Centre for Medieval Studies

CMS Conference: European State Formation in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Periode


“War made the state and the state made war”. Charles Tilly’s famous dictum has inspired a series of studies on European state formation within historical sociology, pointing to the military revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the origin of the modern European state.

Tilly is not alone. He offers one of many models stressing the Early Modern age as a period of acceleration in the state formation process, creating fundamentally new conditions in a matter of a few generations. Such interpretations tend to focus on the role of violence. Doing so automatically gives the Early Modern period a special status, as the creation of large armies and navies as bureaucratically managed permanent state institutions transformed the ability of the state to apply and control violence during this epoch. A strict application of Weber’s much quoted definition that “an institutionalized political organization will be called state if and insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical coercion for the implementation of its orders”” even excludes most Medieval political entities from the category.

However, most interpretations, including that of Tilly, emphatically include the Middle Ages in the European state formation process. This was also the fundamental hypothesis of the great project on European state formation 1300-1800, organised by the European Science Foundation 1989-92. Many studies by medievalists have supported the validity of this position. Despite this, a characteristic feature of the discussion is the separation between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. State formation has been the subject of intense discussion within both camps, but attempts to compare the two periods or trace the degree of “stateness” within both of them have been rare.

The areas under study also tend to be different. Early Modern scholars tend to focus on war, finances and transformations of the elites. By contrast, most arguments for the Middle Ages as an important period for European state formation are based on the administration of justice, in addition to increasing trade and money economy, increasing literacy and the revival of Roman law. This in turn also makes Christianisation and the development of the Church important factors. Finally, a stronger focus on the Middle Ages also means a focus on state formation in a very elementary sense: when did the territorial state become the normal political unit in Europe, replacing the universal empire on the one hand, and the city state or feudal territory on the other?

Thus, there seems to be good arguments for transcending the tradition borderline between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, both to trace the formation of the European state over a longer period than usual and to widen the range of factors serving to explain its origin and development. Among the possible questions connecting the two periods are:

·        The links between urbanization, education and state formation.

·        The technology and organization of administration.

·        Political institutions and the political community as an arena of contest.

·        The vocabulary used in the discussion of power.

·        Justice, peace and order – ‘good police’ – as objectives of the state.

·        Borders and territoriality.



Olivier Canteaut, Paris

Jean-Philippe Genet, Paris

John Watts, Oxford

Robert Stein, Leiden

Sverre Bagge, Bergen

Leidulf Melve, Bergen

Thomas Foerster, Bergen

Gunner Lind, København

Robert v Friedeburg, Rotterdam

Thomas Heebøll-Holm, Copenhagen

Jim Collins, Georgetown 

Mike Braddick, Sheffield

Hans Cools, Leuven