The political economy of feudalism in medieval Europe


Why did enduring traditions of economic and political liberty arise in Western Europe? An answer to this question must be sought at the constitutional level. Within the medieval constitutional order, traditions of representative and limited government developed through patterns of constitutional bargaining. The politically fragmented landscape that emerged following the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the barbarian migrations was conducive to those patterns. In particular, that landscape was characterized by polycentric and hierarchical governance structures; within those structures, political property rights holders were sovereign and residual claimants to governance returns. I elaborate on why this environment of polycentric sovereignty promoted constitutional bargaining in the direction of good governance and greater liberty.

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  1. 1.

    This is not the place for a review of the large literature linking political and/or economic liberty to economic performance. However, drawing on the widely-used Polity IV democracy scores and Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) scores, one finds that, for the last twenty years, every country (save one: Singapore) in the top 15 of GDP per capita had a democracy score of 8 or higher (average value of 9.32) out of 10; and every one of those countries (including Singapore) had an EFW score of 7.49 or higher (average value of 8.13) out of 10. While scholars have continually debated the nature of the causal links—Does political liberty lead to economic liberty, or vice versa? Which of the two has the more direct—or stronger—effect on growth? there are relatively few who seriously claim that an environment of political and economic liberty is not good for growth. (EFW scores are from Gwartney et al. (2019); Polity IV scores are from Marshall et al. (2019)).

  2. 2.

    My discussions and debates with Alex have greatly impacted my thinking on the medieval constitution; at the same time, I would not presume that Alex would agree with all that follows. Opinions expressed here must be assumed solely my own, etc.

  3. 3.

    Those de facto rules were, of course, never perfectly understood, articulated, or enforced. But this is true of all constitutional frameworks, both historical and present-day; both de facto and de jure.

  4. 4.

    In Congleton’s analysis, the ceding of veto power is effective because it makes a monarch’s commitment credible. Bates and Lien (1985) and Levi (1988) are important early contributions to the idea of representative assemblies as a means for rulers to make credible commitments and raise revenues. North and Weingast (1989) famously elaborate on William of Orange’s 1688 deal with the English Parliament to take the throne in exchange for Parliament’s control of the fisc; this represented William’s credible commitment to respect property rights and allowed for the expansion of fiscal capacity.

  5. 5.

    Historians of recent decades have tended to see less violence and breakdown of order and more continuity of culture moving from imperial to early medieval times. However, see Ward-Perkins (2005) for a forceful argument that Rome's fall was indeed a chaotic and severe disruption of Western European civilization.

  6. 6.

    The extents to which barbarian migrations were made possible by the Empire’s decline or, alternatively, caused it has been a subject of endless debate. See Wood (2018, Introduction and chs. 1) for a nice introduction to that debate.

  7. 7.

    In Young (2016) I provide a case study of the Visigothic confederation and its transition from a roving bandit-type of enterprise into a stationary kingdom in the fifth and sixth century (in Gaul and then the Iberian Peninsula).

  8. 8.

    Goffart’s (1988, 2008, Goffart 2010) work is comprehensively informative regarding the details of the barbarian settlements.

  9. 9.

    The Burgundian Kingdom is also counted among them. However, the Burgundian monarch seems to have always been the "runt of the litter", relying on - or being stepped on by - one of the other three.

  10. 10.

    See Heather (2016, ch. 2) for a discussion of Theoderic’s rise to power and the fate of his kingdom.

  11. 11.

    Numerous scholars have emphasized this rough balance of power (e.g., Weber 1968 [1922]; Hintze 1975 [1931]; Baechler 1975; Berman 1983; Downing 1988, 1989, 1992; Anderson 1991; Finer 1997; Stark 2011, chs. 14–16; Salter and Young 2019).

  12. 12.

    For details on the feudal system generally, the classic works are Bloch (1968a [1939] & 1968b [1940]) and Ganshof (1964).

  13. 13.

    See Stephenson (1941), Wickham (1984, p. 25), Riché (1993 [1983], pp. 37–39), Bisson (1995, pp. 746–747), and Young (2018).

  14. 14.

    See Cronne (1939, pp. 356–357), Ganshof (1939, pp. 157–159), Stephenson (1941), and Ganshof (1964, chs. 1 & 2).

  15. 15.

    The Iberian Peninsula was the most notable exception, still being largely under Muslim rule.

  16. 16.

    Historians have referred to the former as landed or noble and the latter as banal (from the Latin bannum for a jurisdiction of authority; see Bouchard (2004, p. 145).

  17. 17.

    Regarding encastellation, West (2013, p. 191) notes: “By the year 1100, any lordship with any pretension to importance needed to control more than one [castle]” (West 2013, p. 191).

  18. 18.

    When the French monarchy was restored in 1814, the crown was worn by another Capetian from the House of Bourbon. As another example, Charlemagne’s imperial title would continue to be passed on to Carolingian kings through 888; then when the last Carolingian emperor (Charles the Fat) was deposed, the Duke of Spoleto, Guy III, opportunistically maneuvered to have himself crowned by the pope King of Italy in 889 and then emperor in 894. From then on, through various dynasties, the imperial title would go hand-in-hand with individuals who could claim the title of King of Italy and/or King of Germany.

