The Roots of our Liberties: On the Rise of Civil Society in the Medieval West

The Roots of our Liberties: On the Rise of Civil Society in the Medieval West

By Boudewijn R.A. Bouckaert

New Perspectives on Political Economy, Vol. 3: 2 (2007)

Abstract: This article deals with the genesis of civil society in medieval society in the hope that this might elucidate the general conditions in which a civil society can flourish. We are, moreover, well aware that some of the viewpoints espoused have strong contenders with opposed views. We mention them in order to indicate to the reader the major dilemmas, which arise on the concerned historical subject. In order to avoid misunderstandings on the main tendency of our historical analysis, we deal briefly with the notion of civil society as it appears in political philosophical literature because this notion is usedwith strongly diverging meanings. Thenwe build a picture of European society at the dawn of the emergence of civil society, during the period 843-1073 . We deal subsequently with crucial factors in the emergence of civil society in the Middle Ages such as peace and labour, associative life, the medieval “nomos”, including medieval humanism, the “ius commune” of Europe and the rule of law in theMiddle Ages. We conclude with some considerations about the latemedieval era, in order to bridge the gap with the modern conception of civil society.

Alexander Kojeve, philosopher and pre-eminent interpreter of Hegel came, whilst still in the middle of his career as a philosopher, to the conclusion that his philosophical master was correct about the end of history and decided because of this to stop his career and become a full-time bureaucrat in the European Commission. About a thousand years earlier, the Holy Roman emperor Otto III and pope Sylvester II spent New Years’ eve praying in the church of St. John of Laterans as they were fearful of the coming apocalypse at the end of the millennium. As ex-post-spectators we know that Kojeve, Otto III, and Sylvester II were wrong.

History did not and will not end because history is not an energy, a process, or a fatality, separated from the action of innumerable human agents. History is driven by the perceptions and preferences of its actors, who affect the decisional context of other actors, present and future, by the intended and unintended consequences of their actions. Pretending to know the end of history, as Hegelian historians do, is, therefore, an act of supreme hubris. It presupposes that we know what preferences and inspirations are the most common and most profound to humanity, and by what mechanisms they will finally triumph over their historical obstacles.

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