History/Culture, Politics/Economics

Medieval Libertarianism

Originally published on Bionic Mosquito

The stateless Middle Ages were the only example of a functioning anarchic order in the West.

The ‘Reactionary’ Libertarianism of Frank van Dun, by Richard Storey.

Forgive the length of this post and the multiple links.  I am thinking it is necessary to capture and summarize my thoughts on this topic, and have found this work by Storey to be a good vehicle through which to do so.

Storey offers a summary of his conversation with Frank van Dun (FvD).  Storey introduces the piece with his starting point:

Like many anarcho-capitalist libertarians, I believed that the Church, far from being a hindrance to state growth, was the primary promoter of centralised statism in Northern Europe.

Storey offers a summary of his view – how he came to reach this conclusion.  He reached out to FvD, hoping to maybe learn something but also to receive confirmation of his views.  As you can tell from his past-tense use of “believed,” Storey received much more of the learning than he did the confirming.

Except where noted, the remainder of this post (to include the quote at the top of this post) offers some excerpts from FvD’s response to Storey.  So there is no confusion about where FvD is headed, he begins his response:

Most of your comments fit what is still the PC-view of the medieval period and the role of the Church in it.

I began my education on this topic by reading Fritz Kern’s Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages.  I learned that the Dark Ages were not so dark; serf’s had far more freedom and protection in the law than we do today; every individual could veto the decision of his lord if proper cause could be demonstrated; medieval law was the most consistent expression of libertarian law to be found in the west (and likely the world); and a written constitution served to protect the state from the people – and not the other way around.

My further reading of many books on the time only reinforced these views and added additional insights to the period.  For example, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun.  While the focus of his book is post-Reformation Europe, he offers in his introduction the following:

The truth is that during the 1,000 years before 1500 a new civilization grew from beginnings that were uncommonly difficult….showing the world two renaissances before the one that has monopolized the name.

…the Germanic invaders brought a type of custom law that some later thinkers have credited with the idea of individual freedom.…no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected.

From The Medieval Machine, by Jean Gimpel, I learned of the medieval industrial revolution – from whole cloth came energy and mechanization, mining, the mechanical clock, and pre-Renaissance renaissance men.  I learned that it was not until 1277 (if one can pinpoint such events) that the Middle Ages began down the road that would stereotype the entire period – that of questioning scientific and technological progress (and, here again, not everywhere uniformly and simultaneously).

From Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, by Régine Pernoud, I learned of the liberalizing society of the Middle Ages: artistic and literary achievements; the difference of serfdom and slavery (there was virtually no slavery in medieval Europe – and serfs were most certainly not slaves); women were human, too; there was religious tolerance (forget what you think you know about medieval witch burnings and the like); finally, it really wasn’t so good to be king.

I can list an additional half-dozen books that helped to purge me of this “PC view” of the Middle Ages, books that demonstrated libertarian law in its most manifest expression and for a most extended period.  No evangelizing, no theocracy, no absolute state, no king as sovereign, no “Dark Ages,” none of it.

You would think libertarians would be happy to find such a reality, to find a working model from which we could learn.  No, most aren’t; they get upset.  Why is there such pushback by many libertarians on recognizing this history?

Back to FvD:

The origin of the modern state in the West is indeed in the transformation of medieval “rule” into modern “political government”. It reached its full expression in the 16th century….

Wait a minute!  The Middle Ages had kings and a Pope and stuff like that.  What is FvD talking about?  What made the earlier period distinct?

The idea that the king was essentially a primus inter pares [first among equals], with special prerogatives but no superior rights, was as good as dead.

The king had no superior rights during medieval times?  He was equal with his peers?  No he didn’t, and yes he was.  To make a long story short, the king had a duty to enforce the law; he could not create law.

That transformation was of course a drawn-out process with many local variations.

In England the birthing of the idea of a “state” came with the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century; in France not long thereafter – perhaps at least in part in reaction to Noman invasions (albeit I have not studied this specific point).  If there was ever a horrendous medieval war, it was the 100 Years’ War, between – guess who – England and France.

Statism is the idea that the ruler should have not only the power to rule (as supreme commander in times of war, as diplomat, and as judge in some but not necessarily all disputes among his subjects) but also the power to govern.

This, as opposed to the authority of the medieval ruler:

A medieval ruler ruled his realm but did not govern anything within it except his own household or «economy».

The new ruler not only could enforce law, he could make law: “[the king’s] dominium extended as far as [his] imperium.”  “Governing” was no longer in the hands of the head of household.

And with this, the “king” became “monarch.”

During much of the Middle Ages, it was the Church that held back the king from usurping and monopolizing governance:

…the Church could always be counted on to stand up for the autonomy of real households against attempts to merge them into a single fictional economy under a central government — in particular, attempts to transform kingdoms into monarchies.

If you consult the historical record then you notice soon enough that the medieval Church was the great protector of “private law systems” — although it would be more accurate to refer to them as private systems of governance.

