Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

VII
POLITICS IN THE AGE OF THE RENAISSANCE

William J. Bouwsma

In view of the difficulties that confronted the peoples of western Europe following the breakdown of the Roman imperial system, the Middle Ages' political achievement was impressive. The theoretical unity of Christendom gave to European society an ideal form; the practical tasks of government, notably protection against violence, were the responsibility of innumerable local powers; and in certain regions a real beginning had been made at relating fragmented local governments into larger wholes under the superior authority of kings. Nevertheless, this structure was far from perfect, even by its own standards. Neither the universal institutions headed by the pope and the emperor, nor local agencies, nor kings, could assure order; indeed, uncoordinated and competitive, they often threatened the peace by their mutual struggles. In medieval society, furthermore, certain ingredients were lacking which the modern world has come to take for granted in the tasks of government. Sovereign states based on the common loyalty of substantial numbers of subjects, powerful enough for indefinite survival, with an effective machinery for the control of a large and well-defined territory, had not yet emerged; and until the ideal unity of Christendom had given way to a system composed of such states, the peculiar problems and conventions of international relations as we know them could not develop.

In the transition from medieval to modern politics, both in their practice and their theory, the period which is often rather vaguely described as the "age of the Renaissance" has long been assigned a major part. Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries the organization of society and the attitudes and ideas of Europeans about politics were transformed. The pressures of an increasingly complex world for more orderly government assisted ambitious rulers to develop more effective administration; and

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