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I'd be the first to admit that I don't exactly know much about this topic and the initial research I've done on it has simply led to greater confusion. My current understanding (which I'm pretty sure is wrong) lies around the thought that feudalism was in decline due to the changing nature of Europing becoming more "centralized" and needing less fragmentation.

What I said above should've hinted that my knowledge is extremely flaky so if possible use pleb terminology. :)

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Could you clarify what you mean by "the rise of national monarchies in the high middle ages"? –  Mark C. Wallace Nov 7 '12 at 17:09
I'd venture to guess improving agriculture and technologies providing extra surplus to create centralized armies, and improving weapons technology to allow such an army to overcome independent feudal lords' resistance. But no references, thus a comment. –  DVK Nov 7 '12 at 18:35
Umm national? Could you use a less "loaded" term, one that can be clearly defined? Do you mean these states were: single-language, single-culture, common ancestry, common economy, geographically large, or some combination of these? –  kubanczyk Nov 8 '12 at 13:25
@T.E.D. - I have a sneaking suspicion this refers to things like Louis XI's reign, where France turned from "power of Dukes" to "Power of the King", for lack of a better wording. –  DVK Nov 8 '12 at 17:12
@Russell been more than a few weeks, now ;) –  Lohoris Dec 30 '13 at 9:45

3 Answers 3

This isn't an answer so much as a dispute of the validity of the question...

The original question reads very much like an essay question set by a teacher, however if so, I think the teacher set a bad question. The question should have been something like 'What factors contributed to the rise of national identity in the high middle ages?'

The reason I say that is that, although some of the geographic areas that we now consider 'nation states' arose first during the medieval period, the monarchies that ruled them were often only tangentially or accidentally aligned with those 'nations'. Many European monarchies were clearly non-national in nature until long after the medieval period ... just look at Germany, Italy, Denmark-Norway, the Low Countries, Spain... Monarchies that corresponded with geographic areas we would now called nations were almost the exception, not the rule.

Yet at the same time self-conscious national identity did develop in many areas - England, Scotland, France, Denmark probably being the clearest examples.

That national identity, however, was much more a feature of the later middle ages (1300-1500) than the 'high' middle ages.

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"Monarchies that corresponded with geographic areas we would now called nations were almost the exception, not the rule." - I'm not convinced. Sweden, England, France, Netherlands and I think Denmark is an example, not a counter-example. I don't think that this process happened especially during the high middle ages though, which is why many of the monarchies during this time do not correspond to modern nations. I do agree that national identity is much later (mostly 19th century in fact). –  Lennart Regebro Jan 8 at 10:03
To be fair, a good school essay question should be very squishy and open-ended, as that gives the student free rein to dump their knowledge on the subject in a somewhat structured form. If something about the question is overly simplistic, more's the better for the student who can point that out in a paragraph or two. The goal of an essay question isn't accurate history, its being a good springboard for a student's essay. –  T.E.D. Feb 6 at 19:05
@LennartRegebro the Dutch Royal house of Orange is NOT native or even closely related to any of the houses that ruled the area. They were brought in for need of a monarch who would be acceptable to all of them without having close ties to any of them, recruited from outside. Think sending someone a letter "would you like to become our king and sovereign? Free lodging and all travel expenses covered, small chance of being killed as we're currently fighting a little war of independence with Spain". –  jwenting Feb 10 at 11:13
@jwenting That the house/dynasty changes doesn't change the fact that the geographic area/country developed together with a monarchy. Perhaps it didn't in the Netherlands, I could be wrong about that, but I still think that many national identities developed under a monarchy, and that national identities that developed despite having different kings, like in Germany and Italy rather is the exception. –  Lennart Regebro Feb 10 at 13:39
@LennartRegebro the Netherlands had no national identity before they became a nation, under a royal house that was foreign to that nation but adopted by it. Maybe a weird case. In Germany there was no real national identity until very late in the game, the German empire until shortly before WW1 was far more a conglomerate of independent nations somewhat alike to the EU of today but with even less national government. –  jwenting Feb 10 at 14:46

The emergence of powerful and independent towns is probably the main cause, for several reasons:

  1. It provided taxable income, without which there can be no finance, thus no bureaucracy, thus no state and centralization. The demesnial economic organization which prevailed till then was, of course, agrarian, with market activities very limited in scope and quantity, and based primarily upon barter.

  2. It resulted in the weakening of the nobility and the clergy, in two ways:

    • First by questioning and challenging the seignieurial and ecclesiastic authority itself, by refusing to submit to it's encroachments.
    • Second by providing to the king an ally against those social classes, thus resulting in a much more dynamic and fruitful class struggle. This cooperation was crystallized in what is known as the royal charter of liberty, which, as the name suggests, means a guarantee, by the king, of the town's freedom. By these contracts, the towns took upon themselves to furnish the Crown with tax money and foot soldiers. The following quote from Palmer & Colton provide a pretty good picture of why the charter was to so important to the townsmen:

"The merchants and craftsmen who lived in the towns did not wish to remain, like the country people, subject to neighboring feudal lords. At worst, the feudal lords regarded merchants as fat possessors of ready money; they might hold them up on the road, plunder their mule trains, collect tolls at river crossings, or extort cash by offering "protection." At best, the most well-meaning feudal lord could not supervise the affairs of merchants, for the feudal and customary law knew nothing of commercial problems."

