Medieval representative assemblies: collective action and antecedents of limited government

Abstract

Medieval monarchs in Western Europe responded to financial and military pressures by instituting representative assemblies. Three estates (classes; orders) were represented in these assemblies: clergy, nobility, and burghers. In the late medieval and early modern periods, some states tended towards absolutism (e.g., France); others towards constitutional monarchy (e.g., England). The German historian Otto Hintze conjectured that two-chamber assemblies were more likely to resist monarchical encroachments on their political authority than three-chamber assemblies. We argue that the two- versus three-chamber distinction is coincidental to what was truly relevant: whether chambers were estate-based or had mixed representation from multiple estates. We provide a comparative institutional analysis that emphasizes political bargaining and the costs of expressing special versus common interests. This analysis suggests that mixed representation assemblies, all else equal, provided a stronger check on absolutism than their estate-based counterparts. We also provide historical case studies of France and England that lend insights into why an estate-based Estates General arose in the former, while a mixed representation Parliament arose in the latter.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Charles Tilly (1990) linked the growth in medieval and early-modern European state capacity to monarchs’ needs to finance military spending, something which Besley and Persson (2009, p. 1218) characterize as “an archetypal public good representing broadly common interests for citizens.” (Alternatively, Gennaioli and Voth (2015) note that war was often the “sport of kings” and more aptly characterized as a private good.) Ertman (1997) emphasizes the relative ability of different early-modern European nation states to develop merit-based bureaucracies; Charron et al. (2012) subsequently argue the early development of such bureaucracies is more fundamental to accounting for variation in modern-day governance quality in OECD countries than are countries’ legal origins (La Porta et al. 2008). Regarding recent history, Johnson (1982), Amsden (1989), Wade (1990), and Evans (1995) attribute the economic growth successes in East Asia to governments with high state capacity; Herbst (2000) and Centeno (2002) argue that low state capacity is a source of development failure in Africa and Latin America, respectively.

  2. 2.

    Admitting this is not to deny that investments in fiscal and legal capacity can be complementary. For example, a state that provides rule of law and opportunities for wealth creation to its citizens (high legal capacity) will likely face less resistance to/avoidance of its efforts to collect taxes; hence higher returns to its existing fiscal capacity.

  3. 3.

    We also take as a historical given that, more general, representative assemblies uniquely arose in Europe. Stasavage (2016) provides an excellent review of the large literature exploring why this may have been the case.

  4. 4.

    Stasavage (2010) and Van Zanden et al. (2012) construct these original datasets on assembly activity. Abramson and Boix (2014) study employs data from both of those datasets. Bologna Pavlik and Young (2017) report evidence, based on the Stasavage (2010) data, that medieval/early-modern representative assembly experiences robustly correlate with present-day income levels and measures of the rule of law.

  5. 5.

    Young (2016) illustrates those collective action problems with the historical example of the roving Visigothic confederacy in the fourth and fifth centuries as it transitioned towards the stationary Visigothic Kingdom. Young (2017a) explores the constitutional political economy of the Visigothic and other barbarian settlements in the twilight of the Western Roman Empire.

  6. 6.

    We use the term polycentric in the sense of Ostrom et al. (1961) and Ostrom (2010): a system of governance with multiple decision-making centers that are formally independent of each other but, together, may function in an interdependent system of relationships. See also Aligica and Tarko (2014).

  7. 7.

    E.g., a noble lorded over a realm constituted by his own demesnes and benefices bestowed upon his vassals. The lord was a governance provider for his vassals. Those vassals, in return, owed military service and a share of the produce from their benefices. Providing security and justice to the overall realm, then, generated returns for the lord and vassals alike.

  8. 8.

    The feudal hierarchy emanated down from monarchs in a cascade of overlapping jurisdictions. A monarch was lord over a realm that included benefices bestowed upon his vassals; his vassals were principle nobles who bestowed benefices upon their own vassals; etc.

  9. 9.

    For example, if a lord attempted to expropriate resources from a vassal above and beyond his feudal obligations, the vassal could appeal to the lord’s lord (e.g., a principle noble or monarch) who was an overarching governance provider. Serfs were limited by being legally tied to their lords' lands and their ability to "vote with their feet" may have been quite limited until the Black Death (mid-1300 s) decreased the labor-to-land ratio and increased their de facto bargaining power. However, North and Thomas (1971, 1973) argue that Western European serfs had meaningful opportunities to "illegally steal away to seek asylum on another manor or, somewhat later, in one of the growing number of medieval towns" throughout the High Middle Ages (1971, p. 788). Note also that the legal maxim, city air makes you free, developed prior to the Black Death; a serf that managed to reside within a chartered city for a year and a day became a free individual (Young 2017b).

