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Political History


Three major areas will concern us with this topic. First and simplest is the narrative of various national histories. I do not intend to cover every country, especially since the notion of country was rather fluid and doesn't match up with our modern understanding of the term. I will, however, try to give an account of the major powers in such a way that the student will have a chronological backbone on which to hang other names, events, and developments.

Closely related to the basic chronology is international relations. Each of the national narratives deals with this in part, but in looking at events from the ground one can easily get overwhelmed in details. I therefore have an essay that views longer trends and also considers relations with "external" powers such as Islam, the Byzantines, and others.

Finally, there's a consideration of what is now called political science. Here I am particularly interested in explaining the nature of power during our period, how it was wielded and how it was understood. We will look not only at monarchy as a political form but also at various republics. Another important development during this period is the increasing influence and definition of representative institutions.

Main Themes

The main themes of this era are easily stated, but when applied to specific cases they get murky fast. In general, governments were better organized and stronger in 1500 than in 1300, though there are some distinctly different trends between western and eastern Europe. By "better organized" I mean that in collecting taxes, raising armies, administering justice, or making laws, all these were increasingly handled by a single, central authority. By 1500 we still don't have nation-states in the modern sense of the word, but you should be able to identify some of the signifcant changes between 1300 and 1500.

Thinking about government also became clearer, with formal works on political theory emerging. A number of these were concerned with the nature of imperial power in relation to papal claims, but we also start to see considerations of royal power as well, and even of power as wielded by city councils.

Government became more expensive, and by 1500 there was still no stable and predictable income stream. Financing was a more or less constant crisis during our period.

This problem was exacerbated by widespread war and steeply increasing costs of conducting war. Technological innovations drove costs up, but so did the need to keep a body of men under arms more or less constantly and at government expense.

The last theme concerns borderlands, for during these centuries the boundaries of Europe became more or less set. The one area that was still very much up in the air was the Balkans, where the Turks made major inroads. Elsewhere, the German drive eastward slowed to a stop, while in the Iberian Peninsula the Spanish and Portuguese succeeded after centuries of warfare in driving out the last of the Muslim emirates. Sweden expanded into Finland, Lithuania converted to Christianity, and major battles on the Neva River and at Tannenberg fixed a limit in northeastern Europe. In short, the frontiers of Europe became much closer to what they are today.

Unfinished Business

As of this writing (spring 2009), not all these essays exist. But I'm working on it!