Time of Terra: The medieval foundations of modern politics

In my previous writings about modernity, theory, philosophy, art, and evolution, I have somewhat obscured the key to the world in which we live: its origins in medieval Europe. This idea occurred to me, paradoxically, in reflecting on science fiction, such as the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, which follows influences both from high fantasy (notably, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) and science fiction (such as Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, and Lucas’ Star Wars). But as I watched Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the idea for this specific article occurred to me more clearly. The world we live in is significantly influenced by its medieval ancestry, one which is both distinctive and typical to attempts to rescue order from the clutches of chaos. There was the middle age of Europe, but there were middle ages before that, around the world. There may be a middle age in the future, too. Some speculate we are now in a ‘neo-medieval’ world, where there is no hegemony to stabilise international order. Instead, there is chaos. What is this chaos, exactly, and how chaotic is it, really?


One of the characters in Game of Thrones stands in for Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. The character of Lord Baelish says famously, ‘Chaos is not a pit — chaos is a ladder’. We may conjure up ideas like ‘the realm’, which Lord Varys, impersonating English political theorist Thomas Hobbes, employs to defend selfless political action. But the only reality, Baelish insists, is the ladder — ‘only the ladder is real’. But if all that is real is the struggle, the fight, then what is it we are fighting or struggling for? The answer, I think both Hobbes and Machiavelli would agree, is power.

Power, I have suggested before, is a bridge between worlds. Middle ages of history stand as bridges between world-historical hegemonies — such as the hegemony of Mesopotamia in the ancient world, the hegemony of Rome and China in the classical world, and the hegemony of Britain and, then, America in the modern world. Mesopotamian empires collapsed around 1200 BCE, the ‘Bronze Age collapse’ in which archaeologists speculate ‘sea peoples’ invaded the old empires and brought about a marked drop in written records and civilisation in general. Such ‘dark ages’ are not necessarily all that dark; they are less centralised, but therefore potentially less violent if states lack the capacity to wage war. But violence, like power, almost always finds a way, and the reformation of state power occurs through violent processes towards the middle and end points of middle ages, which open with the violent collapse of the old state structures. When people talk of state brutality as ‘medieval’ they are not altogether mistaken, even though we are talking of the violence of the modern state, whose origins can be traced to the medieval period.

In Birth of the Leviathan, Thomas Ertman discusses how the modern state which Hobbes described was formed through centuries of turmoil in the later part of the European Middle Ages. The processes he describes, of Machiavellian struggle for power among various states and principalities and dukedoms, reminded me of a book about the prelude to the formation of the Roman Empire: Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome. In this text, A. M. Eckstein describes how the process of interstate war on which structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz (Man, the State, and War) and John J. Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) place so much emphasis leads to the formation of powerful new states such as Rome. Rome employed citizen-soldiers to defeat the mercenary-supplied empire of Carthage, all while building alliances with other Italic states and supplanting the old Mediterranean hegemonies of the Phoenicians and other trading states with formed following the Bronze Age collapse.

In middle ages, or medieval periods in international politics, competitive centralisation of power resulting from interstate war leads to the emergence of a new hegemony, such as the ‘sovereign state’ which emerged in the late-medieval period in Europe as a result of the confluence of war and trade, as described by Hendrik Spruyt in The Sovereign State and Its Competitors. This process serves as prelude to the events in Part VIII of Marx’s Capital, in which the medieval aristocracy is destroyed by the ‘evolution of trade’, while the peasantry is evicted from land enclosed by mercantile landlords, leading to the formation of an urban bourgeoisie and nascent proletariat, the masters and workers of modern industry. Commercial warfare among states was tied to class warfare within countries. As a result, the twin pillars of the modern state and capitalism emerged from the dual cycle of warring states and trading classes.

This process is hardly European in origin. Victoria Hui of the University of Notre Dame argues in War and state formation in ancient China and early modern Europe that the prelude to the formation of the Qin Dynasty and the imperial Chinese bureaucracy that lasts to this day occurred in a somewhat medieval period following the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty in the eighth century BCE. In the centuries that followed, war among states led to the decimation of the old aristocracy and the ascension of ‘new men’ such as Shang Yang who bequeathed Qin its distinctive legalist, even militarist, bureaucracy in 356 BCE. Akin to the reforms of the British state by ‘new man’ Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s CE, or the Napoleonic Code imposed on states conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century, these internal political changes increased the external geopolitical competitiveness of the state. As a result, Francis Fukuyama argues that the modern state began not in medieval Europe, but in ancient east Asia.

