Geopolitical Relations in the European Middle Ages: History and Theory

Geopolitical Relations in the European Middle Ages: History and Theory

By Benno Teschke

International Organization, Vol. 52:2 (1998)

Map of Europe made by Gerardus Mercador.

Introduction: Uncertainty about the future of the contemporary states system, yet apparent certainty about the ‘‘decaying pillars of the Westphalian temple,’’ has rekindled interest among international relations (IR) scholars in the meanings of sovereignty. Such renewed problematization of this core concept of IR has translated into greater historical sensitivity to forms of geopolitical social organization that arose before modern statehood. Dissatisfaction with universalizing IR theories has made room for arguing the historicity of international organization by inquiring into the nature of the political order that preceded the European absolutist and capitalist states systems. What was the nature of feudalism in the European Middle Ages? How did the specicity of the feudal mode of social organization inform wider forms of medieval geopolitical relations? What distinguishes them from modern and early modern interstate relations? What are the implications for IR theory?

By elaborating on Robert Brenner’s theory of social property relations, I offer a distinct approach to theorizing changing geopolitical orders. This historically informed and theoretically controlled interpretation constitutes a concrete substantiation of the principles of dialectical thinking, which Hayo Krombach, Christian Heine, and I have recently developed in a series of discussion papers. I argue that the nature and dynamics of international systems are governed by the character of their constitutive units,which, in turn, rests on speciŽfic property relations prevailing within them. Medieval ‘‘international’’ relations and their alterations over the centuries preceding the rise of capitalism have to be interpreted on the basis of changing social property relations. The dynamics of medieval change, however, are bound up with contradictory strategies of reproduction between and within the two major classes, the lords and the peasantry.

I argue that, due to peasant possession of the means of subsistence, the feudal nobility enforced access to peasant produce by political and military means. Since every lord reproduced himself not only politically but also individually on his lordship, control over the means of violence was not monopolized by the state, but oligopolistically enjoyed by a landed nobility. Consequently, the medieval ‘‘state’’ constituted a political community of lords with the right to armed resistance. Interlordly relations were therefore inherently nonpaciŽ ed and competitive. Forced redistribution of peasant surplus and competition over land occurred along three axes: (1) between peasants and lords, (2) among lords, and (3) between the collectivity of lords (the feudal ‘‘state’’ ) and external polities. Consequently, the type of geopolitical system that emerged was one of constant military rivalry over territory and labor between lords, and within and between their ‘‘states.’’ The geopolitical dynamic of medieval Europe followed the zero-sum logic of territorial conquests. The form and dynamic of the medieval ‘‘international’’ system arise directly out of the generative structure of social property relations.

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