Henry Sumner Maine

On the origin of state territorial sovereignty
from “Ancient Law” (Chapter IV)




In this short text Maine puts forward a very interesting hypothesis concerning the birth of state territorial sovereignty. During the Middle Ages the kings were affirming their sovereignty towards their own people and not with respect to a portion of the earth. They were claiming, for instance, to be Kings of the Franks and not Kings of France. The reality of territorial sovereignty was at that time asserted only by the local ruler (the feudal master) or by the universal ruler (the Emperor), with the Pope demanding universal ascendency on everybody, the Emperor included.
In a later age, with, on one side the gradual decadence of the small fiefdoms, eroded by the rising of the stronger feudal master (e.g. the feudal master of the territory surrounding Paris) and on the other the loss of prestige and strength of the universal masters (Empire and Papacy) embroiled in a series of struggles (the so called Religious Wars, Reformation and Counter-Reformation), the time came for the birth and consolidation of the territorial states. And so the King of the Franks became the King of France and now he is the President of France. Territorial statism (or state territorialism) can be then seen as the continuation and amalgamation of territorial feudalism with the hubris of imperial centralism.
And this is where we are still at the present, until we get rid of the strictures and absurdities of territorialism once for all.



It is a consideration well worthy to be kept in view that during a large part of what we usually term modern history no such conception was entertained as that of "territorial sovereignty." Sovereignty was not associated with dominion over a portion or subdivision of the earth. The world had lain for so many centuries under the shadow of Imperial Rome as to have forgotten that distribution of the vast spaces comprised in the empire which had once parcelled them out into a number of independent commonwealths, claiming immunity from extrinsic interference, and pretending to equality of national rights.

After the subsidence of the barbarian irruptions, the notion of sovereignty that prevailed seems to have been twofold. On the one hand it assumed the form of what may be called "tribe-sovereignty." The Franks, the Burgundians, the Vandals, the Lombards, and Visigoths were masters, of course, of the territories which they occupied, and to which some of them have given a geographical appellation; but they based no claim of right upon the fact of territorial possession, and indeed attached no importance to it whatever. They appear to have retained the traditions which they brought with them from the forest and the steppe, and to have still been in their own view a patriarchal society, a nomad horde, merely encamped for the time upon the soil which afforded them sustenance. Part of Transalpine Gaul, with part of Germany, had now become the country de facto occupied by the Franks - it was France; but the Merovingian line of chieftains, the descendants of Clovis, were not Kings of France, they were Kings of the Franks.

The alternative to this peculiar notion of sovereignty appears to have been - and this is the important point - the idea of universal dominion. The moment a monarch departed from the special relation of chief to clansmen, and became solicitous, for purposes of his own, to invest himself with a novel form of sovereignty, the only precedent which suggested itself for his adoption was the domination of the Emperors of Rome. To parody a common quotation, he became "aut Caesar aut nullus." Either he pretended to the full prerogative of the Byzantine Emperor, or he had no political status whatever. In our own age, when a new dynasty is desirous of obliterating the prescriptive title of a deposed line of sovereigns, it takes its designation from the people, instead of the territory. Thus we have Emperors and Kings of the French, and a King of the Belgians.

At the period of which we have been speaking, under similar circumstances a different alternative presented itself. The Chieftain who would no longer call himself King of the tribe must claim to be Emperor of the world. Thus, when the hereditary Mayors of the Palace had ceased to compromise with the monarchs they had long since virtually dethroned, they soon became unwilling to call themselves Kings of the Franks, a title which belonged to the displaced Merovings; but they could not style themselves Kings of France, for such a designation, though apparently not unknown, was not a title of dignity. Accordingly they came forward as aspirants to universal empire. Their motive has been greatly misapprehended. It has been taken for granted by recent French writers that Charlemagne was far before his age, quite as much in the character of his designs as in the energy with which he prosecuted them. Whether it be true or not that anybody is at any time before his age, it is certainly true that Charlemagne, in aiming at an unlimited dominion, was emphatically taking the only course which the characteristic ideas of his age permitted him to follow. Of his intellectual eminence there cannot be a question, but it is proved by his acts and not by his theory.

These singularities of view were not altered on the partition of the inheritance of Charlemagne among his three grandsons. Charles the Bald, Lewis, and Lothair were still theoretically - if it be proper to use the word - Emperors of Rome. Just as the Caesars of the Eastern and Western Empires had each been de jure emperor of the whole world, with de facto control over half of it, so the three Carlovingians appear to have considered their power as limited, but their title as unqualified. The same speculative universality of sovereignty continued to be associated with the Imperial throne after the second division on the death of Charles the Fat, and, indeed, was never thoroughly dissociated from it so long as the empire of Germany lasted. Territorial sovereignty - the view which connects sovereignty with the possession of a limited portion of the earth's surface -- was distinctly an offshoot, though a tardy one, of feudalism. This might have been expected a priori, for it was feudalism which for the first time linked personal duties, and by consequence personal rights, to the ownership of land. Whatever be the proper view of its origin and legal nature, the best mode of vividly picturing to ourselves the feudal organisation is to begin with the basis, to consider the relation of the tenant to the patch of soil which created and limited his services - and then to mount up, through narrowing circles of super-feudation, till we approximate to the apex of the system. Where that summit exactly was during the later portion of the dark ages it is not easy to decide. Probably, wherever the conception of tribe sovereignty had really decayed, the topmost point was always assigned to the supposed successor of the Caesars of the West. But before long, when the actual sphere of Imperial authority had immensely contracted, and when the emperors had concentrated the scanty remains of their power upon Germany and North Italy, the highest feudal superiors in all the outlying portions of the former Carlovingian empire found themselves practically without a supreme head. Gradually they habituated themselves to the new situation, and the fact of immunity put at last out of sight the theory of dependence; but there are many symptoms that this change was not quite easily accomplished; and, indeed, to the impression that in the nature of things there must necessarily be a culminating domination somewhere, we may, no doubt, refer the increasing tendency to attribute secular superiority to the See of Rome.

