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Feudalism to Sovereignty: The Emergence of the Modern State


The state is considered the main actor in international relations.  But the concept of the modern state does not emerge overnight. It is a Step by Step developing process from the ancient city-state to the modern state. There is so much difference between just “the state” and the modern state. Generally, an ideal state must have 1)territory, 2) population, 3) government and 4) sovereignty.  But a modern state requires a fifth component known as 5) recognition by other states to be fully categorized as a state (Devetak, 2007). In this writing, we try to look at what was the feudal system in medieval Europe, how the concept of sovereignty emerged and why the modern state was inevitable through many processes and events.


Mediaeval Europe was markedly different from today’s European states. The word “feudalism” was first used in the nineteenth century although the feudal system had practised in mediaeval Europe approximately from 800 AD to the fifteenth century AD. Feudalism was the dominant social system in Medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection. There were four folds of social classes; king, lords, knight and peasant (Chengdan, 2010). Joseph Strayer 1935, identified three main features of feudalism, although there were many characteristics of the feudal system in terms of socio-economic condition, religious variation, taxation and so forth. According to Joseph Strayer, the medieval feudal system was;

  1. The fragmentation of political power
  2. Public power in private possessions
  3. Armed forces are secured through private agreements. (Devetak, 2007)

Generally, feudalism was built around a king or a monarch. But the king did not enjoy complete sway or control over his subjects, especially the lords. In a sense, every lord had complete control over the domain bestowed upon him by the king and had his own source of revenue by collecting taxes from the poor peasants. So, the king was constantly at the mercy of the lords especially when it came to wars with other nations and he did his best to keep them appeased. Due to this fragmentation of political power among many feudal lords, there was no all-encompassing political structure that would rule the whole country and ensure law and order, peace and prosperity.

This power privatization was inevitably led to anarchy at that time, as the lords even fought with other lords in the same country to amass more power and in some cases, to overthrow the king. In the mediaeval age, the whole of Europe was divided under many feudal lords who have territory and military but no external sovereignty and nationality (Elizabeth A. R. Brown). Feudal lords depended on Taxation and revenue collection was the main earning source of this system, in return, they ensure peasants’ security by patronizing a group of people. They exercise power upon their peoples but there was severe anarchy and outside threat. The situation was like a “war of all against all”[1].

The Concept of Sovereignty

This chaotic and anarchic situation of feudalism went for quite some time owing to the absence of supreme power and authority. This situation described Hobbes as a “state of nature” (Creveld, 1999) where everyone was in a “state of war” with one another with “supreme evil” reigning strong. This circumstance was like a jungle, where all had power and all are doing whatever they wanted without any adherence to restrictions and laws. Regarding this chaotic situation, for the first time, Frenchman named Jean Bodin (1576) fetched the idea of sovereignty in another word “absolutism”. His idea of absolutism was introduced in his book named “Six Books of the Republic”, he introduced the modern concept of sovereignty (Devetak, 2007). He argued that a king should be a supreme, perpetual and indivisible power who can make laws and have the monopoly of power over his territory and people. He advocated that there must be the highest power of command who has the right of using power. Although there was no supreme authority of power and making laws that’s why Bodin emphasis on supreme authority and ultimate power. That means a king has absolute power who can make law, exercise law without any accountability.

In 1652, another prominent philosopher, and English named Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) brought another revolutionary idea about sovereignty named “political obligation” theory and “social contract theory”. Hobbes rejected the idea of separating power that was existing in that era (Mingst, 1999).  He believed that all the powers of a state resided in the hand of the king and people should unconditionally agree to give up their “freedom” in return for ensuring their safety during internal and external threats. No one can be equal to a king, he is the only legitimate power who can make laws whenever he wants and exercise his power any time anywhere. Richard Devetak identified three main characteristics of the leviathan[1]; sovereignty means supreme and absolute power, the coercive power in the hand of the prince, and the last is “body politic” which means the state is like the natural human body (Devetak, 2007, p. 126).  

Protestant Reformation 

Till Martin Luther’s revolutionary “Ninety-Five Theses” against Pope Leo X of the Vatican for the controversial practice of “indulgences” (paying monetarily for sins in order to gain heaven) in 1517, the Pope and Vatican (Holy See) was the de facto ruler of all of Christendom in Europe. Every king or emperor needed legitimacy and blessing from the Pope in order to command complete obedience by his own people. In a literal sense, the king ruled by “divine right” i.e. all the powers of the king were bestowed upon him by God and none should challenge it except the Pope, who is the “God’s representative on Earth”. Inevitably, the state was ruled by the Bible. However, when a German priest named Martin Luther kick-started Reformation, calling for the end of “evil” practices by the Pope and Holy See (Vatican), the Vatican was swift to react.  It branded Luther and his followers as heretics and labelled them as “Protestants”.

