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Ertman: Birth of the leviathan

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Ertman. 1997. Birth of the leviathan: Building states and regimes in medieval and early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

In Brief

Broadly, the book seeks to explore how war and the resulting need for resources interacted with other variables to produce the variety of European regimes that emerged from late medieval Europe. To explain this variety of outcomes, Ertman explores three primary variables: the role of representative structures, the role of historical timing, and the independent effect of parliaments.

Y: Two dimensions

European regimes ended up varying along two dimensions. First, the regime type was either absolute monarchy (e.g. France) or limited (constitutional) monarchy (e.g. Britain). Second, the state apparatus was either "patrimonial" (in which tax collectors and other bureaucrats had inheritable or patronage type positions--and as a result, considerable autonomy from the monarch) or "bureaucratic" (a more Weberian, rational apparatus that was subject to royal control--a proto-modern bureaucracy).

As a result, there are four potential ideal types. See Table 1 (p 10).


X1: Representative Structures and (Y1) Absolute Monarchy

Two-Chamber System

When it came time to confer with the people (perhaps to raise taxes), states used one of two types of representation. In states with stronger local governments, a "two-chamber" system evolved, in which the chambers had a more or less territorial membership. Local assemblies sent representatives, and members of both houses (especially the lower) actually represented some territorially-defined group.

Tripartite System

Contrast this with the "tripartite" representational structure, in which the medieval estates (nobility, clergy, and burghers of self-governing towns) were represented in separate chambers. Most of these "representatives" in truth represented nobody other than themselves.


As kings sought to increase their power, those facing a two-chamber assembly had greater difficulty. Because these representatives had were the representatives of local assemblies, and because these assemblies allowed for coordination across estates (i.e. nobles, clergy, and local assemblies could coordinate), it was easier for assembiles to muster resistance to royal attempts to increase power.

In contrast, tripartite assemblies put up less resistance. First of all, few (if any) of the members of these assemblies had a territorial basis of support, and second, the division of estates into separate assembiles enabled the king to play one estate against the others.

Thus: Two-chamber system --> Limited monarchy; tripartite system --> Absolute monarchy

X2: Historical Timing and (Y2) Bureaucratic Development

Sustained geopolitical competition forces states to strengthen their internal apparatus in order to extract the resources necessary for military survival. Yet states that begin this process earliest (pre-1450) differ from those that begin it later. This is true for several reasons. First, the rise of medieval universities meant that later consolidators had far more skilled, trained personnel to choose from when selecting administrators. Thus, later consolidators hav more leverage over potential bureaucrats. Second, the growth of commercial and financial markets meant that later consolidators were less reliant on a small number of potential financiers--so they couldn't be held hostage by financiers the way early consolidators could. Third, late consolidators could learn from the weaknesses faced by the early consolidators and avoid them.

All this influences the type of state apparatus that developed. Early developers tended to have a patrimonial state apparatus, in which the officeholder and the office were largely inseparable (i.e. offices were inherited). However, later developers could establish more rational bureaucracies that would be less independent, and therefore more loyal to the demands of the monarch.

Thus: If sustained geopolitical competition begins pre-1450 --> patrimonial administration; post-1450 --> bureaucratic administration

X3: The Independent Effect of Parliaments

By comparing Table 1 (p 10) with Table 2 (p 29), it becomes obvious that X1 and X2 ave something lacking. In particular, they predict that Britain would be a patrimonial constitutional state, and Poland and Hungary would be bureaucratic constitutional states--when in fact the situation was the reverse. Why is this so?

These states had powerful national representative institutions. This is similar to X1. Since national representative institutions were populated by representatives who actually represented local governments, these institutions had sufficient power to change the course of their nation's development. In Britain, local (representative) governments were threatened by patrimonialism, and they pressed (over three centuries) to gradually rationalize the state apparatus. On the other hand, local interests in Poland and Hungary were more favorable of patrimonialism and its accompanying perks, and as such they resisted the monarch's attempts to create a rational apparatus.

Research on similar subjects


Ertman, Thomas (author)Comparative PoliticsSovereigntyStatesWestphalia System

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