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International Relation’s Medieval-Sovereignty Debate: Three Rival Approaches

By Andrew Latham

First published in International Studies Review, Volume 20, Issue 3 (2018)

In recent years International Relations (IR) scholars have begun to debate the degree to which, if at all, the concept of sovereignty can be applied to the medieval European world order. Several questions have framed and animated this debate, the most important of which are: When did a recognizably modern concept of sovereignty first emerge in Europe? Historically, can we point to a medieval idea of sovereignty? If so, how did this historically specific idea of sovereignty differ from its modern counterpart? Is sovereignty a generic signifier of supreme authority within a political community (territorial or not), in which case it might well be applicable to medieval Europe? Or does sovereignty imply/require a particular form of (modern) territoriality, in which case it is in no way applicable to the medieval European order? Even if we concede that an historically specific idea of sovereignty existed in the medieval era, did it constitute what Waltz and later Ruggie called a “mode of differentiation” – that is, the organizing principle around which the medieval world order was structured? Or, as John Ruggie famously argued, was that order structured around a radically different organizing principle – that of “heteronomy” – in which case even if they had the idea of sovereignty it was of little practical significance? Finally, why have IR scholars asked and attempted to answer these questions? Or, to put it slightly differently, what’s at stake in what I will call the “medieval-sovereignty debate”?

In this article I trace the outlines of three basic approaches to the questions raised above. In part one, I describe what I call the “presentist approach” – that is, the approach that holds that sovereignty is an artifact of modernity and that it is therefore anachronistic to apply it to the pre-modern era.  In part two, I outline the “genealogical approach” which maintains that even though sovereignty is a distinctively modern idea and institution it should be viewed as the apotheosis of a centuries-long medieval tradition of speculating about the locus, source and character of supreme authority. The third part of the article describes what I call the “historicist approach”, which is an approach that insists that the concept of sovereignty can usefully be applied to illuminate the dynamics of any world order in which (a) questions regarding the locus, source and character of supreme authority over a political community have been asked, (b) these questions have been answered in ways that frame a given political order as comprising a number of independent political units interacting in an acephalous system or society, and (c) these answers are institutionalized as organizing principles that in turn constitute the mode of differentiation at the heart of that world order.  Finally, the article concludes with some reflections on the significance of the medieval-sovereignty debate for the field of International Relations.

The Presentist Approach

The first, and I would suggest predominant, school of thought regarding medieval sovereignty is what I will call the “presentist” approach. According to proponents of this approach sovereignty is the distinctively modern organizing principle or mode of differentiation of modern international order and that it is therefore anachronistic to apply it to the medieval European world order. On this view, sovereignty is defined as “supreme authority within a territory” (Morgenthau 1967), where “supreme authority” means highest power and “territory” denotes geographic location within a set of borders. As Wendt put it, sovereignty is best understood to be both a unit property and a social relationship (Wendt 1999, 280). As a unit property, (internal) sovereignty entails the concentration of supreme authority over a territory (understood as a precisely delimited or bounded space) in the hands of the state. As a social relationship, (external) sovereignty entails the mutual recognition of claims to internal sovereignty by all polities within a system.

According to the presentist perspective, sovereignty emerged as both an idea and an institution in the early modern period. Among students of political thought, the consensus was that they idea of sovereignty was an artifact of the work of early modern thinkers like Bodin or Hobbes (Skinner 2009) – thinkers who essentially invented the idea out of the raw material furnished by the Renaissance and Reformation. Among IR scholars, on the other hand, the conventional wisdom was that the institution or constitutive norm of sovereignty was an artifact of the Peace of Westphalia – a set of treaties that they long claimed created the European state system. More recently, however, some scholars of political thought have nuanced the presentist understanding, claiming that a truly modern concept of sovereignty – one accounting for both internal and external sovereignty – was a product of eighteenth century thinkers such as Emer de Vattel (Beaulac 2003). Similarly, IR scholars have largely abandoned the “myth of Westphalia” in favour of either variations on the early modern account (Osiander, 2001; Philpott, 2001; Larkins, 2010) or more radical claims that the institution of sovereignty only fully emerged in the high modern era (Branch, 2014; Teschke, 2003).

