6+1 Questions

23 January 2023, 0915 EST

What’s the title?

Latham, Andrew., 2022. Medieval Sovereignty, ARC Humanities Press.

It argues that?

A series of thirteenth-century contests over the locus and character of supreme authority in Latin Christendom provided the conceptual raw materials that later thinkers ultimately assembled into the early modern constitutive norm of “sovereignty.”

So why should we care?

It seeks to counter the tendency of scholars in the field of IR to treat the medieval era as an “orientalized” Other comprising an exotic congeries of ideas, institutions and structures that are so alien as to render the epoch simultaneously both irrelevant to the study of modern international relations and inaccessible to the contemporary IR scholar. But this is surely wrong.

That this era is an important period in the history of international relations I now take as a given; for it was in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the ideas and institutions of sovereignty, territoriality, the state, international law, diplomacy and many of the other core elements of what we have agreed to mislabel the “Westphalian” international system first crystallized and came to dominate the imaginative structure of European social and political elites.

Put slightly differently, attending to the medieval history of sovereignty is important because the “birth” of the modern sovereign state and state-system was more a process (lasting several centuries) than a moment (whether 1555, 1648, 1714) and grasping the logic of that process requires not just a snapshot of a particular conjoncture, but a longue durée perspective encompassing the entire medieval era. 

How will the book persuade us?

Two ways.

First, I recount how, in glossing the thirteenth-century papal decretals Quanto personam, and Per venerabilem, canon lawyers ultimately defined the character of sovereignty—that is, the distinctive and defining qualities of the supreme authority to command, legislate, and judge.

Second, I reconstruct how, during the turn-of-the-fourteenth century dispute between King Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII,  canon lawyers drew on these new ideas to develop an idea of sovereignty that would have been recognizable to Bodin and other early modern legists and political thinkers.

So what drove you to write the book?

I first became interested in the medieval political world while writing about what was then referred to as the “Revolution in Military Affairs.”

I initially sough to conceptualize the “historical structure of war” in three discrete eras: the late medieval, the high modern, and the late modern.

Once I started researching the medieval world, however, I was totally hooked. I fell in love with the era and spent the next decade researching and writing on topics related to medieval geopolitics (not coincidentally, the title of my first book on the topic – Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades.) 

From there, it was but a short leap to medieval international and political thought.

One of the ideas that kept popping up in my intellectual travels was the concept of sovereignty. As I had been trained to see this as a quintessentially post-medieval or modern idea, the recurrence of both the word and the concept in the medievalist historiography intrigued me no end.

At the same time, the history of the idea of sovereignty was also emerging as a topic of interest in the IR world, though seldom with any meaningful reference to the medieval historiographical literature.

The convergence of these two phenomena prompted me ask how, if at all, the (juristic, theological and philosophical) ideas related to supreme political authority formed in the medieval era were picked up by the early moderns and assembled into the constitutive norm of sovereignty in the post-medieval era.

If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?

First, I would locate the argument more squarely in the IR literature.

The publisher that expressed the most interest in this project was a medievalist press rather than an International Relations or Political Science one.

One condition of publishing with them was that I deemphasize the IR-specific debates that I wanted to address and frame it instead a contribution to the history of medieval political thought literature. I was happy to do this, but there was a trade-off that in a perfect world I would not have had to make.

Second, I would extend the historical narrative forward through the 15th century to explicitly link to Bodin and company. As it was, the word limit for this imprint was such that it was not possible to do justice to the 13th century genesis of the concept of sovereignty and to trace its evolution all the way through to the early modern era.

Again, there was a trade-off here that in a perfect world I wouldn’t have had to make.

How was the process of getting it published?

To be honest, the process was relatively smoot

h. I shopped the proposal around to a few of the usual suspects and several of them expressed provisional interest. In the end, I selected the publisher I felt was most enthusiastic about the project and it turned out to be a great decision.

With grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities I was able to carve out the time I needed to finish the manuscript and submitted it to the publisher in late 2020.

Feedback from the reviewers was both prompt and constructive. I spent the summer of 2021 revising and did more back-and-forth with my editor until that fall. The book was published in February 2022.