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State Formation in Europe in the First Millenium AD

State Formation in Europe in the First Millenium AD

By Peter Heather

Scotland in Dark Age Europe, ed. Barbara E. Crawford (University of St. Andrews, 1994)

Early Medieval Europe

Introduction: This essay is concerned not with the formation of all European states of the first millenium A.D., but to highlight and then briefly explore a recurring pattern of historical development on the fringes of the great empires of the era. In the Germanic world beyond the frontiers of the Roman state in the first half of the period, and later in the Slavic world bordering the Carolingian and Ottonian states in the second, there emerged, over time, even more substantial political entities. This paper will compare the processes of development in each case, to establish that they were indeed parallel, and then concentrate upon causation. Wht should history have repeated itself in this way?

This is of course a huge subject, which can be given no more than a very introductory treatment here. Many refinements of argument must be excluded together with much relevant evidence (I also consider that many of the points are also applicable to Viking Age Scandinavia). Despite all these caveats, I hope to have responded to the challenge to think in broad terms laid down recently especially by the Danish archaeologist Randsborg, and to provide an alternative way of looking at some of the phenomena which have attracted his eye.

The central point I want to make in this section is that both the Germanic world of the fourth century and the Slavic of the ninth and tenth centuries saw the emergence of political entities of sufficient size and solidity to be worthy, in some way, of the designation ‘states’. How to define a state is of course a moot point, but I have in mind a combination of characteristics such as:

– substantial size (states exercise authority over more than just one local area)

– the ability to endure (individual leaders may come and go, even with great regularity, but the political entity nonetheless retains its basic shape).

– some concept of public authority (the political centre is capable of defining and enforcing a range of rights and duties owed to itself).

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