European Political Developments

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Learning Objective

Explain the causes and consequences of political decentralization in Europe from c. 1200 to c. 1450.

Historical Development 1

Europe developed as a politically decentralized collection of independent kingdoms.

Historical Development 2

Before the 15th century, the dominant political system was feudalism.

Historical Development 3

In the 15th century, feudalism began to break down as European monarchies became more powerful.

Contents

The European Continent Was Politically Fragmented

The centralized Roman empire dominated western Europe until the 6th century. When Rome collapsed, centralized government ruling over the whole of Western Europe also disappeared. Various kingdoms within Western Europe developed in an environment of intense competition for land, territory, and influence. Conflict and power struggles were constant.

Historical comparison: While Europe was politically fragmented and ruled over by multiple competing monarchs, the Islamic Abbasid, Mali in Africa, and the Song dynasty in China were powerful politically centralized powers.

Causes of European Political Fragmentation

Chaos and invasions

Beginning in the 8th century, Europe experienced attacks from conquerors both within and outside peoples along the European border regions. These invasions placed pressure on European kingdoms and populations as invaders raided local settlements, often killing local inhabitants. From within Europe, starting in the 9th century, Scandanavian Vikings began raiding settlements across Northern and Western Europe. Groups outside of Europe along its vast borders also placed significant pressure On European populations. Muslim armies invaded and conquered Christian Spain in the 8th century. The Magyars of modern Hungary moved into Germany, Italy, and France.

Lack of cultural cohesion

Even under centralized Roman rule, Europe had always proven difficult to govern. The wide diversity of unique cultural and ethnic groups that spoke different languages and practiced different social customs made social cohesion across Europe difficult. There was no concept of a common identity and culture that tied European peoples together.

No military power was strong enough to unify the region

While several large empires attempted to control and centralize Europe, none could hold their realms together long term as borders rapidly shifted.

Succession problems

Successful European leaders had difficulty passing powers through their dynasties. As these leaders died, their kingdoms often fragmented as successors fought for control and influence.

European Political Fragmentation Resulted in Feudalism

Feudalism was the dominant political, economic, and social system in the early and high Middle-Ages in Europe (800CE-1300CE).

What is Feudalism

European feudalism was a system of mutual rights and obligations for different members of society. Think of it as you do this for me, and I will do this for you. 

  •  Monarchs would grant land to elite nobles who would provide military service and tax revenue to the king. 
  • Nobles kept much of the property for personal use. The rest of the land was divided up and given to vassals loyal to the noble. 
  • Commoners (peasants and serfs) lived on the grounds of nobles and vassals. They provided labor in exchange for protection from the noble and his knights. 

Historical comparison: Feudalism was also the dominant system in Japan following the end of the Heian period in 1185. As a result, scholars often compare Europe and Japan in the middle-ages. Feudalism was also the dominant system in Ethiopia during this period. 

Political Feudalism in Europe

Bureaucratic governing systems were not the norm within early Middle-Ages Europe. The governments of Europe were small. There were no massive bureaucratic systems. Feudal governments lacked centralized bureaucratic decision-making. Governments did not manage trade and commerce networks, build public infrastructure, or support the growth of scientific, cultural, and educational institutions.

The power structure of political feudalism

The monarchs (kings and queens)

In European feudalism, the monarch was often not the most powerful member of the ruling class. 

  • The monarch served more as a unifying figure and less of an all-powerful ruler. 
  • The monarch’s power was subservient to individual members of the feudal nobility. 
  • His primary role was to keep the peace and manage relationships between the various feudal lords in his kingdom. 
  • Kings also maintained relations with neighboring kingdoms. If the king needed to fight a war, he would raise an army from his nobles’ knights and troops and lead them into battle. 
  • The king was reliant on the money provided to him by his nobles through taxes they collected from commoners living on their vast agricultural estates.

The nobility (landed aristocrats)

The feudal nobility held actual power in Europe. Kings had to be very careful to keep most nobles happy or risk civil war or their removal from the throne. 

