The Medieval Review 10.01.16

Watts, John. The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 466. $85.00 978-0-521-79232-5. $32.99 978-0-521-79664-4.

Reviewed by:

Adam Kosto

The author claims two goals for this impressive new survey of European political history in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: "to write about the later middle ages in a language other than the prevailing currencies of 'waning,' 'transition,' 'crisis' and 'disorder'" and "to provide an analytical account of the politics of the period" (1). The challenge is immense, given the dizzying complexity of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century political scene, and the author raises the bar for himself by pushing the geographical boundaries of the old survey, systematically addressing developments in traditionally peripheral areas such as Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Scotland, Ireland, and Portugal. The solution proposed is to focus on "the consonances and shared patterns--the structures--of European political life" (3). What he finds using this method, in short, is "a meaningful, and positive, trajectory...a continuous process of governmental and political growth" (420) leading to "the gradual consolidation of authority at the regnal level" (377). Stated in that way, it might appear that all the author has done is to replace one set of simplistic characterizations with a different one in the service of yet another teleological demonstration of the rise of the modern state, but in fact his argument is much more interesting. He readily acknowledges the warfare, crises, and disorder of the period, but allows his structures to develop in a clear direction within that context. His fourteenth and fifteenth centuries remain dizzyingly complex, but they do make more sense.

Two methodological moves are central to the book's approach. The first is the redefinition of the appropriate focus of political history: not states or nations, but the "polities" of the title. The author wants to stress that his analysis cuts across political communities and formations both larger and smaller than the nation-state, from empires at one extreme to towns, leagues, and parishes on the other, and does not view these forms as conceptually subordinate to the nation-state. Here the influence of Susan Reynolds's Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 [1] is evident, as too is his borrowing of her term "regnal," which he uses to mean "pertaining to a realm, in the sense of a sizeable territory under a single government" (379). Thus the story of the book is not one of the birth of the nation-state, but rather the gradual emergence of the regnal polity as the dominant form of political community.

The second methodological move is to examine not the formation of or relationships between these various polities, but rather the larger structures within which they operated. What does he mean by "structures"? On the one hand (and somewhat inelegantly), forms of polity themselves are structures, but there are others as well: "networks of taxation, representation, administration, and military organization; hierarchies both formal and informal; agencies of communication, exploitation or regulation...relationships and practices of grace or service, lordship or fellowship...languages and ideas...formats of expression...images, narratives and topoi..." (35-36). Conscious of the perils of structuralist approaches, he stresses that he is not trying to identify a system, but instead arguing that the variety and interaction of these structures is the stuff of late medieval politics. Another word that appears quite frequently and seems very useful in getting at the author's conception is "media." He refers at various times to media of resistance, advice, consent, communication, representation, accommodation, grace, protest, authority, criticism, territorial power, military or political association, consultation or taxation, resolution, government, exploitation, jurisdiction, collective rule, and local political organization. Media are thus the way that his polities act, interact, and are acted upon. These media, rather than the polities themselves, seem to me to be the true focus of the book.

The book comprises an introduction, conclusion, and three long chapters, one each devoted to a survey of the political scene around 1300, to the fourteenth century, and to the fifteenth century. The introduction (Chapter One) offers, in addition to explanations of the approaches outlined above, an insightful survey of earlier historiography. The author critiques the three "grand narratives" that have shaped historical writing on this period: "social and political crisis," "war and disorder," and "the rise of the state." As for the first, he argues that while economic developments obviously had an effect on politics, they are too varied and complex to explain those politics in a general way. As for the second, he doubts that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are more violent than earlier periods, suggesting that appearances to that effect are a result of changes in the ways in which violence was structured and in the nature and volume of source material. As for the third, he notes that while the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were long left out of rise of the state narratives, this has changed recently, particularly because of the work of Bernard Guenée, Jean-Philippe Genet, and Wim Blockmans, the latter two as editors of the European Science Foundation project on "The Origins of the Modern State in Europe, 13th to 18th Centuries." [2] These newer accounts do make more room for analyses of political culture and non-state communities, but they are still too focused on the role of warfare and the nation-state itself, and they err in treating the Church as fundamentally different. Furthermore, this newer work has for the most part not yet been integrated into textbooks and syntheses.

Because the author is arguing against notions of decline and crisis, he needs to establish a starting point. This is the task of Chapter Two, which is a remarkable presentation of the state of European politics and institutions around 1300. He begins with a survey of overlapping political forms and their interactions: empires (including the Papacy), kingdoms, principalities, lordships, communes, leagues, the "people," churches, and religious and military orders. These polities came into conflict principally over questions of jurisdiction; if by 1300 "regnal polities" were beginning to emerge as victors, however, the very technologies that they relied on could be used by other types of polities as media of governance and resistance--resistance that could actually have an integrative effect for a regnal polity. Because of record-keeping systems that kept alive the memory of failed structures, the availability of legal arguments that supported jurisdictional claims, and the inability of any of the players to decisively eliminate the others, the balance of power was varied and constantly shifting. The second part of the chapter examines forms of political culture that similarly characterize a wide range of polities and contributed to the variety and contested nature of late medieval politics: ideas and discourses concerning issues such as justice, the orders of society, and the nation; means of communication of these ideas, such as universities, notarial and legal practice, the preaching of the friars, and the development of vernaculars; and networks of private association structured around lordship, patronage, and family.

