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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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)).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
See Heather (2016, ch. 2) for a discussion of Theoderic’s rise to power and the fate of his kingdom.
The Iberian Peninsula was the most notable exception, still being largely under Muslim rule.
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).
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.
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).
This is an eleventh century statement by Adalbero, bishop of Laon; see Duby (1980 ) on the tripartite conception in general and p. 5 for Adalbero’s quote.
Also see Asbridge (2004, pp. 5–11) on the religiosity of medieval Western Europeans generally.
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).
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.
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.
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: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/constitutionalism/#ConMinRicSen (accessed 08/28/20).
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.
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!.
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.
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.
Anderson, J. L. (1991). Explaining long-term economic change. London: Macmillian.
Asbridge, T. (2004). The first crusade: A new history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baechler, J. (1975). The origins of capitalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Bates, R. H., & Lien, D. D. (1985). A note on taxation, development, and representative government. Politics and Society, 14(1), 53–70.
Berman, H. J. (1983). Law and revolution: The formation of the western legal tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Besley, T., & Case, A. C. (1995). Incumbent behavior: Vote-seeking, tax setting, and yardstick competition. American Economic Review, 85(1), 25–45.
Bisson, T. N. (1995). Medieval lordship. Speculum, 70(4), 743–759.
Bloch, M. (1968a) . Feudal Society: Volume 1—The Growth of Ties of Dependence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Bloch, M. (1968b) . Feudal Society: Volume 2—Social Classes and Political Organization. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Bouchard, C. B. (2004). The kingdom of the Franks to 1108. In: D. Luscombe, & J. Riley-Smith (Eds.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume IV c. 1024–c. 1198 Part II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buchanan, J. M., & Congleton, R. D. (2003) . Politics by principle, not interest: Towards nondiscriminatory democracy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Coase, R. H. (1960). The problem of social cost. Journal of Law & Economics 3(October), 1-44. Congleton, R. D. 2004. Generality and the efficiency of government decision making. In (Rowley C.K., Schneider F. eds.) The Encyclopedia of Public Choice. Boston, MA: Springer.
Congleton, R. D. (2004). Generality and the efficiency of government decision making. In C. K. Rowley & F. Schneider (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Public Choice. Boston: Springer.
Congleton, R. D. (2007). From royal to parliamentary rule without revolution: The economics of constitutional exchange within divided governments. European Journal of Political Economy, 23, 261–284.
Congleton, R. D. (2011). Perfecting Parliament: Constitutional Reform, Liberalism, and the Rise of Western Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Congleton, R. D. (2013). On the inevitability of divided government and improbability of a complete separation of powers. European Journal of Political Economy, 24(3), 177–198.
Cronne, H. A. (1939). Historical revision: XCI. The origins of feudalism. History, 24(95), 251–259.
de Figueiredo, R. J. P., & Weingast, B. R., Jr. (2005). Self-enforcing federalism. Journal of Law Economics and Organization, 21(1), 103–135.
Downing, B. M. (1988). Constitutionalism, warfare, and political change in early modern Europe. Theory and Society, 17(1), 7–56.
Downing, B. M. (1989). Medieval origins of constitutional government in the West. Theory and Society, 18(2), 213–247.
Downing, B. M. (1992). The military revolution and political change: Origins of democracy and autocracy in early modern Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Duby, G. (1980) . The three orders: Feudal Society Imagined. (tr: Goldhammer, A.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Elkins, Z., Ginsburg, T., & Melton, J. (2009). The endurance of national constitutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Finer, S. (1997). The history of government (Vol. I–III). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ganshof, F. L. (1939). Benefice and vassalage in the age of Charlemagne. Cambridge Historical Journal, 6(2), 147–175.
Ganshof, F. L. (1964). Feudalism. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
Goffart, W. (1988). The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Goffart, W. (2008). Frankish military duty and the fate of Roman taxation. Early Medieval Europe, 16(2), 166–190.
Goffart, W. (2010). The technique of barbarian settlement in the fifth century: A personal, streamlined account with ten additional comments. Journal of Late Antiquity, 3(1), 65–98.
Gwartney, J., Lawson, R. A., Hall, J. C., & Murphy, R. (2019). Economic freedom of the world: 2019 annual report. Vancouver: Fraser Institute.
Hadfield, G. K., & Weingast, B. R. (2014). Constitutions as Coordinating Devices. In S. Galiani & I. Sened (Eds.), Institutions, property rights, and economic growth: The legacy of Douglass North. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, R. B. (1997). Moral authority as a power resource. International Organization, 51(4), 591–622.
Hardin, R. (1989). Why a constitution? In B. Grofman & D. Wittman (Eds.), The federalist papers and the new institutionalism. New York: Agathon Press.
Heather, P. (1998). The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Heather, P. (2006). The fall of the Roman Empire: A new history of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heather, P. (2016). The restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Herb, M. (2009). A nation of bureaucrats: Political participation and economic diversification in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41(3), 375–395.
Hintze, O. (1975). The preconditions of representative government in the context of world history. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jordan, W. C. (2012). Europe in the high middle ages. London: Penguin Books.
Klerman, D. (2007). Jurisdictional competition and the evolution of the common law. University of Chicago Law Review, 74(4), 1179–1226.
Levi, M. (1988). Of rule and revenue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Marongiu, A. (1968). Medieval parliaments: A comparative study. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.
Marshall, M. G., Gurr, T. R., & Jaggers, K. (2019). Polity IV project: political regime characteristics and transitions, 1800–2018. Center for Systemic Peace.
