Bringing the State Back in: Toward a New Constructivist Account of the Medieval World Order

Map of Europe in 1603 by Abraham Ortelius

Bringing the State Back in: Toward a New Constructivist Account of the Medieval World Order

By Andrew Latham

Paper to be given at 2015 Meeting of the International Studies Association 

Map of Europe in 1603 by Abraham Ortelius

Introduction: Constructivists are in broad agreement regarding the basic character of the late medieval “international system”. They agree, for example, that this system was “heteronomous” in nature – that is, that its constituent political units were separated from one another not on the basis of “sovereignty” and its associated exclusive form of territoriality, but on some other grounds that did not entail such territorial exclusivity. Indeed, most constructivists agree that, as the constitutive norm of “sovereignty” was an early modern invention – linked in part to the emergence of distinctively early modern discourses of property rights – it could not have been the basis of what Ruggie calls the medieval “mode of differentiation”. Constructivists also agree that, because the late medieval international system was heteronomous, Latin Christendom was segmented politically into a number of non-territorial political units: the Holy Roman Empire, the Church, city-states, urban leagues, feudal lordships, principalities, kingdoms, and even guilds and monasteries. They further agree that the resulting “medieval system of rule reflected ‘a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights of government’… which were ‘intextricably superimposed and tangled,’ and in which ‘different juridical instances were geographically interwoven and stratified, and plural allegiances, asymmetrical suzerainties and anomalous enclaves abounded’”. Add to this a general agreement that the late medieval “state”, to the extent that “the concept makes any sense at all”, was “feudal” in nature (i.e. composed of chains of feudal lord-vassal relations), that hierarchy (ecclesiastical, imperial and/or feudal) was its ordering principle, and that a “great divide” radically separates the late medieval system of rule from its early modern counterpart and one has a more or less complete picture of what constructivists typically assume, assert or argue about the international system of the late Middle Ages.

The problem with this picture is that it finds very little warrant in the contemporary historiographical literature. To be certain, there are historians and political theorists who accept the “rupture perspective” implicit in constructivist IR and whose work might lend limited support to the picture painted above. But this is a minority perspective. The now-standard historiographical view – the “continuity perspective” – is that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “saw neither innovation nor even the unfolding of what had been implicit or latent, but rather the fuller and faster development of tendencies already explicitly present and manifest in late medieval society.” On this view, neither Westphalia nor Augsburg (nor even Constance) were the political watersheds that constructivists – along with many other IR scholars – continue to believe them to be; they certainly did not mark the birth of the sovereign state or state-system. Rather, proponents of the continuity perspective argue, the true historical turning point, the moment when the concept of sovereignty first crystallized and began to be put into practice, was the 12th century. Viewed from this perspective, the period characterized by constructivists as being radically different from modernity – feudal, heteronomous and hierarchical – was in fact of a piece with the early modern era. While there were certainly differences between the late medieval and early modern international systems, these were more variations on a theme than differences in kind. In both eras, sovereign states were the defining political units and anarchy the ordering principle. Indeed, though they surely wouldn’t use this conceptual language, proponents of the continuity thesis in effect argue that the period from c. 1200 to c. 1800 was in fact a single epoch, defined in large measure by the competitive enactment of a “global cultural script” of sovereign statehood. Although I believe that a more nuanced periodization is in fact warranted by the historiography, the basic issue of when the European state-system came into being – in the thirteenth century rather than the seventeenth – seems settled. While this will likely be considered revolutionary (heretical?) in IR circles, it has long been something of a commonplace among historians of the era.


To argue that states were the defining political units of the late medieval political system, of course, is not to echo the long-discredited claims of realists like Markus Fischer regarding the transhistorical nature of sovereignty and anarchy. Nor is it to make the “presentist” error of projecting back onto pre-modern societies quintessentially modern understandings of ordering concepts such as “sovereignty” or the “state”. Nor, finally, is it to commit the error of engaging in the “unreflected usage of terminology alien to the epoch under discussion.” Rather, to make this argument is to recognize that the late medievals had developed their own socially constructed, historically specific idea of sovereign, territorial statehood. It is to recognize, in other words, that the sovereign state is not a “modern” concept erroneously projected back onto the late medieval era, but a distinctively late medieval idea that powerfully influenced the way in which the people of that era understood – and thus constituted – their social world. The primary goal of this article is to reconstruct this ideal and to show that it, rather than “heteronomy” or “hierarchy”, was the foundation upon which the late medieval international system was constructed.

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Click here to visit Andrew Latham’s website

See also our interview with Professor Latham on Medieval Geopolitics

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