Between the years 1100 and 1500 A.D. the state-system of Europe passed through changes amounting in their sum-total to a revolution. But the changes which endured, whether they affected political boundaries or constitutions, came about by slow instalments. At no stage of the development was there any general cataclysm such as had followed the dissolution of the Frankish Empire, and was to follow the advent of Napoleon. New ideas matured slowly in the medieval mind; by the twelfth century the forces making for social stability had grown until they balanced those of disruption; and it was only in the age of the Renaissance that the equilibrium was again destroyed. In the interim the vested interests of property and privilege, of religious and secular authority, presented a firm front to the anarchists and radicals. The Jacquerie in France and Wat Tyler's followers in England, the Albigeois of Languedoc and the Hussites of Bohemia, were overwhelmed by armies of conservatives spontaneously banded together in defence of the established order; - while this spirit prevailed among the ruling classes, there was little fear that a revolution of any kind would be effected by a sudden stroke. As in domestic politics, so too in international relations, these solidly established states were habitually inert, strong in defence, but irresolute and sluggish in attack. The age produced no conqueror to sweep through Europe like a whirlwind, because the implements of conquest on the grand scale had either been destroyed or had not yet come into existence. The peoples of Europe had emerged from the nomadic stage of culture, and they were not yet organised as so many armed camps. The feudal host was hard to mobilise, harder still to keep in the field, and at the best an unmanageable weapon; a standing army of mercenary soldiers would have called for taxation heavier and more regular than any ruler dared to demand, or any people could afford to pay. The wars of the Middle Ages have therefore, with few exceptions, a stamp of futility and pettiness. Ambitious enterprises were foredoomed to failure, and powers apparently annihilated by an invading host recovered strength as soon as it had rolled away. In short, on the European and on the national stage alike, medieval politics meant the eternal recurrence of the same problems and disputes, the eternal repetition of the same palliatives and the same plan of campaign. It is true that political science made more progress than the art of war. But substantial reforms of institutions were effected only in a few exceptional communities - in Sicily under the Normans and Frederic II, in England under Henry II and Edward I, in France under Philip Augustus and his successors. Even in these cases the progress usually consists in elaborating some primitive expedient, in developing some accepted principal to the logical conclusion. The more audacious innovators, a Montfort, an Artevelde, a Frederic II, were tripped up and overthrown as soon as they stepped beyond the circle of conventional ideas. It will therefore suffice for our present purpose to state in the barest outline the leading events of international politics, and the chief advances in the theory of government, which signalised the Middle Ages.

Extensive diplomatic combinations, though continually planned, seldom came to the birth and very rarely led to any notable result. The existence of some common interests was recognised; no power viewed with indifference any movement threatening the existence of the Papacy, which represented religious unity, or of the crusading principalities which formed the outer bulwark of Western Christendom; the principle of the Balance of Power, though not yet crystallised into a dogma, was so far understood that the inordinate growth of any single power alarmed the rest, even though they stood in no imminent danger of absorption. Therefore whenever the Empire gained the upper hand over the Church, whenever a new horde of Asiatics appeared on the horizon, whenever France seemed about to become a province of England, or Italy a province of France, the alarm was sounded by the publicists, and there ensued a general interchange of views between the monarchies; treaty was piled on treaty, alliance parried with alliance, as industriously as at any time in modern history. But the peoples seldom moved, and the agitation of the ruling classes effervesced in words. It is altogether exceptional to find two of the greater states uniting for the humiliation of a third, as England and the Empire united against Philip Augustus of France. Few medieval battles were so far-reaching in their consequences as Bouvines (1214), to which England owes her Magna Carta, Germany the magnificent and stormy autumn of the Hohenstauffen dynasty, France the consolidation of her long-divided provinces under an absolutist monarchy.

At ordinary times there were in medieval Europe two groups of states with separate interests and types of polity. They were divided from one another by a broad belt of debatable territory, extending from Holland to the coast of Provence - the northern lands of the Carolingian Middle Kingdom.