  •  These noble lords help great wealth, often far above the king’s wealth. Their wealth came from the vast landholdings they maintained. 
  • Lords kept private armies of knights. These armies were the primary protection force for the peasants and serfs that lived on the lord’s lands. The lord would provide knights to the monarch in the event of war. 
  • Their wealth, personal armies, and control over tax revenue given to the monarch meant that the king could not just ignore his nobles’ wishes.

The 15th Century and the Breakdown of Political Feudalism

Starting in the 14th century, Europe underwent a social, political, and economic revival. One of the significant changes was the slow breakdown of feudalism. The complete end of feudalism did not happen quickly and often took several hundred years. In some European locations, feudalism persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries.

Causes of the End of Political Feudalism

The end of feudalism had many causes, including the following:

The plague

The Crusades

The growth of European commercial and money economies

New sources of tax revenue for monarchs (taxing commerce)

The weakening of the European nobility

The strengthening of European monarchs

The development of centralized bureaucratic governance

Permanent standing armies loyal to the monarch, not the nobility

Comparison across regions: By the start of the 15th century, Europe entered a period of increasing commercialization. However, Europe would not reach the same level of commercialization that was reached by the 9th and 10th centuries in China until the 18th and 19th centuries.

Changing Power Structures

The breakdown of feudalism and the end of the manorial system brought political changes as new classes gained power and the power of other groups declined.

The nobility

The European nobility also entered a period of steady decline starting in the 13th century. 

  • First, many nobles who led armies to the holy lands during the Crusades never returned. Many of those who did return had lost substantial sums of money. 
  • Second, growing commercialization in the European economy also meant that the monarchs were not as reliant on the nobles for collecting tax revenue. As more non-agricultural goods were bought and sold and a money economy developed, kings and queens could tax business and merchant activity. 
  • Third, changes in military technologies also lessened the monarchs’ reliance on the knights of the nobility. New technologies like longbows and cannons meant that well-armored knights on horseback and fortified castle structures were not the most effective fighting tactics. Nobles also began to prefer to pay the monarch to hire a private army rather than send troops and join them in battle. The nobles just wanted to stay home and enjoy their lavish lifestyles, not lead soldiers into battle.  
  • Fourth, the Hundred Years War between England and France increased feelings of nationalism among people. Populations’ allegiances switched from local lords to the emerging state systems led by monarchs. People began seeing themselves not as just members of the areas in which they were born but also as inhabitants in larger political systems, such as England or France. 

Monarchs

As the power of the nobility decreased, the power of monarchs increased.  

  • Increased monarchical power led to a growth in centralized bureaucratic systems that would allow the monarch to maintain increased control over expanding territories. New centralized systems focused on developing monarchs’ control over legal systems, taxation, and the military. 
  • Common courts and common law developed during this period. These common courts had jurisdiction over all people within monarchs’ kingdoms. They replaced the rights of nobles to dispense justice and punishment of their choosing within their territories and manors. Now all people were subject to the same legal system under the control of the monarch. 
  • Monarchs also developed new methods of taxation that placed tax collection under the control of government ministers in the bureaucracy. One department in control of tax collection made it harder for people to evade tax payments. Better tax collection resulted in increased revenue for monarchs and their governments. 
  • With better tax collection and new wealth sources from trade and commerce, monarchs also managed to break their reliance on the nobility’s armies. Rulers used their wealth to build standing armies of soldiers loyal not to individual members of the nobility but the monarch and the royal family.

The merchant class

The end of feudalism brought about the increasing political importance of a small middle class of merchants and traders. 

  • Merchant’s increased influence came from the wealth they accumulated as Europe commercialized and developed a money economy. 
  • Towns that had formerly been under the control of noble-owned manors break away from the manors. 
  • Merchants and business leaders gained power within new local government systems. 
  • Partnerships developed between the emerging business class and the monarch. Monarchs would support the development of commerce to obtain additional sources of tax revenue. 
  • Merchant guilds became powerful across Western Europe. These guilds consisted of merchants and artisans that worked in a particular field or craft. These guilds functioned as monopolies over the production and sale of different products. The guild leadership was responsible for setting the prices of the goods made by guild members, regulating the quality and materials of the product, and deciding on who would and could not become a merchant or craftsmen within their guild. Guilds often became politically influential as representatives of their respective merchant communities. 
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