Representative Institutions

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REPRESENTATIVE INSTITUTIONS. Europe in the early modern period can be thought of as a patchwork of representative institutionslocal, regional, and nationalfrom parish vestries, juries, and village or town councils to parliaments, Cortes, Stände, sejm, diets, and zemsky sobors. The only part of the Continent where representative institutions were not important was the Ottoman-ruled Balkans. This discussion is limited to the most politically significant bodies: Estates and city or town governments.


The regional and national assemblies collectively labeled Estates differed enormously. They included the Estates of tiny Gex, a poor territory on the French-Swiss border, and the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, where electors and princes sat alongside the representatives of some sixty-six imperial cities. A few assemblies met almost annually, like the Polish sejm; the majority met intermittently, and might almost be called events rather than institutions. Most Estates had three housesfor clergy, nobles, and townsmenbut Sweden and the kingdom of Aragón had four; England, Ireland, Poland, and Hungary had only two; and Scotland's Parliament was unicameral. In Poland and Hungary, the upper house was reserved for magnates, the lower for gentry, while in England, whose legislature originated as a feudal court, the bishops (and some abbots, before the Reformation) were integrated into a House of Lords that met alongside a Commons dominated by lesser landowners. In the Estates of Holland, by contrast, the nobility were granted only one seat. Some Estates that are hardly remembered todaythose of Sicily, Upper Austria, and East Prussiawere full of energy and initiative in the early modern period. By the eighteenth century, many Estates were moribund, but, with the exception of those of Scotland and the crown of Aragón, no national Estates were abolished before 1789.

The number and variety of the Estates of early modern Europe indicate that they did not have a common origin. They were established between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries because of particular circumstances such as fiscal or constitutional emergencies, and they served specific purposes. While they were often created at the command of a ruler, and could be seen as an extension of his or her council, the members of Estates in many parts of Europe did not hesitate to assert an authority that arose from society as a whole. So whom did they represent, and how?

Today, we see political representation as flowing from direct elections. In early modern Europe, however, representation was an amorphous state of affairs in which an individual claimed to speak for others by virtue of some process of legitimation. None of the Estates was fully elective, and none was chosen by more than a small fraction of the population for which they spoke. The powerful provincial Estates of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were elected by 2,000 individuals. About 300,000 men voted for the British Parliament in 1714, but this was only 5.5 percent of the population. Everywhere in Europe, the vast majority of men excluded from voting were peasants or rural laborers. They had formal representation in a few places: the Alpine regions of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland (although Swiss townsmen began to chip away at peasant rights after 1653); in the Dutch province of West Friesland; in Denmark until 1627; in Sweden if they were living on royal estates; and in Russia's zemsky sobor if they paid taxes. Some constituencies of the French Estates-General allowed peasants to participate in 15601561, many more in 1789. A national system of universal male suffrage was not contemplated until the eighteenth century. As for female suffrage, it remained theoretically unthinkable.

Clearly, the Estates of Europe did not directly reflect the political will of the majority of the people, but were chosen by various types of privileged groups. What, then, set them apart from other nonelected assemblies or councils? It was not their purpose or their makeup. Rather, it was their legal, historical, or traditional claim to represent the nation or the people. Separately, they were the privileged few; collectively, they stood for the homeland or patria, an imagined community that might be a kingdom, a nation, or a province. Ideally, they spoke not for themselves but for the good of the whole.

The business of Estates was fiscal, legislative, and administrative. Many of them also retained judicial functions, such as receiving petitions, creating special courts, and giving pardons. The fiscal role of Estates, their ability to grant or refuse taxes, has rightly been considered crucial to their survival. It kept the Estates strong in Languedoc, where representatives not only voted on royal revenues, but also collected them; it weakened the Imperial Diet, which had too little authority to deliver on any promises of revenues it made to the emperor. Where fiscal control was lacking, as in Russia or the French pays d'élection (provinces that had no Estates; instead, they had courts called Élections), it was not necessary to summon the Estates except in situations of political crisis.

