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A Thousand Years of Failed Monopolists: Guizot’s Tenth Lecure

Guizot surveys the seemingly endless array of would-be, failed archons—the long list of kings, conquerors, emperors, popes, and tyrants seeking total power.

Editor’s Note

In an important sense of the word, medieval European society was anarchistic. This is not to say that there was no government—surely all good anarchists today know that proper government, as distinct from a “state,” comes (at least largely) voluntarily and from below. Under conditions of anarchy, there are no archons. There is no single territorial monopolist of law and order. When one observes European history through its very broad extent—as Guizot has now made habit for us—it is apparent that for at least a thousand years no single entity ever accumulated the full power of the “nation” or “state” together into a single agent or body. Rather, feudal Europe was an endlessly complicated patchwork of overlapping, interacting, and dynamic institutions. Our author has paid special attention to each in turn, ceaselessly noting that while each powerful element attempted to aggrandize an absolute monopoly of power none were actually able  to do so.

For his tenth lecture, then, Guizot catalogues the long series of attempts to unite all of European society behind a single ruling will. Jealous nobles thwarted incipient papal theocracies; ancient Roman municipalities gradually rose to seize their freedom from crumbling states and weak nobles; country peasants rebelled against their new urban overlords; democratic heretics and the more zealous of the Catholic monarchs fought to the death. After a millennium without any side giving much way for long, powerful elements throughout portions of the European land mass began to join their interests and projects together, deciding that there would be more profit in collusion than competition. As king, nobles, clergymen, republics, free cities, peasants, trade leagues, universities, and monastic orders steadily cannibalized one another’s governing authority, the number of true archons across Europe crept upward. Whether they carried scepters, swords, or mitres, the archons usurped virtually any authority from those who pushed ploughs. The monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy more often invited the new merchant-capitalist to take the peasant’s place at the tables of governors. Through the remainder of his lectures, Guizot will describe the rise of (arguably) true territorial monopolies of law and order in Europe and the popular mass’ attempts to once again devolve the archons’ powers.

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.


At the commencement of this lecture I wish, at once, to determine its object with precision. It will be recollected, that one of the first facts that struck us, was the diversity, the separation, the independence, of the elements of ancient European society. The feudal nobility, the clergy, and the commons, had each a position, laws, and manners, entirely different; they formed so many distinct societies whose mode of government was independent of each other. They were in some measure connected, and in contact, but no real union existed between them; to speak correctly, they did not form a nation—a state.

The fusion of these distinct portions of society into one is, at length, accomplished; this is precisely the distinctive organization, the essential characteristic of modern society. The ancient social elements are now reduced to two—the government and the people; that is to say, diversity ceased and similitude introduced union. Before, however, this result took place, and even with a view to its prevention, many attempts were made to bring all these separate portions of society together, without destroying their diversity and independence. No positive attack was made on the peculiar position and privileges or on the distinctive nature of any portion, and yet there was an attempt made to form them into one state, one national body, to bring them all under one and the same government.

All these attempts failed. The result which I have noticed above, the union of modern society, attests their want of success. Even in those parts of Europe where some traces of the ancient diversity of the social elements are still to be met with—in Germany, for instance, where a real feudal nobility and a distinct body of burghers still exist; in England, where we see an established Church enjoying its own revenues and its own peculiar jurisdiction—it is clear that this pretended distinct existence is a shadow, a falsehood; that these special societies are confounded in general society, absorbed in the state, governed by the public authorities, controlled by the same system of polity, carried away by the same current of ideas, the same manners. Again I assert, that even where the form still exists, the separation and independence of the ancient social elements have no longer any reality.

At the same time, these attempts at rendering the ancient and social elements co-ordinate, without changing their nature, at forming them into national unity without annihilating their variety, are entitled to an important place in the history of Europe. The period which now engages our attention—that period which separates ancient from modern Europe, and in which was accomplished the metamorphosis of European society—is almost entirely filled with them. Not only do they form a principal part of the history of this period, but they had a considerable influence on after events, on the manner in which was effected the reduction of the various social elements to two—the government and the people. It is clearly, then, of great importance, that we should become well acquainted with all those endeavors at political organization which were made from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, for the purpose of creating nations and governments, without destroying the diversity of secondary societies placed by the side of each other. These attempts form the subject of the present lecture—a laborious and even painful task.

