Saskia Sassen
Territory Authority Rights


Jan 5, 1949.
The Hague, Netherlands
Professor of Sociology and Economics

Territory, Authority, and Rights
in the Framing of the National

Territorializing Authority and Rights[Pages] 41-53

The modern concept of national territory was still far from being developed in the Middle Ages. For Gottmann (1973: 34) it was preceded in the medieval West by an acceptance of the concept of patria (fatherland). Kantorowicz (1957) finds the origin of a territorial element in the pro patria starting in the thirteenth century, when it seems to have been discussed by lawyers and philosophers, especially at the University of Paris. But it still had a strong association with community. By the fifteenth century territory and community begin to be associated with cities and a more material view. Tilly sees cities primarily as "containers" for the circuits of capital and states primarily as "containers" for means of coercion (1990: 51). Cities articulate two types of geography: first, a translocal urban network; second, a geography of centrality vis-a-vis a hinterland. A city accumulates surplus from the surrounding hinterland, which it can then distribute through the circuits of urban proto-capital (Harvey 1979). The state, with its means of coercion, can attempt to control this circulation to its own advantage, to pursue its own power projects both "internally" and "externally." In fact, for Tilly, this tension between state and capitalist power projects is fundamental for any understanding of the further development of state forms, and forms the basis of his distinction among capital-intensive, coercion-intensive, and capitalized-coercion path to state building. In the formation of both cities and states, we can discern the possibility of a specific formation of territoriality. Arrighi (1994), starting from the question of the formation of structures of the world system and not of individual states, gives another perspective on this contrast through his comparison of the capitalist logic of the Dutch and of the territorialist logic of the British hegemonies. It is interesting to recall (Greenfeld 1992: 97) that the notion of amore patria - patriotism - was a fundamentally Christian sentiment in the Middle Ages, both as heaven and as the land of one's birth, or more precisely the province or locality of one's birth. During the Middle Ages patria rarely designated the polity (Morrall 1980: 28).

What was to become a major innovation in the formation of boundaries and territoriality is a "three-cornered conflict" that appears profoundly unrelated to what was about to happen (Morrall). The empire positioned itself against the centralized authoirty of the papacy; the latter, in turn, wanted centralized authority as the only way to reform itself so as to ensure that local bishops and local secular clergy did not have too much power; and the ecclesia, which is to say the cities containing the bishoprics, wanted to preserve their autonomy from the papacy. Simplifying, we might say that the overarching tendency may well have been the push of the papacy for centralization of the papacy. "The Reformation ... ended the medieval struggle to organize the whole of western Christendom on the basis of a universally accepted interpretation of Christianity" (Morrall 1980: 136). Tilly (1990: 61) notes that, with the exception of northern Italy, "Protestant Reformation concentrated in Europe's city-state band, and at first offered a further base for resistance to the authority of centralizing states." This could also work in a monarch's favor: "Elsewhere (in the Netherlands) Protestantism provided an attractive doctrinal basis for resistance to imperial authority, especially authority buttressed by claims of divinely-sanctioned royal privilege. Confronted with the spread of popular Protestantism, a ruler had three choices: embrace it, co-opt it, or fight it" (Ibid). Because the pope and emperor each supported local particularistic forces that opposed their rival, Germany, which could count on the pope, and Italy, which could count on the emperor, went toward fragmentation rather than centralization. The papacy eventually turned to territorial rulers in its fight against the emperor. The weak French kings needed allies to pursue the unifying of their kingdoms against the far more powerful feudal lords, and they found them in the church and in the towns. In Germany, on the other hand, the need for domestic support led the kings to side with the nobility against the towns. The German kings curtailed the liberties of towns and surrendered Germany largely to the feudal lords, thereby diverging from the emerging pattern in France and England marked by the ascendance of territorial rulers. The split also formalized different modes of organizing and justifying rule. The papacy turned to canon law, while secular rulers invoked Roman law to justify their sovereignty.

For many scholars the eleventh century marks the establishment of feudalism. The estate had become a key framer for political and jurisdictional prerogatives. But it was also the beginning of a distinct phase of growth and consolidation in the European economy that brought about the ascendance of cities and city-states as core political economies in their own terms. Growth took off in the twelfth century, driven by the expansion of long-distance and local trade, as well as the associated monetization of economic transactions. It all fed the rise and proliferation of towns.