The Estates with the greatest control over finances, however, were not necessarily the most likely to thrive. A strong monarchy would try to suppress them; a weak monarchy would be threatened by their power. The English Parliament, seen by many as the most successful of all Estates, was normally willing to compromise with the crown. After 1660, it granted an annual civil list to cover royal expenses. Parliament scrutinized accounts, but did not run the fiscal bureaucracy except during the brief Commonwealth period (16491660). The Castilian Cortes, on the other hand, made royal revenues conditional on mutual contracts, and itself administered the main excise tax, known as the millones because it was calculated in millions of ducats. The Cortes was too strong for a debilitated crown, which felt obliged to transfer the administration of the millones to city councils in 1658, and did not dare summon the Cortes of Castile again. By the late seventeenth century, in fact, many of the Estates of western and central Europe had been too successful for their own good in the sphere of fiscal control. Rulers had decided to cease consulting them and to live off revenues that did not require their approval. The Estates of Brandenburg, for example, became fiscally irrelevant after 1667 when the elector secured an excise tax with the support of the towns. To avoid begging favors from the tumultuous East Prussian Estates, the elector allowed the city of Königsberg to choose its own method of raising taxes.

The second important role of the Estates was legislative. Their approval for the promulgation of new laws was fixed in the privileges of the crown of Aragón, the 1505 Nihil Novi ('nothing new') constitution of Poland (which forbade the introduction of new laws without the approval of the sejm and senate), and the 1576 Union of Utrecht that created the United Provinces. In England, it became impossible, during the course of the seventeenth century, for the ruler to impose a law without consulting Parliament. James II tried this in 1687 with his Declaration of Indulgence (calling for religious toleration), and the results were disastrous. Legislation by the Estates was not fully established in Sweden until the reign of Queen Christina (16401654); it was then self-curtailed in 1680, revived in 1720, and revoked in 1772. Elsewhere, the Estates might be consulted on big changesthe Reformation and the Royal Law in Denmark, the Tridentine decrees (issued by the Council of Trent and central to the Counter-Reformation) in France, or the Russian legal reforms of 16481649but new laws were not regularly submitted to them. The actions of the enlightened monarchs of eighteenth-century Europe were hardly ever approved by representative bodies. Joseph II (ruled 17651790), unlike James II (ruled 16851688), was not seriously challenged by the Estates of the Habsburg lands when he proclaimed his own Edict of Toleration in 1781. The emperor told the Estates of Brabant in 1789: "I do not need your consent to do good."

The administrative role of Estates was significant in parts of France, Germany, and the Habsburg lands. There the Estates had their own salaried bureaucracies, which in the Austrian archduchies outweighed those of the ruler until the late eighteenth century. Throughout central Europe, local "dietines" (sejmiki in Poland, landfridy in Bohemia) were responsible for collecting taxes, maintaining roads and bridges, repairing fortifications, and even raising troops. In Bohemia after 1627, the dietines carried on these functions in the absence of the crown Estates. The Estates of Britanny actually increased their administrative duties in the eighteenth century. (Historians who argue for the decline of Estates should consider such activities more carefully.)

In general, the fiscal and legislative authority of European Estates peaked in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the result of dynastic changes, the Reformation, and the financial demands of monarchs. The huge costs of war and heightened religious tensions put enormous pressure on the Estates in the 1600s. Some failed to meet it and were no longer summoned; others rebelled, with mixed results. By the eighteenth century, they were either entrenched in power or viewed as useless.

Even the most abject of Estates, however, retained a ceremonial importance as the symbolic "point of contact" between ruler and people. The elaborate rituals that opened and closed their meetings served to emphasize the point. In addition, their sessions usually entailed social events and conspicuous consumption that bound elites together and provided a healthy stimulus to the economies of towns in which they gathered.


