Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800-1800

Article excerpt

Empire and Order.' The Concept of Empire, 800-1800. By James Muldoon. (NewYork: St. Martin's Press. 1999. Pp. viii, 209. $65.00.)

This helpful work of synthesis-a short book on a vast topic, as the author says-distills into a readily accessible form a considerable body of earlier technical scholarship in the field. Some readers may be surprised but medievalists will rejoice that the book is mainly concerned with the centuries before 1500 and that within that period the author pays particular attention to the works of the medieval canonists. Their complex writings, mostly known only to specialists, do indeed present the most interesting and varied discussions on medieval concepts of empire.

At the outset, the author criticizes a common assumption about the transition from medieval to early modern forms of government. In the medieval world, according to this view, an ideal of universal empire-ecclesiastical or secular-coexisted with a reality of extreme political fragmentation. In contrast, the early modern period saw the emergence of separate states with effective centralized governments but without pretensions to universal jurisdiction. An underlying argument of Muldoon's book is that this contrast between empire and state is too simplistic. The idea of universal empire was contested in the Middle Ages, and the early modern period saw the rise of great new empires.

The author emphasizes that there was not just one idea of empire in the Middie Ages but several. From a high papalist point of view the empire was an office within the Church, deriving its authority from the pope. For the German emperors it was essentially a title to rule Germany and Italy, derived from God through election by the princes. …