Sovereignty and Territoriality: An Essay in Medieval Political Theory
Lechner, Silviya (University of Wales Aberystwyth)
6 SGIR Pan-European Conference on International Relations, Turin, 12-15 Sept. (2007)
Today for many the idea of state sovereignty has become an empty shell. It portrays the state as a fixed territorial entity, but contemporary political practice, it is claimed, is neither static not confined to territorial borders—it involves global capital, transnational citizen solidarities, and an emerging, at least in the developed world, transborder stratum of middle classes with congruent political interests. These new developments require new idioms—theories of globalisation, global civil society or economic interdependence—as opposed to antiquated theories of sovereignty. Yet, resisting this prevailing academic sentiment, the following pages contend that the idea of sovereignty has not exhausted its potential—it still illuminates past and present political practice.
Sovereignty, this essay argues, is first and foremost a claim about the supremacy of political authority, a claim that does not per se concern the issue of how such authority is linked to jurisdiction over land. Critics of the concept assume that sovereignty means ‘supreme authority within a given territory’ but this assumption is hard to defend. As the ensuing survey of the western medieval tradition will disclose, there is little in historical record that supports it. In actuality, post-sixteenth century Western Europe was less dependent on the idea of territorial jurisdiction than the Latin Christendom it was called to replace. The movement is from a more to a less territorially explicit legal order. If this view bears scrutiny, as it is suggested here, the current rise of political relations across territorial borders does not suffice to discredit the concept of sovereignty. This concept is not beyond criticism, but both its proponents and its critics need to examine it more carefully before venturing to debate the prospects of a post-sovereign international order.