The Estates in many parts of early modern Europe played a vital part in governance. This was true in kingdoms where royal dominion was limited (where it was "political and regal," to use the term coined by the English chief Justice Sir John Fortescue [c. 13941476]), but it also applied to purely "regal" kingdoms with no clear limits on royal power, like Castile or France. It was chiefly as a result of religious conflict that the Estates acquired a higher theoretical significance. The political writers known as "monarchomachs" claimed that the Estates exercised greater and more ancient authority than that of the king, and were usually ardent Calvinists; for example, Franç ois Hotman (Francogallia, 1573), Hubert Languet and Philip Duplessis-Mornay (Vindiciae contra Tyrannos [Revenge against tyrants], 1579) in France; Théodore de Bèze (The Right of Magistrates, 1573) in Geneva; and John Althusius (Politics, 1603) in Germany. They argued that rulers should be responsible to magistrates (Althusius called them "ephors," using the term for the powerful ancient Spartan officials), and Hotman was explicit in identifying this sovereign body with the Estates-General of France. The aim of the monarchomachs was to question the authority of kings who were hostile to Calvinism; Hotman even changed his mind about the supremacy of Estates when a Protestant, Henry of Navarre (ruled 15891610), became heir to the French throne. Their opponents maintained that kings held sovereignty either by patriarchal right (Jean Bodin [15301596]) or by an irrevocable grant from the people (Hugo Grotius [15831645], Thomas Hobbes [15881679]). However, none of the critics of the monarchomachs went so far as to claim that representative institutions were unnecessary.

The monarchomachs had considerable influence on Dutch political writers, as well as on John Locke (16321704). Althusius was widely cited in Sweden. He influenced both the rebellious Lower Austrian Estates in 1618 and the authors of the 1638 Scottish National Covenant. Yet for most members of Estates, the theories of the monarchomachs were irrelevant. They had no intention of challenging the basis of royal authority, although they might oppose the ruler on specific points. The sort of political writing that most impressed them was not theoretical but historical, like John Selden's (15841654) researches into parliamentary privileges or Francisco Gilabert's (d. 1552) vindication of the constitutional autonomy of Catalonia. The investigation of the legal rights of the Estates of the Holy Roman Empire preoccupied generations of German public lawyers, down to John Jacob Moser (17011785).

When serious confrontations occurred between ruler and Estates, it was because some extraordinary factor had been introduced into their working relationship. In the revolt of the Netherlands against Philip II (ruled 15561598), the factor was religion. This also disturbed the French Estates-General that met at Blois in 1588. Dominated by the Catholic League, it bitterly opposed the succession of the Protestant Henry of Navarre. Five years later, the Estates-General were irregularly convoked by the league in order to sanction the choice of an alternative Catholic monarch. Not surprisingly, the Bourbons never regained confidence in the national legislature. The 1618 rebellion of the Bohemian Estates was largely inspired by religion, as were the English Civil Wars (16421651) between king and Parliament. The causes of the 1640 rebellion in Catalonia were primarily financial, although they were aggravated by Catalan patriotism. The Diputació, the standing committee of the Cortes, opposed the imposition by the crown of military billeting and sharing of the tax burden; it then summoned the Estates, which took the lead in a rebellion lasting twelve years. In contrast, in Sweden it was Queen Christina herself who encouraged the Riksdag to attack the authority of her aristocratic councillors in 1650.

The Estates did not always emerge weaker from these confrontations. The Dutch provincial Estates (which chose the Estates-General) became the most powerful element in the new national polity. A purged English Parliament put the king to death and governed a republic from 1649 to 1653; after the Restoration, in 1660, it recouped its strength as an ally of the crown and the established church. Its opposition to the succession of a Catholic heir allowed Parliament to become the mainstay of royal government after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Swedish Riksdag cemented its relationship with the monarchy by supporting the reduktion ('restitution') of crown lands in 1680. Between 1720 and 1772, it exercised greater authority than the ruler, to the point of creating a secret committee to which the monarch had to report. In Catalonia, a major rebellion against the Spanish monarchy, led by the Cortes, broke out in 1640. Although it eventually failed, the Diputats ('commissioners') of the Cortes continued to play a crucial administrative role. They were abolished in 1716 after making the serious mistake of backing the losing claimant in the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714). Even the French Estates-General were summoned again in the crisis of 1614; elections were held in 1649 and 1651, during the Fronde, but no further session took place until 1789. Only the Bohemian Estates lost completely: except for attendance at coronation ceremonies, they were not summoned by the Habsburg kings for the remainder of the early modern period.

