Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval State

By Andrew Latham

From the mid-thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, political authorities across Latin Christendom used the new technologies of governance I described in earlier columns to enact the script of sovereign statehood that I described in my most recent column. Initially at least, the enactment of this script against the backdrop of the complexity that characterized early thirteenth century Latin Christendom meant that the resulting political units were anything but hard-edged, discrete, territorially discrete states. Indeed, quite the opposite: reflecting the legacy of the preceding feudal era, these political structures overlapped and perforated one another in multiple and complex ways, giving rise to the myth that the medieval political order was a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete political authorities that were inextricably superimposed, interwoven and tangled.

Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the progressive enactment of this script meant that these political units did come to resemble more closely the ideal of the sovereign state. To be sure, this was never a linear process; the vicissitudes of war and internal conflicts over jurisdiction and rights combined to ensure that such polities could expect to expand and contract and to move through phases of relative integration and disintegration.  Nor was it uniform: the pace at which political authorities employed the new technologies of governance to enact the script of sovereign statehood necessarily varied from region to region. Despite all this, however, a general tendency toward the consolidation of territorial states could be observed throughout these centuries. Whereas in AD 1250 such polities were porous, perforated and contested, by AD 1550 they were more or less consolidated states reflecting – if always imperfectly – the ideal of sovereign statehood.


But what did these medieval states look like? Simply put, the enactment of this script of sovereign statehood gave rise, not to a single type of state, but to several distinctive variations on the theme of statehood. The most common and significant of these were kingdoms, principalities, communes and leagues.


The kingdom or regnum was a territorial political community bound together by common customs, laws and (imagined) descent and ruled by a king or emperor who recognized no superior temporal authority. While kingdoms had existed prior to the late medieval era, of course, during the feudal or high medieval era they had been hollowed out or broken up as public authority was usurped first by great magnates of the realm and then by lesser lords. And while kings had retained many of their historical rights and privileges during the feudal era, they had lost much of their power, and even authority, to rule. Indeed, in kingdoms such as France the king was both poorer and weaker than many of his nominal subjects, directly governing little more than a royal demesne that was considerably smaller than the lands ruled by the great dukes and counts of the realm. As kings and their officers began enacting this new cultural script, however, kingdoms were reconstituted and reinvigorated, asserting themselves ever more effectively over their claimed, historical or imagined realms.

France depicted in 1535 version of Ptolemy’s 3rd European Map

Significantly, these kingdoms often took the form of “composite states” – that is, states that united several independent political communities while preserving their distinctive legal identities. They were formed as a result of the tendency among late medieval kingdoms to assert sovereignty and jurisdiction over lesser polities within their imagined or historical borders; and of the tendency of late medieval monarchs to pursue the right-to-rule that they had acquired through marriage or conquest. In this process, state-builders did not extinguish the independent character of towns, counties, duchies and other political units. Instead they subordinated these lesser polities to the kingdom through patronage and contractual relations that implicitly or explicitly specified varying rights and obligations between center and periphery.


By its nature, the medieval kingdom controlled subordinate political units indirectly through intermediaries who continued to exercise significant autonomy.  To the considerable extent that this applied to war-making affairs, medieval kingdoms can thus be said to have controlled or coordinated, but manifestly not to have monopolized, the means of violence. Nor, obviously, did they exercise sovereignty in a uniform manner; the agglomerative process produced composite states ranging from fairly unitary kingdoms containing a small number of “liberties”, to federations held together by uniform contracts between central and subordinate polities, to empires (including the Holy Roman Empire) in which center and periphery were bound by a variety of types political arrangements.

Nor, though, were such composite kingdoms merely the feudal “possessions” or “dynastic agglomerations” of a single sovereign.  While assembled in part as a result of the assertion of feudal and dynastic rights, it is more accurate to describe the relationship of the monarch to the various territories of the composite kingdom, with an excusable degree of anachronism, as a type of “federal” arrangement in which the crown played the role of federal government and the intermediary executive, judicial and legislative offices of the various subordinate polities played the role of state or provincial governments.

