Cooperation, Capital, and Italian States: AD 1100-1550

Presented by Michael Martoccio, Dissertation Fellow, Ph.D. Candidate, Northwestern University, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on March 21, 2014.

The emergence of the modern state in Europe remains one of the most critical questions across the disciplinary divide of international relations, comparative sociology, and diplomatic history. In a popular view, war was the evolutionary motor driving the transition from feudal polities to modern states. Conflict ground down the thousands of petty lords and cities into one common type of polity: the sovereign state. This talk moves out from one corner of early modern Europe, Central Italy, to question this relationship between competition and state formation. I begin with a simple question: why did the city of Florence achieve hegemony over its many Tuscan neighbors? Florence offers an excellent case for understanding the dynamics of late medieval/early modern power: the Tuscan state the city built endured until Italian Unification, leaving behind the best archival paper trail of any pre-modern polity. Most historians and political scientists/sociologists pin Florence’s success either on its economic power or stout army. I disagree. I argue that Florence survived because its political institutions projected confidence and collaboration, rather than fueled military coercion or economic competition. Specifically, I make two claims. First, the institutions of early modern Europe remained essentially feudal. Early modern people thought of power as resembling a feudal contract, not as a manifestation of sovereignty. Written, codified contracts among neighboring cities and lords managed collective armies, dictated tax rates, and outlined the symbols of authority. To understand political development, we must understand feudal contract types, not bureaucratic/fiscal state structures, polities, or systemic changes. Second, I show that Italians created new political institutions in order to promote confidence with neighbors. Surrounding cities and lords believed Florence’s remarkably stable institutions and extensive diplomatic network made the city the most reliable partner in the region. In the end, territorial growth and bureaucratic development, the hallmarks of the modern state, emerged because Florence’s neighbors flocked to its banner, rather than cowed beneath it.

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.