  19. 19.

    This certainly had its roots in the influx of Roman elites. In addition to offering them the sort of offices that secular government no longer had to offer, the Church also suited their “literary inclinations”: “Cultural and literary achievements which no longer received many, or any, rewards from the state could now lead to advancement in the church” (Mathisen 1993, p. 93).

  20. 20.

    This is an eleventh century statement by Adalbero, bishop of Laon; see Duby (1980 [1978]) on the tripartite conception in general and p. 5 for Adalbero’s quote.

  21. 21.

    In addition to excommunication—which is a direct threat to a monarch’s soul—the first estate could also withhold anointment. Monarchs derived authority from being anointed by an archbishop (or a pope in the case of a Holy Roman Emperor). See Tellenbach (1959) and Hall (1997).

  22. 22.

    Also see Asbridge (2004, pp. 5–11) on the religiosity of medieval Western Europeans generally.

  23. 23.

    Along similar lines, but less familiar to today's reader, there was the maxim rodung macht frei ("clearing makes you free") (Jordan 2012, p. 9–11). Europe had a sparse population and was heavily forested. Individuals who could flee their lords could disappear into those forests; they "looked forward in a more or less distant future to improved economic status, but the act of clearing the habitat and colonizing the settlement brought something more immediate: it conferred liberty on the colonizers, the coloni" (Jordan 2012, p. 10).

  24. 24.

    While also emphasizing these sort of implications of jurisdictional competition, Klerman (2007) argues that since it is plaintiffs who bring cases to a court, the competition was biased towards pro-plaintiff services and outcomes.

  25. 25.

    This sort of “best of both worlds” governance outcome has been put forth as a virtue of federalist systems in the modern era (Weingast 1993, 1995; Qian and Weingast 1997; de Figueiredo and Weingast 2005).

  26. 26.

    Conversely: “Preventing such gains from trade from being realized requires other supporting institutions that block, or raise the transaction costs, of constitutional bargains among those holding authority […]” (Congleton 2013, p. 182; emphasis added). Since Coase (1960), it has been recognized that the fundamental source of transaction costs is ill-definition and/or enforcement of property rights. When holders of political property rights are not secure in those rights, then constitutional gains from trade are unlikely to manifest.

  27. 27.

    Constitutionalism, as a political theory, originated in the ideas of John Locke, Monesquieu, and the authors of the Federalist Papers, among others; all based on the Western European governance experiences. (See, e.g., the entry on “Constitutionalism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (accessed 08/28/20).

  28. 28.

    Based on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) scores, Western European countries and their offshoots remain, even today, generally more economically free other countries (Gwartney et al. 2019). The link between constitutionally, limited government and economic freedom is evidenced in the data. However, this need not be the case in principle; certainly not for all particular policy cases. For example, James Buchanan was a “self-described classical liberal” who favored economic freedom generally (Holcombe 2014, p. 359). Though a constitutionalist, he also favored a high inheritance tax, as Berggren (2013, p. 297) recalls, “he thought people in general shared a dislike of inherited wealth […]” (emphasis added). But Buchanan also believed that a generality principle would generally lead to economic freedom.

  29. 29.

    We often overlook how dramatic a change this is from the medieval and early modern era. Of states that came into being before 1789, half of them went over three centuries without a de jure constitution. Alternatively, 85 percent of states that formed after 1789 had a de jure constitution within 2 years; nearly 95 percent within 5 years (Elkins et al. 2009, pp. 41-43). The age of ubiquitous parchment barriers is a pretty new one!.

  30. 30.

    Consider the recent impeachment of US president Donald Trump. Partisan closing of ranks aside, much of the disagreement about whether or not Trump should be removed from office involved the ambiguity of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in Article Two of the US Constitution. The de jure document is relatively clear about how impeachment proceeds; relatively vague about what are impeachable offenses. Hence Article Two was not an exceedingly effective coordination device.

  31. 31.

    The theory provided in Salter and Young (2019) emphasizes constitutional changes that results from bargains between sovereign agents. In the case of medieval Europe, the results of such bargains sometimes ended up codified in charters. However, the procedures through which the bargaining proceeded were not. Having de jure rules governing when and how constitutional change (amendment) occurs is something that today’s constitutional designers need to explicitly grapple with. See Mueller (1999) for a discussion of different ways that constitutions can provide for their own amendment and also, in the empirical case of the US, how amendment has occurred through extra-constitutional means.


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This paper is based on prepared remarks for a plenary lecture at the 2020 Public Choice Society meetings at Newport Beach California.

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Young, A.T. The political economy of feudalism in medieval Europe. Const Polit Econ 32, 127–143 (2021).

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  • Political and economic liberty
  • Medieval Western Europe
  • Polycentric sovereignty
  • Constitutional bargaining
  • Feudalism

JEL Classification

  • H11
  • H77
  • P16
  • P5