All these attempts at political organization did not, certainly, originate from a good motive; too many of them arose from selfishness and tyranny. Yet some of them were pure and disinterested; some of them had, truly, for their object the moral and social welfare of mankind. Society at this time, was in such a state of incoherence, of violence and iniquity, as could not but be extremely offensive to men of enlarged views—to men who possessed elevated sentiments, and who labored incessantly to discover the means of improving it. Yet even the best of these noble attempts miscarried; and is not the waste of so much courage—of so many sacrifices and endeavors—of so much virtue, a melancholy spectacle? And what is still more painful, a still more poignant sorrow, not only did these attempts at social melioration fail, but an enormous mass of error and of evil was mingled with them. Notwithstanding good intention, the majority of them were absurd, and show a profound ignorance of reason, of justice, of the rights of humanity, and of the conditions of the social state; so that not only were they unsuccessful, but it was right that they should be so. We have here a spectacle, not only of the hard lot of humanity, but also of its weakness. We may here see how the smallest portion of truth suffices so to engage the whole attention of men of superior intellect, that they forget every thing else, and become blind to all that is not comprised within the narrow horizon of their ideas. We may here see how the existence of ever so small a particle of justice in a cause is sufficient to make them lose sight of all the injustice which it contains and permits. This display of the vices and follies of man is, in my opinion, still more melancholy to contemplate than the misery of his condition; his faults affect me more than his sufferings. The attempts already alluded to will bring man before us in both these situations; still we must not shun the painful retrospect; it behooves us not to flinch from doing justice to those men, to those ages that have so often erred, so miserably failed, and yet have displayed such noble virtues, made such powerful efforts, merited so much glory.

The attempts at political organization which were formed from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries were of two kinds; one having for its object the predominance of one of the social elements—sometimes the clergy, sometimes the feudal nobility, sometimes the free cities—and making all the others subordinate to it, and in this way seeking to introduce unity; the other proposing to cause all the different societies to agree and to act together, leaving to each portion its liberty, and ensuring to each its due share of influence.

The attempts of the former kind are much more open to suspicion of self-interest and tyranny than the latter; in fact, they were not spotless; from their very nature they were essentially tyrannical in their mode of execution; yet some of them might have been, and indeed were, conceived with a pure motive, and with a view to the welfare and advancement of mankind.

The first attempt which presents itself, is the attempt at theocratical organization; that is to say, the design of bringing all the other societies into a state of submission to the principles and sway of ecclesiastical society…

The attempt at theocratic organization appeared at an early period, both in the acts of the court of Rome, and in those of the clergy in general; it naturally proceeded from the political and moral superiority of the Church; but, from the commencement, such obstacles were thrown in its way, that, even in its greatest vigor, it never had the power to overcome them.

The first obstacle was the nature itself of Christianity. Very different, in this respect, from the greater part of religious creeds, Christianity established itself by persuasion alone, by simple moral efforts; even at its birth it was not armed with power; in its earliest years it conquered by words alone, and its only conquest was the souls of men. Even after its triumph, even when the Church was in possession of great wealth and consideration, the direct government of society was not placed in its hands. Its origin, purely moral, springing from mental influence alone, was implanted in its constitution. It possessed a vast influence, but it had no power. It gradually insinuated itself into the municipal magistracies; it acted powerfully upon the emperors and upon all their agents; but the positive administration of public affairs—the government, properly so called—was not possessed by the Church…

The attempt to establish a theocracy very soon met with a second obstacle. When the Roman empire was destroyed, and the barbarian states were established on its ruins, the Christian church was found among the conquered. It was necessary for it to escape from this situation; to begin by converting the conquerors, and thus to raise itself to their rank. This accomplished, when the Church aspired to dominion, it had to encounter the pride and the resistance of the feudal nobility. Europe is greatly indebted to the laic members of the feudal system in the eleventh century: the people were almost completely subjugated by the Church; sovereigns could scarcely protect themselves from its domination; the feudal nobility alone would never submit to its yoke, would never give way to the power of the clergy…During many centuries it was the lay aristocracy who maintained the independence of society with regard to the Church; they boldly defended it when the sovereigns and the people were subdued. They were the first to oppose, and probably contributed more than any other power to the failure of the attempt at a theocratic organization of society.

A third obstacle stood much in the way of this attempt, an obstacle which has been but little noticed, and the effect of which has often been misunderstood.

In all parts of the world where a clergy made itself master of society, and forced it to submit to a theocratic organization, the government always fell into the hands of a married clergy, of a body of priests who were enabled to recruit their ranks from their own society…But the celibacy of the clergy placed the Christian priesthood in a very different situation; it was obliged to have recourse incessantly to lay society in order to continue its existence; it was compelled to seek at a distance, among all stations, all social professions, for the means of its duration…The internal state of the Church, the disputations which have taken place, the revolutions by which it has been agitated, have been perhaps the greatest of all obstacles to the triumph of that theocratical organization which the Church endeavored to impose upon society.