It is only at the beginning of Chapter Three ("The Fourteenth Century") that a chronological survey of events begins; this is split into two parts around 1340 and further subdivided on mostly geographical grounds. Behind the "headline news" of war and crisis, the author sees not only nascent kingdoms, but "hundreds and thousands of other powers" articulating and defending their rights using various media, new and old. As for fourteenth-century trends, he hesitantly identifies two: a simplification of the political map, with towns becoming subordinated to larger polities; and "constitutional thickening," or the corralling of political activity into a narrow set of patterns and practices. This survey moves very quickly, because the author is less interested in "what was happening" than in "what was going on" (203-5); the latter parts of the chapter offer a more leisurely analysis. Here he argues for a continuation of the growth of government, visible at all different levels, in terms of institutions such as taxation, informal structures such as patronage, and political writing and thinking. All this led in two directions: increased conflicts over jurisdiction, but also conflicts over proper government that nevertheless cemented a greater sense of political community. When conflicts were successfully resolved, they involved the subordination of one jurisdiction in return for compromises, a process that led toward the fixing of hierarchies and boundaries.

Chapter Four ("The Fifteenth Century") has a slightly different structure: the chronological narratives are more detailed, they include more analysis, and the break at 1450 carries analytical weight, as the author sees the second half of the century as the period when the "regnal polity" became the acknowledged norm. In addition, while the narrative of the first half remains organized geographically, the second half is thematic, treating in turn civil wars in the Western kingdoms between the 1450s and 1480s; the process of consolidation of polities though negotiation from the 1460s; and the development of a "new warfare" and a hierarchy of military powers throughout the period. The chronological narrative is followed by a section examining more closely the twin processes of co-ordination and consolidation that he sees as coming to fruition in this century. Consolidation is "the drawing of sharper distinctions between domestic politics and foreign affairs, and the establishment of relatively firm and well-known distributions of power and authority within each polity." Co-ordination is the ability of regnal polities "to command the allegiance of the smaller and lesser political units within their territories, and to draw them together in common initiatives directed from the centre" (377-78). These are caused by three main factors: developments in political culture, here principally political thought; increased effectiveness and acceptance of regnal administration; and a practice of politics at all levels that affirmed the stable regnal polity.

The brief conclusion (Chapter Five) rehearses the central arguments: about governmental and political growth in the context of conflict that make this period as constructive as the High Middle Ages before and the Renaissance after; and about structural parallels both across types of polities and across space that offer a new way of understanding the often confusing tangle of events. It makes the case that, as Braudel himself acknowledged, "politics and institutions can sometimes contribute to the understanding of politics and institutions" (423).

This book's focus on politics and institutions rarely wavers. The Black Death, for example--almost perversely--only makes eight very brief appearances, half in the initial survey of historiography. The author stresses several times that he does not mean to discount the importance of other factors, but he rarely discusses them. The book thus serves as a corrective to earlier surveys, but this makes it less useful as a general textbook, as opposed to an analysis of political history. Similarly, the chronological narratives, which only take up one-third of the text, are so condensed as to be opaque to non-specialists. Readers--and particularly students--looking for potted accounts of "what happened" are well advised to go elsewhere, such as the geographically focused essays in the volumes VI and VII of the New Cambridge Medieval History (NCMH). [3] Also striking, for a survey, is the rarity of extended discussions of primary sources. As the author readily acknowledges, this work is a synthesis of secondary literature, primarily in English. As the rich bibliographical essay (426-52, including a select list of works not in English) demonstrates, the author has read extremely widely in that literature. But readers wanting access to the sources will need to dive into the specialist literature, or better yet the chapter bibliographies in the NCMH. The same is true for maps (there are only two, of Europe as a whole) and lists of rulers. The index is somewhat aleatory, catching only three of those references to the Black Death, and is of little help tracking down first appearances of technical and foreign terms, where they tend to be defined--if you don't remember from page 312 that the szalchta mentioned on page 396 is the Polish lesser nobility, the search feature of is your only hope. One point on which the index is revealing is that, despite important recent work on queenship and female rule [4], it notes only seven women (one of whom is Susan Reynolds).

But this is mostly to criticize the work for not doing things that it is not trying to accomplish. What it does accomplish is to offer an important new synthesis of late medieval politics and political culture: one that offers a strong and clear argument, both substantive and methodological; one that moves away from a focus on the nation-state and the large Western kingdoms; and one that succeeds in drawing out the parallels and commonalities that give the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries across the entire continent of Europe unity, logic, and direction. My guess is that it will be most useful for graduate students looking for a general overview, and for scholars interested in developing comparative perspectives. But on account of its argument rather than its utility as a survey, it should be recommended reading for anyone interested in medieval law, political theory, finance, government, administration, diplomacy, and--of course--polities.



1. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

2. 7 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995-2000).

3. The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6, c. 1300-c. 1415, ed. Michael Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); vol. 7, c. 1415-c. 1500, ed. Christopher Allmand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

4. E.g., most recently, Nuria Silleras-Fernandez, Power, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).