Dauphiné was bound to the king of France , but not as a French territory. By the early 14th century economic growth has seized much of Europe . Philip Augustus founded the University of Paris . Flanders , still an independent territory, burgeoned as a site of wool production. Trade routes across Europe became increasingly dense and vibrant. This was in part due to the Crusades, but equally due to a relative period of peace. Warfare was still endemic to the period and we must therefore understand this period of peace in its proper context. By 1312, “population densities were higher than they would again be before the eighteenth century.” (R. J. Knecht, The rise and fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, Cambridge, 2001).
During this period the power of the church continued to wane and changes in the security subsystem were minimal. The art of war did not change substantially either it was a period more defined by ongoing changes to the trade subsystem. Coinage and contract labor began to reemerge. Soldiers, for example, could expect to be paid a consistent wage. Looting and pillage remained central parts of warfare, but wage soldiery generally stabilized the relationship of king to army. (C. T. Allmand, Society at war: the experience of England and France during the Hundred Years War, 1998).
Similarly, peasants that had been made serfs began to reassert their independence to local lords. However, the governments themselves remained rather weak, both in terms of taxation and force. The ability of the king to collect taxes and exert control over distant territories remained weak. It led to a brief, but highly unstable period. The principle of bartered sovereignty remained stable, while the relative subsystems around it changed rapidly. This was exacerbated by the Avignon Papacy during the years of 1305 – 1378. Under Pope Clement V—partly because of a conflict with Philip IV (Philip the Fair) and partly because of wars threatening Rome —the papal seat was relocated to the papal estates in Avignon. This had two major effects on the feudal arrangements in France and Europe at the time. First, France gained considerable power over the church and thus was able to consolidate its own power.
During the Avignon papacy every pope elected (seven of them) was French. (P. S. Lewis, Essays in later medieval French history, 1985).
French kings benefited from having the pope in France. With the College of Cardinals electing French popes the French kings were able to pursue an agenda almost wholly to their own liking.
Second, the pope began the practice of simony and selling indulgences while in France. This had the famous effect of creating the basis for the two schisms, the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, which would follow. So instead of the church holding captive the whole of Christendom under its dual powers of excommunication and the power to crown kings we see this power inverted. The church, for purposes of taxation and increasing wealth, became captive to the whims of merchants and lords capable of filling church coffers. Meanwhile Philip IV and subsequent French kings used their power to essentially approve or disapprove of the decisions of the College of Cardinals.
This sequence of events would shortly lead England and France towards the Hundreds Years War. Some such as Strayer disagree with this basic notion pointing out that while the Popes were French their policies remained focused on increasing papal authority. Ironically, their actions mattered little; it was the appearance of impropriety that ultimately undermined the Pope and the Church. Strayer. The war, which began in 1336, had at its core a number of causes. One was primarily financial; after confiscating the property of the Jews and Knight Templar to pay for his armies and his wars Philip IV was left with little else to do, except to increase taxation. This came mainly in the form of taille—“a direct tax on persons and property.” (Koenigsberger, Mosse, and Bowler. Pg. 282).
This worked well enough, but Philip IV had two fatal flaws: he was mortal and his heirs didn’t live long. Shortly after his death the Capetian line itself ended with the death of his son Charles IV. Reverting to Salic law there was some dispute over who would inherit the French crown with equal claims made by Edward III, king of England , and Philip of Valois, a nephew to Charles. With French control of the papacy there was little doubt that the French claim would triumph. However, France ’s increased need for revenues did not decrease during this time and Philip’s (now Philip VI) eyes turned towards Flanders.
French control over Flanders was unacceptable to the English given English reliance on the fleece trade that fueled Flanders’ looms and England ’s wealth. Thus began the Hundred Years War. It continued as many wars of this period did: it was long and bloody and the peasants bore the brunt of the cost and carnage. (Nicholas Wright, Knights and peasants: the Hundred Years War in the French countryside, Warfare in history, Rochester 1998).
It was significant to the security subsystem for a number of reasons. One of the more notable changes was the shift from cavalry to infantry as the central unit of warfare.
