What were the principal factors governing state formation in the early modern period?

“There is a strong sense of unreality about the Renaissance [...] divorced from the main aspects of everyday political, social, and cultural life [... floating] over the surface of the world from which it arose, a disembodied abstraction, a new energizing spirit.”1 In a similar way, indeed, this period is not so much important in simply the formation of states but in the formation of the concept of the state. Yet at the same time, its practical implementation gives an overall sense of increasing physicality about this period. Government becomes anchored to clear nations and countries, rather than floating on top of them; politics moves from metaphysical, scholastic, normative theorizing towards the physical, scientific, descriptive advice of The Prince; government moves further from ritual to administration; the state develops as a monopoly on physical force and violence, implemented externally through the military and internally through police. The formation of the state required both conceptualisation and implementation, and in this sense, state formation lies in the entire intellectual and physical context of the period. Groundwork lay in the medieval -- in conceptualisation, medieval developments of property rights and the idea of the legitimacy of government; and in implementation, the dismantling of medieval feudalism. However, both conceptualisation and implementation only become truly possible with the Renaissance. It brought a re-appreciation of politics as a subject; humanism, placing man at the apex of society rather than God; thus, indirectly, bringing the climate of Reformation, in which active want for state authority developed; it brought the Roman Empire and law as an exemplary implementation of the state; it, by turns, brought the scientific revolution and technological advances that made possible its centralised administration. Far from a “disembodied abstraction,” the Renaissance’s long reach lay precisely in “everyday political, social, and cultural life” in its creation of the modern state.

The term state is often used interchangeably with the terms country and nation. However, these, while related, are distinct. A country refers to a specific area of territory, and a nation to a body of people, not necessarily territorially contiguous, but identifying with a common ancestry, history, and culture; a collection of people with a collectively “imagined community”2. A state, however, is an organisation which claims and successfully demonstrates ultimate authority over a group of people (these possibly, but not necessarily, being one nation) within a limited, clearly defined territory (this constituting a country). At its most basic level, Max Weber’s definition is succinct: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”3.

“State formation” here is not so much the formation of individual states but that of the concept of the state. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, in 1532, speaks of “states” as “the dominions under whose authority men [live]”4, and the first known example of the thoroughly modern meaning is in 15385. This concept, in order to exist, was dependent on several other concepts, all only finally possible in this period.

Concepts of property and territory are key. The state cannot exist without a definite jurisdiction, and as such requires clear boundary delineation in order to function. This delineation was not present prior to the development of the modern state, where “Europe was not divided up into exclusive sovereignties, but covered by overlapping and constantly shifting lordships.”6 Politics and economics had not been clearly distinguished; “All property carried with it other rights and duties”, and as such “there were not yet any supreme authorities which were charged with the duties of legislation, administration, and justice and with these alone.”7

The state, as an institution for maintaining internal order, requires on some level that its subjects accept it as legitimate. This requires an idea of the centralised organisation of man as being beneficial to the individual. Pierangelo Schiera gives “legitimacy” as one of his three “necessary conditions for the birth of the modern state”8, finding it as early as 1324 in Marsilius of Padua, who stated that “the city [or state] is a community established so the men belonging to it may live and live well.”9

“In politics [humanism] gave emphasis to the idea of the sovereign state as opposed to the community of Christendom, and hence to the beginnings of modern nationality. The sovereign state is the collective counterpart of the autonomous human person.”10 Humanism was perhaps the principal gift of the Renaissance. Emphasising the ultimate dignity of mankind, it was necessary to truly legitimate the state -- a structure created entirely by, from, and for mankind.

It also legitimated it in a separate way. By turns, Renaissance humanism made possible the chaotic climate of the Reformation in which the strong power of a centralised state was consciously desired. Hobbes’ Leviathan believed the absolutist state to be “a regrettable necessity, the only alternative to endless conflict”11. Humanism, ironically, recognized the baser elements of man, which made the state only more necessary: “Machiavelli’s virtù is in the interests of those of the public who make up the city, because ironically even if you have to turn a blind eye to vice, to torture, to duplicitous behaviour, to killing off your enemies to keep your family safe, what you get is stability”12. This desire for the state is ultimately seen in the “planned reform” of politics under Louis XIV of France, which “had two basic purposes, to centralize all decision making in the person of the king, and to make his authority uniformly effective through the kingdom”13, hand-in-hand with mercantilism, the conviction that in order to prosper, the modern state needed to manipulate every available legal, administrative, military, and regulatory device"14.

“State formation” next required the capability to implement the concept. This implementation was both external and internal; it required the independence of the state from any external authority, and the capability to assert its internal authority over all of its subjects. Both of these were only finally possible in the period we are concerned with. The removal of Christianity as a regulating body, which “stood, as it had always stood in some sense, for an ideal of peace”15, meant that conflict between states was left unchecked. Throughout the medieval period, the criterion of government as fully sovereign was undermined by Church authority. The formation of the modern state required the retreat of this body from its medieval position, and hence a necessary development was again the Reformation. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia demonstrated “how far the sovereign states had consolidated their system”: “For the first time there was an assemblage of ambassadors and ministers comparable in power and dignity with the ecclesiastical councils, but its members were representatives of states.”16 On another level, its terms demonstrated how states asserted their independence. Westphalian sovereignty made two principles official: the territorial existence of the state and the permanence of its boundaries, and the removal of external authority from all structure within that territory.

