The form of the state
THE STATE FRAMED the activities of landowners and peasants, the focus of most of this book. The resources and the capacity for political aggregation of each political system, the public arena it offered, determined the choices of aristocrats, indeed their very identity, everywhere. The local protagonism of each polity—the degree to which rulers and their officials were capable of, and interested in, local intervention, whether through ad hoc trouble-shooting or formal legal action—likewise framed the conflictual relationship between lords and peasants (and, for that matter, lords and lords, peasants and peasants), everywhere. What must be recognized at the outset, however, are the ways states could be different from each other. Far too much political narrative of the early middle ages homogenizes political structures, making all kings pretty much the same, whether they ruled a single English county or the whole of Francia, or whether they ruled Francia in the sixth or in the tenth century, or else assigns difference only to the changing attitudes of clerics to lay politics. It is a fundamental proposition of this chapter that the crucial division is in resources.
This chapter will distinguish between three sorts of polities. First, strong states, the Roman empire and its Byzantine and Arab successors, based on taxation and a paid army as an independent resource for political power. Second, weak states, above all the major Romano-Germanic kingdoms such as Frankish Gaul, Lombard Italy, and Visigothic Spain, with a landed army but also a strong sense of public power acting as a focus for political legitimation, inherited from the Roman world. Third, the pre-state systems of the northern world—in this book, the kingdoms of England, Wales, Ireland, and Denmark, where royal centrality was for a long time much more ad hoc, much more personal, even if in England and Ireland kings and lawyers could at least issue legal guides to how society should regulate itself. By 800 in England, and conceivably also in Denmark, some kings were wealthy and powerful enough to claim more political space than that, but we can still rarely say much about their resources, or how they operated on the ground. For this reason, this chapter will not discuss the third category of political systems; their problems are best seen in the context of wider discussions about aristocratic wealth, power, and political action, and they will be looked at in more detail in Chapter 6. Here, we will concentrate on