The French victory in the Hundred Years War is perhaps surprising given their general incompetence in many of the major battles including Poitiers , Crecy , and Agincourt. In each of those battles English infantry and artillery (longbow-men and cannon) provided the decisive advantage in the battle. Superior logistics in the end trumped superior tactics, but the message was sent to all of Europe nonetheless. The day of the knight was coming to an end. Given the importance of infantry, the onus of defense now began to fall upon the king. This fundamentally changed the role structures that necessitated bartered sovereignty vis-à-vis the security subsystem.
From this point forward kings would begin to build centralized armies in lieu of relying of feudal obligations of lords and their manors. Expanding from the Île de France the new security subsystem began to grow outwards into the rest of France .
We may summarize by saying that there are three significant issues that arise from this chapter in French history. First, it results in the English expulsion from the mainland leaving the French kings to consolidate the territories to their north. Second, the carnage of the war combined with the Black Death—which swept out of the Gobi Desert and arrived in 1347—severely undermined the position of the church. The church was unable to explain the plague in religious terms and unable to provide sacraments to the dying and this disillusioned much of laity. Lastly the requirements of self-defense and the increasing costs of war consolidated and strengthened the French bureaucracy and thus the French king. As the line goes, ‘war made the state.’ There is some disagreement as to how to interpret this period of French history. For some, the period of growth beginning with Philip Augustus continuing through Saint Louis and Philip IV represents the beginning of the French state. The consolidation of territories and the growth of a central bureaucracy designed to levy taxes did begin during this period. The question that one ought to pose then is under what set of principles did this emerge? For this we find fairly strong evidence that this period of consolidation was still marked by a basic principle of bartered sovereignty. While the king was able to subject larger territories under his immediate control his power to tax those territories was still severely limited.(Elizabeth A. R. Brown, Customary aids and royal finance in Capetian France : the marriage
aid of Philip the Fair, Cambridge, 1992).
The king’s bureaucracy was small. In order to tax the peasants most often the king had to agree not to tax the nobles. Taxation of the nobles, or the lack thereof, would continue to be a defining characteristic of this period and indeed, as I shall show later, we can use that taxation of the nobles as something of a benchmark for the rise of administrative sovereignty, and later absolute sovereignty. One might point to Saint Louis ’s use of Parlément and the Estates General to resolve conflicts and establish the legal basis of kingly right as another starting point for a new sovereign principle. Certainly these institutions look remarkably like state institutions, but they were far more charismatic than they were legalistic.
Subsequent kings consulted these bodies only intermittently and largely to give the appearance of being magnanimous. Lewis points out, “No king could act alone: he had his entourage, his counsellors, his ‘favourites’; he had his civil servants. In this welter of governance the individual will of the king might be hard to identify.” Thus not only did the king use representative bodies intermittently, his own agenda was coopted and compromised by those surrounding him. The actual negotiations between the three estates—the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners—were still highly interpersonal and random. Some institutions that would prove useful to the state did rise in this period, but one in better off understanding this period for the rebirth of industry and as the high-water mark of the Catholic Church.
The Hundred Years War, which ended in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon, devastated the population, but strengthened industry and the bureaucracy. The Great Schism which had at one point given the people three separate popes ushered in a period of mysticism and religious innovation among the laity and a profound period of questioning among all involved. In the course of the Hundred Years War the two great social systems—the fief and the church—that had stabilized Europe through the Middle Ages began to crumble. Time and again the knight on horseback was defeated by infantry and cannon. While the church found itself making one mistake after another. The principle of diffuse hierarchy that had characterized the security system began to change rapidly—though the resulting scope of that system would take some time to change. The totalitizing capacity on the ideological system became more or less bankrupt—Christendom was coming apart at the seams. Yet France found itself on the fringes of the growing ‘heresy’ of the Reformation. The stage
was thus set for a rapid growth of the economy. While other wars did follow in the immediate aftermath—particularly the French-Italian wars under Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I—the development of France in this period is best understood by the peaceful growth within the burgeoning territory.(David Potter, A history of France, 1460-1560: the emergence of a nation state, 1995).