And it is the period when some of the key elements for the formation of territorial states came together. The economic transformations between 1000 and 1300 brought with them political innovations. Monetization, trade, and the growing wealth and numbers of towns altered the political organization of the times in that they weakened the system of in-kind transfers crucial to earlier feudal organization. The rise of towns was a key political event; for Pirenne (1956) the growth in size and in the number of towns is crucial to subsequent European development, as it is for Braudel (1979). It is also the period when territorial state sovereignty is invented, a type of state that for Wallerstein (1974), among others, is not a creation of the sixteenth century as is commonly asserted, but of the thirteenth century in western Europe. Yves Renouard (1958: 5-21) shows how the boundaries of France, England, and Spain were largely settled in a series of battles between 1212 and 1214. In addition it was at this time that the notion itself of boundaries was established. For Perroy this was the "fundamental change" in the political structure of Western Europe (1955: 369-70). He dates this transformation to mid-twelfth century and the beginning of the fourteenth, which is the height of the commercial and agricultural prosperity of the Middle Ages.

The crucial agents in producing these innovations were France's Capetian kings.... The Capetian kings eventually ascribed to themselves divinity and contested the authority of the papacy over them. It is then out of these self-apotheosized weak kings that the origins of the European sovereign territorial state can be traced. These kings succeeded in launching a territorial monarchic state that contested and then superseded the Christian commonwealth. By the time their dynasty ended they had claimed full authority over all inhabitants of the territory, within fixed boundaries, and held no claims beyond these. Poggi (1978: chapter 3) notes that the rise of towns had a destabilizing effect on the feudal system of rule, ultimately favoring the territorial ruler over the feudatory system of rule (42). As towns gained power, their dealings with the monarch through the Estates came to represent not personal relations between lord and vassal, but rather the relations between a territorial ruler and a region of the kingdom's territory. The member of the Estate or Parliament came to the king as a representative of the town, signifying the town's willingness "to associate with [the ruler] in those aspects of rule that were understood as characteristically public and general" (43-44). The calling of Estates in this emergent system began to lose its particular reference to personal relations between lord and vassal, and began instead to represent the territory to the monarch (46-51).

[...] these French kings arose out of a context at the end of the tenth century when feudalism was fully entrenched in France - that is to say, out of a context whose legitimating base was the superiority of warrior and priest; all others were inferior. At the time, power was often located at the level of the individual castle holder, down from the fifty-five dukes and counts (Barraclough 1984: 17); this decentralization was in turn strengthened by the localization of market exchange and legal procedures. Thus the kings achieved territorial centralization out of extreme disaggregation. What matters here is that these weak kings gained control over a highly fragmented territory that was to become France and, further, managed to impose the principle of territorial exclusivity despite powerful and multiple lords and against the still very powerful papacy.

Contained in this shift is another major move, albeit one with several twists: the move from personal rule to public authority, embodied in the repositioning of the king as the fountain of law. This shift is further embodied in the acceptance of the Capetian concept of the king's exclusive authority over goods and land at the very same time as decentralized and overlapping feudal authority patterns had reached their apex. In late medieval France the idea of sovereign authority became empowered and routinized. Skinner (1978) has posited that one precondition for the modern concept of the state is a distinct realm for politics separate from theology. The Capetian kings implemented key elements of this history-making state project, but they did so in good part by mobilizing medieval capabilities. They in fact needed the pope to gain legitimacy and resources, and when they contested the pope they invoked their own divine origins as a source of legitimacy.

[...] The period from 1050 to 1150 saw an enourmous transformation in the law of the church, with the pope claiming absolute jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters and full autonomy from secular authority in church matters. While it began earlier, it was Pope Gregory VII's assertion of supreme authority over the entire Western church and of the independence of the church from secular control that led to bloody wars over the next fifty years. Only in 1170, almost one hundred years after that declaration, were matters settled. This was a significant transformation, especially since it happened over a very short period of three generations (rather than, as has been commonly interpreted until recently, more gradually over ten centuries) (Berman 1983: part 1).

Strayer observes that this new concept of the church authority "almost demanded the invention of the concept of the State" (1970: 22) as a strong autonomous base for secular authority. In the late eleventh and twelfth centuries the church for the first time acquired a legal identity independent of emperors, kings, and feudal lords. It established a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts, as well as legal professionals and legal scholarship within the church. Berman observes that even though all of this was new, it was predicated on a preexisting community, the Christian commonwealth, which had taken shape in Europe between the fifth and eleventh centuries. [...]

The systemic positions of the various actors produced different outcomes. The Capetian kings in France could use the church in furthering their struggles with the nobility and in their interest in written, codified law. England fought the church through Thomas Beckett and (eventually) replaced the church, though it took time; yet, as Innis (2004: 55-56) observes, the divine right of the papacy was replaced by the divine right of the Parliament after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.

