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Medieval Geopolitics: The Invention of the Idea of “Political Community”

By Andrew Latham

In my previous three columns I examined the ways in which material changes – the military, fiscal and judicial revolutions – gave rise to the medieval state.  In this and the following few instalments, I will examine a parallel development: the way in which changes in culture and consciousness, ideas and ideals contributed to the evolution of this radically new institution of governance.  I will begin today with an overview of how a distinctively post-feudal, later medieval understanding of “political community” evolved in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England

At the heart of the late medieval ideal of the state stood a historically specific understanding of “political community”.  Drawing on the cultural raw materials available to them – especially the recently recovered political thought of Aristotle and the recently revived principles of Roman civil law, but older (especially Biblical, Ciceronian and Germanic) notions as well – later medieval philosophers, scholars, polemicists and jurists articulated a new ideal of political community (communitas politica, civitas, or communitas civilis).  And what did this ideal look like?

To begin with, there can be little doubt that the later medievals imagined political communities in terms of a corpus (body) comprising multiple membra (limbs) each playing a specialized role in support of the whole.  Medievalist Anthony Black summarizes this the organic metaphor or corporeal analogy thus: it “signified the relationship between members… as that of parts having separate functions within a single unit, and at the same time suggested that a society was a structure with a common interest, and perhaps a common motive, purpose and will.”

While the organic metaphor was originally applied to the Church specifically (the Body of Christ or corpus Christi), and was sometimes applied to society in the abstract, by the later Middle Ages it had come to be applied predominantly to the political community. In this context, the “members” of the body were understood to be occupants of certain “offices” performing appropriate ‘duties (officia). To be certain, various thinkers certainly differed with respect to the details of offices, duties and functions. Generally speaking, however, the ranks or offices that comprised the body politic were thought to be the prince, who was typically equated with the head of the body; the various “organs” of government, which functioned as the “senses and viscera” of the office of the crown; the clergy, who were likened to the soul; the knights and lesser royal officials who were analogized to the hands; and the peasants, who played the role of the feet. Beyond this, the metaphor typically likened the law to the muscles and sinews, and even the central nervous system of the body politic and analogized the common good of the community to the health of the body. The significance of this metaphor was that it tended to naturalize both the idea of a complete or perfect community and the belief that such communities must necessarily be internally ordered along hierarchical lines.

Despite what some scholars maintain, in the later medieval political imaginary the body politic was unquestionably understood in territorial terms.  Historians such as Bernard Guenée and Susan Reynolds typically paint a picture of late medieval political life in which units of rule were territorial (in the sense that they were defined by geographical contiguity rather than consanguinity or some other feudal principle), territorially fixed (in the sense that they mapped onto “natural” or “historical” spaces), and territorially exclusive (in the sense that political communities were mutually exclusive enclaves of legitimate dominion). There were debates, of course, between those who believed the optimal scale of the political community to be the city-state versus those who believed it to be the kingdom or Empire. In principle, however, it was generally accepted that, whatever its scale, the “complete community” as Thomas Aquinas called it was territorially limited in nature.  In short, by end of the thirteenth century, the ideas and norms that had licensed non-exclusive forms of territoriality during the high medieval feudal era had given way to a new ideas and norm of territorial exclusiveness.  Supreme authority in temporal affairs was thought to be vested in a single public body and membership in a political community was thought to be a function of residence within increasingly hard (i.e. non-porous) borders.

In some ways most importantly, during this period political community was understood largely in terms of the Roman law concept of the corporation (universitas).  Originally developed in classical times to refer to “associations of persons in both public and private law,” by the thirteenth century the concept was being taken up by jurists to define the structure of small groups within the Church (a cathedral chapter, for example) as well as the universal Church itself.  In both cases, they defined the corporation as a community (a) possessing a distinctive legal personality, (b) shaped by its own unique customs, purpose and composition, and (c) simultaneously “composed of a plurality of human beings and an abstract unitary entity perceptible only to the intellect.” The jurists also fashioned a doctrine of the proper relationship between the corporation, its members and its “head”.  Basically, the head of the corporation was the embodiment of the legal person of the corporation and enjoyed considerable authority to act autonomously on its behalf.  Significantly, however, corporation theory also placed strict limits on this authority.  Above all, the head of the corporation was required to honor the customs and constitution of the corporation, to seek the counsel and consent of its members, and to act in its best interests.  Breach of this contract between the head of a corporation and its members constituted grounds for the removal of the head.

From the thirteenth century on jurists readily applied corporation theory to the essentially political question of how to reconstruct public authority and political community in the aftermath of the crisis of feudalism.  During the course of the fourteenth century, for example, jurists such as Bartolus de Saxoferrato (1313 – 1357) and Baldus de Ubaldis (1327-1400) applied corporation theory to the thorny issue of the constitutional relationship between the Empire and the independent cities and kingdoms within and around it.  Seeking to establish a legal foundation for the political communities that were emerging out of the wreckage of the high medieval/feudal order, these and other jurists came to conceive of emerging political communities as “political corporations”.  As such, they had several defining characteristics.  First, political communities were understood to be simultaneously a collection of individual human beings and an “abstract unitary entity.” Second, as an abstract entity, the political community possessed a juridical personality distinct from that of its individual members. Third, the fictive person of the political community was immortal.  It possessed an undying legal personality that transcended the mortal existence of the persons it comprised.  Finally, they came to view rulers of political communities as public figures embodying the corporation.  In Roman corporation law, all power had resided in the corporation and was delegated to the leader.  In late medieval corporation theory, ultimate power was understood to reside in the political community and was delegated to the sovereign.  As a result, the sovereign was considered to be greater than any individual member of the political community, but was subordinate to the corporate whole from which he derived his authority.

Scholars of International Relations typically claim that there was no such thing as the state in medieval Latin Christendom.  Medieval systems of rule, they claim, were hierarchical (the universal Church and Empire) and/or feudal (based on non-territorial networks of lords and vassals) – they were most definitely not based on functionally similar states competing for power or wealth. But this is not a view shared by historians of the Middle Ages.  As I have been summarizing over the past few columns, and will continue to do so over the next few, their view is that by the thirteenth century at the latest, the material and conceptual raw materials of the state were not only available but had been already been used to create actual states like the kingdoms of England and France.  In my previous three columns, I surveyed the material raw material that enabled the emergence of states. What I have begun to survey today are the conceptual raw materials out of which the states that defined the international order of later medieval Latin Christendom were created.

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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