The Middle Ages and the Modern State

Did the modern state emerge in the seventeenth century or in the thirteenth century?

By Andrew Latham

My recent columns have implications for the way International Relations scholars periodize history.  The conventional wisdom within the field is that sometime in the mid-seventeenth century medieval geopolitical structures decisively gave way to the modern state.  To be certain, recent years have witnessed a growing number of scholars reject this point of view. Benno Teschke, for example, views the “mode of production” as the determining criterion in this connection, arguing that, as the absolutist state was based on pre-modern social property relations (feudalism), it cannot be said to be modern.  For him, that term is reserved for those states founded on (modern) capitalist relations of production and exploitation.

Similarly, Christian Reus-Smit has argued that the “constitutional order” is the determining factor.  On this view, modernity can only really be said to emerge with the birth of the multilateral constitutional order of the nineteenth century.  Others argue that the modern world order emerged at least a century-and-a-half before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By and large, however, the conventional view within the field is that the state is an artifact of modernity; wherever one locates the historical rupture that ushered in the modern era, there too one locates the birth or the moment of triumph of the sovereign state.  Indeed, despite all the recent challenges to the “myth of 1648”, within the mainstream International Relations literature the signing of the Treaties of Osnabrück and Münster in that year continue to mark the emergence of a distinctive international system that would subsequently be imposed on the rest of the planet.


This string of columns, however, suggests an alternative way of thinking about the question of periodization in International Relations.  Specifically, it suggests that the history of the European state-system (which later became universalized and globalized) began not in 1714 (with the Treaty of Utrecht), nor 1648 (with the Treaty of Westphalia), nor in 1555 (with the Treaty of Augsburg), nor even in 1494 (with the Council of Constance); rather, the birth of the European international system occurred sometime in the thirteenth century with the crystallization of a constitutive norm of sovereign statehood and the progressive enactment of this script over the succeeding centuries.

This inference will certainly raise eyebrows within the International Relations community, but the argument developed above leaves little room for doubt.  If we look at the main trends in this era, we see states competing and contending, often violently, with other states over quintessentially political “goods” such as jurisdiction, sovereignty and territory.  These states pursued their socially constructed interests not in some exotic feudal, imperial or ecclesiastical hierarchy, but within a historically specific anarchic international structure. While the character of both the state and state-system that evolved in the aftermath of the twelfth century crisis of lord-rulership were decidedly “pre-modern”, they were not so different from the early, high- and late-modern variants that succeeded them as to warrant exiling them beyond the pale of the history of international relations.  Indeed, I would argue that the differences between the late-medieval and early modern international systems, while significant, were not much greater than those between the early modern and high-modern ones or between those of the high-modern and late-modern eras.


Drawing inspiration from medievalists such as Brian Tierney and Christopher Oakley on the one hand and International Relations scholars such as Rodney Bruce Hall and Daniel Philpott on the other, let me suggest the following periodization framework:

First, using the language of the geologic timescale, let me suggest that the centuries from about 1200 until today constitutes a single epoch in the period of international relations.  During the entirely of this era, states were the predominant units of governance/warmaking units and anarchy was the prevailing structure within which they were embedded.  In turn, this epoch can be divided into several discrete ages – the age of the “corporate-sovereign” state; the age of the “dynastic-sovereign state”, the age of the “territorial-sovereign state” and the age of the “national-sovereign state” – each of which was characterized by its own historically specific form of state and culture of anarchy.

Such a framework, I think, would allow scholars to break decisively with the “myth of 1648” and its variations (which move the date forward or backward by a century or so), to situate the late medieval era unambiguously within the ambit of the discipline of International Relations, and thereby encourage International Relations scholars to treat the late medieval age with the seriousness it deserves.  It would also, however, allow us to continue to appreciate the very real differences between international orders in each of the ages mentioned above. Finally, decisively breaking with the myth of 1648 – ending once and for all the “tyranny” of this particular “construct” – would bring International Relations scholarship into closer alignment with the historiography of medieval political thought and development, opening up the possibility for more fertile cross-fertilization between these bodies of scholarship. All these, I believe, would be salutary developments within the discipline(s).

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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Top Image: Map of Europe in the 13th century – from The Public Schools Historical Atlas by Charles Colbeck. Longmans, Green; New York; London; Bombay. 1905.