Town, village, church and king’s councils or parliaments in England and France; nearly everywhere in medieval Europe, we can see some form of shared or representative governance in operation. This means that people from many social and economic classes had some access to political, legislative, and judicial processes—and some idea of their collective right to have a say in these processes.
What Inspired America’s Constitution?
Although the framers of the United States Constitution are well known to have studied ancient Roman models of representative government and ancient Athenian ideas of democracy, they were more directly influenced by medieval institutions, particularly those that that had their roots in early English traditions, and in a long history of resistance to papal power within the Roman Church.
Two days after drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the founding of an independent federation of states in North America would honor “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we [have] assumed”. He even lobbied to have two of those chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, the legendary conquerors of Britain’s Celtic peoples, depicted on the Great Seal of the United States. He also opined that every free citizen should learn the Old English language, so as to better comprehend the medieval roots of American civic life.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Division of Powers
The later US Constitution’s division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government was very consciously borrowed from ancient Rome—specifically, from what the Greek historian Polybius tells us about the fledgling Roman res publica, the ‘public stuff’ or ‘matter’, which he personally observed for nearly two decades during the mid-2nd century BCE.
Polybius’ The Histories became a salient influence on Enlightenment political philosophy, directly inspiring Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748.
Yet, the actual laws and jurisprudence that formed the basis of the constitution and subsequent legislation were derived from medieval English common law. Moreover, the procedures for electing officials, judging cases, examining witnesses, and a host of other practices fundamental to modern governance were hammered out in various regions of medieval Europe over a long period of time.
What Established a Ruler’s Legitimacy
This gave rise to a shared notion that those holding power needed the consent of those over whom they ruled, and that granting a share in the decision-making process was a very effective way for a ruler to establish and maintain his legitimacy.
Indeed, those medieval institutions which refused to delegate authority or allow for participation in governance were ultimately challenged in ways so fundamental that they were either dismantled, like the French monarchy during the Revolution of the late 18th century; or decisively transformed, like the medieval Roman Church during the Reformation of the 16th century.
Support of Councils and General Assemblies
The earliest histories written by Germanic authors further illuminate the degree to which their kings respected and relied upon the support of their councils and general assemblies. When Christian missionaries arrived in England, in 597, King Æthelberht of Kent was careful to meet them always in the open air, in the sight and hearing of all, so that no decision about accepting a new religion could be made except by common consent.
According to the historian Bede the Venerable, writing in the early 8th century, King Edwin of Northumbria was also reluctant to embrace Christianity until he was persuaded to do so by his council. Although Bede insists on Edwin’s piety and personal conviction as the source for this policy, the king was clearly too fearful of taking such a step on his own. Instead, Bede depicts his own (pagand) priests and thanes argue for acceptance of the new faith.
The role and power of this council, or witan, was later strengthened and institutionalized by King Alfred the Great, who ruled the first loosely unified English kingdom in the late 9th century, and who promulgated its laws only with their express permission of his counsel.
No Deliberative Bodies for the Frankish Kings
Across the Channel, the early Frankish kings’ bloody inter-dynastic warfare suggests an absence of any real attempt to create stable, deliberative bodies; instead, rivals courted the favor of one faction or another.
As Einhard, a Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, asserted, “The Merovingian family, from whom the Franks commonly used to choose their kings … had long since been devoid of vital strength … There was nothing left for the king to do but be content to bear the name of ‘King’ … to sit upon his throne and play the ruler.” This was Einhard’s way of justifying the usurpation of the Frankish throne by Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, who had been a royal official—and who was not, therefore, a member of this royal family.
Betraying what was clearly a pervasive sense of unease over the sources of Charlemagne’s own legitimacy, Einhard goes on to say that Pepin’s claim had been validated by the pope in Rome, and so Charlemagne inherited this papal imprimatur. But he also quickly adds that “the Franks, in general assembly” had been the real mechanism by which a new Carolingian dynasty had secured its authority.
Common Questions about Medieval Governance
Thomas Jefferson lobbied to have two chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, the legendary conquerors of Britain’s Celtic peoples, depicted on the Great Seal of the United States.
While the US Constitution’s division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government was very consciously borrowed from ancient Rome, the actual laws and jurisprudence that formed the basis of the constitution and subsequent legislation were derived from medieval English common law.
When Christian missionaries arrived in England, in 597, King Æthelberht of Kent was careful to meet them always in the open air, in the sight and hearing of all, so that no decision about accepting a new religion could be made except by common consent.