To summarize: beginning in the late thirteenth century, the enactment of the script of sovereign statehood produced kingdoms that (a) claimed and exercised internal sovereignty (in the form of regnal judicial supremacy within the realm) and external sovereignty (in the form of the non-recognition of any superior judicial authority – in temporal matters – beyond the realm); (b) justified and exercised sovereign rule in the name of peace, justice and security, suppressing private violence and defending the realm against external aggression; and (c) pursued the goals of peace, justice and security within territorial (though sometimes composite) political communities governed by a king and through the administrative offices of the crown. The crux of my argument, here as elsewhere, is not that fully evolved sovereign states populated Latin Christendom from AD 1300 on, but that a constitutive script of sovereign statehood had come to define the political imagination of the era, and that the enactment of this script was the defining dynamic of late medieval political life.



County of Flanders with borders of Belgium superimposed for comparison – image by Soerfm / Wikimedia Commons

Closely related to the kingdom was the principality.  The principality was a territorial political community ruled not by a king, but by a “prince” – that is, a great magnate, typically a count or duke, though sometimes an actual prince, who was the “first magistrate” of the political community.  Examples of principalities include the Duchy of Burgundy, the Palatinate of the Rhine, the County of Flanders and the Principality of Novgorod. Throughout the late Middle Ages, principalities enacted the same script of sovereign statehood, through the same technologies of governance, as kingdoms.  Principalities, for example, developed their own internal judicial hierarchies (culminating in their own appellate courts); levied direct and indirect taxes on their subjects; and raised armies using the same mechanisms as kingdoms. They were also similar in terms of scale – indeed, the largest principalities were larger than all but the most extensive kingdoms – and could acquire the institutional solidity, mythic legitimacy and historical connection to a people and place realized by the late medieval kingdom.

But there were important differences between the two types of state that makes them two distinct manifestations of a common cultural script of sovereign statehood. To begin with, principalities were not ruled by kings and thus were inferior in status to those states that were. The revival of Roman law and the subsequent crystallization of the ideal of sovereign statehood led to kings being sharply distinguished from other lords within the political imaginary of the era, elevating them normatively above all other lords and princes.  By extension, polities that were governed by kings also came to enjoy a status superior to those that were not. Coupled with the widespread belief that kingdoms were the most natural and normal type of polity and a picture of the inferior status of the principality comes into focus.

Another difference was that principalities typically lay within the bounds of one or more larger imagined or historical kingdoms.  They were thus not only normatively inferior to kingdoms, but politically subordinate as well. The degree to which this subordination was given effect, of course, varied according to a variety of circumstances.  Princes sometimes embraced the overlordship of a king, exploiting this to enhance their own legitimacy, power, status or authority within their county or duchy. Other times, however, they sought to minimize the king’s influence and maximize their own autonomy.


As a result, some principalities were able to act as if they were autonomous, sovereign entities (even if the prince grudgingly acknowledged the nominal overlordship of a king) while others were highly autonomous but clearly part of a kingdom. To be sure, kings too could accept the overlordship of others, either directly (most commonly that of the Pope) or indirectly (the kings of England were famously vassals of the kings of France in right of his title to the duchy of Gascony). Generally, however, kings were more successful at mitigating the impact of such arrangements than were lesser princes.

Finally, principalities differed from kingdoms in that the latter typically had the institutional and (especially) normative resilience to survive dynastic crises and wars, while the former often did not. Kingdoms were historic entities, sustained by an admixture of myth, authority and political infrastructure that made it unusual for them to be extinguished through war or diplomacy. In contrast, small- to medium-sized principalities in particular were both considerably more vulnerable to the vagaries of dynastic affairs or war and considerably more inclined to seek shelter within kingdoms if the opportunity arose for them to do so on favorable terms.


