Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Development and Decline of Medieval Voting Institutions: A Comparison of England and France

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Development and Decline of Medieval Voting Institutions: A Comparison of England and France

Article excerpt

Voting institutions developed throughout medieval Europe, but they varied significantly in their power, form, and durability. This paper attempts to explain why both feudal councils and representative voting institutions were more developed, more powerful, and more durable in medieval England than in France. In explaining these differences, we address several related questions within this historical setting: (1) what is the relationship between the power of rulers and the development of voting institutions? (2) how did war affect the development of voting institutions? (3) why did national voting institutions become dominant in England while regional institutions became more important in France? and (4) what were the consequences of the integration of judicial and tax granting functions in the English parliament, and their institutional differentiation (judicial functions in parliament and tax granting in the estates general) in France?

To answer these questions, we use a general rational choice model of the process by which an autocratic state will develop protodemocratic voting institutions (Barzel [1996]; Kiser and Barzel [1991]). We assume that rulers and subjects are rational actors maximizing a combination of wealth and security. We argue that voting institutions such as the English parliament and the French estates general emerged as an unintended outcome of wealth seeking by rulers and subjects. In the context of the middle ages, national voting institutions were mechanisms that allowed rulers and subjects to cooperate with each other on mutually profitable projects.

In spite of their utility, many of these institutions (including the French estates general) eventually declined. In our view, voting institutions declined primarily due to increases in factors that made cooperation more difficult. The two most important of these were the heterogeneity of voters' interests and the insecurity of rulers. Increasing heterogeneity weakened voting institutions by increasing decision costs and the probability of confiscation by some voters from others. Increasing insecurity of rule led to the decline of voting institutions by decreasing the credibility of rulers' commitments, decreasing the amount of contracting, producing a separation of tax payments and voting rights, and causing rulers to fear the organizational capacities of assemblies of subjects. The conflicts between rulers and subjects and between different groups of subjects can often be traced to increases in the heterogeneity of subjects' interests or the insecurity of rulers.

Our theory should apply generally, and it should thus be evaluated in as many diverse settings as possible. However, a large number of factors must be controlled in order to isolate the comparisons of interest. In comparing medieval England and France, many factors are controlled since they are common to the two, making it easier to isolate theoretically relevant factors. As tempting as it is to expand the empirical scope of the comparisons to additional cases, we refrain from doing so casually, and focus only on medieval England and France.(1)


Although general theoretical arguments about the evolution of voting institutions are rare, many scholars have offered inductive generalizations consisting of lists of structural factors correlated with the development of voting institutions in medieval Europe. Weber [1968, 1057, 1352] argues that medieval rulers bargained with subjects in voting institutions only when they lacked the power to coerce tax payments from them beyond their customary feudal obligations. He goes on to state [1968, 1086-87] that when rulers developed tax collection bureaucracies, they had the power necessary to extract taxes from subjects without negotiation, so they did away with voting institutions. Two major empirical observations from the domain of or study tend to refute Weber's argument. …

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