Mathisen, R. (1993). Roman aristocrats in barbarian Gaul: Strategies for survival in an age of transition. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Mueller, D. C. (1999). On amending constitutions. Constitutional Political Economy, 10(4), 385–396.
Myers, A. R. (1975). Parliaments and Estates in Europe. London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
North, D. (1991). Institutions. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 97–112.
North, D. C., Wallis, J. J., & Weingast, B. R. (2009). Violence and social orders: A conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
North, D. C., & Weingast, B. R. (1989). Constitutions and commitment: The evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth-century England. Journal of Economic History, 49, 803–832.
Ordeshook, P. C. (1992). Constitutional stability. Constitutional Political Economy, 3, 137–175.
Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems. American Economic Review, 100(3), 641–672.
Ostrom, V. (1997). The meaning of democracy and the vulnerability of democracy: A response to Tocqueville’s challenge. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Pirenne, H. (2014). Medieval cities: Their origins and the revival of trade. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Qian, Y., & Weingast, B. R. (1997). Federalism as a commitment to preserving market incentives. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 11(4), 83–92.
Riché, P. (1993) . The Carolingians: A family who forged Europe (M. I. Allen, Tr.) Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Rörig, F. (1967). The medieval town. Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press.
Russell, C. S. R. (1982). Monarchies, wars, and states in England, France, and Spain, c. 1580–1640. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 7(2), 205–220.
Salter, A. W. (2015a). Rights to the realm: Reconsidering western political development. American Political Science Review, 109, 725–734.
Salter, A. W. (2015b). Sovereignty as exchange of political property rights. Public Choice, 165, 79–96.
Salter, A. W., & Hall, A. R. (2015). Calculating bandits: quasi-corporate governance and institutional selection in autocracies. Advances in Austrian Economics., 19, 193–213.
Salter, A. W., & Young, A. T. (2018). Medieval representative assemblies: Collective action and antecedents of limited government. Constitutional Political Economy, 29(2), 171–192.
Salter, A. W., & Young, A. T. (2019). Polycentric sovereignty: The medieval constitution, governance quality, and the wealth of nations. Social Science Quarterly, 100(4), 1241–1253.
Stark, R. (2011). The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement became the World’s Largest Religion. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Stasavage, D. (2016). Representation and consent: Why they arose in Europe and not elsewhere. Annual Review of Political Science, 19(1), 145–162.
Stephenson, C. (1941). The origin and significance of feudalism. American Historical Review, 46(4), 788–812.
Stringham, E. P., & Zywicki, T. J. (2011). Rivalry and superior dispatch: An analysis of competing courts in medieval and early modern England. Public Choice, 147(3/4), 497–524.
Tellenbach, G. (1959). Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Controversy (R. F. Bennet, trns). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Teschke, B. (1998). Geopolitical relations in the European Middle Ages: History and theory. International Organization, 52(2), 325–358.
Tiebout, C. M. (1956). A pure theory of local expenditures. Journal of Political Economy, 64, 416–424.
van Zanden, J., Buringh, E., & Bosker, M. (2012). The rise and decline of European parliaments, 1188–1789. Economic History Review, 65(1), 835–861.
Ward-Perkins, B. (2005). The fall of Rome: And the end of civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weber, M. (1968) . Economy and society. In G. Roth, & C. Wittich (Eds.). New York, NY: Bedminster Press.
Weingast, B. R. (1993). Constitutions as governance structures: the political foundations of secure markets. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 149(1), 286–311.
Weingast, B. R. (1995). The economic role of political institutions: market-preserving federalism and economic development. Journal of Law Economics and Organization, 11(1), 1–31.
Weingast, B. R. (1997). The political foundations of democracy and the rule of law. American Political Science Review, 91, 245–263.
Weingast, B. R. (2005). The constitutional dilemma of economic liberty. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19, 98–108.
West, C. (2013). Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation between Marne and Moselle, c. 800–c. 1100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wickham, C. (1984). The other transition: From the ancient world to feudalism. Past & Present, 103, 3–36.
Wickham, C. (2009). The inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000. London: Penguin Books.
Wood, I. (2018). The transformation of the Roman West. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press.
Young, A. T. (2015). From caesar to Tacitus: Changes in early Germanic governance circa 50 BC–50 AD. Public Choice, 164(3–4), 357–378.
Young, A. T. (2016). What does it take for a roving bandit settle down? Theory and an illustrative history of the Visigoths. Public Choice, 168(1–2), 75–102.
Young, A. T. (2017). How city air made us free: The self-governing medieval city and the bourgeoisie reevaluation. Journal of Private Enterprise, 32, 31–47.
Young, A. T. (2018). Hospitalitas: Barbarian settlements and constitutional foundations of medieval Europe. Journal of Institutional Economics, 14(4), 715–727.
Young, A. T. (2019a). The Carolingians, the Church, and the medieval constitution. Social Science Journal, 56(3), 358–366.
Young, A. T. (2019b). How Austrians can contribute to constitutional political economy (and why They should). Review of Austrian Economics, 32(4), 281–293.
Young, A. T. (2020). Carolingians at the doorsteps? The maturing limited access order of early medieval Europe. SSRN Working Paper. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3304044.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
This paper is based on prepared remarks for a plenary lecture at the 2020 Public Choice Society meetings at Newport Beach California.
About this article
Cite this article
Young, A.T. The political economy of feudalism in medieval Europe. Const Polit Econ 32, 127–143 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-020-09324-4
- Political and economic liberty
- Medieval Western Europe
- Polycentric sovereignty
- Constitutional bargaining