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About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty: The Middle Ages


State sovereignty is often thought to be and seen as absolute, unlimited. We have seen that there is no such a thing as absolute State sovereignty. Indeed, I maintained in the first article of this series that absolute or unlimited sovereignty is impossible because all sovereignty is necessarily underpinned by its conditions of possibility. The present paper has two main parts. Firstly, I will introduce two different kinds of agents: (a) individuals; and (b) States. The aim is to show that these two entities that are in principle dissimilar have certain characteristics in common in what has to do with their relation with supreme authority. Secondly, I will demonstrate that ‘sovereignty’ was not absolute at individual level in the Middle Ages. Therefore, we will better understand how the mediaeval use of the term ‘sovereignty’ has formed our current views on the matter. That is because it is in the Middle Ages when the ancient notions that were used at the level of the individual start their anthropomorphisation into larger societal organisations.

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  1. See Núňez [19]. See also Núňez [18].

  2. I use the term ‘anthropomorphised’ to describe a movement away from individual sovereignty to State sovereignty and therefore, not in the sense of a transformation into something human.

  3. See Núňez [19].

  4. See Nietzsche [16], 36–39.

  5. See Reiff [22], 49–50; Schelling [24], 21–52, in partic. 43; Fried [7], 13–14; Elster [5], 272–273.

  6. See Nozick [17], in particular Part I, Chapter 2.

  7. See Núňez [19].

  8. A Spanish poem written about 1140, the author tells the story of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar—i.e. Mio Cid, a Castillian Knight who is vanished from his land after having incurred the disfavour of Alphone VI, his sovereign. See Hook [12], 31–53; Graham [10], 265–268. In particular refer to de Chasca [4], 183–192.

  9. The conflicts between the Church and secular powers are present in Dante’s work. For an insight, see in particular Ferrante [6], Chapter 2 “Church and State in the Comedy”.

  10. I refer in particular to fragments 3, 4, and 5 (or Groups D, E, and F) as the ‘Marriage Group’.

  11. See Maritain [14], 343–357.

  12. Refer to Van Creveld [25], Chapter 2.

  13. I refer here to the Mediaeval Times in Europe only. For further details in regard other Empires and civilisations, see Van Creveld [25], Chapter 2.

  14. See García Gestoso [8], 301-ff.

  15. See Opello [20], in partic. part. I, Chapters 2 and 3.

  16. Phelan [21]; D’Entreves [3].

  17. Hinsley [11], in partic. Chapter III.

  18. Kantorowicz [13], in partic. Chapter III, 78-ff.

  19. Rommen [23], 397.

  20. Kantorowicz [13], in partic. Chapter III, 95-ff.

  21. See Gierke [9], in partic. 87–100.

  22. Kantorowicz [13], in partic. Chapter V.

  23. Opello [20], in partic. part. I, Chapters 2 and 3.

  24. Kantorowicz [13], in partic. Chapter V, 207.

  25. Ibid., in partic. Chapter V, 209.

  26. Ibid., in partic. Chapter VI.

  27. Mommsen [15], 346–374; Armstrong [1], 1–31.

  28. Phelan [21], 30.

  29. Proverbs 11:14.

  30. Phelan [21], 33.

  31. D’Entreves [3], 167 (quoting Summa Theologica).

  32. Opello [20], in partic. part. I, Chapters 2 and 3.

  33. See the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno in the Divine Comedy and the traitors. In particular, the second round of this circle refers to treachery within communities.

  34. Bull [2], 5.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Ibid., 6.

  37. Ibid., 7.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Ibid., 30.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid., 31.

  43. Ibid., 32.

  44. Ibid., 32–33.

  45. Ibid., 32.


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Núñez, J.E. About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty: The Middle Ages. Int J Semiot Law 28, 235–250 (2015).

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  • State sovereignty
  • Absolute sovereignty
  • Limited sovereignty
  • Unlimited sovereignty