The story

Transformations in the medieval period

The centralization of power in European monarchies

When we talk about Europe, we hardly imagine the European continent without countries like France, England, Portugal or Spain, right? These countries began to consolidate from the Middle Ages, along with the development of commerce and cities.

Hitherto, in the various kingdoms formed by Europe with the break-up of the western Roman Empire, kings exercised mainly military and political functions. Without carrying out administrative activities, the king had his powers limited by the action of the feudal nobility, who, being the lords of the earth, actually controlled the power. This organization of power is called feudal monarchy and its main feature was the fragmentation of power.

From the eleventh century, in some regions of Europe, feudal monarchies would serve as the basis for the formation of centralized governments: this is the case of France, England and Castile (present-day Spain).

The kings then began to concentrate great powers, in part because of the support and money received from the bourgeois. Over time, the rapprochement between the king and the bourgeoisie would end the fragmentation of power. However, this did not mean the exclusion of the feudal nobility from power. She remained attached to the king and enjoying his politics.

In addition to the kings, the bourgeoisie gained importance in this process, which became the social group with the greatest political power and, above all, economic power.

The formation of monarchies

For most of the Middle Ages there were no countries like the ones we know today. So living in London or Paris did not mean living in England or France. People felt connected only to a city, a fiefdom, or a kingdom.

The process of forming monarchies with centralized power in Europe began in the eleventh century and was consolidated between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. At the end of a few centuries, this process would give rise to many of today's European countries, such as France, Portugal and Spain. However, it did not occur at the same time and in the same way everywhere on the continent. In regions such as the Italic peninsula and northern Europe it would not even consolidate.

Almost always the same social groups were involved in this process of centralizing power: kings, the bourgeoisie and the feudal nobles. Each of these groups was driven by its own interests. Often these interests converged; other times radically opposite.

For the bourgeoisie, a new social group was formed, the political decentralization of feudalism was inconvenient. This was because it subjected the bourgeois to the taxes levied on you and made commercial activity difficult due to the absence of common currency and standardized weights and measures.

Bourgeoisie: Wedding portrait of Jan van Eyck, painter from Bruges. This image depicts merchant Giovani Arnolfini on his wedding day.

These circumstances eventually brought the bourgeois closer to the kings, interested in concentrating power in their hands. In this alliance, the bourgeoisie contributed money and the king with political measures that favored trade. The money of the bourgeoisie made it easier for kings to organize an army to impose their authority on the feudal nobility.

This same feudal nobility, in turn, was weakened by spending on the Crusades and needed strong support, even to defend itself from the intensifying peasant revolts. She sought this support from kings, though she often felt undermined by the bourgeoisie's royal policy, which put an end to many of the feudal privileges. Torn between the bourgeoisie and the feudal nobility, the king served as a kind of mediator between the interests of the two groups.

At the end of a long period, this process eventually enabled the formation of centralized power and the consolidation of a territorial unit. With this, monarchies with centralized power would form in various regions of Europe, where kings held much of the power.

Thus, the monarchy was the form of government under which Europe was organized between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age.

We will highlight next the process of formation of some European monarchies of that period.