In the middle of this Louis XI (The Spider King) found grist for consolidating unprecedented power. One could argue that the beginnings of absolutism, but while he made the claim for absolutism and did away with the Estates General for the most part Louis still never quite threw out the status quo of bartered sovereignty.
For Louis absolutism was a bargaining position, not an entirely new principle. His nickname by itself may evidence enough of this; he was the Spider King constantly weaving and trapping people in his web. Every claim was a ploy and a trap, not a new sovereign principle. It is important to distinguish between absolutism, which could be said to be a sign of administrative sovereignty, and absolute sovereignty, which is characterized by a heretofore absent control of ideology by the state. (David Potter, A history of France, 1460-1560: the emergence of a nation state, 1995).
The state of affairs that France found itself in during this period brought the Renaissance to France , filled its coffers, and increased the well-being of its entire people. When Martin Luther’s theses first arrived in Paris in 1521 they didn’t have nearly the effect that they had had in other parts of Europe . They were proclaimed heretical rather quickly and they were fairly easy to suppress and control in the beginning. Nonetheless, among townspeople (particularly artisans) and disempowered nobility they gained a distinct following. This was accelerated and strengthened by the writings of Calvin beginning to appear in France in 1535. (R. J. Knecht, The French wars of religion, 1559-1598, 1996, pg. 50).
By 1562 attempts at negotiated peace and reconciliation had failed and the first of the French Civil Wars began. The resolution to the civil wars was quite surprising. Henry of Navarre—descended from the powerful Bourbon line of Capetian kings— was named king following the death of Henry III. Though he might have been king he could not be crowned; he could not enter Paris. Henry of Navarre was a Huguenot and the Catholic League held Paris. He was able to secure territories in the south of France for himself, but he remained unable to retake Paris. In what was one of the more savvy moves in French political history he converted to Catholicism and was subsequently crowned Henry IV in Chartres in 1594.The period between 1453 and 1594 was characterized by the increasing inefficiency of bartered sovereignty. Cities, trade, education, and population grew rapidly through this period. (S. Annette Finley-Croswhite, Henry IV and the towns : the pursuit of legitimacy in French urban society, 1589-1610, 1999).
With the increase in wealth came an increase in the number of people who either claimed nobility or could buy the ear of the monarch and his lieges. The infinite complexities of a system of this sort are one thing when the hierarchy is rather straightforward, but as lineages and claims to nobility became increasingly complex the interpersonal nature of the feudal system was pushed to the breaking point. (Mark Greengrass, France in the age of Henri IV: the struggle for stability, 1995).
The Reformation was the actual breaking point. Given the excuse Huguenots and Catholics could create their own exclusive systems of fealty each dependent upon their victory. Meanwhile the religious wars had grown beyond the townspeople who had initially supported them. Now forced to give allegiance to the nobles who would support their victory they were trebly taxed. The state, the war, and their allegiances all conspired to deprive the commoners of their livelihood. By the time Henry had come to power norms entrepreneurs had actively and successfully begun advocating for the absolutist king no longer bound by oaths of fealty, but a leviathan unto himself. Henry was more like his distant predecessor, Charlemagne, than any that had come before him or after him. He actively created a new principle of rule, administrative sovereignty, to replace the increasingly defunct principles of bartered sovereignty. Sully points out the self-evident intentionality of this, “From hence likewise we may perceive the motives for [Henry’s] pursuing a conduct so opposite to anything that had hitherto been undertaken by crowned heads . . . to render France happy forever was his desire; and as she cannot perfectly enjoy this felicity unless all Europe partakes of it, so it was the happiness of Europe in general which he labored to procure.” (James Goldsmith,Lowth Longman. Lordship in France , 1500-1789, 2005).
