The Early Medieval State

Looking at Early Medieval States from a strategic-relational aspect reveals the inner workings of the politics of land, grants, charters and gift-giving, establishing hegemonies.

The Early Medieval State: A Strategic-Relational Approach
Álvaro Carvajal Castro, Carlos Tejerizo-García
First published: 01 December 2022
Journal of Historical Sociology


After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, a handful of successor kingdoms took over, of which a few gradually succeeded in establishing themselves as proper “states” or “polities”, that is, organised societies taking the form of political entities.

However, the question remains: how should we understand these states or polities, which remain contested concepts in the historiography of early medieval societies? A newly published overview by Álvaro Carvajal Castro and Carlos Tejerizo-García from the University of Salamanca takes their point of departure from the thinking of the political scientist Bob Jessop, who launched the idea that a state is not an entity with certain institutional features but constitutes of a set of relations coordinating different social interests carried by different persons active in a specific social field.

In the paper, the historians contend that a richer conceptualisation of the state can overcome the limits of the debate as it has been framed so far and provide a deeper insight into how social relations shaped and were shaped by the development of early medieval polities.

After reviewing the most significant historiographical contributions to the debate, the paper introduces the Strategic-Relational Approach to the state, as formulated by B. Jessop (Jessop, B. (2007) State Power. A Strategic-Relational Approach. Cambridge: Polity Press), as one that can provide a more nuanced understanding of early medieval polities. Particular emphasis is made on analysing class relationships and articulating hegemonic projects as two particularly fruitful lines of inquiry.

Finally, the paper focuses on one particular instance of early medieval political practice, the politics of the land, as a means to illustrate the approach’s potential.

An afterthought

The review of the historiography here is particularly valuable. This study enables us to identify some of the weaknesses the older” institutional” historians” have in common.” First, they are frequently based on a restrictive view of the state as a set of institutional and governmental features, and fail to question how institutions are themselves built and sustained or transformed over time. Second, they do not account for the articulation between the political and the economic realms. Partly as a consequence of this, and third, they only contemplate the agency of the elites in the shaping and workings of the state, neglecting the agency of other social actors”, the authors write.

This approach aligns well with the present understanding of the paradigmatic shift in the concept of the so-called “social action”, which took place inside sociology in the late 20th century. According to this view, there is no such thing (as 20th-century sociology used to claim) as “social actions”. Instead, actions are always carried out by humans based on or induced by certain more or less ingrained cultural norms and reflexes. In short: “classes”, “tribes”, or “thrones” (kingdoms) do not act; persons or groups of persons do according to their cultural “habitus”.

Although not precisely touching upon this broader debate inside cultural sociology, the article points out how it pays to analyse the Early Medieval “Politics of the land” as the cultural construction of a specific habitus expressed through matrimonial practices, gift-giving, the wielding of the instruments of grants and charters, the flaunting of certain cultural symbols (brooches) etc.

Although Álvaro Carvajal Castro and Carlos Tejerizo-García do acknowledge the initial “bricolage” or “creolisation” character of the Early Medieval Formations of the governing habitus of people harvesting “elements of both the former Empire and their Germanic background to produce new frameworks defining new sets of opportunities and constraints for domination and political practice”, they decisively move on to describe the ingrained cultural habitus of the elite in Early Medieval as “Ethoi”.

Interestingly, this fits well with a Post-Parsonian sociology whereby we have to operate with the fact that there is no such “thing” as a “social act”. Institutions do not act; people do. Furthermore, they primarily act unreflected according to their ingrained cultural habitus or dispositions (values).

Karen Schousboe


Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action.
By Stephen Vaisey
In: American Journal of Sociology  (2009) Vol. 114( 6) : pp.1675–171


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