The completion of the first stage in the revolution of opinion is marked, of course, by the accession of the Capetian dynasty in France. When the feudal prince of a limited territory surrounding Paris began, from the accident of his uniting an unusual number of suzerainties in his own person, to call himself King of France, he became king in quite a new sense, a sovereign standing in the same relation to the soil of France as the baron to his estate, the tenant to his freehold. The precedent, however, was as influential as it was novel, and the form of the monarchy in France had visible effects in hastening changes which were elsewhere proceeding in the same direction. The kingship of our Anglo-Saxon regal houses was midway between the chieftainship of a tribe and a territorial supremacy; but the superiority of the Norman monarchs, imitated from that of the King of France, was distinctly a territorial sovereignty. Every subsequent dominion which was established or consolidated was formed on the later model. Spain, Naples, and the principalities founded on the ruins of municipal freedom in Italy, were all under rulers whose sovereignty was territorial. Few things, I may add, are more curious than the gradual lapse of the Venetians from one view to the other. At the commencement of its foreign conquests, the republic regarded itself as an antitype of the Roman commonwealth, governing a number of subject provinces. Move a century onwards, and you find that it wishes to be looked upon as a corporate sovereign, claiming the rights of a feudal suzerain over its possessions in Italy and the Aegean.

During the period through which the popular ideas on the subject of sovereignty were undergoing this remarkable change, the system which stood in the place of what we now call International Law, was heterogeneous in form and inconsistent in the principles to which it appealed. Over so much of Europe as was comprised in the Romano-German empire, the connection of the confederate states was regulated by the complex and as yet incomplete mechanism of the Imperial constitution; and, surprising as it may seem to us, it was a favourite notion of German lawyers that the relations of commonwealths, whether inside or outside the empire, ought to be regulated not by the Jus Gentium, but by the pure Roman jurisprudence, of which Caesar was still the centre. This doctrine was less confidently repudiated in the outlying countries than we might have supposed antecedently; but, substantially, through the rest of Europe feudal subordinations furnished a substitute for a public law; and when those were undetermined or ambiguous, there lay behind, in theory at least, a supreme regulating force in the authority of the head of the Church.

It is certain, however, that both feudal and ecclesiastical influences were rapidly decaying during the fifteenth, and even the fourteenth century; and if we closely examine the current pretexts of wars, and the avowed motives of alliances, it will be seen that, step by step with the displacement of the old principles, the views afterwards harmonised and consolidated by Ayala and Grotius were making considerable progress, though it was silent and but slow. Whether the fusion of all the sources of authority would ultimately have evolved a system of international relations, and whether that system would have exhibited material differences from the fabric of Grotius, is not now possible to decide, for as a matter of fact the Reformation annihilated all its potential elements except one. Beginning in Germany, it divided the princes of the empire by a gulf too broad to be bridged over by the Imperial supremacy, even if the Imperial superior had stood neutral. He, however, was forced to take colour with the church against the reformer; the Pope was, as a matter of course, in the same predicament; and thus the two authorities to whom belonged the office of mediation between combatants became themselves the chiefs of one great faction in the schism of the nations. Feudalism, already enfeebled and discredited as a principle of public relations, furnished no bond whatever which was stable enough to countervail the alliances of religion. In a condition, therefore, of public law which was little less than chaotic, those views of a state system to which the Roman jurisconsults were supposed to have given their sanction alone remained standing. The shape, the symmetry and the prominence which they assumed in the hands of Grotius are known to every educated man; but the great marvel of the Treatise De Jure Belli et Pacis, was its rapid, complete, and universal success. The horrors of the Thirty Years' War, the boundless terror and pity which the unbridled license of the soldiery was exciting, must, no doubt, be taken to explain that success in some measure, but they do not wholly account for it. Very little penetration into the ideas of that age is required to convince one that if the ground plan of the international edifice which was sketched in the great book of Grotius had not appeared to be theoretically perfect, it would have been discarded by jurists and neglected by statesmen and soldiers.

It is obvious that the speculative perfection of the Grotian system is intimately connected with that conception of territorial sovereignty which we have been discussing. The theory of International Law assumes that commonwealths are, relatively to each other, in a state of nature; but the component atoms of a natural society must, by the fundamental assumption, be insulated and independent of each other. If there be a higher power connecting them, however slightly and occasionally by the claim of common supremacy, the very conception of a common superior introduces the notion of positive law, and excludes the idea of a law natural. It follows, therefore, that if the universal suzerainty of an Imperial head had been admitted even in bare theory, the labours of Grotius would have been idle. Nor is this the only point of junction between modern public law and those views of sovereignty of which I have endeavoured to describe the development. I have said that there are entire departments of international jurisprudence which consist of the Roman Law of Property. What then is the inference? It is, that if there had been no such change as I have described in the estimate of sovereignty - if sovereignty had not been associated with the proprietorship of a limited portion of the earth, had not, in other words, become territorial - three parts of the Grotian theory would have been incapable of application.


[Home] [Top]