To the west lay the monarchies of the Iberian peninsula, of France, England, and Scotland; connected by their interest in the trade of the Atlantic seaboard, by a common civilisation in which the best elements were of French origin, but most of all by their preoccupation with the political questions arising out of England's claim to a good half of the territory of France. The rivalry of these two great powers, which dated in a rudimentary form from the Norman Conquest of England, became acute when Henry II, heir in his mother's right to England and Normandy, in that of his father to Anjou and Touraine, married Eleanor the duchess of Aquitaine and the divorced wife of Louis VII (1152). Developing from one stage to another, it alternately made and unmade the fortunes of either nation for four hundred years, until Charles VII of France brought his wars of reconquest to a triumphant conclusion by crushing, in Guyenne, the last remnants of the English garrison and of the party which clung to the English allegiance (1453). In the interval there had been sharp vicissitudes of failure and success: the expulsion of the English by Philip Augustus from Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, and Poitou; the capture of Calais and recovery of Aquitaine by Edward III and the Black Prince; the almost complete undoing of their work by Charles V and Bertrand Duguesclin; the union of the French and English crowns (1420), resulting from the victories of Henry V and the murderous feud of the Burgundian and Armagnac factions; the apparition of Jeanne d'Arc as the prophetess of French nationalism, and the regeneration of the French monarchy by a new race of scientific statesmen. All the West had been shaken by this secular duel. For Scotland it spelled independence, for Navarre the loss of independence; in Castile it set on the throne the new dynasty of Trastamare; to Aragon the result was the appearance of a new rival in Mediterranean commerce, the frustration of hopes which had centred round Provence and Languedoc, the imperilling of others which were fixed on Italy. With each successive triumph of French over English arms, the influence of France penetrated farther to the south and east; and by the marriages or military successes of princes of the French blood-royal, new territories were joined to the sphere of the western nations. Under St. Louis the counties of Toulouse and Provence became French appanages; his brother, Charles of Anjou, added to Provence the derelict kingdom of Naples; and Sicily only escaped from the rule of the Angevins by submission to the House of Aragon. After the victories of Charles V the Valois dukes of Burgundy, supported by the influence now of France and now of England, sketched the outlines of a new Middle Kingdom, stretching from the Jura to the Zuyder Zee, and chiefly composed of lands which had hitherto been attached to the Empire.