  10. 10.

    Literary references to a tripartite system of estates can be found dating back to at least the eleventh century (Duby 1980[1978]).

  11. 11.

    A number of scholars have emphasized the rough balance of power between medieval monarchs and political powerful estates: e.g., Weber 1978 [1922]; Hintze 1975 [1931]; Baechler 1975; Berman 1983; Downing 1988, 1989, 1992; Anderson 1991; Raico 1994; Finer 1997; Stark 2011, chs. 14–16.

  12. 12.

    Medieval cities were important sources of wealth and administrative human capital to both monarchs and the nobility. As such, they had political bargaining power to play alternative lords off one another.

  13. 13.

    The credible commitment story appears consistent with the weakness of European monarchs (relative to those of China and the Middle East) and their lack of effective, centralized bureaucracies (e.g, Wickham 2009; North 1990; Brennan and Buchanan 2006). Tridmas (2016) moves beyond the constitutional exchange theories of the rise of representative government to explore the reasons that monarchs may eventually withdraw from active governance.

  14. 14.

    Quoted and translated by Ertman (1997, p. 21).

  15. 15.

    Hintze employed the somewhat confusing terminology of estate-based and territorially based to refer to, respectively, three-chamber and two-chamber assemblies. This terminology incorrectly suggests that representation in three-chamber assemblies was not at all territorially based. In truth, both types of assemblies drew representation from the various territories of a monarch’s realm. For a stylized example, both a three-chamber and two-chamber assembly might have drawn one noble, one clergyman, and one burgher from each territory. However, in the case of the three-chamber (estate-based) assembly, all nobles, clergymen, and burghers would have met in their respective chambers.

  16. 16.

    Buchanan and Tullock (1962, ch. 16) is an early analysis of how assembly structure relates to coalitions of representatives being able to exert control of chambers, logroll across them, and rent seek.

  17. 17.

    While aggressive military campaigning could generate benefits in the form of plunder and new lands it is unlikely that those benefits would be enjoyed broadly. Members of the second estate would have captured most of the benefits, expecting to keep much of what they plundered as compensation for their military services.

  18. 18.

    See Fukuyama (2011, ch. 13) for an overview; also Bisson (2009, pp. 197–212), Southern (1992 [1953], ch. 3), and Wickham (2016, pp. 113–117).

  19. 19.

    In this case, powers were granted to the effective monarch. As Mayor of the Palace, Charles ruled for puppet Merovingian monarchs until, after the death of King Theuderic IV, he continued his rule with an empty throne. His son, Pippin III, subsequently assumed the Frankish throne. See Sect. 5 below.

  20. 20.

    Decision-making rules were sometimes different for the different chambers of a single assembly. For example, in Catalonia the chambers of the clergy and cities each operated based on majority rule while the nobility required unanimity (Lord 1930, p. 37; Myers 1975, p. 64). Alternatively, in Aragon each of the four estates operated based on a unanimity rule (Myers 1975, p. 32); this was also the case, at least while considering taxes, for the assembly of Castile, the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag, the Dutch Republic, and the Swiss Riksdag (Lord 1930, p. 37).

  21. 21.

    Though political scientists and political economists have long recognized the phenomenon of logrolling, Tullock (1959) and Buchanan and Tullock’s (1962) are the seminal works that spawned the modern literature on the subject. Important theoretical and empirical that followed include Tullock (1970), Riker and Brams (1973), Ferejohn (1986), Stratmann (1992, 1995), and Carrubba and Volden (2000) For reviews of that subsequent literature see Miller (1977) and Mueller (2003, ch. 5).

  22. 22.

    Askoy provides evidence based on European Union legislative proposals that is consistent with this argument.

  23. 23.

    When not referenced otherwise specifically, many factual details regarding the Carolingians are drawn from Riché (1993 [1983]).

  24. 24.

    In 747 Carloman decided (whether voluntarily or not we will never know) to withdraw from secular politics and join the clergy in Rome.

  25. 25.

    The Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Churches would not occur until 1054. However, even in the early medieval period the competition between the Roman papacy and patriarchy of Constantinople for spiritual authority was an important one. On the relationships between early Carolingians and the Church see Riché (1993 [1983], pp. 293–295), Pirenne (2001 [1937], pp. 221–224), and Wickham (2009, pp. 376–377).

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Salter, A.W., Young, A.T. Medieval representative assemblies: collective action and antecedents of limited government. Const Polit Econ 29, 171–192 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-018-9258-1

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Keywords

  • Medieval economic history
  • Comparative economic development
  • Medieval constitution
  • Polycentric governance
  • Political property rights
  • Representative assemblies

JEL Classification

  • N44
  • O10
  • O52
  • P50
  • K00