All these obstacles were visibly in action even so early as the fifth century, even at the commencement of the great attempt of which we are now speaking. They did not, however, prevent the continuance of its exertions, nor retard its progress during several centuries. The period of its greatest glory, its crisis, as it may be termed, was the reign of Gregory the Seventh, at the end of the eleventh century…It was only at the beginning of the thirteenth century, that the emperors of the house of Hohenstaufen, who deservedly rank among the most able and powerful sovereigns of Europe, were overcome in their struggle with the Holy See; yet before the end of the same century, Saint Louis, the most pious of monarchs, proclaimed the independence of temporal power, and published the first Pragmatic Sanction, which has served as the basis of all the following. At the opening of the fourteenth century began the quarrel between Philip the Fair with Boniface VIII: Edward I of England was not more obedient to the court of Rome. At this epoch it is evident, that the attempt at theocratic organization had failed; the Church henceforward acted only upon the defensive; she no longer attempted to force her system upon Europe; but only considered how she might keep what she possessed. It is from the end of the thirteenth century that the emancipation of the laic society of Europe truly dates; it was then that the Church gave up her pretensions to its possession.

A long time before this she had renounced this pretension in the very sphere in which it appeared most likely for her to be successful. Long before in Italy itself, even around the very throne of the Church, theocracy had completely failed, and given way to a system its very opposite in character: to that attempt at democratic organization, of which the Italian republics are the type, and which displayed so brilliant a career in Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century.

It will be remembered, that, when speaking of the free cities, of their history, and of the manner of their formation, I observed that their growth had been more precocious and vigorous in Italy than in any other country; they were here more numerous, as well as more wealthy, than in Gaul, England, or Spain; the Roman municipal system had been preserved with more life and regularity. Besides this, the provinces of Italy were less fitted to become the habitation of its new masters than the rest of Europe. The lands had been cleared, drained, and cultivated; it was not covered with forests, and the barbarians could not here devote their lives to the chase, or find occupations similar to what had amused them in Germany. A part of this country, moreover, did not belong to them. The south of Italy, the Campagna di Roma, and Ravenna, were still dependent on the Greek emperors…And thus it happened that the feudal system never made much progress beyond the Alps, where it was but weakly established, and its members few and scattered…

Thus becomes explained, why the attempt at republican organization was so successful in this part of Europe. It repressed, almost in its childhood, the feudal system, and became the prevailing form in society. Still it was but little adapted to spread or endure; it contained but few germs of melioration, a necessary condition for the extension and duration of any form of government.

In looking at the history of the Italian republics, from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, we are struck with two facts, seemingly contradictory, yet still indisputable. We see passing before us a wonderful display of courage, of activity, and of genius; an amazing prosperity is the result: we see a movement and a liberty unknown to the rest of Europe. But if we ask what was the real state of the inhabitants, how they passed their lives, what was their real share of happiness, the scene changes; there is, perhaps, no history more sad and gloomy: no period, perhaps, during which the lot of man appears to have been more agitated, subject to more deplorable chances, and which abounds more in dissensions, crimes, and misfortunes. Another fact strikes us at the same moment; in the political life of the greater part of these republics, liberty was continuously diminishing. The want of security was so great, that the people were unavoidably driven to take shelter in a system less stormy, though less popular, than that in which the state existed. Look at the history of Florence, Venice, Genoa, Milan, or Pisa; in all of them we find the course of events, instead of aiding the progress of liberty, instead of enlarging the circle of institutions, tending to repress it; tending to concentrate power in the hands of a smaller number of individuals. In a word, we find in these republics, otherwise so energetic, so brilliant, and so rich, two things wanting—security of life, the first requisite in the social state, and the progress of institutions.

From these causes sprung a new evil, which prevented the attempt at republican organization from extending itself. It was from without—it was from foreign sovereigns, that the greatest danger was threatened to Italy. Still this danger never succeeded in reconciling these republics, in making them all act in concert; they were never ready to resist in common the common enemy. This has led many Italians, the most enlightened, the best of patriots, to deplore, in the present day, the republican system of Italy in the middle ages, as the true cause which hindered it from becoming a nation; it was parcelled out, they say, into a multitude of little states, not sufficiently master of their passions to confederate, to constitute themselves into one united body. They regret that their country has not, like the rest of Europe, been subject to a despotic centralization which would have formed it into a nation, and rendered it independent of the foreigner.

It appears, then, that republican organization, even under the most favorable circumstances, did not contain, at this period, any more than it has done since, the principle of progress, duration, and extension. ..

If the attempt at republican organization had so little chance of stability in Italy where it had triumphed, where the feudal system had been overcome, it may easily be supposed that it was much less likely to succeed in the other parts of Europe.

