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The Rise of Centralized Government: Guizot’s Eleventh Lecture

After a thousand years of failing centralized government in Europe, our author turns to the successful rise of nation-states.

Editor’s Note

In his previous lecture, Guizot regaled his audience with stories of failure after failure to create a centralized government anywhere in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, plutocrats, kings, and churchmen wrangled against one another in a struggle for supremacy which never quite concluded. All the while, legal institutions flourished and bloomed by the hundreds across Europe, commerce interlinked vast portions of the population into an increasingly common marketplace, and ideas developed with a relatively greater amount of freedom than was normally allowed by centralized states. Alas, however, this somewhat romantic, sunny picture of the feudal world was not to last: “We have now reached the threshold of modern history,” and “We now approach that state of society which may be considered as our own.” Well, not our own, of course, but certainly those of Guizot and his contemporaries. The modern world, our lecturer tells us, properly began in the 15-1600s as Europe steadily improved her condition after the Great Plague. By the fifteenth century, the trappings of medieval life eroded in much of the continent under the weight of demographic and economic crises, intellectual transformations, and wars for political centralization. For a variety of contextually specific reasons, peoples throughout Europe gradually formed themselves into larger social units until the point at which truly ‘national’ expressions of culture and politics were finally possible again.

To illustrate his argument, Guizot marshalls the examples of France, Spain, Germany, the Italian statelets, and the struggle for Church authority. In France, the Valois kings innovated in centralized taxation, forming a standing army and permanent militia force for the king’s use, and centralized courts adjudicating a single central law, and along the way the new line of kings positively persuaded people throughout the French ruling and serving classes both that the new national project possessed something for everyone. In this way, “government acquired in France, in the fifteenth century, a character of unity, regularity, and permanence, previously unknown; and the feudal powers were finally superseded by the power of the state.” In late medieval Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella finally succeeded in ousting the last Muslim regime in Iberia by conquering Grenada. With a newly-unified Spain and self-identities as the Catholic swords and shields of Europe, the monarchs projected their centralized reach to the far corners of the planet. As the growing empires opened the Atlantic zone as a new frontier in geography, the ocean ripped space, too, for a new period in history—the Early Modern.

The English transition from medieval to early modern combined elements of the Spanish and French models. The impetus to nationalism began with the Hundred Years War against the French and once the Wars of the Roses established the Tudor dynasty, the new line of monarchs firmly entrenched themselves as the primary rulers of a decidedly new political order. By the late 1500s, England considered herself the national protector of Protestantism and regularly engaged continental forces at sea across the imperial theater.

In some western contexts, religion played the most significant role in the process of centralization and nationalization of power; in other contexts, political and economic developments were preeminent; in others, a mixture of conditions promoted state formation. The medieval model of a swirling, tangled mess of interlocking and overlapping institutions without any true archons gave way to a new world of trans-oceanic nation-state empires united by novel senses of national identity and mission.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.


We have now reached the threshold of modern history, in the proper sense of the term. We now approach that state of society which may be considered as our own, and the institutions, the opinions, and the manners which were those of France forty years ago, are those of Europe still, and, notwithstanding the changes produced by our revolution, continue to exercise a powerful influence upon us. It is in the sixteenth century, as I have already told you, that modern society really commences…

The actual accomplishment of this change belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though it was in the fifteenth that it was prepared. It is this preparation, this silent and hidden process of centralization, both in the social relations and in the opinions of men—a process accomplished, without premeditation or design, by the natural course of events—that we have now to make the subject of our inquiry.

