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Thread: Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the state

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    Ja mata, TosaInu Senior Member edyzmedieval's Avatar
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    Default Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the state

    Another piece of work I've completed for university. I hope it's interesting and that you will enjoy it.





    Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the state




    Social communities, be they less developed or with a higher degree of organisation, have existed since the advent of the first communal gatherings to establish common rules and primacy of those who wielded power over those who were deemed to be their subjects. The invention of agrarian societies which ensured a stable sustenance for entire communities allowed those who held power to develop a more organised and efficient ruling system for their benefit and for the benefit of those they ruled over, creating kingdoms, empires and national states as time passed and human societies evolved. Throughout the course of history the state or the embodiment of a modern state in the past has retained common aspects with the political communities established before and as such there are striking differences and striking similarities between both Ancient and Medieval concepts of the state, characters which have been passed on to the modern form of the state that we live in. In one of the volumes in the Cambridge Medieval History, reputed historian J.B. Bury mentioned that when considering a medieval state it is “...inevitable that many conflicting elements, forces and tendencies should be found together at every stage of development”1, an analysis can can be applied also for the Ancient invention of the state, retaining characteristics passed down from generation to generation right until the first true states were created and the last vestiges of feudal organisation disappeared.


    As Daniel Chirot has pointed out in his work “How Societies Change”, the advent of agriculture in the period of around 11.000 BC2 has had a significant impact on the way societies were organised, transcending from a simple forage based society where nomadic practices were a distinctive character to a more sedentary agricultural society where the communities were formed around areas where there were enough opportunities to ensure at least a subsistence living. An agrarian society is a type of a community that depends on agriculture as the primary means for it's support and continued existence, and it was the advent of agrarian societies that helped create the first groundwork for a more established community, and as such political, called a state.


    Statecraft was elusive in the first phases; only later on in the lands of Sumeria the first attempts at an organised state with a centralised power were made and according to Daniel Chirot “it is not surprising that the earliest states...consisted of cities made up of granaries, temples and fortifications built around them for protection.”3 Chirot's quote attributes the spread of statecraft to three vital components – food, religion and protection. This was prevalent in the early stages of Ancient states built around granaries and temples but also in the later stages such as the Greek city states that were focused around arable land, a grand temple or a pantheon dedicated to the gods and with strong fortifications erected around the city. This would turn out to be a common component of medieval societies; cities were built around fertile arable land with a large church or cathedral in it's midst, whilst extensive walls or castles were constructed to protect those living within them. This ensured a gradual, albeit slow, development of states as a whole as populations expanded, protected by foreign devastators, enabling those who lived within the confines of the walls and within the territory of a strong kingdom to channel their energies on anything other than providing food by endlessly toiling the land whilst bearing the constant fear of death.


    Ancient states had an inherent problem with their internal organisation, which is a similarity with medieval kingdoms of the same nature. The ruling classes were powerful and wielded considerable power but at the same time they focused on ties based on residency rather than kinship which was prevalent in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Agrarian societies, unless highly developed, would have difficulties in establishing a chain of food supply for the entire population, which was exerted even more once conquests were made and the territory and population expanded to unsustainable levels. Agrarian technology developed over time but the potential for gains in the productivity arose as there were more tools and techniques available for the farmers and the artisans who produced and supported the community. Mesopotamian Ancient states on the other hand contained strong, commercially developed cities, most of the times fortified by walls to protect them from foreign invaders (Babylon) which encouraged a maximisation of production through full time division of labour (which was markedly absent from Medieval states, or the division of labour was as such a thin line of differentiation) for those that worked. It did however present a rather common inequality of wealth throughout the whole social spectrum. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Ancient state systems left in place elements, mainly agrarian, that defined the way of living for almost the whole continent of Europe until the Medieval kingdoms developed enough to allow a significant boom in population.


