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Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Fiscal Revolution”

By Andrew Latham

So far in this series, we have talked about medieval “revolutions” in military power and judicial authority. A third great change in the late medieval era was in the control of money.

Penny minted by Edward I of England – photo by Jerry Woody / Wikimedia Commons

During the tenth to twelfth centuries, the right to mint coins had slipped from the exclusive hands of royal authorities and into the hands of a wide range of lords. From the late thirteenth century onwards, however, seigneurial mints were either closed down by the king or became subcontractors to the royal mint. As a result, non-royal coins soon disappeared from circulation and coinage became what it had been during the rule of Charlemagne: the exclusive purview of the state. Significantly, while kings imposed an increasingly effective monopoly over their royal currencies, they did so in their capacity as public office holders embodying the community of the realm. Money was not “owned” by the king, nor did he exercise unrestricted control over it. Rather, the crown was merely the office through which the political community managed its royal currency for the collective and individual benefit of its members.  Summarizing the conventional wisdom of the era, Nicholas Oresme put it thus:

Money is established and devised for the good of the community. And since the prince is the most public person of the community, it follows that he should make the money for the community and stamp it with a suitable design.

The sovereign prerogative of controlling the coinage was thus vested in the political community, not in some feudal suzerain or local lord. To the extent that the community of the realm monopolized coinage, it was able not only to consolidate the kingdom as an economic space, but to use images of the sovereign to foster a sense of “national” identity and solidarity. In other words, royal currencies not only facilitated the operation of royal markets (and taxation), but the sense of belonging to an (imagined) political community as well.

Along with control of coinage, royal authorities also increasingly used taxation as a technology of rule, developing fiscal systems that not only generated needed resources, but also generally strengthened the administrative structures and presence of the state. Taxation was not, of course, invented in the thirteenth century, but it certainly underwent a profound transformation toward the end of that century and during the succeeding one.

A chest of coins – British Library MS Yates Thompson 13 f. 162v

Reflecting the revived Roman law notion that the king was guardian (tutor) of the realm and therefore was entitled to raise the resources necessary to defend it, late medieval monarchs – at first only in principle, but quickly in practice too – restored exclusive power and authority to levy taxes to the crown.  Following a period of experimentation, and with varying degrees of success, kings across Latin Christendom set about raising the resources necessary for the defense of the realm through land taxes, tithes on the clergy (typically in support of a Crusade), sales taxes, customs dues, salt taxes, river tolls, and any other kind of tax they could think of. They also developed an increasingly diverse administrative infrastructure for assessing and collecting these taxes.  While these new taxes and their associated institutions were initially resisted, over time conflicts over taxation both habituated people to the principle of royal taxation and created opportunities for striking bargains that significantly eroded that resistance.

As a result, by the early fourteenth century, a “fiscal revolution” had taken place across Latin Christendom. Prior to that date, kingdoms can be characterized as “domain states” with the crown subsisting on the proceeds of seigneurial revenues and feudal prerogatives. After this date, they are more accurately described as “tax states” – that is, states financed largely through the general taxation of the entire realm.  While the pace at which this transition took place varied from kingdom to kingdom – by the mid-fourteenth century states such as England, France and Castile established workable fiscal regimes involving relatively high levels of taxation made sustainable by relatively high levels of consent, while those such as Aragon and the Holy Roman Empire had more regimes, involving lower levels of taxation and lower levels of consent – it eventually encompassed all the major kingdoms of Latin Christendom.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published in 2015.  In 2017 he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of his book project entitled Sovereignty: The History of a Medieval Idea. 1075-1576. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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