Redefining the State (15
At midterm we examined the fourteenth century as a transformational moment in
What we will be looking at for the next several lectures is how Europe
remade itself in the wake of demographic collapse, economic crisis, and social revolt.
This lecture focuses on this remaking in the political sphere.
Broadly speaking, there
were two major changes in the fifteenth century.
First, the polities that were arguably the
most powerful in the High Middle Ages – France, England, and the papacy—went
through crises, as vassals or other subjects challenged the authority of the monarchs over
Monarchy eventually prevailed, but it was a somewhat different kind of monarchy
than in the Middle Ages.
Second, newly powerful states arose outside the original
Roman-Germanic heartland: in Iberia and in central and eastern Europe.
By the end of
the fifteenth century, both groups of states had a stronger ‘national’ identity than
Crisis and recovery of the great medieval powers
England and France: the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)
France and England were two of the most powerful monarchies of the later
Middle Ages. Both were built on a feudal basis. That is, the glue tying the higher levels
of the social strata together was the feudal contract, in which a vassal offers military
service to his lord and in return is granted a parcel of land, known as a fief, on which to
live and reap profits.
The lord-in-chief was the king. His vassals owed him allegiance,
and they in turn were owed allegiance by their own vassals (known as rear-vassals), and
so on. This was a very workable system, especially when kings did not have enormous
and effective bureaucracies at their disposal. One could leave regional affairs largely in
control of one’s vassals, and each of them could delegate some responsibilities to their
own rear-vassals, and in theory the whole pyramid remained stable because of the bonds
of mutual responsibility inherent in every lord-vassal relationship. But the key term here
is mutual responsibility.
Since the feudal contract is a contract, if one party violates it,
the other can violate it too. If the vassal doesn’t do his part, the lord can take his fief. This
doesn’t surprise us; we expect a person with greater authority to be able to punish his
subordinates. But the reverse was also true: if the lord didn’t do his part, the vassal could
break the bond and rebel. Thus even the lord-in-chief, the king, did not have absolute
power. He had to abide by the contractual relationship with his vassals, which meant, in
practice, he had to consult with them and heed their advice, give them positions of
authority (and/or lucrative positions) in government, defend their interests as well as his
own. This is an advantage of feudal monarchy if you are a fan of limited power; it is a
drawback if (like many kings) you wish you had more.
A second disadvantage of feudal monarchy is that because the feudal relationship