    The agrarian element is not the only simultaneous similarity and difference; the political system of both Ancient and Medieval states rests on common ideals and methods with regards to the organisation of communities and the power in the hands of the ruling class. Ancient monarchies were not too different from Medieval monarchies as the power was vested in the hands of the king or emperor with absolute rule over the entire realm. Vassals or delegates controlled the territory and ensured the link between the common peasants and the king, but the difference is in the development of the system and it's specific characteristics. Whilst absolute monarchies were contrasted by democracies in Ancient Greece or by tribal organisations, Medieval states had the concept of feudalism embedded and deeply rooted within it's core values. The word “feudalism” is little more than a rough generalisation or formula under which we try to include such conditions, economic, social and governmental, as are found to be common and uniform throughout the lands and peoples which were once parts of the Western Roman Empire.4 Yet, there were still numerous differences throughout the feudal systems, but nevertheless the base on which the political system was formed stemmed from a rigid agrarian society that was very different from the simple system established on classes, or in some cases social castes.


    Feudalism is long considered to be an “...obscure period of rapid change between the dismembering of the Carolingian Empire and the growth of national States.”5 Whilst this rapid change was fostered and created on the base of a crumbling empire, which in turn established it's base on an ancient empire, one may very well ask the question whether feudalism as an agrarian political system is not just a different organisation of an Ancient state under a different name and slightly different operational levers. City states and the establishment of local centres of power with numerous fragmentation entities were absent throughout Europe with the exception of the Italian Peninsula where numerous fiefdoms and dukedoms coexisted in a somewhat harmonious manner similar to that of Ancient Greece. Feudalism was the system that prevented such organisation; agrarian societies needed extensive land areas and vassals to provide protection for the centralised powers, whilst Ancient Mesopotamian states, Greek City states and Italian fiefdoms relied on commerce and interlinked relationships for their survival.


    One profound difference that bridges a deep gap between Ancient and Medieval states is their religious form and observance; Ancient states were mainly polytheistic whilst Medieval states were monotheistic, mainly following the denomination of the Catholic Church with it's authority and blessing given by the Pope in Rome. Polytheistic gods, mainly the ones represented in Ancient Greece and then copied and converted in the Roman Empire did not provide the basis of the monarchical legitimacy as they did in the Medieval ages. The monarch of the feudal kingdom always fell back on the divine right of kings to promote his legitimacy, and as such, the imposed serfdom was “ordained by God.”6 The Medieval state through it's monotheistic approach consolidated a feeble organisation of the state by intertwining both politics and religious ideals. Maurice Keen further reinforces this aspect by mentioning that the “bonds of religious common belief and outlook were drawing them together, almost as strongly”7 when social pressures or the shocks of foreign invasion took over. Polytheism divided the population, a stark difference from the unity that was promoted by the Catholic Church especially during the call of the Crusades.


    When a through analysis is made of the difference and similarities between the states one can simply dismiss the term state from the beginning. The state is a modern political invention and as such most of the Ancient and Medieval “states” were strict absolute monarchies, with the exception of democratic, timocratic and oligarchic Greek city states and tribal organisations. As organised political communities, human societies tended to stratify themselves in both cases, marking another similarity between the distinct regimes separated by time. As Chirot pointed out, those “who own more resources...have greater power than those who not”8, which is the simple basis on how the systems of rule and class were formed both in Ancient times and then in the Middle Ages. There is no difference between the society promoted by the Ancient “state” and the Medieval “state”; as Chirot points out, “over the past 5000 years, most humans have lived in highly stratified societies with huge differences between the powerful minority and the vast majority of downtrodden.”9 Above all, even if communities have started out as simple agrarian societies focused solely on their existence, he completes his previous point by arguing that “it's not a coincidence that eventually every successful agrarian state became a monarchy.”10