It is thus that man advances in the execution of a plan which he has not conceived, and of which he is not even aware. He is the free and intelligent artificer of a work which is not his own. He does not perceive or comprehend it, till it manifests itself by external appearances and real results; and even then he comprehends it very incompletely. It is through his instrumentality, however, and by the development of his intelligence and freedom, that it is accomplished. Conceive a great machine, the design of which is centered in a single mind, though its various parts are intrusted to different workmen, separated from, and strangers to each other. No one of them understands the work as a whole, nor the general result which he concurs in producing; but every one executes, with intelligence and freedom, by rational and voluntary acts, the particular task assigned to him. It is thus, that by the hand of man, the designs of Providence are wrought out in the government of the world. It is thus that the two great facts which are apparent in the history of civilization come to coexist; on the one hand, those portions of it which may be considered as fated, or which happen without the control of human knowledge or will; on the other hand, the part played in it by the freedom and intelligence of man, and what he contributes to it by means of his own judgment and will…

I shall begin with France. The last half of the fourteenth, and the first half of the fifteenth century, were, as you all know, a time of great national wars against the English. This was the period of the struggle for the independence of the French territory and the French name against foreign domination. It is sufficient to open the book of history, to see with what ardor, notwithstanding a multitude of treasons and dissensions, all classes of society in France joined in this struggle, and what patriotism animated the feudal nobility, the burghers, and even the peasantry. If we had nothing but the story of Joan of Arc to show the popular spirit of the time, it alone would suffice for that purpose…

Thus the nationality of France began to be formed. Down to the reign of the house of Valois, the feudal character prevailed in France; a French nation, a French spirit, French patriotism, as yet had no existence. With the princes of the house of Valois begins the history of France, properly so called. It was in the course of their wars, amid the various turns of their fortune, that, for the first time, the nobility, the citizens, the peasants, were united by a moral tie, by the tie of a common name, a common honor, and by one burning desire to overcome the foreign invader. We must not, however, at this time, expect to find among them any real political spirit, any great design of unity in government and institutions, according to the conceptions of the present day. The unity of France, at that period, dwelt in her name, in her national honor, in the existence of a national monarchy, no matter of what character, provided that no foreigner had anything to do with it. It was in this way that the struggle against the English contributed strongly to form the French nation, and to impel it towards unity.

At the same time that France was thus forming herself in a moral point of view, she was also extending herself physically, as it may be called, by enlarging, fixing, and consolidating her territory. This was the period of the incorporation of most of the provinces which now constitute France…

Let us turn from the nation to the government, and we shall see the accomplishment of events of the same nature; we shall advance towards the same result. The French government had never been more destitute of unity, of cohesion, and of strength, than under the reign of Charles VI [1380—1422], and during the first part of the reign of Charles VII. At the end of this reign [1461], the appearance of everything was changed. There were evident marks of a power which was confirming, extending, organizing itself. All the great resources of government, taxation, military force, and administration of justice, were created on a great scale, and almost simultaneously. This was the period of the formation of a standing army and permanent militia—the compagnies-d’ordonnance, consisting of cavalry, and the free archers, the infantry. By these companies, Charles VII re-established a degree of order in the provinces, which had been desolated by the license and exactions of the soldiery, even after the war had ceased. All contemporary historians expatiate on the wonderful effects of the compagnies-d’ordonnance. It was at this period that the taille, one of the principal revenues of the crown, was made perpetual; a serious inroad on the liberty of the people, but which contributed powerfully to the regularity and strength of the government. At the same time the great instrument of power, the administration of justice, was extended and organized…

Thus, in relation to the military force, the power of taxation, and the administration of justice, that is to say, in regard to those things which form its essence, government acquired in France, in the fifteenth century, a character of unity, regularity, and permanence, previously unknown; and the feudal powers were finally superseded by the power of the state.

At the same time, too, was accomplished a change of very different character; a change not so visible, and which has not so much attracted the notice of historians, but still more important, perhaps, than those which have been mentioned:—the change effected by Louis XI in the mode of governing…Before his time the government had been carried on almost entirely by force, and by mere physical means. Persuasion, address, care in working upon men’s minds, and in bringing them over to the views of the government—in a word, what is properly called policy—a policy, indeed, of falsehood and deceit, but also of management and prudence—had hitherto been little attended to. Louis XI substituted intellectual for material means, cunning for force, Italian for feudal policy…