I shall take a rapid survey of its fortunes.

There was one portion of Europe which bore a great resemblance to Italy; the south of France, and the adjoining provinces of Spain, Catalonia, Navarre, and Biscay. In these districts the cities had made nearly the same progress, and had risen to considerable importance and wealth. Many little feudal nobles had here allied themselves with the citizens; a part of the clergy had likewise embraced their cause; in a word, the country in these respects was another Italy. So also, in the course of the eleventh and beginning of the twelfth century, the towns of Provence, of Languedoc, and Aquitaine, made a political effort and formed themselves into free republics, as had been done by the towns on the other side of the Alps. But the south of France was connected with a very powerful branch of the feudal system, that of the north. The heresy of the Albigenses appeared. A war broke out between feudal France and municipal France…: it was the struggle of the feudalism of the North against the attempt at democratic organization of the South. Notwithstanding the efforts of Southern patriotism, the North gained the day; political unity was wanting in the South, and civilization was not yet sufficiently advanced there to enable men to bring it about. This attempt at republican organization was put down, and the crusade re-established the feudal system in the south of France.

A republican attempt succeeded better a little later, among the Swiss mountains. Here, the theatre was very narrow, the struggle was only against a foreign monarch, who, although much more powerful than the Swiss, was not one of the most formidable sovereigns of Europe. The contest was carried on with a great display of courage. The Swiss feudal nobility allied themselves, for the most part, with the cities—a powerful help, which also raised the character of the revolution it sustained, and stamped it with a more aristocratical and stationary character than it seemingly ought to have borne.

I cross to the north of France to the free towns of Flanders, to those on the banks of the Rhine, and belonging to the Hanseatic League. Here the democratic organization completely triumphed in the internal government of the cities; but from its origin, it is evident, that it was not destined to take entire possession of society. The free towns of the North were surrounded, pressed on every side by feudalism, by barons, and sovereigns, to such an extent that they were constantly obliged to stand upon the defensive. It is scarcely necessary to say, that they did not trouble themselves to make conquests; they defended themselves sometimes well and sometimes badly. They preserved their privileges, but they remained confined to the inside of their walls. Within these, democratic organization was shut up and arrested; if we walk abroad over the face of the country, we find no semblance of it.

…The barons became jealous of the wealth of the cities, they feared their power; the spirit of democracy stole into the country; insurrections of the peasantry became more frequent and obstinate. In nearly every part of Europe a coalition was formed among the nobles against the free cities. The parties were not equal; the cities were isolated; there was no correspondence or intelligence between them; all was local. It may be true that there existed, between the burgesses of different countries, a certain degree of sympathy; the success or reverses of the towns of Flanders, in their struggles with the dukes of Burgundy, excited a lively sensation in the French cities; but this was very fleeting, and led to no result; no tie, no true union became established between them; the free communities lent no assistance to one another. The position of feudalism was much superior; yet divided, and without any plan of its own, it was never able to destroy them. After the struggle had lasted a considerable time, when the conviction became settled that a complete victory was impossible, concession became necessary; these petty burgher republics were acknowledged, negotiated with and admitted as members of the state. A new plan was now begun, a new attempt was made at political organization. The object of this was to conciliate, to reconcile, the various elements of society—the feudal nobility, the free cities, the clergy, and monarchs—to make them live and act together, in spite of their rooted hostility…

I presume there is no one who is not acquainted with the nature of the States-General of France, the Cortes of Spain and Portugal, the Parliament of England, and the States of Germany. The elements of these various assemblies were much the same; that is to say, the feudal nobility, the clergy, and the cities or commons, there met together and labored to unite themselves into one sole society, into one same state, under one same law, one same authority. Whatever their various names, this was the tendency, the design of all…

I have now run over all the great attempts at political organization which were made in Europe, down to the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century. All these failed. I have endeavored to point out, in going along, the causes of these failures; to speak truly, they may all be summed up in one: society was not yet sufficiently advanced to adapt itself to unity; all was yet too local, too special, too narrow; too many differences prevailed both in things and in minds. There were no general interests, no general opinions capable of guiding, of bearing sway over particular interests and particular opinions. The most enlightened minds, the boldest thinkers, had as yet no just idea of administration or justice truly public. It was evidently necessary that a very active, powerful civilization should first mix, assimilate, grind together, as it were, all these incoherent elements; it was necessary that there should first be a strong centralization of interests, laws, manners, ideas; it was necessary, in a word, that there should be created a public authority and a public opinion. We are now drawing near to the period in which this great work was at last consummated. Its first symptoms—the state of manners, mind, and opinions, during the fifteenth century, their tendency towards the formation of a central government and a public opinion—will be the subject of the following lecture.

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