    As case studies, a good comparison would be between the Ancient state of Democratic Athens and the Medieval Merovingian/Carolingian state led by Charlemagne. Two diametrically opposed inventions of the state; statecraft evolved gradual to form the democratic system present in Athens whilst the Merovingian empire was nothing more than a continuation of the old Roman regime based on ideals of the past with a radically different system that was evolved gradually during the Middle Ages. But whilst the inventions of the state on both side present similarities, their differences are the characteristics that stand out; as Maurice Keen pointed out, in the Merovingian empire, “any attempt to maintain a political unity...was out of the question.”11 Ancient Athens benefited from a centralised political system where the ideals and practice of isonomia and isegoria were guaranteed and exercised to the last member of the citizen body. Political unity was thus conserved and solidified as a whole, rather than the fragmented early feudal system imposed by the Merovingian kings on their territories. Despite the obvious difference in size, not even in the capital of Aix-la-Chapelle, or Aachen, could Charlemagne and his successors maintain at least a semblance of political unity to act in the interests of the state. Both states disintegrated in a rather short period of time but whilst Athens retained it's status at least of a local power, the Merovingian empire disbanded into many small territories without any perceptible influence beyond their constantly changing borders.


    Even more so, from an economical perspective and social perspective, the two states relied on completely different systems to exist; Ancient Athens relied on slave labour, which freed the citizens to focus solely on politics (a professional politician, as Max Weber has pointed out) whilst the Merovingian vassals were focused on both providing food and waging war against the enemies on the empire. Above all, the feudal system of Charlemagne eventually failed. As Daniel Chirot has pointed out, “...in the long run, all agrarian systems failed because from one of them, in Western Europe, a new type of society evolved that made agrarian states and social systems obsolete.”12


    But above all, how different is the invention of the state itself? Statecraft from it's early thoughts was elusive and only the Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle focused on proposing a regime that would be stable, equal and would not bulk under the pressure of corruption, external influence or other factors that would belittle it's apparently “perfect” nature. Plato himself was focused with the creation of a state that was to be ideal whilst Aristotle on the other hand focused on the best regime that could be attainable in a state under those circumstances. Ancient states were far more centralised than Medieval states were, and using hindsight, the Medieval invention of the state, at least in it's early stages, was not a state at all. The Roman Empire was concentrated either on local seats of power or on the capital Rome itself when at the height of it's power the empire was a state in the true meaning. Medieval states up until the 15th century experienced decentralisation and frequent, if not absolute, fragmentation because of it's economical and political model that was incompatible for an organised and controllable society and hierarchy. Feudalism was the canon and the substitute for the Medieval state; the vassals were simply pieces attached to the main capital instead of being an integral part of the central power wielded by the king.


    Modern definitions of the state define it as a organised political community living under a government, whilst attributing to the state the status of “legal fiction” and the possibility that it may be sovereign. The Ancient invention of the state was created out of the needs of a agrarian community to organise itself more efficiently and to protect itself and it's labour from foreign invaders, and as time passed the first complex societies were formed which in turn led to the creation of massive Ancient empires. Despite the huge time gap between Ancient and Medieval states, characteristics of the oriental social and political organisation were passed down and formed the basis of the first organised Medieval and feudal states. On one hand, the early Medieval state was not a state compared to the modern counterpart or even the Ancient counterpart; it was a highly decentralised form of governing over a territory where fragmented local seats of power were attached to the supreme leadership of their king through a system of vassalage. Through analysis and comparison one can see that the inventions of the state in these times are both similar and different and that the formations of those ways of government are not mutually exclusive but rather interlinked with past social and political communities established by the populations who wished to govern their lives more efficiently. The invention of the state in both cases was not an invention, it was a necessity brought by the hardships of the period the people lived in.
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    Poll Smoker Senior Member CountArach's Avatar
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    Default Re: Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the st

    Thanks for posting that up, I've read through it and it was very interesting. I was wondering if you could just briefly give me your thoughts on the role of class (in the sociological sense) in the transformation of the state. You seem to take a Weberian approach (and indeed cite him) at times, but at others you seem to be closer to Marx. I was hoping I could also get you to respond to this rather long and convoluted question.

