Western Medieval Catholic kings and nobility in Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Germany and Austria share certain distinctive common features that can be summed under the term of vassalage that are less present in Hungary and Poland, possibly also in Scandinavia. I am referring to the tradition of local autonomy of noble fiefs, integrated withing a pyramid of vassalage but very stable and distinct for hundreds of years. Many such fiefs operated as separate states or as states within states - not far from a federative structure, within which the power of kings was tempered by that of his nobles, and that of the great lords by the power of their vassals.

In Poland and Hungary kingship was not hereditary, but elective. Why this difference? Is a Germanic versus a non-Germanic order at play here? What was the situation in Scandinavia?

"Modern states" means in the Western part of Europe the dissolution of this system and the centralization of kingdoms ("absolutism"). But a different kind of absolutism was typical in Eastern Europe namely in the Orthodox Christian realm (Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Wallachia, Moldavia) were a system of Byzantine origin seems to have prevailed. In some cases nobles had no stable fiefs (wasn't this the case in Poland too?) and the King/Prince had absolute power on these (as well as on the nobility status). In some cases the leadership was not hereditary but the power was absolutist. Was this really a Byzantine (or even Roman) feature or is there a different origin at play?

Other interesting aspects here may be the different roles played by religion - the presence and absence of Catholicism (in the differences between Catholic and Orthodox rulers and nobility) and the initial rivalry between the Pope and the (Western) Emperor (can that count in explaining the difference between Germany and the more centralized kingdoms?).

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    I see it as the other way around. The regions you are inquiring about, were never under Carolingian rule, unlike all of Western Europe besides Spain. Dec 20, 2017 at 21:45
  • @PieterGeerkens - That may count as an answer. But Britain was not Carolingian either (or is the French/Normand/Plantagenet rule that is decisive there), and Spain is a good example of Western European feudal oder. Differences between the Western kingdoms are not lacking, but I am trying to point out differences that are even greater at European level, and what you say explains that.
    – user8690
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:51
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    This is extremely broad as it is basically covers every political system of the entirety of Europe over nearly 1000 years. I'm not sure you can reasonably expect an entire continent, which has never been unified under a single polity, to all share the same political systems to begin with. Could you narrow your focus to something more specific, e.g. elective royal succession laws, or the lack of feudalism in the Byzantine Empire, etc?
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:54
  • William I completely remade the feudal system in England following the conquest - with improvements over the Continental model by ensuring that the estates for all Tenants-in-Chief were widely spread throughout the kingdom to prevent regional power bases. Thus situations such as the Dukes of Burgundy being more powerful than their liege the King of France became untenable Dec 20, 2017 at 21:55
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    @cipricus - I believe Univ of Washington's book set on East Central Europe addresses your question. Much depends on which location/place you're interested - the factors could be pretty endless (they are 8 books in there).
    – J Asia
    Jan 8, 2018 at 17:37

2 Answers 2


Pieter Geerkens gave a good answer on feudalism, but missed the mark with the conclusion that the elective monarchies appeared from areas that were not part of the Carolingian Empire, because of a lack of feudalism.

Of course, both East and West Francia elected kings. Hnece, the answer to this part of the question:

In Poland and Hungary kingship was not hereditary, but elective. Why this difference?

Is that it's actually not as different as you might think. Most, if not all, of Europe's major crowns were originally elective.

To start with, the power to elect Roman Emperors was vaguely understood to be vested in the Senate. When the Western Empire finally fell, the Roman Senate sent an emissary to Constantinople to "basely renounce the right of choosing their own master, the only vestige which yet remained of the authority that had given laws to the world". Nonetheless, hereditary succession was never truly enshrined in the Byzantine Empire either.

More generally, Germanic kings are well known to be elected. With the migration of Germanic tribes, elective kingships thus proliferated. Harold Godwinson was elected by the Witenagemot to succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England in 1066, as did Edgar Ætheling. Swedish kings had to be elected by the Mora Thing. Denmark maintained elections for her kings until 1660.