The collapsing Frankish world order was thus being explicitly replaced with a French world order which had at its head a single ruler focused on the administrative priorities of rule rather than the petty claims of local nobles. Henry explicitly rejected the centrality of these claims to good or sensible governance. His most significant act in spelling out this claim was issuing the Edict of Nantes in 1598 which created the absolute monarch in the French state. Overtly, the Edict of Nantes guaranteed safe places of worship to the Huguenots throughout France. (Ragnhild Marie Hatton, Louis XIV and absolutism, 1976).
The more subtle effect was to replace the principle of bartered decisionmaking with royal decree. One significant passage states: In the Houses that are Fiefs, where those of the said Religion have not high Justice, there the said Exercise of the Reformed Religion shall not be permitted, save only to their own Families, yet nevertheless, if other persons, to the number of thirty, besides their Families, shall be there upon the occasion of Christenings, Visits of their Friends, or otherwise, our meaning is, that in such case they shall not be molested: provided also, that the said Houses be not within Cities,
Burroughs, or Villages belonging to any Catholick Lord (save to Us) having high Justice, in which the said Catholick Lords have their Houses. For in such cases,
those of the said Religion shall not hold the said Exercise in the said Cities, Burroughs, or Villages, except by permission of the said Lords high Justices. (Roland Mousnier, The Edict of Nantes Stetson University, 2006, see also: http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/edictnantes.html).
This is significant because it emphasizes the will of the king in decisions rather than bonds of fidelity and vassalage. Regardless of the relationship of the king to the nobles, the king asserts his prior right to declare and enforce law. The Edict of Nantes expresses something far more particular and important than the vague absolutism of cuius region eius religio. Henry IV created a principle of absolutism that was far more dominant than other alternatives at the time. It was not the mutual noninterference of the Peaces of Augsburg or Westphalia . It was the king’s right to ignore the claims of the lower nobility.
In general political scientists take the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to be the genesis of the modern principle of sovereignty. Those that don’t will often instead rely upon the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 which first established the principle of cuius regio eius religio. However, both of these treaties were mainly concerned with the Holy Roman Empire which remained fractious for more than a century after both of those treaties. Furthermore, the Peace of Augsburg preceded the first French Civil War by seven years. Clearly the principle established in that peace could be none to relevant to the French view of the state or sovereignty. If that principle had been influential in France then Henry would have been more inclined to cede some land that would be designated Protestant in order to create a lasting peace. Insofar as France is the first modern state we should be concerned with the historical shifts that proved crucial to the formation of French sovereignty instead of merely seeking out benchmarks which are convenient, but not altogether accurate.
In a curious way the revocation of the edict by Louis XIV in 1685 actually strengthened the principles which it had espoused while getting rid of the pretext of religious freedom. The principle of the prince choosing the religion offers the hope that under a different prince a new dominant religion might be possible. In contrast, the principle that the king had the power to determine when and where religious freedom was tolerated creates the very basis of absolutism. The Edict of Nantes, in this regards, reflects the concepts proposed by Jean Bodin in 1576 far more closely and immediately than any subsequent treaties such as Westphalia . The burden of taxes that the commoners suffered under at the end of the Wars of Religion strained the economy.
The state was nearly bankrupt. The commoners were surely taxed, but that revenue never made it back to the central bureaucracy. Henry and his great minister Sully undertook a number of reforms that had the effect of creating the first recognizable French state. Externally Henry was able to secure most of the borders of modern France. He did so with the idea of a nascent French world order as his explicit goal. Additionally, he kept France active in the Age of Exploration. With secured borders and increased revenues he was able to engage in the reforms that were so desperately necessary domestically. By reducing corruption and increasing the flowing of tax revenues directly to the central government Henry was effectively able to co-opt both the security and trade subsystems under the heading of the French state.
His heavy reliance on Sully to administer the domestic reforms began the long tradition of other ministers that would follow including Mazarin and Richelieu. We may speak in this sense of a new principle of administrative sovereignty. National unity was notably absent from France in this period. We may now begin to understand the French state as a thing in itself and not merely the sum of compromises that each individual king had made. Instead of ceding and gaining territory and rights willy-nilly all over Europe , Henry IV sought agreements that would actually stabilize and consolidate a French state.