The eastern group of nations is widely different in character. It includes a greater number of states, even if we omit from the reckoning the great German principalities which were, by the end of the Middle Ages, all but sovereign powers; and it is less homogeneous in culture. The Empire forms the centre of the group, and round the Empire the minor states are grouped like satellites: on the west, Savoy and Provence; south of the Alps, Venice, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Sicily - the last-named independent until 1194, and the private property of the Hohenstauffen from that date till 1268; on the east the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia and Poland, and the Russian principalities; on the north the three Scandinavian powers. Large as it is, this group only includes one state of the first rank; for the Norman kingdom, though a masterpiece of constructive statesmanship, was important in European politics rather as a second and a makeweight than as a principal, and would have been more admired than feared but for the accidents which made the Norman alliance so valuable to the Holy See. When Naples and Sicily were held by German Emperors, the Empire towered like a colossus above the states of Scandinavia, the Slav and the Magyar. But even without this support, the Empire might have continued to dominate two- thirds of Europe, if the imperial resources had not been swallowed up by the wars of Italy, and if the Emperors who came after the interregnum had given the national interest priority over those of their own families. In fact, however, the mischief of the Mezentian union between Italy and Germany survived their separation; as in western so in central Europe, the course of political development was largely determined by the persistent and disastrous efforts of a Teutonic to absorb a Latin nationality. But whereas the English attacks on France were directly responsible for the growth of a French national state, the failure of Germany left Italy but half emancipated from the foreigner, and more disintegrated than she had been at any period in the past. And whereas England, by her failure, was reduced for a while to a secondary rank among the nations, the purely German Empire of the fifteenth century was still the leading power east of the Rhine. This was partly the result of calamities to neighbouring nations which could neither be foreseen or obviated. While Western Europe was shielded, in the later Middle Ages, from the inroads of alien races, Eastern Europe felt the impact of the last migratory movements emanating from Central Asia and the Moslem lands. In the thirteenth century the advance guards of the Mongol Empire destroyed the medieval kingdom of Poland, and reduced the Russian princes to dependence upon the rulers of the Golden Horde. In the fifteenth, the advance of the Turks along the Danube completed the ruin of the Magyar state, already weakened by the feuds of aristocratic factions. But, apart from these favourable circumstances, the resources of Germany were irresistible when they could be concentrated. Twice after the Great Interregnum the integrity of the Empire was threatened by the Bohemian kingdom. On the first occasion, when Ottocar II had extended his power into the German lands between Bohemia and the Adriatic, he was overthrown by Rudolf of Hapsburg at the battle of the Marchfeld (1278); and a new Hapsburg principality was formed out of the reconquered lands to guard the south-east frontier against future incursions of Czech or Magyar. On the second, when the Hussite levies carried their devastations and their propaganda into all the neighbouring provinces of the Empire (1424-1434), crusade after crusade was launched against Bohemia until the heretics, uniformly victorious in the field, were worn out by the strain of their exertions against superior numbers, and all the more moderate spirits recognised that such triumphs must end in the ruin and depopulation of Bohemia. The case was the same in the Baltic, where the struggle with Danish ambitions was left to the princes and the free towns. Waldemar II (1202-1241), who had planned to revive the Scandinavian Empire of the great Canute, the conqueror of England, saw his ambitious edifice crumble to pieces while it was still in the making; even the Union of Kalmar (1397), by which the crowns of Norway and Sweden and Denmark were vested in a single dynasty, could not save the rich prize of the Baltic trade from falling into German hands. Germany, even when ill-governed and a prey to the ambitions of provincial dynasties, was still grande chose et terrible, as more than one political adventurer learned to his cost. The energy, the intelligence and the national spirit of a great people made good all the errors of statesmen and all the defects of institutions.

Late in the fifteenth century the Germans were mortified to discover that, although a nation, they had not become a state. They found that the centre of political power had shifted westward, that the destinies of Europe were now controlled by the French, the English and the Spaniards. These nations had perfected a new form of autocracy, more vigorous, more workmanlike in structure, than any medieval form of government. Germany in the meanwhile had clung to all that was worst and feeblest in the old order; her monarchy, and the institutions connected with it, had been reduced to impotence. The same process of decay had operated in the minor states of the eastern group. In Scandinavia, in Hungary, in the Slavonic lands, the tree of royal power was enveloped and strangled by the undergrowth of a bastard feudalism, by the territorial power of aristocracies which, under cover of administrative titles, converted whole provinces into family estates and claimed over their tenants the divine right of unlimited and irresponsible sovereignty. To investigate all the reasons for the political backwardness of these eastern peoples would carry us far afield. But one reason lies on the surface. Outside the free towns they had produced no middle class; and their towns were neither numerous nor wealthy enough to be important in national politics. They were not even represented in the national assemblies. In consequence the sovereigns of these states were obliged to govern by the help of aristocratic factions; to purchase recognition by the grant of larger and larger privileges; and for the sake of power to strip themselves of the resources which alone could give their power any meaning. But good government in the Middle Ages was only another name for a public-spirited and powerful monarchy. Such monarchies existed in the western states; they rested upon the shoulders of a middle class of small landowners and wealthy merchants, too weak to defend themselves in a state of nature, a war of all against all, but collectively strong enough to overawe the forces of anarchy.