In addition to kingdoms and principalities, the late medieval international order was populated with urban communes. Generically speaking, a commune was a sworn association with common interests and some form of self-regulation. While such an association could take a variety of forms – guilds, fraternities, etc. – for the purposes of this article, the most significant form was the urban commune or city-state.  Like kingdoms and principalities, urban communes were territorial political communities; unlike those other polities, however, they existed on a more limited scale (the city and its surrounding contado), were dominated by merchants and artisans (although nobles could also play a significant role), and governed themselves through some combination of assemblies, councils and magistracies. Such urban communes could exist within kingdoms and principalities – indeed, they could be chartered and created by these polities to advance their interests. But they could also assert their independence from any such superordinate polity, as the urban communes of northern Italy were famously to do throughout the late Middle Ages.

Map of Venice contained in the Libro di Benedetto Bordone published in 1528

Significantly, although urban communities certainly pre-dated the crisis of feudalism and its associated period of institutional renovation, beginning in the twelfth century city-states across Latin Christendom enacted the script of sovereign statehood in much the same way as kingdoms and principalities.  During the late Middle Ages, city-states such as Venice, Florence, Genoa and Lübeck developed fiscal systems (including direct and indirect taxation), promulgated legislation and regulations (related to moral and social life, as well as economic and political affairs), asserted their jurisdiction (over themselves and their surrounding hinterlands, and against kingdoms, principalities, local lordships and other communes), developed judicial and policing systems (to keep the peace), created significant military forces (some combination of urban militias and paid military companies) and generally set about building the institutions of corporate-sovereign statehood.  Although they typically built these institutions within the borders of a top-layer political units a few of the more powerful cities achieved something like full political autonomy in their own right.



A final type of polity populating the late medieval international order was the “league”.  In much of the existing literature, leagues have either been ignored or portrayed as a form of political unit qualitatively different from the state. In actual fact, although leagues were quite diverse, those relevant to the study of medieval geopolitics are more properly understood as a variation on the theme of the sovereign state than as an alternative to it.  This becomes clear if we first grasp that, generically, leagues were nothing more than an association or alliance comprising peer actors pursuing or defending common interests. At one level, such leagues could take the form of associations of lordships, towns or other peer groups banding together to assert or defend their political rights in the face of royal or other state-building projects.  Examples of this type of league include the hermandades of Castile and Léon and the Landfrieden of the Empire, both of which were political alliances within states, not too different from the “estates” through which particular communities or status groups were represented in the central governments of kingdoms and principalities.

At another level, however, leagues could take the form of alliances of political units that were themselves enacting the script of sovereign statehood. This type of league took one of two forms. The first was the city-league, an alliance of city-states banding together to assert or defend their autonomy from royal or princely authorities or to fill the void where such authorities were absent, decadent or otherwise ineffective. The most fully evolved of these, the Hanseatic League, was able to achieve something like full political autonomy in their own right – externally, it was able to negotiate treaties, raise armies, conduct wars and otherwise behave like a sovereign power; internally, it was able to raise taxes, issue laws and regulations, and enforce the decisions of its central government (the Hansetag). In short, the Hanseatic League was a composite corporate-sovereign state made up of urban communes like Lübeck and Hamburg that were themselves sovereign states. The fact that its constituent elements were not contiguous made it different from the surrounding kingdoms and principalities, but did not make it something other than a state.

Hanseatic League around the year 1400 – from H.F. Helmolt, History of the World, Volume VII, Dodd Mead 1902.

The second form of state-like league was the territorial confederation, of which the Swiss Confederacy was the most notable example.  Founded in 1291 by the rural communes of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden (later joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city-states of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern), the purpose of this league was to promote trade and peace among its constituent units and to assert their collective jurisdictions in the face of similar efforts by their nominal Habsburg overlords. Again, although the constituent units retained a great degree of autonomy (even on occasion pursuing their own foreign policies), the confederation developed common taxes and administrative structures much like those being developed in kingdoms, principalities and city-states. Over time, the league acquired a permanence, institutional solidity, de facto (later de iure) sovereignty and corporate identity that placed it on par with late medieval kingdoms such as England, France and Castile.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

Click here to read more Medieval Geopolitics

Top Image: 16th century map of Europe by Matthias Quadandre


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!