Medieval Western Europeans developed two practices that are the bedrock of modern democracy: representative government and the consent of the governed. Why did this happen in Europe and not elsewhere? I ask what the literature has to say about this question, focusing on the role of political ideas, on economic development, and on warfare. I consider Europe in comparison with the Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, and Song Dynasty China. I argue that ultimately Europe's different path may have been an accident. It was produced by Western Europe's experience of outside invasion that replaced the Western Roman Empire with a set of small, fragmented polities in which rulers were relatively weak. Small size meant low transaction costs for maintaining assemblies. The relatively weak position of rulers meant that consent of the governed was necessary. I also suggest how these conclusions should influence our understanding of democracy today.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


Literature Cited

  1. Abramson S, Boix C. 2014. The roots of the Industrial Revolution: political institutions or (historically embedded) know-how? Unpublished work. pap., Princeton Univ. [Google Scholar]
  2. Acemoglu D, Johnson S, Robinson J. 2005. The rise of Europe: Atlantic trade, institutional change and economic growth. Am. Econ. Rev. 95:546–79 [Google Scholar]
  3. Acemoglu D, Johnson S, Robinson J, Yared P. 2008. Income and democracy. Am. Econ. Rev. 98:808–42 [Google Scholar]
  4. Angeles L. 2014. The economics of printing in early modern China and Europe Unpublished work. pap., London School Econ.
  5. Bairoch P, Batou J, Chèvre P. 1988. The Population of European Cities from 800 to 1850 Geneva: Librairie Droz
  6. Bates R, Lien D. 1985. A note on taxation, development and representative government. Polit. Soc. 14:53–70 [Google Scholar]
  7. Besley T, Persson T. 2013. Taxation and development. Handbook of Public Economics A Auerbach, R Chetty, M Feldstein, E Saez 51–110 Amsterdam: Elsevier [Google Scholar]
  8. Blaydes L, Chaney E. 2013. The feudal revolution and Europe's rise: political divergence of the Christian and Muslim world before 1500 CE. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 107:16–34 [Google Scholar]
  9. Blockmans W. 1978. A typology of representative institutions in late medieval Europe. J. Mediev. Hist. 4:189–215 [Google Scholar]
  10. Blockmans W. 1998. Representation (since the thirteenth century). The New Cambridge Medieval History R Mckitterick 29–64 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  11. Boix C. 2011. Democracy, development, and the international system. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 105:809–28 [Google Scholar]
  12. Boix C. 2015. Political Order and Inequality Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  13. Boix C, Stokes S. 2003. Endogenous democratization. World Polit. 55:517–49 [Google Scholar]
  14. Bolt J, van Zanden JL. 2014. The Maddison Project: collaborative research on historical national accounts. Econ. Hist. Rev. 67:627–51 [Google Scholar]
  15. Boucoyannis D. 2015a. No taxation of elites, no representation: state capacity and the origins of representation. Polit. Soc. 43:303–332 [Google Scholar]
  16. Boucoyannis D. 2015b. Strong rulers, land, and courts: the origins of representative institutions Unpublished manuscript, Univ. Virginia
  17. Broadberry S, Guan H, Daokui Li D. 2014. China, Europe, and the great divergence: a study in historical national accounting, 980–1850 Unpublished work. pap., London School Econ.
  18. Buringh E, van Zanden JL. 2013. Charting the “rise of the west”: manuscripts and printed books in Europe, a long-term perspective from the sixth through eighteenth centuries. Econ. Hist. Rev. 69:410–46 [Google Scholar]
  19. Congar Y. 1958. Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet. Rev. Hist. Droit Franaais Etranger 36:210–59 [Google Scholar]
  20. de Lagarde G. 1937. L'Idée de la représentation dans les oeuvres de Guillaume d'Ockham. Bull. Int. Comm. Hist. Sci. 9:441 [Google Scholar]
  21. Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies New York: W.W. Norton
  22. Dincecco M. 2009. Fiscal centralization, limited government, and public revenues in Europe, 1650–1913. J. Econ. Hist. 69:48–103 [Google Scholar]
  23. Dincecco M. 2011. Political Transformations and Public Finances Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  24. Downing B. 1992. The Military Revolution and Political Change Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  25. Ertman T. 1997. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  26. Finer S. 1997. The History of Government From the Earliest Times Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press
  27. Greif A. 2006. Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  28. Greif A, Laitin D. 2004. A theory of endogenous institutional change. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 98:633–652 [Google Scholar]
  29. Guizot M. 1838. Histoire de la Civilisation en Europe depuis la Chute de l'Empire Romain Paris: Emile Perrin
  30. Haldon J. 2015. Late Rome, Byzantium, and early medieval Western Europe. Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States A Monson, W Scheidel 345–89 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  31. Herb M. 2003. Taxation and representation. Stud. Comp. Int. Dev. 38:3–31 [Google Scholar]
  32. Hoffman P. 2015. Why Did Europe Conquer the World? Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  33. Hui VT-B. 2005. War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  34. Jones E. 1981. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  35. Kennedy H. 2006. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty Boston: Da Capo Press