There were many Kings and Dukes at that time in Europe who were disgusted with the superiority of the Pope in matters of politics. They were attracted by Martin Luther’s advocacy about the separation of the Church (Pope) from Politics (King). “The King was ordained not by any immortal (Pope), but God Himself” was the message that made the Kingdom of England, Prussia and several German Duchies into Protestant states. From there the whole of European society became divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Roman Catholics believed only in the interpretations of the Bible and recognized the Church as the only legitimate authority to exercise and make laws (Elias, 2007, p. 28). On the other hand, Protestants follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as transmitted through the Old & New Testaments. They believe that the Roman Catholic Church stemmed from the original Christian Church, but became corrupt.

Thirty Years War and the Culmination of Westphalian State

The Holy Roman Empire under the House of Habsburg were staunch supporters of Roman Catholicism and championed its beliefs. This made many of their subordinate Protestant Kings and Dukes uncomfortable as they didn’t agree with their “Catholic Emperor” in matters of religion. When the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Habsburg rule kickstarted in 1568 owing to the Dutch being Protestant and their Spanish rulers being Catholics, it was not until 1618 when entire Europe would get engulfed by the Thirty Years War between the Roman Catholic states (France, Spain and Holy Roman Empire) and Protestant states (German kingdoms and duchies, Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, Sweden and the Netherlands). Surprisingly, despite being Protestants, England decided to keep out of the “Christain” squabble for most of the Thirty Years the wars raged on. Amid utter chaos and state-wide destruction, around 4.8 to 8 million unarmed people lost their lives and numerous were wounded in this bloody war (Elizabeth A. R. Brown).

It became obvious during the early 1640s that the “War would ultimately become a stalemate” as none of the sides had attained complete domination and victory over each other. It was a very costly affair for the established Roman Catholic states like Holy Roman Empire, France and Spain who couldn’t obliterate their foes at land and sea. And with each passing day, the Protestant states were growing awry of their lack of public support due to chaos and destruction left behind by the war. Ultimately in the German free city of Westphalia in 1648, the sovereigns of the Roman Catholic and Protestant states decided to sign to “Treaty of Westphalia” to officially end the hundred years feud between them. The name of our platform “Rationibus” can be traced from the last line of the treaty. (Himmler and Katzenstein)

In Latin: “Hinc in omnes partes consentiant dissentire nulla fides teneat sanctitatem praestant hoc et unum spiritum rationibus.”

In English: “All the parties hereby agree that none of the faiths is superior to one another and shall hereby maintain the sanctity of the spirit of international relations.” 

In the academic discipline of International Relations, this treaty is considered as the time for being modern in the international arena. For the first time this treaty acknowledged some core revolutionary things;

  1. Recognition of territory
  2. Sovereignty
  3. Equality
  4. Most importantly separation religion from the state (Devetak, 2007, p. 125)

Though the modern state system is a new phenomenon outside of Europe the practice had started in Europe after this treaty (Stray, 2016). Before this treaty, there was no modern state concept for the lacking of defined territory and absolute sovereignty. In modern times, we can define a state which has four components; recognized territory, sovereignty, population and government. The last two elements existed in the medieval age in Europe but the most important first two were absent.

No doubt that the modern state system is a long historical developing process. After Westphalia, the progressive secularization and international law and the development of international organizations were started severely. For example, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the treaty of Versailles in 1919 and last but not least UN charter in 1946. Over time, the modern state evolved through facing many events after events. After world war two, decolonizing process and the democratization patronized by the UN and other western states the new world order had established. Now the state is the main actor both in the national and the international arena, it has sovereignty both internal and external, it is only legitimate power for making laws, establishing order, exercising coercive power, declaring war, signing a treaty and so forth (RINGMAR, 2018).


By the course of time, the concept of the modern state has developed and now a state has supreme authority for doing anything both in its country and the outside of it. Max Weber famously stated about the modern state “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” according to Weber (Rivera).

Separating religion from the state, recognizing internal and external sovereignty, making law and order within a state, equal rights of every country are the main elements of the modern state but the practice had started from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648.



Chengdan, Q. (2010). Transformation of European States: From Feudal to Modern. ScienceDirect, 2.

Creveld, M. v. (1999). The Rise and Decline of the State. Cambridge University Press.

Devetak, R. ( 2007). An Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Elias, P. S. (2007). International Relations. Routledge.

Elizabeth A. R. Brown. (n.d.). The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe. Jstor.

Mingst, K. (1999). Essentials of International Relations. W.W. Norton & Company.

RINGMAR, E. (2018). The Making of the Modern World. Retrieved from E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: https://www.e-ir.info/

Rivera, L. G. (n.d.). Territorializing the State. springer, 33.

Stray, J. R. (2016). On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton University Press.

Himmler, Herbert, and Peter Katzenstein. 2009. The Essence Of State-Building. 1st edition. Frankfurt: Droemer Knaur



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