From France I turn to Spain; and there I find movements of the same nature. It was also in the fifteenth century that Spain was consolidated into one kingdom. At this time an end was put to the long struggle between the Christians and Moors, by the conquest of Grenada. Then, too, the Spanish territory became centralized: by the marriage of Ferdinand the Catholic, and Isabella, the two principal kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, were united under the same dominion. In the same manner as in France, the monarchy was extended and confirmed. It was supported by severer institutions, which bore more gloomy names. Instead of parliaments, it was the Inquisition that had its origin in Spain. It contained the germ of what it afterwards became; but at first it was of a political rather than a religious nature, and was destined to maintain civil order rather than defend religious faith…

A similar analogy may be discovered in Germany. It was in the middle of the fifteenth century, in 1438, that the house of Austria came to the empire; and that the imperial power acquired a permanence which it had never before possessed. From that time election was merely a sanction given to hereditary right. At the end of the fifteenth century, Maximilian I definitively established the preponderance of his house and the regular exercise of the central authority; Charles VII was the first in France who, for the preservation of order, created a permanent militia; Maximilian, too, was the first in his hereditary dominions, who accomplished the same end by the same means. Louis XI had established in France, the post-office for the conveyance of letters; Maximilian I introduced it into Germany. In the progress of civilization the same steps were everywhere taken, in a similar way, for the advantage of central government.

The history of England in the fifteenth century consists of two great events—the war with France abroad, and the contest of the two Roses at home. These two wars, though different in their nature, were attended with similar results. The contest with France was maintained by the English people with a degree of ardor which went entirely to the profit of royalty. The people, already remarkable for the prudence and determination with which they defended their resources and treasures, surrendered them at that period to their monarchs, without foresight or measure. It was in the reign of Henry V that a considerable tax, consisting of custom-house duties, was granted to the king for his lifetime, almost at the beginning of his reign. The foreign war was scarcely ended, when the civil war, which had already broken out, was carried on; the houses of York and Lancaster disputed the throne. When at length these sanguinary struggles were brought to an end, the English nobility were ruined, diminished in number, and no longer able to preserve the power which they had previously exercised. The coalition of the great barons was no longer able to govern the throne. The Tudors ascended it; and with Henry VII, in 1485, begins the era of political centralization, the triumph of royalty.

Monarchy did not establish itself in Italy, at least under that name; but this made little difference as to the result. It was in the fifteenth century that the fall of the Italian republics took place. Even where the name was retained, the power became concentrated in the hands of one, or of a few families. The spirit of republicanism was extinguished. In the north of Italy, almost all the Lombard republics merged in the Duchy of Milan. In 1434, Florence fell under the dominion of the Medicis. In 1464, Genoa became subject to Milan. The greater part of the republics, great and small, yielded to the power of sovereign houses; and soon afterwards began the pretensions of foreign sovereigns to the dominion of the north and south of Italy; to the Milanese and kingdom of Naples.

Indeed, to whatever country of Europe we cast our eyes, whatever portion of its history we consider, whether it relates to the nations themselves or their governments, to their territories or their institutions, we everywhere see the old elements, the old forms of society, disappearing. Those liberties which were founded on tradition were lost; new powers arose, more regular and concentrated than those which previously existed. There is something deeply melancholy in this view of the fall of the ancient liberties of Europe. Even in its own time it inspired feelings of the utmost bitterness…Every system which does not provide for present order, and progressive advancement for the future, is vicious, and speedily abandoned. And this was the fate of the old political forms of society, of the ancient liberties of Europe in the fifteenth century. They could not give to society either security or progress. These objects naturally became sought for elsewhere; to obtain them, recourse was had to other principles and other means; and this is the import of all the facts to which I have just called your attention.

