Home > Book Summary > Joseph Strayer, On The Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970)

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

In this book Joseph Strayer sets out to trace the origins of the institutions that make up the modern state in the medieval period starting from 1100 onward. Strayer focuses on England and France, while admitting that this is not an account of every possible detail but a general overview. Some opening remarks are required before proceeding. Strayer focuses on explaining the state as he saw it in 1970. This meant that he went back in time and located those institutions which developed into those which the state currently holds. this does not mean that he is historically thorough. It is simply because the European model of the state was expropriated to the rest of the world that it is the medieval European institutions which should be taken into account. This does not mean that these institutions did not share or borrow from other cultures (Arab and Chinese) or that they did not develop along the way.

Strayer does not focus on the war making aspect of the state, or its link to power. Rather Strayer seems to focus on the institutions which constitute the state and by showing that they existed prior to the state he also shows that they can exist past its demise.

Strayer focuses on four main factors which were necessary for state formation. Stable political units over time. Law. Bureaucracy. And Loyalty of the people.

Strayer argues that a period of stability in 1100-1300 allowed the political units of the time to stabilize and develop the seeds of the state by turning inward. In England and in France the King consolidated his rule, instituted the institutions that would provide stable governance efficiently (and at times inefficiently) and acquired the legitimacy which had been previously a mainstay of the church.

In England the decimation of local rulers by successive invasions which ended with the supremacy of the Norman king meant that local elites did not have time to establish themselves. This meant that the king was more or less the uncontested source of authority so that subsequent rulers took to contesting their hold over and profit from the institutions of the monarch and did not seek to replace them. A mixture of common law, efficient bureaucracy, and a vacuum left by church reformation all contributed to laying the seeds of future state institutions. The earliest was internal with revenue and bureaucracy, the last to appear was the foreign policy offices and the ministries of war.

In France there did not exist a homogeneous populous which the Frank king could subdue to singular rules. Once the Frank king had gained enough strength so as to cover most of what is regarded as modern day France by 1200s he found himself in control of an amalgam of different principalities and kingdoms. Instead of quashing local traditions, he added another layer of bureaucracy over that of local tradition while trying to normalize taxation so that he could gain legitimacy and loyalty of the subjects while maintaining their complacency. The French laws were closer to Roman law as well as other mixes. France had dual bureaucracy.

In both cases the contestation over taxes between the church and the king was a crucial point in the assertion of the authority of the new states. In both cases again when the king wanted to tax the clergy against the will of the church he ultimatley was able to do so with the people siding with him, including a number of the clergy themselves. (investitutre struggles in France and England)

1100-1300 was the period of internal development 1300-1450 was a period of extreme duress. There was no innovation in these periods because of the many wars, famines, plagues … But Strayer argues that after this period, the fact that the states survived showed their durability and after 1450 there came new developments in the state. Also he posits that representative councils also emerged during this period. They emerged as a way forgovernment to exert control and include the propertied class.

The role of the Church in this period was two fold. In the first sense it created a vacuum which the state had to fill when it reformed away from secular authority. Therefore the state naturally filled the gap left by the church. This gap however perhaps was not left willingly as it  seems to come across in Strayer. Whether this was hard fought ground which the Church vacated in reaction to state behavior or if it was an internal reformation is not clear from the book. Though the latter is implied I believe. The second role of the Church is that it taught states how to organize themselves and it gave them an ideology. (more in profs notes)

Of those was the development of representative councils which the King used to give legitimacy to his decisions. More importantly though was the development of policy advisers after 1450, These were again added above the bureaucracy and were kindred to the executive body that we know of today. The new policy makers were professionals, the king banished incompetent royals to the old bureaucracy and kept a trusted professional group of men (12 in France) around him.

Strayer seems to imply that the division of powers between legislature, executive, and judicial had its seeds in the functional utility of the different institutions in 1100. This is important because it tells us much about why the institutions of law, bureaucracy and policy were first created in Europe. And why they succeed in their operation. And why they fail when exported wholesale without an understanding of their historical role. Therefore the strong judiciary and bureaucracy developed in tension with the king and not in harmony with him. Though he created them to take much of his plate in terms of workload and to bring more people under his domain.

After 1450 we finally saw the development of foreign policy offices and defense offices. By the 1600 the authority of the state was uncontested.

Notes on the text while reading (refer further to PDF):

The author does not account for the enforced and at times violently achieved normalcy of the state. At several points he makes claims to imply that the populous suddenly had a shift of heart, or that they approved of the monarchs wars, taxes, and institutions. In my experience of medieval history the populous was often cowed into subordination, and exterminated into homogeneity. Outside groups were culled and inside groups were disciplined. There is much to violence in the development of the state and it cannot be understood without it.

It is not clear why 1100 is a good starting point.  Why not in 1450 after the turbulence had ended. Joel migdal and Spruyt both picked up after 1300 and pointed to different processes. Though this book seeks to trace the origins of state institutions it overlooks how states became normalized.

Notes by prof Grovogui:

Three themes are important in analyzing any historical institution, especially one such as the state. Events, Ideas, and Institutions. This seems to be the paradigm that Prof. Grovogui uses when looking at institutions over time.

Prof Grovogui believes that external threat forced internal consolidation of state-like institutions. The threat of Islamic conquest from 1100 to 1300 spurred European states to make internal reforms. Whether this applies to England is something I am not too sure of.

On the role of the catholic church. The bureaucratic organization of the catholic church is technically a pagn inheritance from the Roman pagan traditions. So in this sense the state did not really arise out of the church bureaucratically. But  the Church and monotheistic christianity did give an ideology which mandated that there was one sovereign and that he was on the top. It also gave the state responsibility for the temporal wellbeing of its citizens (again in ideology)

Strayer is right in saying that states need permanent communities to rise.

Times of crisis emphasize the “we” of the state. So when there is an external enemy internal reform is easier.

The state is exotic. Meaning it took aspects from Muslim and Chinese governance and incorporated them. 1249 Roger Bacon argued to borrow fromthe policies of Muslim. Francis bacon half a century later said “we dont need them any more”

Although Florence may have been richer than France and weathered 1300-1450 better, it was more efficient in one thing and not in others. States are more efficient at war making. It allows the bureaucratization of elites, creation of loyalty to a state. And then city states would have never been able to keep up with industrialization. There is a time at which institutions give you advantages and after 1700 larger states had bigger advantages due to industrialization and need for resources. States were also capable of conquering the new world in ways which city states never could.

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