Political Communities and Political Imaginaries: Conceptions and Perceptions of the State in the Later Middle Ages



With respect to the long-term development of political entities, a key notion in current medievalist research has been that of political imaginaries – that is, perceptions of the state among political, economic and bureaucratic elites, which reveal not only the impact of state structure on long-term societal developments but also the relevance of intellectual discourse to the development of state institutions (cf. Nederman 1988). Differences between elite perceptions of statehood became more apparent with the emergence of new forms of government. For instance, the emergence of Republican political entities in late medieval Europe created a dichotomy to the Imperial system as the prevailing form of political organisation. The Italian city states in particular developed models of political rule that allowed for flexible economic policies and created new elements of statehood (citizenship, republican governance, civil service etc.) that significantly reshaped inter-state interaction in trade and diplomatic affairs. Similar observations can be made in the respective contexts of Imperial Germany (cf. Johanek 2000) and the Low Countries (cf. Boone 2002), where discourses on the purposes of the state were mostly dominated by mercantile elites.

Thus, medieval statehood, even in the European context, cannot be understood as a uniform historiographical category since the wider political and constitutional conditions differed starkly across regions and polities. A general historiography of political imaginaries and their impact on state development, if at all possible, must therefore stem from a comparative perspective.



The aim of this session is to consider the varieties of political implementations of elite notions of statehood in the European and Chinese Late Middle Ages. Second, it is to consider the structure of discourse on political community in Imperial and Republican entities alike in order to gain an understanding of the political self-perception of elite society. Fleming’s book chapter deals with conceptions of political roles held among the English gentry in the Later Middle Ages, while Tillman’s article shows the very concrete influence that literati elites such as Ch’en Liang exerted on state matters in Song China. Greif’s article on the economic ramifications of republican politics in the patrician-dominated societies of late medieval Genoa and Venice presents a specific comparison of the institutional particularities of two city republics in the political, economic and generally social spheres (also cf. Greif 2006).

The readings allow for discussing

  1. the roles of political imaginaries in comparative perspective: are there general characteristics of (later) medieval conceptions of the state, rulers and the political roles of elites?  
  1. the emergence of nationalism and “proto-nationalism”: to what extent is Ch’en’s conception of the Chinese nation comparable to medieval “nations” in the European context (cf. Beaune 1993, Melis 1975, Zaugg 2013)? Could it be seen, as suggested by Tillman, as a precursor of nineteenth century “German-inspired romantic nationalism” (also cf. Tillman 1982)?
  2. the role of government institutions: which form of government was successful in mitigating intra-elite conflict in the Later Middle Ages?
  3. the structure of political motivation: what was the relationship between social elites and aristocratic authority? Which incentives (political, economic, personal) ensured political obedience, which ones led to the rejection of imperial authority (e.g. of urban elites)?
  4. the relationship between urban and rural spaces in processes of territorialisation: to what extent was the territorial expansion of states correlated with a harmonisation of economic and social structures?
  5. social structure and economic ramifications: what was the relationship between the nobility/aristocracy, the populace and intermediate social statuses (particularly in Republican polities, cf. Pullan 1999)? How did the social structure impact upon economic development and the development of political institutions?
  6. the problem of endogeneity in Republican legislation: how differentiated were the economic interests of the law-making class? Was the commercial law endogenous to economic development and institutional change?  


More generally, we are interested in the legacy of empire in the long-term formation of communities and political institutions in both China and Europe, as well as in its ramifications for the development of social perceptions and historical narratives. Participants are invited to contribute relevant examples from their respective areas of study.


Core reading:

Fleming, Peter: "Politics", in: Radulescu, Raluca, Truelove, Alison (eds.), Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005, pp. 50-62.

Greif, Avner: "Political Organizations, Social Structure, and Institutional Success: Reflections From Genoa and Venice During the Commercial Revolution", in: Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 151 (Dec., 1995), No. 4, pp. 734-740.

Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland: "Proto-Nationalism in Twelfth-Century China? The Case of Ch'en Liang", in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 39 (Dec., 1979), No. 2, pp. 403-428.


Recommended further reading:

Beaune, Colette: Naissance de la nation France, Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Boone, Marc: "Urban Space and Political Conflict in Late Medieval Flanders", in: The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32 (Spring, 2002), No. 4, pp. 621-640.

Canning, Joseph: A History of Medieval Political Thought 300-1450, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

De Weerdt, Hilde: "Maps and Memory: Readings of Cartography in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Song China", in: Imago Mundi 61 (2009), No. 2, pp. 145-167.

Epstein, S. R.: "The Rise and Fall of Italian City States", in: Hansen, Mogens Herman (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures, Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2000, pp. 277-294. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/663/1/EPSTEIN_final.pdf

Greif, Avner: Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Johanek, Peter: "Imperial and Free Towns of the Holy Roman Empire - City States in Pre-Modern Germany", in: Hansen, Mogens Herman (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures, Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2000, pp. 295-320.

Jones, P. J.: "Communes and Despots: The City State In Late-Medieval Italy", in: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (Dec., 1965), pp. 71-96.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H.: The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997 [1957].

Lane, Frederic C.: Venice - A Maritime Republic, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Le Goff, Jacques: The Medieval Imagination, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Martines, Lauro: Power and Imagination - City-States in Renaissance Italy, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Melis, Federigo: "The "Nationality" of Sea-Borne Trade between England and the Mediterranean around 1400", in: The Journal of European Economic History 4 (1975), No. 2, pp. 359–380.

Muir, Edward: "Was There Republicanism in the Renaissance Republics? Venice after Agnadello", in: Martin, John Jeffries, Romano, Dennis (eds.), Venice Reconsidered - The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297-1797, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, pp. 137-167.

Nederman, Cary J.: "Nature, Sin and the Origins of Society: The Ciceronian Tradition in Medieval Political Thought", in: Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (Jan. - Mar., 1988), No. 1, pp. 3-26.

Padgett, John F., McLean, Paul D.: "Organizational Invention and Elite Transformation: The Birth of Partnership Systems in Renaissance Florence", in: The American Journal of Sociology 111 (March 2006), No. 5, pp. 1463–1568.

Pullan, Brian: "'Three Orders of Inhabitants': Social Hierarchies in the Republic of Venice", in: Denton, Jeffrey Howard (ed.), Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 147-168.

Steensgaard, N.: "Consuls and Nations in the Levant", in: Scandinavian Economic History Review XV (1967), No. 1-2, pp. 13-55.

Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland: Utilitarian Confucianism - Ch'en Liang's Challenge to Chu Hsi, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Zaugg, Roberto: "On the Use of Legal Resources and the Definition of Group Boundaries - A Prosopographic Analysis of the French Nation and the British Factory in Eighteenth-Century Naples", in: Christ, Georg, Burkhardt, Stefan, Zaugg, Roberto, Beihammer, Alexander Daniel, Morche, Franz-Julius (eds.), Union in Separation - Diasporic Groups and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean (1100-1800), Heidelberg : Springer, forthcoming.

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