Why the pushback by so many libertarians on this topic?  I think there are two reasons: first, universalist libertarians don’t like private law systems, as these leave room for non-libertarian laws.  Second, for libertarians to understand, recognize, and appreciate this topic, one has to utter an unutterable (to many libertarians) six-letter word: Church.

I could offer a long list of universalist libertarians; and libertarians who find organized religion of any “Christian” sort (and more broadly, traditional Western Civilization) an anathema to liberty are a dime a dozen.

The Church focused on keeping the various private law systems compatible with each other, by emphasizing “natural law.”  But it took good men to protect this good law:

Not having an army of her own, the Church had to rely on the good will of others, i.e. on her moral and theological prestige and authority (her intellectual capital).

Now…if you were a king who wanted to become a monarch, what would you want to do?  How about diminishing the role of the Church?  And then along came Martin Luther.  Another hairy topic.

Yes, Luther had legitimate complaints about the Church; yes, he was not the first to raise these complaints; yes, the Church resisted necessary changes because these were deemed as threats; no, Luther did not want to destroy Christendom; yes, he lamented what he had created.

OK, now that that’s out of the way…Whatever your preferred slice of the Christian pie, the history is the history.

Today, the best-known brand of anarcho-libertarianism is probably some kind of “Rothbardian” anarcho-capitalism, which (as do so many other modern Anglo-American theories) presupposes a (what I call) Lutheran individualism…

I have covered this issue of the Reformation and “Lutheran individualism” as well, through three books:

Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society, edited by John C. Rao; six posts on this can be found here.

The Great Heresies, by Hillaire Belloc; the most relevant post – on the Reformation – can be found here.

Finally, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet; Nisbet goes into great detail about the troubles of “individualism” if one wants liberty – albeit, he does it without mentioning the Church or the Reformation (at least that I have found or can recall).  My posts on this book can be found here (along with one or two other posts based on other work by Nisbet).

Returning to FvD:

Almost unknown today is the original medieval libertarianism, which was anarchistic not only in the sense that it was concerned with and situated in a stateless environment but also in the sense that it was intended to be anti-state (i.e. opposed to the concentration, a fortiori centralization of political power in monopolies of government, enforcement, legislation, adjudication and much else).

In the face of 1000 years of evidence, instead we look to solely the non-aggression principle to free us from the State – as if a principle can function without institution.  An example of this wishful thinking can be found here:

“[It] says no, and must say no, to the absoluteness of political power and to the worship of the might of the mighty in general… and in doing so it has shattered the political principle’s claim to totality once and for all… it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective…”

What is the “It”?  Is it the NAP?  Private property?  Libertarianism?  Ha!  I tricked you.  Would it help if I told you that the quote came not from your favorite libertarian theorist, but instead from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI)?

Yes, the “It” was the Catholic faith as made manifest by the authority of the Church.  There was a time that this was true; it certainly isn’t true today and given the direction the Church has taken, it likely will not be true again for some time…if ever (at least not through the same institution).  (By the way, for an interesting take on when and how and why the Church turned at the time of the Renaissance, see this; I make no claim regarding this history as I am completely ignorant on the topic.)

Ratzinger always stressed the continuity of Catholic theology from its ancient and in particular medieval formulations to the present. That theology was explicitly libertarian — albeit not in the sense of modern (i.e. Lutheran or post-Lutheran) individualism.

Did we ever get to the bottom of why they forced this guy out in order to replace him with what seems to be his opposite?

Returning to the transformation that came with the Reformation:

The (modernized) Roman law obviously appealed to the early modern rulers (i.e. political monarchs, no longer mere kings or heads of their tribe) because it derived all authority from the emperor through a hierarchical ordering of societal positions, each of which was responsible only to higher authority, not to its peers let alone its own subjects.

The monarch’s power was now absolute; he was sovereign – a concept alien to medieval law, which recognized no sovereign as we use the term (if one needs to find a “sovereign” in the Middle Ages, the closest would be the law).

The rise of the concept of sovereignty was the logical deployment of this new concept of freedom in the political sphere. The Sovereign (at first the absolute monarch, later the independent state) is the absolute master of his territorial domain and is not responsible to anybody else for what he does there.


I don’t write about theocracy, I don’t attempt to evangelize, I don’t care to get into theological debates.  I want to understand this history, given that it is the only example of a long-lived libertarian society; eventually I want to consider how this history can be applied today – and also, how it no longer can be applied.

3 thoughts on “Medieval Libertarianism”

  1. Leave it to libertarians to try to claim that monarchy comes out of a kind of equality in freedom while failing to ignore the reality of the imperialism that underlies hierarchy and the reality of the state that results from this unavoidable reality.

    “if the monarch failed in these duties – and the decision of this question rested with the conscience of every individual member of the community – then every subject, every section of the people, and even the whole community was free to resist him, to abandon him, and to seek out a new monarch.”

    It’s hilarious that Fritz Kern idealizes this as a kind of Libertopia. This is just an objective description of how states rise and fall. That description is just the organic reality of politics and government, not anything inherently or formally exclusive to any one of the the varying political systems of the many Germanic tribes.


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