With this as his birthright Louis XIV (The Sun King) was well-positioned to create absolutism as we actually understand it. There are, of course, the famous innovations that he made during his reign—in particular the courtier system as Versailles —that consolidated his power and severely weakened the position of the nobility.( François Bluche, Louis XIV, 1990).
By the time of his death the balance of power between the three estates was effectively defunct. The nobility had been castrated and the church was increasingly irrelevant. The king and commoners were the last ones standing. Louis XIV inherited the throne while still in his minority. Prior to his accession the state was largely run by Richelieu . While Louis was still a youth Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu ’s successor, handled the business of rule in the state. In time Louis would become famous for his own ideas on absolutist rule, but the ministers that oversaw him and the state during his childhood were equally absolutist in philosophy, if not less effective in practice. Mazarin, in particular, through his policies incited a series of minor rebellions among the nobility in the middle of the 17th century. These rebellions, which began shortly after the Peace of Westphalia and were called the Fronde, are notable mainly for their factionalism and general incompetence. (Richard Bonney, The limits of absolutism in ancien régime France, 1995).
Needless to say the Fronde failed. During this period, “The disarmament of noble chateux and of the towns commenced by Richelieu and Mazarin also continued, achieving for the first time an effective monopoly of armed force. In many respects Louis XIV was only operating a system of government created by his predecessors in which the role of the monarch, as the Lord’s anointed, was to serve as the symbol and source of unity.”
Louis’ reign was thus not revolutionary, but merely significant for two key reasons. The first reason was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. By the time this happened it was a minor issue. In fact, the insignificance of it is what is notable. By 1685 France was a Catholic country through and through. Whereas prior kingdoms were defined by their faith, in France in this period the faith was dictated by the court. The second innovation was, of course, the construction of Versailles. Louis’ creation of an unarmed palace where service to the king was the only method of advancement subjugated the nobility. It gave the nobility the choice to either fight in the military or to serve him as courtiers. To minimize corruption in the bureaucracy courtiers had little to do with the affairs of state, but all of the courtiers were indebted to the king because of the exorbitant cost of the lifestyle. The cost of life at Versailles was quite expensive. One it tempted to cite Louis XIV and his reign as significant milestones in the development of the state we see rather minor changes to a nascent absolutism which had begun to develop centuries earlier. Absolutism became a popular concept around Europe during this time and the French were the first and most able in ruling according to its principles. However, it was not absolute; its final failing was that while Louis was convinced that the state would continue without him he was nonetheless convinced that the king was the state. As the bloody wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prove nationalism is a far more compelling type of absolutism. Louis’ reign was the high-water mark of administrative sovereignty.
Versailles , which made much of the internal complacency possible, was simply too expensive to maintain. Furthermore absolutism would prove an easy target for the Enlightenment.
With this sketch of French history we are able to narrow down a period where this shift from bartered to administrative sovereignty actually took place. That enables us to eliminate many of the prior explanations for the development of administrative sovereignty at the same time that it provides some insight into the proximate causes. Having rejected the formation of the state in the 12th – 14th centuries we are able reject the collapse of the church and the rise of towns as proximate causes of the shift in sovereignty. Similarly, the understanding that Louis XIV was none too revolutionary in his development of the absolutist monarchy rejects the relevance of the Peace of Westphalia as a turning point. We are for reasons already described able to focus on the reign of Henry IV as the most consequential norms entrepreneur in this regard. For some historians it is common to focus on the personality of the kings and other leading figures as particularly significant, but while this is appealing it is not all that illuminating. Attributing all the decisions he made to the brilliance of him or his chief counselor, Sully, implies that it was merely their own inventiveness that proved the significant factor. This ignores the decision-making constraints that they operated under. Henry’s conversion to Catholicism and his issuance of the Edict of Nantes were certainly individual decisions, but they were expedient given the circumstances. The Edict of Nantes doesn’t illustrate Henry’s profound decency, but instead illuminates what was efficient for the time. Henry could have continued to fight for his kingship as a Protestant, he could have continued to fight Protestants for dominance in France after his conversion, but neither would have been expedient. Bartered sovereignty was dead by this point. There was no sense in parceling off French territory. He bought loyalty with state funds, crushed rebellions in the name of the state. He lacked the state apparatus of Louis XIV, but the principles of his rule were the same regardless. There was no pervasive ideology tying the state together. The church was compromised, its hierarchy no longer relevant. The Catholic victory in the French Civil Wars was a pyrrhic one. Spanish intervention on behalf of the Catholic League soured so much of France that any loyalties which transcended the raison d’etat were effectively defunct by Henry’s death. Christendom was no longer a compelling ideological subsystem. This is proven conclusively by French involvement in the Thirty Years War on the side of the Protestants. Yet there were no French people yet. The creation of a French people was a project left ultimately to Napoleon. The rise of the cities was paralleled by the development of a centralized French army. While the army at its genesis was a rather pitiful thing it eventually made the feudal arrangement entirely irrelevant. Not only were knights a strategic liability, by the time Henry became king the fiefs by which they kept control of the local peasantry were mostly defunct. The most successful nobles had long abandoned the lord-serf relationship in favor of more efficient farming and production methods.