It may seem strange that this class, which desired strong government for purely practical and material reasons, should uniformly have accepted hereditary kingship as the one form of government practicable in a large community. Even where there was the warrant of tradition for recourse to free election, the better governed states preferred that the supreme power should pass automatically from father to son. The explanation is to be found in the motives which prompted the Athenians, under widely different circumstances, to choose their magistrates by lot. The grand danger, to be avoided at all costs, was that a disputed succession would leave the daily work of government in abeyance and open the door for destructive party-conflicts. If continuity and stability of government were assured, all would go well. The work of a ruler was not supposed to demand exceptional abilities; he existed to do justice, to secure every man in the possession of his own, to apply the law without respect of persons. For these purposes a high sense of duty was the main requisite. The wisest heads of the community would be at the king's service for the asking; he could hardly go wrong if he heard attentively and weighed impartially the counsel which they had to offer. Admitting that he would be all the more efficient for possessing some practical capacity, some experience of great affairs, was it not probable that a man of average intelligence, who had been trained from his youth to fill the kingly office, would acquit himself better than some self-made adventurer of genius, who had paid more attention to the arts of winning place and popularity than to the work that would be thrown upon him when he reached the goal of his ambition? When we further recollect that hereditary kingship was sanctioned by use and wont, was the most intelligible symbol of national unity, and possessed as of right all the prerogatives which were necessary for effective government, it is no wonder that even those to whom doctrines of popular sovereignty and a social contract were perfectly familiar acquiesced contentedly in a form of government which the modern world regards as unreasonable and essentially precarious.

But a monarchy, however energetic, however public-spirited, was powerless until based on the firm foundations of an organised executive, an expert judicature, and an assembly representative in fact if not in form. No medieval state was so uniformly fortunate as Germany in finding kings of exceptional character and talent. Yet Germany, from the beginning to the end of the Middle Ages, was badly governed. This was not due solely to the circumstance that the German monarchy was in principle elective. It is true that the German crown was often purchased by ill-advised concessions; but a greater source of weakness was the inability of the Emperors to make the most of the prerogatives which they retained, and which the nation desired that they should exercise. Imperial justice was dilatory and inefficient because the imperial law court followed the Emperor; because the professional was liable to be overruled by the feudal element among the judges; because the rules of procedure were uncertain and the decisions based not upon a scientific jurisprudence but on provincial custom. The Diet of the Empire was weak, both in deliberation and as a legislature; because the towns and the lesser nobility had no respect for resolutions in framing which they had not been consulted. The executive was necessarily inefficient or unpopular; because the highest offices were claimed as a right by princes who, if laymen, owed their rank to the accident of birth or, if ecclesiastics, could only be good servants of the State by becoming unworthy servants of the Church. The Emperor who confided in his natural counsellors was ill-served; and if he relied upon new men, selected solely for their loyalty and qualifications, he incurred the reproach of tyranny or submission to unworthy favourites. The evils thus rooted in the German constitution had existed at an earlier date in France and England. To eradicate them was the object of the constitutional changes devised by the Plantagenets in England, by the later Capetian kings in France. And in essentials there is a strong likeness between the work of the two dynasties. But in England the policy of construction was earlier adopted, proceeded more rapidly, and produced an edifice which was more durable because established on a broader basis.