(If one reads Pirenne, one finds out that in Flanders for instance, the class struggle was much more complex than in other parts of Europe. The French king sided with the upper bourgeoisie against an alliance between some of the Flemish counts and the lower classes of the towns, who felt a deep resentment towards the ossification of patrician privilege.)

The following quote, also from P&C, give a pretty good summing up of what the consolidation of monarchies meant:

"They [the New Monarchs] especially enlisted the support of middle-class people in the towns, who were tired of the private wars and marauding habits of the feudal nobles. Townspeople were willing to let parliaments be dominated or even ignored by the king, for parliaments had proved too often to be strongholds of unruly barons, or had merely accentuated class conflict. The king, receiving money in taxes, was able to organize armies with which to control the nobles."

Although the above quote concerns rather the late than the high middle ages, the historical phenomenon is essentially the same: the Crown's need for liquid assets to control the nobles/clergy was supplied by the towns, whilst the towns' need for military protection to control the nobles/clergy was supplied by the Crown. The common denominator was always there: the need to control, to restrain, to contain the power of the nobility/Church. Thus was the pact assured.

L.E. I would also like to point out that, as the two historians also show, the reasons why Northern Italy, the Low Countries and Germany did not form into strong monarchies was that town life was actually so energetic and developed that it undermined not only the Church and the nobility, but also the Crown. The same was not true for France, England and Spain.

L.E.2 One must not imagine class conflict was always black-and-white. In France for instance, Louis VI and Louis VII worked hard with abbot Suger of St. Denis to emasculate the barons. They were practically ping-ponged between royal and ecclesiastic law until their prerogatives were seriously curbed. Also in France, but in a different context, the counts of Champagne were famously benevolent towards urban life, actively encouraging the great fairs of the region, which were unparalleled in Western Europe.

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The original poster is referring to the 'high middle ages'. Parliament is a phenomenon of the later middle ages onwards. What you're describing sounds more to me like a classic, somewhat whiggish, account of urban development in the late medieval and even early modern period. I'm not familiar with Palmer and Cotton, but all that chatter about 'mauradung habits of feudal nobles' sounds more like 1066 And All That than a recent analysis of medieval society. They are painting with such broad brush strokes as to make the conclusions worthless. –  fred2 Feb 10 at 16:00
Palmer & Colton: "When representatives of the towns began to be normally summoned to king's great "talks," along with lords and clergy, parliaments may be said to have come into being. Parliaments, in this sense, sprouted all over Europe in the thirteenth century." The thirteenth century fits well in the High Middle Ages. Concerning "the marauding habits of feudal nobles": the Hansa itself formed as a result of security concerns over robber barons. The spirit of mercantile solidarity was, even before permanent settling in towns, the result of the arbitrary behavior of territorial magnates. –  Andrei Albu Feb 10 at 17:20
I for one see no basis in your calling their expressed views "all that chatter", nor in your contesting their analysis of medieval society for not being up to date. They are "painting with broad brush strokes" because their book represents a condensed version of history, directed to the general reader. Their views on the abuses of knights on townsmen are not even controversial. Given your intransigent stance, I can only suppose you have very cogent arguments, which I would be very glad to hear. –  Andrei Albu Feb 10 at 17:31
Well @Andrei Albu, was probably being a bit polemical. Yes, parliaments arose first during the 13th century, but the text you quote refers to parliaments at a time when they had already been customarily dominated by 'unruly barons'. Before about 1300 parliaments across Europe were very much in an embryonic state, and I don't think you can make any general conclusions about urban attitudes towards it. –  fred2 Feb 10 at 20:58
Moreover, 'mercantile solidarity', if it existed, does not correlate with national identity or national monarchies. Take Scotland. Few, un-influential cities, but early 'national' monarchy and national identity. I'm not a fan of general histories for the very reason they have to make points that are so general as to always be wrong. Robber barons and marauding nobles are all very well ... yeah sure, it's a medieval characteristic, but I find the simplistic description very cliched, as I do the idea of a medieval class war. –  fred2 Feb 10 at 21:07

Europe was a pretty big place in the Middle Ages; but to put it simply, and I can only speak for the British Isles, there was always a "national" monarchy in some form or another. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede name a number of Northumbrian kings as Bretwalda, meaning that they were considered to essentially be the Emperors of the Anglo-Saxons.

Cnut the Great, a Viking who conquered England and became its king, didn't have much of a cultural impact and has come to be regarded as something of an Anglo-Saxon convert. The only really big societal shift came with the Norman Conquest. That should be recent enough that it need not be rehashed outside of high school English.

So, in essence, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Norman Conquest, there was (in theory) an absolute ruler with powers above that of his fellow kings in Britain.

If you're asking how our contemporary European nation-states came to be, then a better suited question would be how the end of the Viking incursions into Europe allowed for political and social settlement.

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Downvote: I am not sure that this answer really answer the question. For one thing, as you point out yourself in the last sentence, the question was about a much later period. –  Felix Goldberg Dec 9 '12 at 14:18
The problem I had with that is that there were established, central monarchies ruling over people with strong national identities long before the high middle ages in Europe. I thought that maybe showing that would give the real answer: there wasn't a rise of "national" monarchies in the high middle ages, as a blanket concept. –  SAHornickel Dec 9 '12 at 21:48

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