Enough has already been said here to cast doubt on the thesis that the Estates were generally in decline. Yet by the eighteenth century many of them had ceased to meet (the combined Cortes of Castile and Aragón was summoned only three times after 1716), and others had become rubber-stamp assemblies, especially those whose authority was vested in a standing committee, as in Bavaria. Only a few, like the British Parliament, the Dutch Estates-General, the Swedish Riksdag, and the Polish sejm, continued to control finances and legislation. In the rest of Europe, rulers were able to override the Estates. Maria Theresa of Austria (ruled 17401780) completely ignored the Carinthian Estates in imposing a hefty annual contribution for the support of the army in 1750, and her military governors in Transylvania and Croatia ran roughshod over the Estates there. Nevertheless, the empress was careful to win passage of the contribution through the other Austrian Estates, which were more compliant, and she put up with a great deal of obstruction from the powerful Diet of Hungary. As always, monarchs were willing to consult Estates when they felt sure of a friendly reception, or were afraid to do without them. Frederick II (ruled 17401786) did not have to cope with Estates in his Prussian kingdom, but a nobleman once told him to his face that his refusal to hold a diet did not mean he enjoyed unlimited power. The Estates of Königsberg were gone, but not forgotten. Representative bodies had not lost their legitimating power, as the autocratic Russian tsars were well aware. Peter I (ruled 16821725) brought into being a consultative Senate in 1711, and Catherine the Great (ruled 17621796) created provincial assemblies of nobles in 1785.

By the late eighteenth century, the threat to Estates came as much from patriotism as from monarchical despotism. Gustavus III (ruled 17711792) exploited patriotic sentiments in clipping the authority of the Swedish Riksdag in 1772. George III of Great Britain (ruled 17601820) also played the patriot king in challenging his faction-ridden Parliaments. Some of his subjects adhered to a patriotism that was critical of both monarchy and Parliament. These radical patriots began to demand reform of a legislative system that was seen as unrepresentative of the people. Inspired by writers such as James Burgh (Political Disquisitions, 17741775) and John Cartwright (Take Your Choice!, 1776), the reformers became more vocal during the crisis of the War of American Independence (17751783), and formed a network of associations that rivaled Parliament itself as a reflection of the national will. Similarly, in the United Provinces after the ousting of the stadtholder (leader of the United Provinces of the Netherlands) in 1785, and in Poland after the first partition, radical patriots began to discuss an assembly representing the whole people, but Prussian and Russian cannon silenced such proposals. Belgian patriots established an Estates-General early in 1789 and drew up a constitution based on the American Articles of Confederation. Democrats, led by the lawyer J. F. Vonck (17431792), called for suffrage reform, but they were suppressed by the clergy and the Habsburg authorities.

In France, the British model of representative government had been admired by Montesquieu (16891755) and Voltaire (16941778), although the latter gently mocked its partisan divisions. By the 1760s, the younger philosophes (French intellectuals of the French Enlightenment), like Denis Diderot (17131784) or the Swiss-born democrat Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), had little good to say about the "corrupt" British parliamentary system. Rousseau argued for the sovereignty of a "general will" that was the sum of all individual wills. Meanwhile, French politics was convulsed between 1749 and 1774 by the claims of the parlements, the supreme law courts, to represent the nation. In the early 1760s, the parlements backed the Estates of Brittany against an authoritarian provincial governor. Exhausted by such resistance, and facing bankruptcy, the ministers of Louis XVI (ruled 17741792) drafted a proposal to set up new assemblies in provinces that had none. The plan was rejected by the parlements, and the king was obliged in 1789 to convoke the national legislative body, the Estates-General of France. When it declared itself a national assembly, it sent a message to Estates throughout Europe that they must either represent the "general will" or admit that they were merely bastions of aristocratic privilege. Within the next century, all of them either reformed or became defunct.