    Our views are inevitably shaped by our own time period and conceptualisations of the world (our discourses, both prevalent and otherwise, if you like). As such when we are studying the 'state', are we only defining it with reference to the modern world, and thus displaying our own lack of objectivity simply through the act of attempting interpretation. Would it instead be more profitable to not so much look at what a 'state' was (which we can't because of our modern standpoint) but rather what people thought it was? That is to say, rather than looking at various events and statistics and trying to place them in a logical order that allows us to construct a timeline for the creation of a 'state', should we rather look at a given point in time, or a given author and consider their own perspective to attempt to find out what a state means to them?

    This is not in any way an attempt to belittle your work, of course, I'm just curious as to where you stand on the whole modern vs 'postmodern' debate.
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    Ja mata, TosaInu Senior Member edyzmedieval's Avatar
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    Default Re: Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the st

    Thank you CountArach for your detailed commentary.

    I'm of the opinion that the state is a "legal fiction" in the true sense of the word - the state has been created to maximise the efficiency and create an organised system of living for a political community. The state is just imagined, more or less, we perceive it as a "phantom fortress" that is there to remind us that we live in a community, political, social, economical...

    When considering your question with regards to the "studying of the state", we are mainly imprinting our own idea of the modern state and applying it to the state that existed in the Ancient and Medieval times. In many aspects, the Medieval kingdom-vassalage relationship and the Ancient absolute monarchy can be considered a state - it provided an organisation, a political community, an economic and social system and above all always had the "monopoly on the legitimate use of violence" as Max Weber has said. In a way you are right, there is a lack of objectivity perhaps, but we see the modern state as a model in itself. Plato was concerned with the best regime that a political community could have - we have our own idea of a perfect state which more or less we imprint over the states that have existed in history.

    Would it be more profitable to look at what people thought it was?

    The question that remains here is this - who do we consider for this? The modern state is founded on democratic and republican principles, so when we consider a state we consider all of the people. But back in those times, who do we consider? The middle class was only restricted, it was a working (slave / serf class ) social strata, the nobility and those in between that were craftsmen, scholars, clergymen, merchants... Hypothetically speaking, by considering the opinions of the people from those times, the opinions of those who had political, economical and social weight, we can see that the state is not really a modern invention. But if we consider the opinions of those from all social strata, then we see that the state in itself is a modern invention because the state from Ancient and Medieval times was highly restrictive and it only existed for those who had the power and the wealth to sustain themselves in that social position.

    Looking at the literature concerning this aspect, and looking at how should we define the state, the question that you have posed will always remain - is the state really modern? Are we really studying the state or we only look to it with the lens of a modern world?

    Personally I am of the opinion that the state was invented from the moment people organised themselves in political communities. The modern state is exactly what it is, a modern interpretation of the state/political community where all social classes are considered equal and thus benefit equally from the efficiency and organisation that a state creates.
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    Member Member V:force Champion HopAlongBunny's Avatar
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    Default Re: Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the st

    Thank you for that informative read edyzmedieval.

    I agree with CountArch(sp) that it could be useful to plumb the thought of "belonging" or being a member of a community. How does this identity change as we shift from hunter-gatherer to city-state and beyond? There is a functional distinction between "citizen" Glop and vassal Glop. Does this functional difference (political/ownership rights for example) change the perception of those effected? The Legitimacy of those ruling?

    I am a little surprised that you did not delve deeper into the question of legitimacy. You may have wanted to include a brief reference to the church's Great Chain of Being as one bulwark of divine right. Does this means of asserting a legitimate right to rule differ from what preceded it?

    Great stuff! Wishing you an easy A !
    Ja-mata TosaInu

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    Ja mata, TosaInu Senior Member edyzmedieval's Avatar
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    Default Re: Differences and similarities between the Ancient and Medieval invention of the st

    The question of legitimacy, I actually considered it, but I thought it would be best to focus rather on the strictness of the question rather than delve into all of the aspects related to it, mainly because I had a word limit that hampered me and that I had to consider. Unfortunately.

    It was an A indeed.
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