The first stage of the policy was to organise the administration of those parts of each kingdom which, not having been absorbed in privileged fiefs, were still subject to the royal justice and contributory to the royal revenue. Owing to the foresight of William the Conqueror, there were few such fiefs in England; only in two palatine earldoms (Durham and Cheshire), on the Welsh and northern borders, and on the lands of a few prelates, was the king permanently cut off from immediate contact with the subject population. With these exceptions the face of England was divided into shires, and administered by sheriffs who were nominees of the Crown, dismissable at pleasure. The shires again were divided into hundreds governed under the sheriff by subordinate officials. But for the most important duties of executive routine the sheriff alone was responsible; he collected the revenue, he led the militia, he organised the Watch and Ward and Hue and Cry which were the medieval equivalents for a constabulary; finally, he presided over the shire moot in which the freeholders gathered at stated intervals to declare justice and receive it. The shires were periodically visited by Justices in Eyre (analogous to the Frankish missi) who heard complaints against the sheriff, inspected his administration, tried criminals, and heard those civil suits (particularly cases of freehold) which were deemed sufficiently important to be reserved for their decision. These itinerant commissioners were selected from the staff of the royal law court ( Curia Regis), a tribunal which, in the thirteenth century, was subdivided into the three Courts of Common Law and acquired a fixed domicile at Westminster. The shire courts and the royal court were alike bound by the statute-law, so far as it extended; but, in the larger half of their work, they had no guides save the local custom, as expounded by the good men of the shire court, and the decisions recorded on the rolls of the royal court. From the latter source was derived the English Common Law, a system of precedents which, in spite of curious subtleties and technicalities, remains the most striking monument of medieval jurisprudence. In and after the fourteenth century it was supplemented by Equity, the law of the Chancellor's court, to which those suitors might repair whose grievances could not be remedied at Common Law, but were held worthy of special redress by the king in his character of a patron and protector of the defenceless. Lastly, on the fiscal side, the work of the sheriffs and of the judges was supervised by the Exchequer, a chamber of audit and receipt, to which the sheriffs rendered a half-yearly statement, and in which were prepared the articles of inquiry for the itinerant justices. Originally a branch of the Curia Regis and a tribunal as well as a treasury, the Exchequer always remains in close connection with the judicial system, since one of the three Courts of Common Law is primarily concerned with suits which affect the royal revenue. Such was the English scheme of administration, and mutatis mutandis it was reproduced in France. Here the royal demesne, small in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was enormously enlarged by the annexations of Philip Augustus and the later Capets, who brought under their immediate control the larger part of the Angevin inheritance, the great fiefs of Toulouse and Champagne, and many smaller territories. To provide for the government of these acquisitions, there was built up, in the course of the thirteenth century, an administrative hierarchy consisting of provosts, who correspond to the bailiffs of English hundreds, of baillis and senechaux who resemble the English sheriffs, of enqueteurs who perambulate the demesne making inspections and holding sessions in the same manner as the English Justices in Eyre. All these functionaries are controlled, from the time of St. Louis, by the Chambre des Comptes and the Parlement, the one a fiscal department, the other a supreme court of first instance and appeal. Within the Parlement there is a distinction between the Courts of Common Law and theChambre des Reqeutes which deals with petitions by the rules of Equity.

The vices of both systems were the same. The local officials were too powerful within their respective spheres; neither inspectors nor royal courts proved adequate as safeguards against corruption and abuses of authority, which were the more frequent because the vicious expedients of farming and selling offices had become an established practice. Otherwise the English system was superior to that of France, particularly in making use for certain purposes of local representatives as an additional check upon the servants of the Crown. The English shire was in fact as well as in law a community with a true corporate character (communitas), and possessed a public assembly which was a law court and a local parliament in one. Though the ordinary suitor counted for little, the secondary landowners, united by ties of local sentiment and personal relationship, took a lively interest and an active share in the business of the shire court, upholding the local custom against sheriffs and judges, serving as jurors, as assessors of taxes, as guardians of the peace, and (from the fourteenth century) as petty magistrates. Whether elected by their fellows or the nominees of the Crown, these functionaries were unpaid, and regarded themselves as the defenders of local liberty against official usurpations. In France the district of the bailli, and still more that of his subordinate the prevot, was an arbitrary creation, without natural unity or corporate sentiment; there was therefore no organised resistance to executive authority, and no reason why the Crown should court the goodwill of the landed gentry. In the lower grades of the Plantagenet system a powerful middle class served a political apprenticeship; under the Capets all power and responsibility were jealously reserved to the professional administrator. In England the next step in constitutional development, the addition to the national assembly of a Third Estate, was brilliantly successful, since the House of Commons was chiefly recruited from families which had long been active partners in local administration. In France the Third Estate, though constantly summoned in the fourteenth century, proved itself politically impotent.

