Monday, October 14, 2013

Kings and States

I confess I have generally thought of the European past, excluding the classical era, as filled with 'kings' (occasionally queens) ruling what we might call 'states'. Of course I maintained some vague awareness that Odysseus, King of Ithaca, might be better called a baron, but I didn't give it much thought beyond that.

Anyway, so I'm reading Historian on the Edge's essay, The Crisis of State, about W. Europe in the late classical/early Medieval period, not very far in, and he says two things which strike at my ignorance:

" call western polities after 600 'states' is to rob the word state of any analytical value."
Not states. The political entities we are dealing with in this period are not states--and that from a guy who seems to know his stuff.

"There will be a weak and a strong thesis to this paper. The weak thesis is that a crisis of the state occurred around 600; that changes took place which compelled a real shake up in the ways in which central and local power interacted, a critical moment which, whether or not it did, at least could have produced a breakdown of the state. A supplementary to the weak thesis is that these changes killed off the ‘Roman World’ that is still so visible in, say, 525-30.3 One might entitle this ‘weak thesis’ ‘the end of the late antique state in the West’. The ‘strong thesis’ is that the result of these changes was the end of political formations that can usefully be analysed as states in any way. With a slight but important change in the word order, the strong thesis can be entitled ‘the end of the state in the late antique West’.

"As a corollary, it is probably not surprising that government continued in recognisably Roman fashion. For all that we are used to conceiving of them as ‘Germanic’ kingdoms in this period, it is very difficult indeed to find much that can cogently be called Germanic or even barbarian. Certainly there were new elements in western rulership but these developed within a distinctively late imperial framework. It is worth remembering how new kingship was and the extent to which it was being made up by political actors as they went along. It may also be that even as late as the early sixth century it was not regarded as a permanent or even ideal solution to the problems thrown up by the fifth century, even by those occupying royal thrones."

Kingship was new.

Goodness. I'd never thought of it that way before. I mean, were there kings in the pre-classical era? Significant ones? Surely nothing on the scale of Queen Elisabeth I or Louie the XIV. I suppose most areas were governed by tribal chieftains, though some places (Ireland comes immediately to mind, having not been significantly influenced by Rome or the barbarian invasions,) had "high kings". What exactly makes one a king, and not a chief or a sultan or an emperor? Does the terminology matter, other than perhaps denoting something about the size of the territory under governance?

I suppose I should read on.

No comments:

Post a Comment