Significantly, the presentist approach has been adopted by scholars across the IR theoretical spectrum. So, for example, realists such as Kenneth Waltz (1986), Stephen Krasner (1999), and Robert Jackson (2007) have all argued for the historical specificity of the modern system of sovereign states and have limited their analyses to that system. Similarly, constructivists such as John Ruggie (1993), Daniel Philpott (2001), Nick Onuf (1991), Andreas Osiander (2008), and Jordan Branch (2014) have all argued that the sovereign state and its associated system are socially constructed artefacts of the modern era. Marxists such as Justin Rosenberg (1994) and Benno Teschke (2003) have demonstrated how the sovereign-states system was historically a product of modern capitalism. Finally, post-structuralists such as Cynthia Weber (1995) have explored the political work done by representations and discourses of sovereignty in the modern period. While these scholars disagree profoundly in all sorts of ways, they share the view that a radical rupture separated the medieval and modern eras – a rupture both registered and induced by the invention of the institution or constitutive of sovereignty sometime between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Genealogical Approach

A second approach – which I will call “genealogical” – accepts that sovereignty is a distinctively modern and European political phenomenon, but insists that, rather than marking a rupture or caesura in political thought, modern sovereignty is actually the apotheosis of a centuries-long medieval tradition of philosophical speculation about the locus, source and character of supreme authority. On the genealogical view, sovereignty is primarily a concept or idea, and therefore properly the object of intellectual history. Approached in this way, sovereignty appears not as a radically new invention of Bodin in the late sixteenth century, but as a concept with a long history stretching back to the late eleventh century. Put slightly differently, on this view Bodin’s real contribution to the history of sovereignty was not that he invented the concept, but that he bundled a variety of ideas that had been evolving between the onset of the Investiture Controversy in 1075 and about 1400 into a single master concept, which he called sovereignty (and marketed shamelessly).

In my own ongoing research, I am attempting to trace the evolution of a number of concepts related to the character of supreme authority across a number of distinct sites of political theorizing (canon law; Roman law; various polemical literatures; and the works of theologians and philosophers) over the course of several centuries (1075-1576). Among the more important of these concepts are legibus solutus (loosed from the laws); plenitudo potestatis (fullness of power); potesta absoluta (absolute power); pro ratione voluntas (by reason of will); persona ficta (fictitious legal personality); imperium (power to command); and dominium (control or ownership). The argument I am developing is that, in the course of a number of political disputes over the course of the Middle Ages, the meaning of these terms evolved in ways that ultimately furnished the early modern theorists of sovereignty with the conceptual raw materials necessary for them to “invent” the idea of sovereignty. In a similar spirit, I have also attempted to trace the roots of modern sovereignty’s assumptions regarding the source and locus of supreme authority. With respect to the source of supreme authority, two strands of thought crystalized during the Middle Ages: a lex regia strand that holds that supreme authority is derived from “the people”; and a more theocratic strand that asserts that such authority is derived from God.  Finally, drawing on the work of scholars such as Jordan Branch, Jeremy Larkin and Stuart Elden I have sought to understand how medieval conceptions of “territoriality” evolved across a similarly diverse set of sites across a similar span of centuries, resulting in the transformation of the medieval understanding of territory as place into a more modern one of territory as space.

The Historicist Approach

A third approach to the medieval-sovereignty debate – which I will label “historicist” – recognizes the uniqueness of the institution of sovereignty that crystalized in early modern Europe, but insists that the later medieval political order was also underpinned by a constitutive norm of sovereignty. On this view, any political order (in my case, medieval, but the logic can also apply to non-European orders) in which questions regarding the locus, source and character of supreme authority within a polity are raised and in which the answers are to some degree institutionalized can be said to be underpinned by a concept of sovereignty. To be clear, this is not to make the anachronistic argument that all historical political orders are somehow sovereign-states systems. Rather, it is to make the claim that, for some historical orders at least, historically specific understandings of the locus, source and character of supreme authority have combined with historically specific conceptions of territoriality to generate historically specific sovereign-state systems. These systems will not look exactly like the modern sovereign-states system. They will, however, bear a strong family resemblance.

In addition to a genealogical reading of the roots of sovereignty, in my own work I have sought to understand how evolving ideas and institutions of “supreme authority within a polity” constituted the later medieval world order – a world order that, while distinctively medieval, was in many ways also “recognizably modern” (Latham, 2012). At the risk of oversimplification, I did this by first mapping the historically specific constitutive norm of “supreme authority” (with its own historically specific form of territoriality). I then argued that this constitutive norm served as a kind of “cultural script” that shaped the way in which medieval political actors understood, and thus acted in, the world. Finally, I demonstrated how the enactment of this script by powerful political actors resulted in a competitive process of “state-building” in which various polities, organized on various scales (city-states; leagues; kingdoms; the empire), sought to consolidate control over their imagined territories. The resulting dynamic culminated in a system of competing polities in which a recognizably modern concept of internal sovereignty was the defining (if in some sense still emerging) unit property. To be sure, the unit properties of the medieval “state” were in some ways different from those of its early and high modern counterparts. For example, medieval states were sovereign only with respect to temporal affairs; they shared sovereignty with the Church in spiritual matters. Similarly, medieval sovereignty involved the control – rather than monopoly over – legitimate violence. Ultimately, however, I concluded that the late medieval political order was underpinned by an historically specific instantiation of a generic organizing principle of sovereignty rather than heteronomy, hierarchy or some other exotic organizing principle. Similarly, I argued, as a result of this dynamic, a recognizably modern but still distinctively medieval set of social relations (external sovereignty) evolved that were characterized by reciprocal recognition between some types of polity (especially between kingdoms) but not all types (kingdoms often did not recognize the sovereignty claims of lesser polities).

