Redefining the State

Redefining the State - Redefining the State (15th century)...

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Redefining the State (15 th century) At midterm we examined the fourteenth century as a transformational moment in European history. 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 them. 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 previously. 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
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This note was uploaded on 08/21/2011 for the course HISTORY 355 taught by Professor 101 during the Spring '10 term at Rutgers.

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Redefining the State - Redefining the State (15th century)...

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