To this same period may be assigned another circumstance which has had a great influence on the political history of Europe. It was in the fifteenth century that the relations of governments with each other began to be frequent, regular, and permanent. Now, for the first time, became formed those great combinations by means of alliance, for peaceful as well as warlike objects, which, at a later period, gave rise to the system of the balance of power. European diplomacy originated in the fifteenth century. In fact you may see, towards its close, the principal powers of the continent of Europe, the Popes, the Dukes of Milan, the Venetians, the German Emperors, and the Kings of France and Spain, entering into a closer correspondence with each other than had hitherto existed; negotiating, combining, and balancing their various interests…This new order of things was very favorable to the career of monarchy. On the one hand, it belongs to the very nature of the external relations of states that they can be conducted only by a single person, or by a very small number, and that they require a certain degree of secrecy: on the other hand, the people were so little enlightened that the consequences of a combination of this kind quite escaped them. As it had no direct bearing on their individual or domestic life, they troubled themselves little about it; and, as usual, left such transactions to the discretion of the central government. Thus diplomacy, in its very birth, fell into the hands of kings; and the opinion, that it belongs to them exclusively; that the nation, even when free, and possessed of the right of voting its own taxes, and interfering in the management of its domestic affairs, has no right to intermeddle in foreign matters;—this opinion, I say, became established in all parts of Europe, as a settled principle, a maxim of common law…The people are remarkably timid in disputing this portion of the prerogative; and their timidity has cost them the dearer, for this reason, that, from the commencement of the period into which we are now entering (that is to say, the sixteenth century), the history of Europe is essentially diplomatic. For nearly three centuries, foreign relations form the most important part of history. The domestic affairs of countries began to be regularly conducted; the internal government, on the Continent at least, no longer produced any violent convulsions, and no longer kept the public mind in a state of agitation and excitement. Foreign relations, wars, treaties, alliances, alone occupy the attention and fill the page of history; so that we find the destinies of nations abandoned in a great measure to the royal prerogative, to the central power of the state…

Down to the fifteenth century, the only general ideas which had a powerful influence on the masses were those connected with religion. The Church alone was invested with the power of regulating, promulgating, and prescribing them. Attempts, it is true, at independence, and even at separation, were frequently made; and the Church had much to do to overcome them. Down to this period, however, she had been successful. Creeds rejected by the Church had never taken any general or permanent hold on the minds of the people; even the Albigenses had been repressed. Dissension and strife were incessant in the Church, but without any decisive and striking result. The fifteenth century opened with the appearance of a different state of things. New ideas, and a public and avowed desire of change and reformation, began to agitate the Church herself. The end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century were marked by the great schism of the West, resulting from the removal of the papal chair to Avignon, and the creation of two popes, one at Avignon, and the other at Rome. The contest between these two papacies is what is called the great schism of the West. It began in 1378.  In 1409, the Council of Pisa endeavored to put an end to it by deposing the two rival popes and electing another. But instead of ending the schism, this step only rendered it more violent.

There were now three popes instead of two; and disorders and abuses went on increasing. In 1414, the Council of Constance assembled, convoked by desire of the Emperor Sigismund. This council set about a matter of far more importance than the nomination of a new pope; it undertook the reformation of the Church. It began by proclaiming the indissolubility of the universal council, and its superiority over the papal power. It endeavored to establish these principles in the Church, and to reform the abuses which had crept into it, particularly the exactions by which the court of Rome obtained money…The council elected a new pope, Martin V, in 1417. The pope was instructed to present, on his part, a plan for the reform of the Church. This plan was rejected, and the council separated. In 1431, a new council assembled at Basel with the same design. It resumed and continued the reforming labors of the Council of Constance, but with no better success. Schism broke out in this assembly as it had done in Christendom…

In this manner papacy gained the day, remained in possession of the field of battle, and of the government of the Church…

But the projects of the reformers met with a new reverse of fortune. As the council had failed, so did the pragmatic sanction. It perished very soon in Germany. It was abandoned by the Diet in 1448, in virtue of a negotiation with Nicholas V. In 1516, Francis I abandoned it also, substituting for it his concordat with Leo X. The reform attempted by princes did not succeed better than that set on foot by the clergy. But we must not conclude that it was entirely thrown away…

