Modern State 1.0 (the confessional state)

Note: This semester in my Western Civ classes, I tried to emphasize more about the development of the modern, centralized state. I tried to explain it in three stages, 1.0 (the confessional state), 2.0 (the nation-state), and 3.0 (the welfare state). I’m posting my slightly edited explanations here to get feedback on how accurate and helpful this history is.

You might wonder why there’s a software reference in the title of this term, especially from a history professor who knows next to nothing about software. Here’s why: we will be studying different stages of the “modern state” this semester, and this is the first.

Another quick note is that “confessional” in this context refers not confessing one’s sins to God or someone else, but to confessing a certain religious belief. After the breakup of the Western Christian church in the 1500s, leaders of various Christian groups wrote documents, often called “confessions,” that explained what their group believed and what they they did not. The Augsburg Confession (Lutheran) and the Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed or Calvinist) are two of many examples.

The pre-modern state: Of course, political life existed before the modern state. Medieval kingdoms were often patchworks of regions with local laws, privileges, identities, and traditions. Nobles often could govern their local regions and even maintain armies and fight wars. As I explained when discussing the three estates, rights came from one’s membership in a group. Two examples from France given by Michael Burger illustrate this. The city of Béarn in France was exempt from the salt tax, and nobles and clergy in France were exempt from the taille, which was an income or property tax (depending on the region) and the most important tax levied by the king.

Characteristics of Modern State 1.0: We have already noted that one of the reasons for the Crisis of the 17th Century was that kings did not accept this state of affairs, and wanted to impose their authority throughout their entire kingdoms. For example, Louis XIV told the city of Béarn that it had to pay the tax, and sent troops to force them to comply. As Michael Burger writes, this illustrates how taxes funded the more expensive royal armies of the time, and the royal armies also allowed kings to force their subjects to pay the taxes.

Here are the main characteristics:

1. Centralized power: the modern state is a clearly defined territory with a central government that aspires to exercise supreme political power throughout that territory. The nobles and church were clearly subordinated to central government, even if they had their own rights.

The most important powers for these states were the power to collect taxes, enforce laws, and have control of the military and war. This last was critical: few if any monarchs would want to allow nobles to maintain armies and fight each other.

2. A confessional state: as noted before, all European countries had an official church. According to William Cavanaugh, in the 1500s and 1600s, political and religious authorities often cooperated to standardize the religious beliefs and practices of the people of their kingdom, hoping that people would become better Christians and better subjects. This meant sending church and state officials to check in on local churches. This also meant trying to replace at least some local traditions with practices approved by the central authorities.

3. New justifications for the power of governments: the institutional breakup of the Christian church and the political-religious debates and wars that followed, some political thinkers offered new explanations for why governments could hold power.

One idea was divine right absolutism, which meant that the king ruled and was accountable only to God. Louis XIV of France was the most famous ruler to claim this power, but many absolutist rulers did so. This week, you will read an excerpt from Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s Political Treatise that defined and defended divine right monarchy.

Another was secular natural law theory, which said that there were certain laws of nature that governed politics. Because of the divisions in the church, writers in this school of thought tried to use nature rather than the Bible or church teachings as their foundation so that they could have a basis on which everyone could agree. For example, Hugo Grotius even argued that people had certain “natural rights” that governments had to respect. These natural laws and rights were said not to be based on any religious authority at all, but only on nature. Natural law theory did not tend to be adopted by rulers, who usually preferred religious justifications for their power in this time.

Some governments did not seem to use either of these. As far as I understand it, constitutional monarchies like England and Poland were based on traditional notions of rights that certain groups had that the king could not violate, along with new agreements like those spelled out in the English Bill of Rights. I’m not aware of the justification for the Dutch Republic’s form of government.

Absolute monarchy and constitutionalism: In Chapter 16, you will read about both absolute monarchies and constitutional forms of government. Modern, confessional states could be either absolutist or constitutional.

Absolute monarchs claimed to have all political power in their kingdoms. As Kagan, Ozment, and Turner point out, they could do all of the things that the centralized governments of the time could do: make war, collect taxes, control the economy and church, and pass laws. The famous (supposed) statement by Louis XIV is a nice summary: “I am the state.” It’s important to remember, though, that absolute monarchs did not have the kind of power that modern dictators like Hitler or Stalin had over their people. The technology did not exist to give them that kind of power.

Constitutionalism meant that power was somehow divided. In a constitutional monarchy like England or Poland, kings shared power with Parliament (in England) and the Sejm (in Poland). In the Dutch Republic, the Estates General elected the stadholder as an executive power. Constitutionalism came only after a struggle between Parliament and kings who wanted to be absolutists.


Burger, The Shaping of Western Civilization

Hunt et al.., The Making of the West

Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage

Huppert, After the Black Death

Strayer, The Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence

Wiesner-Hanks, Wheeler, and Ruff, Discovering the Western Past


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