Conclusion: What’s at Stake?

What are the theoretical implications of approaching the issue of medieval sovereignty in these various ways? To begin with, both the presentist and historcist approaches say something about the scope conditions of IR – that is, about the parameters of the field itself. It perhaps goes without saying that IR presentists generally assume that the scope conditions for the discipline are the study of the sovereign state and its associated or derivative structures and institutions. Having asserted, assumed or argued that sovereignty did not exist prior to the modern era, they then conclude that the scope conditions for IR theory must therefore be limited to the modern era. IR theories cannot, therefore, be applied to the pre-modern era. A logical corollary of this is that theories and concepts developed to illuminate the medieval world order can tell us little if anything about modern international relations. The net result (or is it a cause?) of this “Great Divide” (Bagge 1998) is that the medieval era is rendered an “orientalized” Other comprising an exotic congeries of ideas, institutions and structures that are so alien as to render the epoch simultaneously both irrelevant to the study of modern international relations and inaccessible to the contemporary IR scholar.

If, however, one adopts the historicist perspective, then it becomes possible to see how various IR concepts and theories might indeed be usefully applied to the medieval era. There are the very real dangers of anachronism, of course – a fact amply attested to by Markus Fisher’s (1992) deeply flawed effort to apply the insights of realism to medieval geopolitics. But as I hope I have demonstrated in my own work, it is certainly possible to apply the methods and concepts of, say, IR constructivism to the international relations of the later Middle Ages (Latham 2011, 2012), and to do so with effect. Indeed, I would suggest that, done with due care and a healthy historical sensibility, applying constructivism and other IR theories to the pre-modern political order is no more inherently anachronistic than applying approaches and methods originally developed to analyze the high modern sovereign-states system to the post-modern, post-sovereign-states system of today.

On the other hand, adopting a genealogical approach can also remedy some of the shortcomings of the presentist perspective. Simply put, adopting such an approach reveals that the modern sovereign-states system – which IR scholars typically regard as being predicated on a rejection of medieval political theology – is in fact constructed out of raw materials largely furnished by that political theology. The presentist approach, of course, is based on the assumption or assertion that the modern idea of sovereignty crystalized in response to the religious wars of the seventeenth century and that the roots of the concept need be traced back no farther than that. It is also based on the assumption or assertion that, as a result, the character of the modern concept is devoid of theological content – a view that is itself part of the broader mythical narrative that juxtaposes and increasingly advanced (because increasingly secular) West and a backward (because perpetually religious) Rest. The genealogical perspective described here, however, undermines this secularist narrative by demonstrating that the ways in which Bodin, Vattel and their successors (including contemporary IR scholars) have thought about ideas such as “absolute power”, “supreme authority” and the fictitious legal personality of the state all bear the mark of late medieval political theology. In other words, the genealogical approach reveals that despite our disciplinary mythology, the modern concept of sovereignty actually represents a continuation of, rather than a break with, the long medieval political-theological tradition that modernity was supposed to have superseded. While the concept of sovereignty and its constituent ideas have no doubt been secularized, this secularization has really only been superficial. Understanding this, as a genealogical approach demands, allows us to understand more fully the theological origins of the modern sovereign-states system and in so doing allows us to avoid odious essentializing dichotomies such as that between a progressive secular Western civilization on the one hand and a hopelessly backward religious Islamic one on the other.

Partial Bibliography

Jackson, Robert, Sovereignty: the Evolution of an Idea (Cambridge: Polity, 2007)

Krasner, Stephen, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Larkins, Jeremy, From Hierarchy to Anarchy: Territory and Politics Before Westphalia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Latham, Andrew, “Theorizing the Crusades: Identity, Institutions and Religious War in Medieval Latin Christendom,” International Studies Quarterly, 2011, vol. 55, no. 1, 223–243.

Onuf, Nicholas, “Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History,” Alternatives, vol. 16, 1991.

Osiander, Andreas, Before the State: Political Change in the West from the Greeks to the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Philpott, Daniel, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

Ruggie, John Gerard, “Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations,” International Organization, 1993, vol. 47, no. 1, 139-74.

Waltz, Kenneth, “Political Structures” in Neorealism and its Critics, in Robert Keohane (ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 81-7.

Weber, Cynthia, Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State and Symbolic Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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 www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: Genoese map of 1457, Biblioteca Nazionale at Florence

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