  36. Kennedy H. 2015. The Middle East in Islamic late antiquity. Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States A Monson, W Scheidel 390–403 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  37. Kiser E, Barzel Y. 1991. The origins of democracy in England. Ration. Soc. 3:396–422 [Google Scholar]
  38. Klinkner P, Smith R. 1999. The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Inequality in America Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press
  39. Kuhn D. 2009. The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press
  40. Kuran T. 2005. The absence of the corporation in Islamic law: origins and persistence. Am. J. Comp. Law 53:785–834 [Google Scholar]
  41. Kuran T. 2011. The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  42. Levi M. 1988. Of Rule and Revenue Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  43. Levi M. 1997. Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism New York: Cambridge Univ. Press
  44. Lipset SM. 1959. Some social requisites of democracy. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 53:69–105 [Google Scholar]
  45. Maddison A. 2007. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective Paris: OECD Dev. Cent.
  46. Manin B. 1997. The Principles of Representative Government Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  47. McCormick M. et al. 2012. Climate change during and after the Roman Empire: reconstructing the past from scientific and historical evidence. J. Interdiscip. Hist. 43:169–220 [Google Scholar]
  48. Mokyr J. 1990. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press
  49. Monahan A. 1987. Consent, Coercion, and Limit: The Medieval Origins of Parliamentary Democracy Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press
  50. Najemy J. 1979. Guild republicanism in Trecento Florence: the successes and ultimate failure of corporate politics. Am. Hist. Rev. 84:53–71 [Google Scholar]
  51. North D, Thomas RP. 1973. The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  52. North D, Weingast B. 1989. Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth century England. J. Econ. Hist. 49:803–32 [Google Scholar]
  53. Ober J. 2015. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  54. Onorato M, Scheve K, Stasavage D. 2014. Technology and the era of the mass army. J. Econ. Hist. 74:449–81 [Google Scholar]
  55. Ostrogorsky G. 1969. History of the Byzantine State New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press
  56. Pitkin H. 1967. The Concept of Representation Berkeley: Univ. Calif. Press
  57. Pocock JGA. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  58. Post G. 1964. Studies in Medieval Political Thought Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  59. Przeworski A, Alvarez M, Cheibub JA, Limongi F. 2000. Democracy and Development Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  60. Rokkan S. 1973. Cities, states, and nations: a dimensional model for the study of contrasts in development. Building States and Nations: Models and Data Resources S Rokkan, S Eisenstadt 73–97 Beverly Hills, CA: Sage [Google Scholar]
  61. Rokkan S. 1975. Dimensions of state formation and nation building: a possible paradigm for research on variations within Europe. The Formation of National States in Western Europe C Tilly 562–600 Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  62. Scheve K, Stasavage D. 2010. The conscription of wealth. Int. Organ. 64:529–61 [Google Scholar]
  63. Scheve K, Stasavage D. 2012. Democracy, war, and wealth. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 106:81–102 [Google Scholar]
  64. Scheve K, Stasavage D. 2016. Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  65. Schwartzberg M. 2014. Counting the Many: the Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  66. Skinner Q. 2002. Renaissance Virtues II Visions of Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  67. Stasavage D. 2010. When distance mattered: geographic scale and the development of European representative assemblies. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 104:625–43 [Google Scholar]
  68. Stasavage D. 2011. States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  69. Stasavage D. 2014. Was Weber right? The role of urban autonomy in Europe's rise. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 108:337–54 [Google Scholar]
  70. Tilly C. 1975. The Formation of National States in Western Europe Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
  71. Tilly C. 1992. Coercion, Capital, and European States, 990–1992 Cambridge, UK: Blackwell
  72. Urbinati N, Warren M. 2008. The concept of representation in contemporary democratic theory. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 11:387–412 [Google Scholar]
  73. van Berkel M. 2013. The bureaucracy. Crisis and Continuity at the Abbasid Court M van Berkel, NM El Cheikh, H Kennedy, L Osti 87–109 Boston: Brill [Google Scholar]
  74. van Zanden JL, Buringh E, Bosker M. 2012. The rise and decline of European parliaments, 1188–1789. Econ. Hist. Rev. 65:835–61 [Google Scholar]
  75. Wei Ze D. 1995. Printing as an agent of social stability: the social organization of book production in China during the Sung Dynasty Unpublished PhD thesis, Simon Fraser Univ.
  76. Wickham C. 1984. The other transition: from the ancient world to feudalism. Past Present 103:3–36 [Google Scholar]
  77. Wickham C. 2005. Framing the Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press
  78. Wickham C. 2009. The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. London: Allen Lane [Google Scholar]

Data & Media loading...

  • Article Type: Review Article
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error