Alongside the Estates stood a vast range of municipal and communal institutions that can be regarded as representative of local interests. The most celebrated of them were the Italian city-states. While they did not adhere to a single form of government, most of the city-states combined aspects of the guild-based, quasi-democratic medieval communes with councils of wealthy citizens who regarded themselves as the equivalents of Roman senators. The political decline of the city-states was once a standard assumption among historians, but it has now been qualified. Those cities whose constitutions were revised in the early sixteenth century (Genoa, 1528; Venice, 15281529; Lucca, 1532; Florence, 1532; Milan, 1541) tended to survive in this form throughout the early modern period. Aspects of representative government through councils of leading citizens persisted even in Florence under the Medici dukes, or in Milan under its imperial governor. Throughout Italy, the representative principle continued to be important in town government, even in areas subject to the dominion of a hereditary prince. Towns from Vicenza to tiny San Ginesio in the Marche drew up constitutions for municipal governance that included representative institutions. Many were quite democratic. For example, in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, all male heads of household who were natives or longterm residents were admitted to the parlamento.

In Germany, as in Italy, representative institutions endured in the cities and many small towns throughout the early modern period, but they became increasingly oligarchic. The Imperial Free Cities, which were subject only to the Holy Roman emperor, were governed by patriciates that dominated the municipal councils. At Nuremberg, a list of families whose members were eligible for civic office was drawn up in 1521 and adhered to thereafter. In smaller German cities, however, oligarchy did not preclude fairly broad representation. One in ten male citizens of Weissenburg served on the town councils during the eighteenth century, although the chances of serving were far higher if one's name was Roth, Preu, or Oberdorfer. Guilds were active in many small German towns (not at Nuremberg, where they had been abolished), and they were often formally represented on town councils. In some areas of Germany, representative institutions extended into the countryside as well. In Württemberg, after the Thirty Years' War (16181648), adult males in every village elected a Schultheiss ('chief administrator'), a Bürgermeister ('mayor'), a Gericht ('administrative committee'), and a Rat ('deliberative council'), along with representatives to the Estates. Württemberg's highly conservative governing bodies were intended mainly to preserve public order and moral discipline, yet in many respects the duchy became the most perfect example in Europe of a state based from top to bottom on representative institutions.

The German model of urban oligarchy, occasionally combined with guild representation, extended into the Baltic, Poland, Austria, Bohemia, the United Provinces, and Switzerland (at Bern, only 250 families were legally regimentsfähig ['qualified to rule']). It was in such self-governing towns that Protestantism, with its promise of release from clerical interference, made rapid gains in the sixteenth century. Capital cities within monarchical states, however, often endured more direct control from the ruler.

Stockholm, like any other German imperial city, had a burgomaster and council, but they were royally appointed. On the other hand, it also had an assembly of elders that could resist the crown's fiscal demands. In the countryside, moreover, the Swedish peasants could assemble at a traditional häradsting ('district court') at which jurymen, assisted by the public, made decisions about issues of local concern.

The political institutions of English borough towns were uniquely linked to those of the central state, and depended on royal charters to escape the control of landowners. Their right to send representatives to Parliament meant that their affairs were always of interest to the crown. National events like the Reformation (sixteenth century), Civil Wars (16421651), Exclusion Crisis (16781683), or Glorious Revolution (1688) could result in wholesale changes in their governing personnel. It was not until the early eighteenth century that most English towns could sink into the political torpor that their leading families craved. Guilds were of little significance in England, with the notable exception of London, where company freemen elected a common council that shared power with an oligarchic court of aldermen. London was strongly parliamentarian in the Civil War, and firmly Whig in 1688. Its politics thereafter were marked by factionalism, and after 1760 by the efflorescence of various radical movements, usually short-lived.

England had towns without royal charters where governance was essentially manorial or parochial. Scotland, too, had "private burghs," and in France many small municipalities remained in aristocratic control, such as Angers, where the seigneur ('lord') nominated the town council. Poland's "private towns" were created by noblemen and entirely lacked representative institutions. In contrast, Polish peasants had the right to elect village councils.

