Medieval Geopolitics: The Late Medieval International System

Late Medieval International System

By Andrew Latham

What does my string of columns suggest regarding the nature of the late medieval international system?  To begin with, it tells us that this system was in fact an international system.

The prevailing view has been the Middle Ages were an era of “feudal heteronomy”, radically distinct from the early modern international system that superseded it sometime between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  According to this view, the late medieval order was not an international system, properly understood, for the simple reason that it did not comprise sovereign states interacting under conditions of anarchy. Rather, or so the conventional wisdom has it, the late medieval world was populated by a wide range of qualitatively distinct types of political units – the Church, the Empire, kingdoms, towns, urban leagues, feudo-vassalic networks, etc. – interacting within a variety of hierarchies (feudal, legal, cosmological), and operating according to a non-exclusive territorial logic.


In this view, sovereignty, a key requirement for the emergence of both the state and state-system proper, did not make its historical appearance until very late in the game when it was “invented” by early modern thinkers such as “Machiavelli or Bodin or Hobbes”.  While some scholars – Hendrik Spruyt, for example – are willing to trace the origins of the sovereign state back to economic developments in the thirteenth century, almost none are willing to argue (or even accept) that long before peace treaties Westphalia (1648) or Augsburg (1555) a historically distinct but recognizably inter-state system was operating within Latin Christendom.

What I have been trying to show, however, is that this is a deeply flawed characterization of late medieval world order, one largely without warrant in the contemporary historiographical literature.  By the mid-thirteenth century, the convergence of new or revived discourses of sovereignty, territoriality, public authority, the “crown” and political community had given rise to a new “global cultural script” of sovereign statehood that was being enacted on various scales, around various social forces and through various institutional formations in every corner of Latin Christendom. Across the region, political authorities – whether imperial, royal, princely or municipal – promulgated new laws, extended and consolidated their judicial capacities, developed new and more effective means of extracting taxes and other revenues, improved and extended the mechanisms of public administration and record keeping, and developed ever more extensive networks of patronage and influence.


To be certain, these developments unfolded differently in different contexts, resulting in the emergence of a number of distinctive types of forms of state: the Empire was different from kingdoms such as Sweden, France or Aragon, and these differed not only from each other but from principalities such as the Duchy of Brittany, city-states such as Venice, the Papal States, and the Baltic ordenstaat ruled by the Teutonic Order.  But this diversity should not conceal the fact that a common, historically specific script of statehood was being enacted across Latin Christendom.

Expressed in the language of academic theory, the various forms of state that were crystallizing during this era may have been structurally differentiated, but they were functionally similar in form (in terms of their common constitutive ideal and its practical expression).  Ultimately, they were all states – distinctively late medieval states to be sure, but states nonetheless. Attempts to reserve this label exclusively to kingdoms such as England and France and to characterize other forms of polity (the Empire, principalities and urban communes) as being somehow categorically different (i.e. as something other than states) is simply to misunderstand the “state of the state” in the late Middle Ages.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the late medieval state or state system was indistinguishable from its modern counterpart.  Quite the opposite: the preceding analysis has suggested at least six characteristics of the constitutive norm of the late medieval state that distinguish it from its early modern counterpart:

1. Late medieval states were sovereign only with respect to temporal affairs; it shared sovereignty with the Church in spiritual matters.


2. In the late Middle Ages, sovereignty involved the control – rather than monopoly over – legitimate violence.

3. Late medieval sovereignty could be de facto as well as de iure.

4. In the late Middle Ages, sovereignty was vested in the political-community-as-corporation rather than, as in the modern era, the state.

5. Late medieval sovereignty was exercised “unevenly” in that sometimes it was exercised through intermediary powers with substantial autonomy.


6. In the late Middle Ages, sovereignty was not always reciprocally recognized (especially between kingdoms and lesser polities).

The late medieval norm of sovereignty thus generated a mixed system of Hobbesian-Lockean – rather than simply Lockean – anarchy.

Ultimately, however, the difference between the late medieval and early modern state systems was more a variation on a theme than a difference in kind.  If we push past the othering and orientalization of the medieval era that so thoroughly permeates the academic common sense to reflect on the actual ideas, institutions and interactions of the period, we clearly see that a key – even defining – element of the late medieval world order was a historically distinct but recognizably “international” system.

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 


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