In the heart of Charlemange's empire, the Kings of West Francia became elected after the Carolingian Empire was reunited under Charles the Fat. This continue through to Hugh Capet's election and beyond, though royal power rendered it a formality and the institution died a quiet death after a couple of centuries. The Kings of East Francia, later Holy Roman Emperors, however remained elective until the Empire was dissolved in 1806, possibly to prevent Napoleon's election.

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    Election should have been the rule then, shared by all, Germans, Romans, East Europeans and Byzantines . How come hereditary rule became so important that it amounted to the essence of kingship?
    – user8690
    Dec 20, 2017 at 23:29
  • @cipricus Hereditary succession, especially primogeniture, is predictable and therefore stable.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 23:32
  • predictable and therefore stable - you mean natural selection imposed it as the fittest form of statehood at some point? But maybe also a rare improbable phenomenon that only seems necessary and unavoidable in retrospective.
    – user8690
    Dec 20, 2017 at 23:34
  • @cipricus Well, that can because kings tend to want to have their own sons succeed themselves. Hence why with many elective thrones, the monarch would use their own influences to have their own sons elected before dying. Overtime, if the electors don't reassert themselves, it quickly becomes indistinguishable from hereditary succession.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 23:37
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    @cipricus No, that's not true at all. The Crown of France (West Francia) was quickly monopolised by Hugh Capet and his descendants and became officially hereditary before the Middle ages were over. The Holy Roman Emperors (East Francia) however remained elective until the very end. England ceased to elect kings after the Normans introduced continental feudal order; Poland is eastern, and yet elected kings into the modern period. I think you'll find that there's no "decisive chemistry" as such, but rather it's all dependent on the circumstances of the individual country.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 23:52

The feudal structure in place over the bulk of Western Europe devolves from the structure put in place during the Carolingian dynasty. The structures of authority created at this time were blessed by the Pope, forming the basis of Divine Right of Kings.

Charlemagne in particular created a pattern of Stem Duchies (and Marches) throughout the empire. These were to become substantial regional power bases for the respective ducal dynasties, but tempered by a universally acknowledged concept of an over-riding royal authority, and vassalage.

In France an initially very weak royal authority evolved into a rather strong nation state by the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, perhaps partly as a direct consequence of it. The corresponding developments in modern Germany and Italy would not occur until 400 years later. Ironically, Royal/Imperial authority in the German region was initially much stronger, but faded rapidly over time.

Similarly in Iberia, initially a number of stem-kingdoms (Castile, Aragon, Leon, Navarre & Portugal) independently arose as Muslim rule there faded. By what appears to have been deliberate arrangements by those dynasties, a consolidation occurred by 1492 with Spain as a personal union of (Greater) Castile and Aragon and only Portugal remaining distinct.

Although Britain was never under Carolingian Rule, the conquest of England by William I in 1066 was followed by a complete remaking of English feudalism in the contemporary Continental model - with improvements. William distributed the estates of all his Tenants-in-Chief through the entire kingdom to prevent the possible development of regional power bases. Only the Stanleys and Percys seem to have been able to build any sort of true regional power base.

None of this structure or history occurred in Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, leading to a system of common arrangements between equals in forming national polities. Thus elected monarchs.

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    None of this structure or history occurred in Eastern Europe. Leading to a system of common arrangements between equals in forming national polities. Thus elected monarchs. Not sure how you reconcile this claim with the fact that England, Both East Francia and West Francia, and all of Scandinavia once elected their kings.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 22:27
  • @Semaphore: Scandinavia, like Eastern Europe, was never Carolingian. William completely remade English feudalism in the Continental model, with improvements, as I outlined Dec 20, 2017 at 22:30
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    You can't possibly get more Carolingian than East and West Francia. And East Francia maintained an elective monarchy until 1806.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 20, 2017 at 22:33

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