Both in France and in England (after 1066) the national assembly began as a feudal council, composed of the prelates and barons who held their lands and dignities directly from the Crown. But that of France was, before the twelfth century, seldom convened, sparsely attended, and generally ignored by the greater feudatories, a conference of partisans rather than a parliament. In England the Great Council of the Norman dynasty, inheriting the prestige and the claims of the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, held from the first a more respectable position. Even a William I or a Henry II scrupulously adhered to the principle of consulting his magnates on projects of legislation or taxation; under the sons and grandson of Henry II the pretensions of the assembly were enlarged and more pertinaciously asserted. The difficulties of the Crown were the opportunity of Church and Baronage. The Great Council now claimed to appoint and dismiss the royal ministers; to withhold pecuniary aid and military service until grievances had been redressed; to limit the prerogative, and even to put it in commission when it was habitually abused. In fact the English nobility of this period, thwarted as individuals in their ambitions of territorial power, found in their collective capacity, as members of the opposition in the Council, a new field of enterprise and self-aggrandisement. In France there was no such parliamentary movement, because the fundamental presupposition of success was wanting; because it was hopeless to appeal to public opinion, against a successful and venerated monarchy, in the name of an assembly which had never commanded popular respect. Under these circumstances it was natural that very different consequences should ensue in the two countries, when the reformation of their national assemblies was taken in hand by Edward I and his contemporary, Philippe le Bel. The problem before the two sovereigns was the same - to create an assembly which should be recognised as competent to tax the nation. The solutions which they adopted were closely alike; representatives of the free towns were brought into the Etats Generaux, of free towns and shires into the English Parliament; in each case a Third Estate was grafted upon a feudal council. But the products of the two experiments were different in temper and in destiny. The States General, practically a new creation, neither knew what powers to claim or how to vindicate them. They turned the power of the purse to little or no account; they discredited themselves in the eyes of the nation by giving proofs of feebleness and indecision in the first great crisis with which they were called to deal, the interregnum of anarchy and conspiracy that ensued upon the capture of King John at Poitiers (1356). The result was that the States General, occasionally summoned to endorse the policy or register the decrees of the monarchy, remained an ornamental feature of the French constitution. In England, on the other hand, the Commons accepted the position of auxiliaries to the superior Estates in their contests with the Crown; and the new Parliament pursued the aims and the tactics of the old Great Council, with all the advantages conferred by an exclusive right to grant taxation. For more than two hundred years it was a popular assembly in form and in pretension alone. The most active members of the Lower House were drawn from the lower ranks of the territorial aristocracy; and the Commons were bold in their demands only when they could attack the prerogative behind the shield of a faction quartered in the House of Lords. But the alliance of the Houses transformed the character of English politics. Before Parliament had been in existence for two centuries, it had deposed five kings and conferred a legal title upon three new dynasties; it had indicated to posterity the lines upon which an absolutism could be fought and ruined without civil war; and it had proved that the representative element in the constitution might overrule both monarchy and aristocracy, if it had the courage to carry accepted principles to their logical conclusion.

Even in England a medieval Parliament was scarcely a legislature in our sense of the word. Legislation of a permanent and general kind was an occasional expedient. New laws were usually made in answer to the petitions of the Estates; but the laws were framed by the King and the Crown lawyers, and often took a form which by no means expressed the desires of the petitioners. The most important changes in the law of the land were not made, but grew, through the accumulated effect of judicial decisions. The chief function of Parliaments, after the voting of supplies, was to criticise and to complain; to indicate the shortcomings of a policy which they had not helped to make. Except as the guardians of individual liberty they cannot be said to have made medieval government more scientific or efficient. In the fifteenth century the English Commons criticised the government of the Lancastrian dynasty with the utmost freedom; but it was left for Yorkist and Tudor despots to diagnose aright the maladies of the body politic. Englishmen and Frenchmen alike were well advised when, at the close of the Middle Ages, they committed the task of national reconstruction to sovereigns who ignored or circumvented parliamentary institutions. A parliament was admirable as a check or a balance, as a symbol of popular sovereignty, as a school of political intelligence. But no parliament that had been brought together in any medieval state was fitted to take the lead in shaping policy, or in reforming governmental institutions.