Medieval Geopolitics: The Moral Purpose of the State

Originally published by July 2, 2018. As I argued in my last column, by the thirteenth century Latin Christians shared an understanding of governed political community that was corporate, territorial and organic in nature. But what were the ends of such a community? What were the fundamental social goods toward which it was ordered and from which it derived it legitimacy? In short, what was the moral purpose of the later medieval state? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to trace some of the main lines of thought regarding the “common good” (bonnum commune, bonnum rei publicum, utilitas publica, etc.), the phrase most often employed in official documents and

The Early Church: Not as Pacifist as Some Would Have us Believe

“The Early Church: Not as Pacifist as Some Would Have us Believe,” first appeared in the March/April 2017 edition of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. You can read it in full here. Following a recent gathering in Rome sponsored by Pax Christi International, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and a number of other international Catholic organizations, educators and activists from all over the world issued a statement calling, among other things, for the Church to “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’” In its place, they proposed, the Church should commit itself to “a Just Peace approach based on Gospel Nonviolence.” Specifically, the conference participants called

Medieval Geopolitics: The Invention of the Idea of “Political Community”

In my previous three columns I examined the ways in which material changes – the military, fiscal and judicial revolutions – gave rise to the medieval state. In this and the following few instalments, I will examine a parallel development: the way in which changes in culture and consciousness, ideas and ideals contributed to the evolution of this radically new institution of governance. I will begin today with an overview of how a distinctively post-feudal, later medieval understanding of “political community” evolved in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. At the heart of the late medieval ideal of the state stood a historically specific understanding of “political community”. Drawin

How the medieval past can be used for today’s challenges

This column -- one that has gone pretty viral, prompting me to think maybe a follow-on piece is in order -- was first published on on June 20, 2018. One of the biggest problems confronting humanity in the late modern era is that we have yet to develop a body of social and political thought relevant to what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck has called the “second modern age”. At the risk of oversimplification, Beck argues that modernity can be divided into two phases. The first age of modernity (roughly coterminous with the eras of the Enlightenment and industrial capitalism), he argues, was defined by an ethos of progress premised on an unquestioned faith in the universal

Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Fiscal Revolution”

So far in this series, we have talked about medieval “revolutions” in military power and judicial authority. A third great change in the late medieval era was in the control of money. During the tenth to twelfth centuries, the right to mint coins had slipped from the exclusive hands of royal authorities and into the hands of a wide range of lords. From the late thirteenth century onwards, however, seigneurial mints were either closed down by the king or became subcontractors to the royal mint. As a result, non-royal coins soon disappeared from circulation and coinage became what it had been during the rule of Charlemagne: the exclusive purview of the state. Significantly, while kings imposed

Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Judicial Revolution”

There are those who believe there was a “Great Divide” in Europe between the medieval and the modern, which happened in the 17th century. They call this the “rupture thesis” – when feudalism withered and was replaced by the sovereign state. Here I will present elements of the “continuity thesis” – the upshot of which is that, when it comes to political thought, practice and institutions, no Great Divide of the sort posited by the rupture tradition existed – or, if it did, it was a feature of the 12th century rather than the 16th. Note that I am not arguing that states as we would understand the term emerged full-blown as early as the 12th century. Rather, my point is that the conceptual DNA

Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Military Revolution”

In the following three columns, I trace the roots of the “modern state” – not in the 16th or 17th centuries as in most conventional accounts, but in the 13th and 14th. I begin by looking at the emergence of the late medieval “war state”. Feudal Warmaking From the late 1200s onward, royal warmaking capabilities underwent profound changes – changes that made them decisively less feudal and decidedly more state-like. During the preceding era of lord-rulership, of course, kings had raised military forces through a combination of feudal and communal levies. Feudal levies involved the mobilization of the king’s vassals under the terms of tenurial obligation (servitium debitum or “service owed”) in

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