Wherever modern politics began, it is clear that middle epochs after the fall of an old empire and before the rise of a new hegemony are vital. The medieval foundations of modern politics were sown at many points in human history, the latest of which occurred following the collapse of the Roman Empire. The fact that this round of competition did not lead to a new continental empire, but rather to a system of competing nation-states, is puzzling. It is partially explained by the rise of capitalism, a systematic form of trade based on industrial growth, rather than simply agricultural productivity, serving to divide states by classes that were more mobile and unwieldy than their feudal predecessors. States had to pay more attention to their domestic economies than ever before, making international conquest costlier and less advantageous. As technology developed in this emerging international economy, the costs of warfare rose. But war still occurs, and states still hope to build empires, even if they don’t want to admit this to a judgemental international audience. Their chances of doing so are just much smaller than they once were.

In medieval Europe, the seeds of modern political thought were also sown, as the old Aristotelian philosophy bequeathed to the Middle Ages by Ancient Greece and Rome came under strain. The distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘artifice’ led to the idea that the king had ‘two bodies’: one natural, one artificial (Ernest H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study In Mediaeval Political Theology). Aristotelian Christianity was both revoked and realised in Hobbes’ modern political theory, which emphasised the artificial character of the sovereign state, ‘personated’ or performed by the sovereign representative, be they a king or democratic monarch of some description. Intellectual historian Christopher Brooke therefore refers to modern democracies as ‘reformed monarchies’ more than anything else, while political theorist David Runciman refers to representative democracy as deriving from the ‘proto-democratic’ theory in Hobbes’s absolutist monarchy. More darkly, in Ernst Fraenkel’s The Dual State, the early-modern Hobbesian polity is identified as the progenitor of the totalitarian state, in which power is divided between ‘normative’ natural law and ‘prerogative’ diktat of the sovereign leader. In Michel Foucault’s account of sovereign power, the source of modern ‘bio-politics’, or absolute power over life and death, is rooted in the chaos of the Middle Ages.

For Hobbes, the chief advantage of modern political order is that it suppresses chaos, at all costs. The costs are always acceptable so long as order is maintained and chaos avoided, for Hobbes. But the costs may themselves contribute to ‘political decay’, as Fukuyama puts it, in which peace comes under increasing strain, before it collapses. If chaos is finite and limited by order, so is order bounded by and constrained by chaos. These are two sides of a cosmological coin; and they are not mutually exclusive. If chaos is a ladder and order involves kicking down the ladder from whence you ascended, who is to say another ladder will not be raised to challenge the king in his high castle? The stable Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Europe involved acceptance of authority, but the chaos of the early-modern world led to the gradual rise of a new Darwinian science in which there was no higher moral guarantee of historical progress; only the guarantee of more anarchy between ruling authorities, which survived only insofar as they adapted to the evolutionary anarchy around them. An empire is only as strong as its borderlands. A pack of wolves is only as fast as its weakest member. A state is only as strong as its most fragile institution. One domino falls, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

But there is security in complexity. The fragile order of the Middle Ages lasted for a millennium, purely because there was no-one around to challenge the order with an alternative. Today, capitalism has no alternative, with the defeat of the phantom menace of state socialism, and the demonic forces of totalitarian fascism. The new middle Earth, or Terra, is fraught by new terrestrial terrors from the subterranean deep. We have not yet confronted our medieval heritage, and now find ourselves in an age of religious revivalism, as the Enlightenment philosophy of science is coming under increasing scrutiny as technological development seems to enter a stop-start period of decay. The prospects of revival are few and far between, and it is tempting to predict a new dark age, akin to the Mad Max world of post-apocalyptic resource wars. More darkly, it is unlikely that such a hellish purgatory would come to an end any time soon. An eternal middle age is the scenario almost everyone would want to avoid. But as the Prisoner’s Dilemma in modern economics shows, the fact that we are each of us unaware of one another’s intentions means that we are likely, through sheer dint of fear and self-interest, to make decisions that alienate all our interests, resulting in the mutually destructive scenario of decay and collapse of this civilisation we took so long to build.

If there is a hope of revival, it is not in reviving the middle age game of thrones, but in accepting reality for what it is: a game of snakes and ladders, in which revival is just as likely as relapse. Just don’t count on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s