The World Before the Treaty of Westphalia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, the terms of this peace treaty brought into being our present international order of divided sovereignty and balance of power. How did this come about?

A collection of different flags from sovereign countries.
Flags of different countries act as a symbol of sovereignty in our present world order.
(Image: VectorShop/Shutterstock)

Present World Order

Many people have a passport. They dutifully show it when they cross borders, but do they take a moment to stop and think about what it really means? In fact, that passport is visible proof of how our world is organized now—divided up into different territorial units. In this modern state system, at least theoretically, these units are sovereign, meaning that they possess their own authority: They have supreme and independent rights such as the right to control their territory. In this respect, states are equals on the international plane.

This is the world we know, and it sometimes almost seems like the natural or default mode of international organization: the sovereign state as a political powerhouse, the actor on the international stage. Indeed, this concept is written in the United Nations charter of 1945, which declares, “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all of its Members.”

But how did this international order come into being? This turning point came in the year 1648 at the end of the long and traumatic Thirty Years’ War in Europe, a war that itself came at the tail end of about a century of religious slaughter and warfare in the western Christian world.

The peace settlement that ended the Thirty Years’ War, called the Peace of Westphalia, pointed international politics in a new direction. This international order has been called the Westphalian system, denoting a system of sovereign states interacting with one another.

Now, very few people know what a Westphalian international system is, but it is worth thinking about what this means as, in fact, it’s one of the main turning points that has structured our world up to the present.

And this turning point in history was caused not by creative invention or discovery; rather, it was a turning point that came out of sheer exhaustion, the exhaustion of religious warfare. As a result, earlier appeals to religious authority in politics were downgraded, and, increasingly, the world appeared to be in a state of a shifting balance of power, instead of being subjected to one, overarching, universal authority.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

The Divine Authority of the Empires

Let us consider how the concept of authority had been understood before this point in Europe and the world. Much of earlier history is in contrast to our current model of divided sovereignties and divided authority. Instead, the ideal that had great appeal at the start of the modern age was that of universal authority, often expressed as an empire. For much of human history, empires have been more common forms of political organization than a nation-state or a republic.

For instance, China’s Ming empire, the ‘Central Kingdom’, was supposed to embody order and the mandate of heaven, and thus was seen as globally central and authoritative. Or the Roman Empire, surviving in the East, in Constantinople until 1453, continuing the glory that was Rome. So, in the European Middle Ages, authority was seen as divinely sanctioned and universal in its claims and reach. This link to the divine gave tremendous legitimacy.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Power Struggles between Religion and Kingdom

In this period, church and state were intertwined in Europe because both appealed to the same source of divine authority, and this would lead to conflicts. Two institutions in the Middle Ages, in particular, had shown this earlier: the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.

A map showing the religious density in central Europe, 1618.
The religious density present in central Europe, 1618, before the Treaty of Westphalia.
(Image: ziegelbrenner/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Church and the imperial state were intertwined in a vivid way that would be unfamiliar to us now: the emperor often controlled who became pope in Rome, while only a pope could crown a Holy Roman Emperor. Who would dominate in this relationship? Both sides sought to inherit the authority of the Roman Empire, which had expired in the West by 476.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, as part of one of those frequent movements for reform, a series of popes made large claims to temporal authority, creating what has been called essentially a papal monarchy. For instance, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII had announced that “the Roman church was founded by God alone”, and that only the pope “can with right be called universal”.

And he went on to claim that the pope had the right to depose the emperor. These claims led to the so-called Investiture Controversy with the Holy Roman Emperor, in which ultimately the emperor backed down, but not very sincerely.

In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church was at the very height of its political and secular power. When new monarchies arose to challenge that power, especially the king of France, Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 announced a ringing assertion of papal power in the papal bull labeled Unam Sanctam. He declared, “the temporal authority ought to be subject to the spiritual power”, and, “if the earthly power errs, it shall be judged by the spiritual power”.

Ironically, this expansive statement came just at the point when the pope’s position had become untenable and French soldiers soon arrested the pope. Later popes were pressured to rule under French supervision in Avignon.

Rival popes claimed authority as well, and, at one point there were three rival popes at once. Such scenes did much to damage the political credibility of the papacy.

Learn more about the emergence of a Christian church.

Power Struggles between Different Kingdoms

The Holy Roman Empire had its own claims and its own problems as well. This institution had been founded when Charlemagne was crowned by a pope in Rome in the year 800 to revive the glories of the Roman Empire in the West. The name “Holy” in the Holy Roman Empire conveyed the spiritual power that was ascribed to this Christian empire. Theoretically, thus, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was to have primacy over all other kings and princes in the rest of Christendom.

Symbolically, yes, but, in practice, the Holy Roman Empire had weakened and weakened, shrinking in its borders to mostly just the German lands. The throne of the empire was not hereditary but rather an elected office, which gave power to the nobles who periodically elected the emperor.

At a time when kingdoms like England, France, and Spain were trying to centralize, the Holy Roman Empire remained a feudal jumble of overlapping and multiple principalities, many of them tiny in size. There were more than 300 of these units.

An illustration of the soldiers advancing on a fortress.
The religious wars engulfed Europe during the first half of the 16th-century. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Holy Roman Emperor could make vast symbolic claims to authority in Europe, but those claims were hard to enforce with that kind of power base.

In contrast to the papacy and the empire, in the early modern period, monarchs of new centralizing kingdoms were on the rise, and they were not shy about reaching for religious legitimation themselves. The monarchs of Spain called themselves the ‘Most Catholic’ monarchs. The kings of France called themselves the ‘Most Christian’ monarchs, and the English kings were known as the ‘Defenders of the Faith’.

Add to this mix the explosive impact of the religious division of Christians in Europe with the Reformation and the conditions were rife for the Thirty Years’ War.

Common Questions about Our World Before the Treaty of Westphalia

Q: Why was the Treaty of Westphalia a turning point?

The Treaty of Westphalia was a turning point because it developed Europe’s ability to live with religious diversity. It also led to the sovereignty of states, which kept the peace by maintaining a balance of power.

Q: What was the outcome of the Thirty Years’ War?

The outcome of the Thirty Years’ War was the Treaty of Westphalia, which recognized the full territorial sovereignty of the member states of the empire. It also led to secularism and the sovereignty of states by paving the way for the creation of modern nation-states.

Q: Why was there a conflict between the Church and the imperial state?

Both the Church and the imperial state believed that they had the divine authority. This belief led to frequent clashes between the pope and the emperor.

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