Have you ever stopped to wonder why practically every government on earth follows the same basic form?
With a couple of exceptions—Singapore, for example—we all live in sovereign states. A sovereign state has a defined territory, and within that territory, it has a monopoly on force and the final say on decision-making. It operates a bureaucracy that allows it to tax and redirect funds for any number of different projects, including a standing army. In the territory the sovereign state controls, there’s a clear, delineated hierarchy of authority from the local level all the way up to the centralized government at the top.
The structure varies from country to country, but in any given place, we have a pretty good idea who’s in charge and where power lies.
It wasn’t always this way. The sovereign state isn’t the only way that people can organize political units, and it didn’t come into being out of thin air.
In 1350 AD, western Europe was full of city-states like Venice and Florence, town leagues like the Hanse of the Baltic seaboard, and lordships that owed only tenuous or even no allegiance at all to a higher authority. Even within a kingdom, lords great and small ran their own legal systems and fought their own private wars as they pleased.
Kings like Edward III of England were just starting to build governments that bear some resemblance to what we’d recognize as a sovereign state. Over the course of the next 300 years, though, sovereign states grew by leaps and bounds. Ambitious dynasts absorbed lordships and subjugated city-states and town leagues, stitching together states out of a patchwork of smaller pieces. Alternative forms didn’t disappear, but they became a sideshow in a landscape dominated by kings like Henry VIII of England, Philip II of Spain, and Louis XIV of France.
This wasn’t destined to happen; there were always alternatives available. But why, in Europe, did its various regions all converge on this type of organization?
The biggest answer is war. In the famous words of the sociologist Charles Tilly, “War made the state and the state made war.” War grew more expensive and expansive in the 14th and 15th centuries—cannon, for example, weren’t cheap—and emerging states like England, France, and Spain needed to find ways to pay for it. That meant taxation. To tax, you need people to assess and collect it, which means you need a bureaucracy. Once you have a bureaucracy, you can form a standing army and hire professional mercenaries like the Swiss by the tens of thousands. From there it was only a matter of time until sovereign states proved to be better at this than their competition.
I’m Patrick Wyman, and you may know me from my podcast (cleverly entitled The Fall of Rome) and posts on the fall of the Roman Empire. Well, I have a new history show: It’s called Tides of History, and it’s my attempt to go pro at doing this. There’s real production value and even sound design, and I can put more time into every individual episode.
On Tides of History, I’m going to explore a couple of major topics. The first is the fall of the Roman Empire, which is what my PhD was on and what I’ve been working on for most of the last decade. If you liked The Fall of Rome, you’ll still get the same kind of thing, just better. I’m adding another topic, too, on the rise of the modern world between 1350 and 1650, roughly the Black Death to the Thirty Years War.
Today’s post, on the rise of the state, is the first installment of that. Next month, I’ll do two on the Eastern Roman Empire and why it stuck around while the west fell apart. Think of Tides of History like a TV show with two seasons that happen to be running simultaneously, with interviews sprinkled in between.
If that sounds interesting to you, check out the first two episodes below. The first is an introduction to the show and some thoughts on history in general and why it’s valuable, and the second is that in-depth exploration of the rise of the state that I mentioned above. You can subscribe on iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, NPR One, and any other podcast app you can think of.
Give it a listen and let me know what you think.
Introduction - The Ebb and Flow of History:
Episode 2 - The Rise of the State:
John Watts, The Making of Polities (Cambridge, 2009)
Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of Modern States (Princeton, 1973)
Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change (Princeton, 1996)
Thomas Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1997)
Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton, 2009)