Medieval Geopolitics: The Two Types of Warfare in Medieval Europe

By Andrew Latham

When it comes to warfare in the Middle Ages, the common belief is that it was always motivated by feudal concerns, religious convictions, or by what Thucydides called the eternal drivers of “honour, fear and interest.” The reality is that medieval wars were often the politics of state- (and empire) building. In this, the first post of the Medieval Geopolitics series, I take a look at the two types of political war fought in medieval Europe.

Both of these types of warfare were the norm by the fourteenth-century. The first of these I will call “constitutive wars,” which I see as wars over the very existence of certain political units as sovereign entities. These wars were characteristically the result of antagonisms between kingdoms with unequal or mutually unrecognized claims to sovereignty. Typically, they involved violent conflicts between kingdoms seeking to assert sovereignty within what they considered to be their natural, rightful or imagined borders and other political units (principalities, communes, leagues or even kingdoms) seeking to resist these efforts and/or assert their own claims to sovereign statehood.


Constitutive wars: England vs Scotland

The wars fought by England and Scotland between 1296 and 1337 provide an illustrative example of constitutive war. On the one hand, the Plantagenet kings of England (Edwards I, II and III) were seeking to incorporate Scotland into the political unit that Rees Davies has called the “first English empire”. As Davies argues, English monarchs had long seen themselves as high kings of a state that encompassed all of the British Isles as well as Aquitaine in southwestern France. Prior to the mid-twelfth century, they had worked at subduing Wales and Ireland, but had not pressed their claims in Scotland too forcefully, contenting themselves with a loose feudal overlordship that conferred little real authority and nothing approaching sovereignty.

Two developments, however, were to alter this situation in the later-twelfth century in ways that exacerbated the antagonisms between the kingdom of Scotland and the English empire. First, Edward I embarked on an ambitious project of building and consolidating the government of this English empire. This predisposed the king and his officials to look for opportunities to assert sovereignty over, and tighten their administrative hold on, those territories that they viewed as naturally or lawfully falling within their empire.


Second, a succession crisis in Scotland provided Edward I with the leverage the English needed to press their claims to sovereignty over the Scottish kingdom. In the mid-1290s, the extinction of the Scottish royal line forced the magnates of the realm to appeal to England’s Edward I to arbitrate competing claims to the throne (and thus avoid civil war). Seizing the opportunity, Edward agreed, but only on condition that the successful claimant recognize his sovereignty over Scotland. Thus, when John Balliol assumed the throne in 1292 he swore homage to Edward, effectively reducing the kingdom of Scotland to a province of the English empire. When, chafing under this new dispensation, the Scottish king defied Edward and entered into an alliance with France, the English invaded Scotland. Both sides saw their war as a “just war”. The English understood their invasion in terms of the legitimate assertion of the rights of the English crown in Scotland; the Scots as a war for the very existence of the patria against a hated foreign enemy.

The war ended in 1328 with the signing of the Treaty Northampton, which formally recognized the sovereignty and independence of the kingdom of Scotland. In 1332, however, fighting was renewed by England’s Edward III as part of his general effort to assert, defend and recover the rights of the English crown throughout the territory of the English empire. This second war concluded in 1357 with the signing of the Treaty of Berwick. This treaty named Edward as the successor to the Scottish throne, thus creating the kind of dual monarchy that brought Scotland definitively (if only temporarily) into the English empire.

Configurative wars: England vs France

The second form of medieval political warfare was “configurative wars.” These were wars fought not over the existence of political units, but over the territorial configuration of mutually recognized sovereign states. They were characteristically the result of horizontal antagonisms – that is, antagonisms between states with reciprocally recognized claims to sovereign statehood. In most cases, these wars involved violent conflicts between principalities or kingdoms that, while recognizing each other’s right to exist, disagreed about the territorial boundaries or borders separating them.

Perhaps the quintessential example of a late medieval constitutive war was the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453). This war erupted as a result of the collision of two state-building projects that were accelerating in the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries. On the one hand, as mentioned above, the English crown was working to consolidate its hold on all the territories believed to belong to its empire. On the other, the French crown was working to restore its sovereign authority over the territories it viewed as properly part of the kingdom of France. The flashpoint was Aquitaine, a large territory in southwestern France held by the English crown as a vassal state from the king of France. As the French attempted to assert their control over the principality (through the use of judicial appeals and the exploitation of previously only lightly exercised feudal rights) they clashed repeatedly with English kings seeking to minimize French authority in the territory and avoid the subordination entailed in feudal acts of homage.

BNF Français 226 fol. 256v

The underlying issue, of course, was a dispute over the configuration of the two contending states: would Aquitaine be a constituent territory of the English empire or an integral part of the kingdom of France? On three occasions in the decades on either side of 1300 this underlying horizontal antagonism led to war between England and France: the War of 1294-98; the War of Saint-Sardos (1324-27); and the Hundred Years War proper in 1337.

Establishing a pattern for centuries

By the fourteenth century, war in Latin Christendom was largely a byproduct of the dynamic of state- and empire-building. To be sure, religious war remained a reality. But crusading was increasingly subordinated to the political logic of an “international system” in which emergent states interacted with one another in the absence of an overarching, universal political authority. Similarly, private or feudal war was was waning as emergent states and empires increasingly suppressed private war within their territories and exploited feudal relationships to advance the state-and empire-building project.

Against this backdrop, two specific types of political warfare emerged. The first, which I have called “constitutive wars”, were wars fought over the right of certain political units to exist as as sovereign entities. Thus the wars between England and Scotland in the years 1296 to 1337 were not fought to determine the borders between England and Scotland, but whether Scotland would continue to exist as a sovereign kingdom at all. The second, which I have called “configurative wars”, were fought over the the territorial boundaries of mutually recognized sovereign states. Thus the Hundred Years War was fought not to determine whether France or England would be extinguished as a sovereign state, but merely to establish the territorial extent of each.


The significance of the emergence of these two types of warfare in the fourteenth century cannot be overstated; for not only were they were to persist as the main forms of violent political conflict through the later medieval era, but they would set the basic patterns of European warfare well into the twentieth century.

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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Top Image: 14th century depiction of warfare – Morgan M.516 fol. 086r