However, in contrast to modern Italy and Germany , the cities could not ever effectively assert their independence contra the strong center of the state. The growth of the security and trade subsystems occurred at the same time and pace. Over the period of the two centuries bridging the Hundred Years War these three subsystems passed each other as strangers in the night. Going downhill was the ideological subsystem eking out its remaining spheres of influence against the rising tide of the secular state. Heading uphill were the dominant—and contradictory—ideologies of secular trade in the cities, and the subjugation of the nobility to the king. The reign of Henry IV was the key moment when bartered sovereignty finally failed. What options were left to him at this point? Given the nature of the growing cities including their Protestantism and their desire for some meaningful independence hierarchal sovereignty was out of the question. What submission was there to be gained? Similarly transborder sovereignty was bound to fail since there was no pervasive ideology to tie the commoners to the king. Administrative sovereignty, absolutism, was literally not only the most efficient option, but also the only one open to Henry and Sully.
For obvious reasons thus the path of the French state becomes crucial to story of world history. It was French power that ended the Thirty Years War. It was French dominance that led other states in the crucial period of the 17th and 18th centuries to begin to copy their form of absolutism. It was French dominance on the continent that sent the British, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese abroad to seek their fortunes.
From the first battle at Poitiers in 732 it was French power that drove the evolution of bartered sovereignty, and later it was French power that drove the shift towards administrative sovereignty. The nascent absolutist was a French innovation that had less to do with the events of the Holy Roman Empire and more to do with the internal development of the French polity. Those who have engaged in analyses of the development and genesis of sovereignty to this point have tended to paint this development in a more internationalist light. Certainly, our broadest tendency is to point to Augsburg and Westphalia and say that the birth of the state took place there.
This is factually untenable; it leads to problematic theories of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is not an original innovation of the period. As a constitutive rule it does not represent something sui generis. This has shown that the development of absolutism was a principle of rule developed in contrast to prior, stable principles of rule. Sovereignty during feudalism was not unheard of, nor fragmented, nor anarchic.
It was organized and well-understood. The fruitful questions must thus focus on why France, why then, why absolutism?
The relative scope of the important subsystems in France was unique to Europe at the time. France ’s development was different than England or Germany . One significant aspect of this difference was that the security subsystem developed coterminous with the trade subsystem. Additionally, France ’s rejection of Catholicism was less absolute and its acceptance of Protestantism was equally less absolute. The ideological subsystem collapsed in the face of this indeterminacy. It was the French rejection of Christendom that was significant. If we are to legitimately accept Augsburg or Westphalia as significant milestones then those dates and events must correspond to the development of absolutism in some logical manner. They fail to do so. The French chronology is far more compelling. From the beginning of the civil war in 1562 to the publication of the Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576 to the Edict of Nantes in 1598 absolutism was a French solution to French problems. It was a limited solution; it was brilliant and it was effective. Given the nature of development at the time it was also the only stable solution possible.