Incorporating the transformation of authority into the various institutional domains that constituted the social order was complex and conflictual. It included clashes on collective versus private property; personal rule and public authority; divine versus private property; personal rule and public authority; divine versus secular law; and the challenge of territorial rule to those aspiring to universal authority. Roman law was one source of legitimacy for authority; it had been so for Roman emperors and the late medieval kings, and emperors reappropriated this body of law to enhance their position (Berman 1983: part 1). As a body of law it was oriented to overriding localized interests without necessarily promoting universal claims.... The Capetians succeeded at constructing a mode of organization not based on personal ties or universal domination as did the church and the Holy Roman Empire. And they did it in opposition to feudal lords, some far more powerful than the original Capetian kings, as well as powerful actors such as the church (against whom the German emperor had failed). The later rise of the Estates (Standesstaatt) in much of Western Europe between the late twelfth and early fourteenth centuries further added an explicit territorial reference to the system of rule even as it confronted the king (Poggi 1978: 43-44, 48).

[...] Not really Frankish, [the Capetians] appropriated and utilized the Frankish legacy, allowing them to claim to be the legitimate descendants of the Frankish kings and emperors, and hence heirs to their traditional function of defenders of the church and the papacy.... The papacy - in need of the Capetian kings - eventually acquiesced and recognized that "God chose the kingdom of France among all other peoples" and also made the king head of the Christian army. While there were mutual interests that could sustain this arrangement for a time, eventually the claim of the king's superior authority led to the rupture with the papacy. The French kings did come to represent law as human, not divine, feeding into sovereign territorial rule and moving kingship away from ecclesiastical and into jurisprudential kingship - "Lex est Rex" (Kantorowicz 1957: 131ff). Out of these struggles came a crucial component for the ascendance of sovereign territorial states and Western law.

One of the critical organizational forms for the Capets' success arose from their administrative practices: a state bureaucracy geared toward taxation. [...]. The efficiency of a bureaucracy depends on the effectiveness of its taxation system, and vice versa (Braun 1975).


One important dynamic furthering the Capetian project of taxation was that from the twelfth century on, monetization once again became significant. New uses of money developed into an increasingly important source of revenue, and agriculture's share declined (Lyon and Verhulst 1967: 94). The king or great lords to whom service was due would accept money instead of service. As centralized authority developed, Philip the Fair established monetary rewards for various positions and pensions after service, thereby securing the interests of loyalty of middle- and lower-level nobility: it became an attractive source of employment. They performed administrative, judicial, military, and financial tasks for money, not for land.

But the monetization of revenue sources was a highly conditioned process. It was at this juncture that towns emerged as critical sources of revenue for the Capetian kings. These kings pursued a deliberate strategy of allying themselves with towns in their effort to centralize authority in the kingdom. Hence they were willing to offer towns better deals than some of the dukes or counts might. As kings solidified territorial gains, two tactics that worked well were chartering new towns and granting burghers in both old and new towns generous privileges and liberties (Hallam 1980: 136, 186). The expansion of towns produced a crucial infrastructure for the expanded monetization of transactions....

The fact that both kings and burghers had a strong vested interest in taxation was central to the Capetian success. The burghers in France were part of a very different trajectory from that which generated the bourgeoisie in England as a major force in industrial capitalism (Beaud 1981: 45-46). In subsequent centuries, the bourgeoisie was slow to develop in France and the state played an enormous role in industrialization. [...] standardized taxation was a welcome development, not to mention employment in the king's administration. Towns were interested in maximum independence, which meant they preferred the more rational, central administration of royal protection to that of lords (Tilly 1990). This eliminated cross-cutting obligations. Ecclesiastical lords were particularly disliked.

[...] the Capetians sent out provosts, who were field agents in charge of raising revenue, performing judicial functions, and keeping the peace. Interests of kings and provosts coincided because the income of the latter depended on what they collected. Both were keen to extend the taxable domain. ... around the latter part of the twelfth century... the kings tighten the administration, adding supervisors to oversee field agents and establishing bailiffs (or seneschals) in the more recently acquired areas of the kingdom (Baldwin 1986: 126).... at the start of the thirteenth century, ... a sharp expansion of the centralized bureaucracy... Bailiffs were permanently stationed in particular areas to enhance their ability to supervise.

[...] The growing wealth of towns made them attractive to kings, lords, and the church. This created incentives to allow the chartering of more towns, and it gave burghers bargaining power. Towns were granted specific protections, including better taxation arrangements - they were more institutionalized and regular, fitting the interests of burghers (Duby 1974: 225-28). And burghers began to make important political claims. Burghers formed communes, which were sworn associations of equals, taxes were increasingly paid by the town as a whole, and burghers began to negotiate for the right to self-assessment (Strayer 1980: 106; Berman 1983: chapter 12).

[...] The patterns evident in Germanic towns diverged sharply from those in French towns, and both diverged from those of Italian towns. English towns were in many ways the least autonomous. Yet in all cases towns emerged as significant actors in the formation of a distinct territorial regime.