The councils were right in trying for a legal reform, for it was the only way to prevent a revolution. Nearly at the time when the Council of Pisa was endeavoring to put an end to the great western schism, and the Council of Constance to reform the Church, the first attempts at popular religious reform broke out in Bohemia. The preaching of John Huss, and his progress as a reformer, commenced in 1404, when he began to teach at Prague. Here, then, we have two reforms going on side by side; the one in the very bosom of the Church,—attempted by the ecclesiastical aristocracy itself,—cautious, embarrassed, and timid; the other originating without the Church, and directed against it,—violent, passionate, and impetuous. A contest began between these two powers, these two parties. The council enticed John Huss and Jerome of Prague to Constance, and condemned them to the flames as heretics and revolutionists…The popular reform of John Huss was stifled for the moment; the war of the Hussites broke out three or four years after the death of their master; it was long and violent, but at last the empire was successful in subduing it. The failure of the councils in the work of reform, their not being able to attain the object they were aiming at, only kept the public mind in a state of fermentation. The spirit of reform still existed; it waited but for an opportunity again to break out, and this it found at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Had the reform undertaken by the councils been brought to any good issue, perhaps the popular reform would have been prevented. But it was impossible that one or the other of them should not succeed, for their coincidence shows their necessity.

Such, then, is the state, in respect to religious creeds, in which Europe was left by the fifteenth century: an aristocratic reform attempted without success, with a popular suppressed reform begun, but still ready to break out anew.

It was not solely to religious creeds that the human mind was directed, and about which it busied itself at this period. It was in the course of the fourteenth century, as you all know, that Greek and Roman antiquity was (if I may use the expression) restored to Europe. You know with what ardor Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and all their contemporaries, sought for Greek and Latin manuscripts, published them, and spread them abroad; and what general joy was produced by the smallest discovery in this branch of learning. It was in the midst of this excitement that the classical school took its rise; a school which has performed a much more important part in the development of the human mind than has generally been ascribed to it. But we must be cautious of attaching to this term, classical school, the meaning given to it at present. It had to do, in those days, with matters very different from literary systems and disputes. The classical school of that period inspired its disciples with admiration, not only for the writings of Virgil and Homer, but for the entire frame of ancient society, for its institutions, its opinions, its philosophy, as well as its literature. Antiquity, it must be allowed, whether as regards politics, philosophy, or literature, was greatly superior to the Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should have exercised so great an influence…Thus was formed that school of bold thinkers which appeared at the commencement of the fifteenth century, and in which prelates, jurists, and men of learning were united by common sentiments and common pursuits.

In the midst of this movement happened the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, 1453, the fall of the Eastern empire, and the influx of the fugitive Greeks into Italy. These brought with them a greater knowledge of antiquity, numerous manuscripts, and a thousand new means of studying the civilization of the ancients. You may easily imagine how this must have redoubled the admiration and ardor of the classic school. This was the most brilliant period of the Church, especially in Italy, not in respect of political power, but of wealth and luxury. The Church gave herself up to all the pleasures of an indolent, elegant, licentious civilization; to a taste for letters, the arts, and social and physical enjoyments…

We observe, then, three great facts in the moral order of society at this period—on one hand, an ecclesiastical reform attempted by the Church itself; on another a popular, religious reform; and lastly, an intellectual revolution, which formed a school of free-thinkers; and all these transformations were prepared in the midst of the greatest political change that has ever taken place in Europe, in the midst of the process of the centralization of nations and governments.

But this is not all. The period in question was also one of the most remarkable for the display of physical activity among men. It was a period of voyages, travels, enterprises, discoveries, and inventions of every kind. It was the time of the great Portuguese expedition along the coast of Africa; of the discovery of the new passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, by Vasco de Gama; of the discovery of America, by Christopher Columbus; of the wonderful extension of European commerce. A thousand new inventions started up; others already known, but confined within a narrow sphere, became popular and in general use. Gunpowder changed the system of war; the compass changed the system of navigation. Painting in oil was invented, and filled Europe with masterpieces of art. Engraving on copper, invented in 1406, multiplied and diffused them. Paper made of linen became common. Finally, between 1436 and 1452, was invented printing,—printing, the theme of so many declamations and common-places, but to whose merits and effect no common-places or declamations will ever be able to do justice.

From all this, some idea may be formed of the greatness and activity of the fifteenth century; a greatness which, at the time, was not very apparent; an activity of which the results did not immediately take place. Violent reforms seemed to fail; governments acquired stability. It might have been supposed that society was now about to enjoy the benefits of better order, and more rapid progress. The mighty revolutions of the sixteenth century were at hand; the fifteenth century prepared them.—They shall be the subject of the following lecture.

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