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Essentially I am wondering, what was the term for a power vacuum (when a position of power is suddenly unoccupied such as a monarch with no heir) before the concept of a vacuum existed?

I understand that the idea of a void of nothingness has been debated by philosophers and such since the times of the old Greeks but I cannot find any history of the term's usage, and according to Wikipedia the concept of vacuum only caught on in the 14th Century.

Not sure if this question is more appropriate for English Language, please let me know if it is.

  • Just to make sure, you mean "power vacuum" in a political sense, not the cleaning machine? – axsvl77 Oct 10 '17 at 11:39
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    The word vacuum comes from the latin "for empty space" so it's existed as a word long before the 19th Century. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum#Etymology – Liam Oct 10 '17 at 12:10
  • The best term I found is "Succession crisis" for monarchies. Wallace's answer give Interregnum which may apply, especially for theocracies. Republics usually don't have these problems. Usually, a Sucession crisis devolve into Civil War, or Sucession War, sometimes Personnal Union. – xrorox Oct 10 '17 at 12:47
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There is no perfect answer to this question; the answer depends on particulars. (history is under no obligations to make language and terminology easy.)

An oversimplified, overly general model of power vacuums in a European monarchical systems, might include three terms that apply to the situation where there is no agent exercising executive power in a society:

  1. Civil war - the most general case. Absence of executive power results in a struggle to name the agent of executive power.

  2. Interregnum - if the civil war is confusing or protracted, historians may term it an interregnum - this is generally also associated with a decline in the institutions of government.

  3. Regency - arguably, some cases of regency involve someone or something exercising custody of the executive power while waiting for a legitimate executive to arise.

  4. "lack of mandate of heaven" This term is used in Chinese histories. This is not a literal term, but a metaphor for the absence of an effective emperor. The previous emperor is always castigated or accused of immorality, hence he fell from favor of heaven. No historian believes that per se, but it is just how the dynastic cycle of Chinese historiography is done. There are other Asian cultures this term refers only to the Chinese. (Hat tip to @J.Asia).

This answer is somewhat Eurocentric; I'm not competent to comment on Asian monarchies. If we extend this to non-autocratic rule, (tribal, nomadic, bigmen, theocratic, etc.) the situation becomes even more confusing.

Chinese dynastic cycles use the term "lack of mandate of heaven" (i.e. not literally of course, just how it is termed). As the previous emperor is always castigated or accused of immorality, hence he fell from favour of heaven. No historian believes that per se, but it is just how the dynastic cycle of Chinese historiography is done. There are other Asian cultures naturally, am just referring to the Chinese (the elephant)

  • On Asian culture, let's deal with the elephant in the room. From a teleological view, the Chinese dynastic cycles are termed as lack of mandate from heaven (i.e. not literally of course, just how it is termed). As the previous emperor is always castigated or accused of immorality, hence he fell from favour of heaven. No historian believes that per se, but it is just how the dynastic cycle of Chinese historiography is done. There are other Asian cultures naturally, am just referring to the Chinese (the elephant). – J Asia Oct 10 '17 at 12:32
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    +1 For Interregnum. However I don't think Civil War and Regency apply here. Executive power is contested or fragile in these cases but it exist. Usually, Civil War (for executive power) happen after a power grab by someone else. I think OP was relating to the period before the power grab. – xrorox Oct 10 '17 at 12:38
  • Arguably true; I tried to caveat this to avoid the impression that what I said was absolutely true - I think your interpretation is justifiable, but I think that the civil war begins before the first shot is fired. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 10 '17 at 12:44
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    Yes, it starts before a shot was fired. But that was not my point. I guess our opinions differ when the vaccum of power end. To you it ends when someone win the Civil War. To me it ends when someone control the government. Even if he ends up losing it to the "rebels". It depends on OP definition. – xrorox Oct 10 '17 at 12:57
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The term anarchy was one term that was used to refer to this situation with the original meaning of "leaderless" prior to the English Civil War of the 17th century, which seems appropriate as an equivalent to a "power vacuum."

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