In France and Spain, town government was profoundly affected by the sale of offices. French magistrates could purchase their positions from the crown, and in some cases, such as Paris after 1581, they had the right to pass them on to their heirs. In Spain, resident aristocrats bought town offices and passed ordinances to prevent those of lesser status from sharing their power. They could also resign in favor of a designated successor. In both kingdoms, elections were usually held only for the lowest administrators, such as market or police officials.

However undemocratic they may have been, urban institutions did serve to protect municipal liberties and privileges. Such independence came under increasing attack after 1660. Louis XIV(ruled 16431715) made a concerted attempt to transfer urban authority to provincial intendants ('administrative officials'). In newly conquered Alsace, the liberties of towns like Strasbourg were stripped away by the French government, and the Spanish Bourbons initiated a similar policy of appointing royal administrators to take charge of urban affairs. The Austrian Habsburgs took away the fiscal powers of Bohemian towns and shifted policing throughout the hereditary lands to the central government. In Prussia and Italy, bureaucrats increasingly usurped municipal duties or filled civic offices. Yet Peter I, who tolerated no challenges to his absolute authority, saw the lack of representative bodies in Russian towns as a weakness. He attempted, without much success, to create town councils in 1699 and 1721, in exchange for regular taxation. Finally, Catherine II decreed in 1785 that all chartered towns would have a council elected by male householders.

There was no real contradiction between the actions of the Russian tsars and those of the rulers of other lands. All monarchs perceived urban government as an administrative tool to be altered according to circumstances. Fiscal policies often required consultation with town magistrates; on other matters, they could be bypassed. Most civic leaders consented to this approach. They had little desire for town councils to become legislatures, or to provide a voice for the people.

Still, there were always those who felt that towns should represent more of their citizens. Whether motivated by religion or patriotism, egalitarianism or opportunism, complaints about urban oligarchy were consistently expressed throughout the early modern period. In Frankfurt, they resulted in a popular and anti-Semitic revolt in 1614 (the socalled Fettmilch uprising, named after its leader, Vincent Fettmilch), as well as a series of political confrontations in 17051732. Agitation against the ruling families of Geneva began in 1707 and culminated in a brief takeover by the opponents of oligarchy in 1782. Before 1789, however, no significant or long-lasting reform took place in civic institutions anywhere in Europe, with the exception of Russia, where it was carried out by the monarch. Urban democracy would begin with the communes of the French Revolution.

See also Democracy ; Estates-General, French ; Intendants ; Law ; Parlements ; Parliament .


Carsten, F. L. Princes and Parliaments in Germany, from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford, 1959. Detailed treatment of a neglected subject.

Evans, R. J. W., and T. V. Thomas, eds. Crown, Church, and Estates: Central European Politics in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York, 1991. Important essays on Estates in Habsburg lands.

Graves, Michael A. R. The Parliaments of Early Modern Europe. Harlow, U.K., 2001. Comparative survey of Estates down to late seventeenth century.

Hoffmann, Philip T., and Kathryn Norberg, eds. Fiscal Crises, Liberty, and Representative Government, 14501789. Stanford, 1994. Essays on England, the Netherlands, Castile, and France.

Jago, Charles. "Habsburg Absolutism and the Cortes of Castile." American Historical Review 86 (1981): 307326. Important article on the continuing significance of the Cortes.

Koenigsberger, H. G. Estates and Revolutions: Essays in Early Modern European History. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971. Essays on Sicilian, Piedmontese, and Netherlandish Estates.

. Politicians and Virtuosi: Essays in Early Modern History. London, 1986. Contains an influential article on "dominium regale" and "dominium politicum et regale."

Major, J. Russell. Representative Government in Early Modern France. New Haven, 1980. Thorough narrative of history of provincial Estates as well as Estates-General.

Myers, A. R. Parliaments and Estates in Europe to 1789.

London, 1975. Still a valuable source of information. Parliaments, Estates, and Representation 1(1980). Journal devoted to the history of representative institutions.

Walker, Mack. Johann Jakob Moser and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981. Biography of leading public lawyer and defender of Estates.

Paul Monod