Inter-state diplomacy only filled the vacuum of external authority at the same rate as the advancement of inter-state rivalry. War was important enough to the state that Machiavelli could claim that “The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler [...] The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war; the first way to win a state is to be skilled in the art of war.”17 Conflict, rather than collectively weakening, gave them identity: “the conflicts of states and their consolidation furthered one another reciprocally.”18

The state’s achievement of external power made internal power possible. Legal systems had been divided into those of the government and those of the Church. Internal power over subjects had been undermined by their ability to appeal to the higher authority of the Church. The first impediment was removed by the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, stating cuius regio, euis religio -- or that the ruler of a state has the right to determine its religion. The second impediment was removed variously; in England, for example, by the 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals, making the reigning sovereign the final authority on all matters of law. Internal power had to be asserted through an efficient administration. The Renaissance brought a renewed interest in political theory, and less abstractly in the Roman Empire as the exemplary state system. Works such as The Prince or the Julius Exclusus were “not medieval: [they] had a directness that derived something from the ancient classics.”19 Machiavelli, in his theorizing on statecraft, was conscious of his debt to classical literature, writing, “I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men [...] there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me”.20

An efficient centralised administration required dismantlement of the medieval decentralised feudal system. Feudalism, in the delegation of authority from lord to vassal, spread power throughout society; any one person did not owe their allegiance to a state but to their immediate lord, who held state-like authority over their vassals. The retreat of the feudal system transferred people’s allegiance from their lord to the ultimate, un-subjugated authority of the state.

Nevertheless, hierarchy was necessary; government could not exist as one single conglomerative body, and required a division of labour; a body as well as a head; control of the periphery as well as the centre. The increasing distinction between external and internal power created the increasing distinction between external systems of maintaining order -- the military -- and internal systems of maintaining order -- the police and the prison. This is another of Schiera’s conditions for the modern state: the ability to discipline. The construction of a system of incarceration lies in the complex developments which led from rural to urban society; it, at its most extremely general, Foucaultian description, included hospitals, barracks, factories, and even schools.

However, this hierarchy of the state is different in nature to the hierarchy of feudalism: it is an implementation of, rather than a limitation of, the power of the government. Feudalism had divided society up and made it heterogeneous; individual manors could operate their own legal system and courts. The state, however, asserted its authority through a comprehensive, consistent legal system. Codified law, a necessity for the centralised state, had fallen “into disuse with the disintegration of the [Roman] Empire”, but was re-appreciated by late medieval and Renaissance scholars. “The Roman distinction between the public and the private domains”, for example, “was to suit the purposes of Europe’s growing polities”.21

This homogenisation led to development, beginning in the early modern period, of national identity. This identity strengthened the state through the idea of the nation-state. “The state and the nation each grew in strength and consciousness, or rather each was made stronger and more aware of itself by its own action and that of the other.”22 The state gained an increased sense of legitimacy through claiming to “represent” a community of people, and national identity was strengthened by physical symbols with which to identify. This development reaches its dramatic conclusion at the end of the early modern period, in 1789, where “subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation.”23 The causal web that gave rise to the modern state is difficult to disentangle. In the same way that the state extended its reach to every level of humanity, every level of humanity had contributed to its rise. The impression that the Renaissance’s “feet somehow did not touch the ground”24 is precisely because they did so everywhere: it transformed understanding of politics, man, authority, law, and science, all of which were contributing factors to the formation of the modern state. After centuries of gestation, if the birth of the state was anywhere, it was in the Renaissance, and if its maturation was anywhere, it was in the French Revolution. The history of the early modern period is the history of “state formation”.


  1. Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Pimlico (1997), p. 469.
  2. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. pp. 6-7.
  3. Weber, Max. Politics as a Vocation, paragraph 4.
  4. Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin Classics (2003), p. 7.
  5. Oxford English Dictionary. State, n., meaning 29.a.
  6. Clark, Sir George._ Early Modern Europe_. Oxford University Press (1975), p. 19.
  7. Ibid. p. 18.
  8. Schiera, Pierangelo. Legitimacy, Discipline, and Institutions: Three Necessary Conditions for the Birth of the Modern State. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 67, Supplement: The Origins of the State in Italy, 1300-1600 (December 1995), pp. S11-S33.
  9. Ibid. p. S19.
  10. Davies. p. 479.
  11. Ibid. p. 521.
  12. Jardine, Lisa. In Our Time. Radio 4 (9 December 2004), c. 19 minutes 55 seconds.
  13. Bergin, Joseph. Short Oxford History of Europe: The Seventeenth Century. Oxford University Press (2001), p. 94.
  14. Davies. p. 523.
  15. Clark, p. 21.
  16. Ibid. p. 95.
  17. Machiavelli. p. 47.
  18. Clark. p. 22.
  19. Clark. p. 29.
  20. Machiavelli. p. xxi.
  21. Davies. p. 173.
  22. Clark. p. 153.
  23. Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin Books (2004), p. 725.
  24. Davies. p. 469.


Originally written as an essay in my History undergraduate for the Early Modern “period topic” module at the University of York.

Tagged #state-formation, #early-modern-period, #renaissance, #political-theory, #medieval, #humanism, #reformation, #monarchy, #history, #essay.

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