After reading this article you will learn about the concept of medieval state.
The medieval states had no clear-cut geographical boundary. The frequent armed conflicts among the kings or rulers obliterated the boundary lines and this was a great factor of the absence of nation-state in this period.
Another element of a nation-state is the established political authority. In the Middle Ages the church was perhaps the most powerful institution which succeeded in establishing its authority over the ruler and other political institutions.
In fact, in all matters, the final word always came from the head of the church and this ultimately undermined the authority of the king. The state in the Middle Ages had government but, in real terms, it was guided by the diktat of the Pope. Naturally the king had no authority to take any decision.
The state in the medieval period was a religious state. It was believed—or the people were made to believe—that both the state and its rulers were the creation of God. God was the ultimate source of all authority.
The rulers had to obey the orders of the Pope who was accountable only to God. The king must receive all instructions from the church and particularly from the Pope. He had no authority to rule the state according to his own reason and judgment. God sends advices and instructions to the king through the Pope.
The divinity concept lingered even after the fall of the church. The king declared himself as the representative of God on earth and he is accountable only to God. Wishes of God are translated into reality only through the instrumentality of the king. The state of the medieval period was thus the state of God and not the state of people.
In real life the religious principles and sermons dominated practically all the aspects of social and political life of people. E. J. C. Hearnshaw in his Theoretical and Political Ideas of Some Great Medieval Thinkers writes— “Divine right is in medieval theory compatible and coexistent with popular institution. All power proceeds from God and is an emanation of His sovereignty”.
The medieval State was a disintegrated one. Because of the dominance of the Pope over the king the latter failed to exert his authority over the landlords.
The feudal lords—being inspired by the continuous conflicts between the king and the church—established their suzerainty over their own areas. The powerful feudal lords maintained separate army to protect their own interests and collected taxes from peasants and cultivators. The king was helpless in the face of the rising authority of the feudal lords.
The medieval state was a class-state in a sense. There were three main classes in the medieval period. These were clergy, baronage and commons. There were other small groups but they were not important.
In Plato’s Republic there were also three main classes. Hearnshaw observes that the development of British Parliament was mainly based on this three-class system and even the representative character of the British government could not do away with this three class system.
Hence we may say that the class structure of Western European society may be termed as a legacy of the medieval class system.
It has been observed by some scholars of medieval political thought that the medieval state was federal in nature.
In this period many social and local groups emerged and they altogether composed the state. It is said that in the medieval state these groups came into existence of themselves and the state had no control over these groups.
“Guilds grew into life; and once they lived, they acted—they legislated and they did justice—as if it were a matter of inherent right”.
The medieval administration was weak and the groups took its full advantage. The guilds established their own authority. In most of the time the central administration made compromises with the groups and their administration.
The medieval state cannot be called a democratic one because of the fact that the people had no voice. Neither the church nor the king had any accountability to the people. The responsibility of the church or the feudal lords ended in collecting taxes from the people and the people had no right to know how that money was being spent. In other words, the medieval state was in a sense an autocratic state which was ruled in the name of God.