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9-08-2015, 14:46

Politics and power

Like all maps, those that portray political units involve judgments on the part of mapmakers, and any map of Europe in 1450 is full of such judgments (see map 3). Beginning at the western edge of continental Europe: England and France were in the last stages of the Hundred Years War, with English holdings in France being slowly reduced to the town of Calais. Maps often mark shifting boundary lines between “English” and “French” holdings throughout the war, but these mask other changes that may ultimately be more important. Any map showing what is now France at the beginning of the war in 1337 would probably show solid lines between the great noble holdings – the duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, and Aquitaine, the counties of Anjou and Provence. Though their rulers were generally vassals of the king of France, they felt perfectly comfortable shifting their allegiance to England, or to no one, and opposing the centralizing moves of the French kings. By the end of the war in 1453, those lines are often shown as dotted or they have disappeared altogether. Local allegiances and traditions still made great differences, but regional units such as “Aquitaine” were increasingly understood as part of France, and not as its neighbor. In England, internal political divisions may have seemed less marked than those in France in the fourteenth century, but weak kings combined with warfare in the early fi fteenth century to increase the power of feudal nobles. Their holdings were not as independent as those of the strongest French nobles, but particularly those with holdings along the borders of Wales and Scotland were quite independent, simultaneously feared and relied on for border defense by the English monarchy. English nobles in Ireland – some of whose families had been there for nearly three centuries – were even more autonomous; though the English attempted to draw a sharp line between Anglo- Irish and Gaelic territory and to prevent the mixing of the two populations, in reality the border was more nebulous and cultural assimilation was quite common. In the middle of Europe, there were “Germany” and “Italy,” off-hand designations used by contemporaries (and by us) for large areas politically subdivided into hundreds of different types of governmental units: kingdoms, counties, duchies, free cities, religious states ruled by bishops, abbots, abbesses, or the pope, and tiny territories ruled by lesser nobles. Even large-scale maps cannot capture the diversity of these units, for jurisdictions were often interwoven and overlapping, so that areas or individuals might be under the authority of – and pay taxes to – several political units simultaneously. In the northern part of central Europe, these units were loosely joined together under the title of Holy Roman Empire, with an emperor elected by a small group of secular and religious leaders. They had chosen a series of generally weak emperors from various noble houses through the fourteenth and early fi fteenth centuries, but in 1438 settled on Albert II of the Habsburg family, whose family holdings included much of Austria and various territories in southern Germany. Habsburgs were chosen as emperor almost uninterruptedly from that date to 1806, though in 1450 their hold on the imperial offi ce was certainly not assured, and the lines between the various states of the Holy Roman Empire continued to be more solid than those separating the various parts of France. The Italian peninsula was even more divided than Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor had loosely controlled northern Italy in earlier times, but by the fi fteenth century even this vaguely unifying force was gone. Northern Italy was made up of large and small city-states, each ruled by a merchant aristocracy or a single individual; in these often very wealthy states, one man or several hundred held actual power, though a few, such as Florence, still retained the façade of broader republican governments that existed briefl y in the thirteenth century. The Papal States stretched across central Italy, and in the mid-fi fteenth century the popes were busy establishing family dynasties and strengthening their military and political hold over this area. Southern Italy (and often Sicily) comprised the kingdom of Naples, whose crown was contested by France and Aragon. All of these states were jealous of each other’s power, so they established alliances that shifted whenever one was perceived to be gaining strength, and invented modern diplomacy with permanent representatives at each capital. Like Germany and Italy, Spain in the mid-fi fteenth century was also a geographic concept masking political disunity. The kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were the largest units, but Aragon itself was made up of a group of separate principalities, and Navarre, Portugal, and the Muslim state of Granada were completely independent. Each kingdom had its own laws, courts, coinage, bureaucracy, and political institutions; even the reconquista , the centuries-long push to conquer Muslim holdings, did not create cultural or political unity. In northern Europe, the Union of Kalmar, created in 1397 under the rule of Queen Margrete of Denmark, brought together the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under one monarch. As in Spain, each country retained its own laws, customs, and administrative council. The Union helped provide mutual defense against German power in the Baltic, though by the mid-fi fteenth century powerful Swedish nobles were already rebelling against monarchs they perceived as pro-Danish.