Administration: Offices and Institutions

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Administration: Offices and Institutions



Amateurism. Government administration in the era 1350-1600 was marked by amateurism. A large portion of government officials had no formal training for their positions. If they were nobles, it was expected that they were qualified by birth to undertake the business of government without any professional training or experience. It was marked also by clericalism; the word clerk came from the fact that the medieval clerks were clerics. Since they could read and write and calculate, clergymen often became officials, although that practice declined dramatically after 1517 in those lands that became Protestant. A third feature of administration was its small size. The number of officials and bureaucrats was amazingly small, even taking into consideration the smaller size of states and the population in that era. Around 1500 the French monarchy, which had the largest bureaucracy, had eight thousand to twelve thou-sand officials, about one per twelve thousand to sixteen thousand persons.

Italian City-States. The powerful Italian city-states were models of effective administration. Their wealth enabled them to finance large bodies of officials, who could be drawn from the bourgeois families with an interest in educating their sons in the skills necessary for administration. The ability to write the important documents in classical Latin became ever more highly valued as the Renaissance progressed, and the desire of cities to have famous humanists on the payroll helped to stimulate the growth of humanism. The spread of Roman law in Italy also stimulated the growth of bureaucracies, since the codes of Roman law took for granted the existence of officials in the extensive Roman bureaucracy and described their functions and responsibilities.


The sixteenth-century Italian political philosopher Niceolo Machiavelli believed that a successful ruler must instill fear in his subjects. The following selection is from his Il principe (The Prince, 1513).

Here the question arises; whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved. The answer is that it would be desirable to be both but, since that is difficult, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved, if one must choose. For on men in general this observation may be made: they are ungrateful, fickle, and deceitful, eager to avoid dangers, and avid for gain, and while you are useful to them they are all with you, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons so long as danger is remote, as we noted above, but when it approaches they turn on you, Any prince, trusting only in their words and having no other preparations made, mil fall to his ruin, for friendships that are bought at a price and not by greatness and nobility of soul are paid for indeed, but they are not owned and cannot be called upon in time of need. Men have less hesitation in offending a man who is loved than one who is feared, for love is held by a bond of obligation which, as men are wicked, is broken whenever personal advantage suggests it, but fear is accompanied by the dread of punishment which never relaxes.

Source: Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1513), translated and edited by Thomas G. Bergin (New York Appleton-Century, 1947), p. 48.

Venice. The increasing amount of record keeping demonstrated bureaucratic instincts of Italian urban officials. Venice set the standard in that respect, as it did in most aspects of administration, but it should be noted that the Church and its institutions had long been efficient record keepers. The Venetian archives are a treasure trove of information. In 1484 the Florentine chancellor ordered the recopying of the important records from its archives to be kept in a separate place should the originals be destroyed by fire. One reason for increased record keeping was the growing specialization of the officials; a small group of men was no longer in control of the affairs of government and knowledgeable about them. Separate offices for finances, justice, military affairs, and diplomacy were organized,

which was a process that appeared later in the other European states as well. The best example of the creation of a professional body of officials was the Venetian diplomatic service. By 1431 Venice was dispatching trained diplomats to the major governments of Italy and northern Europe. Part of their duties was to pick up any information that might have an impact on Venice and especially its commerce with those places and report it promptly. When an ambassador was called home, he had to produce a lengthy report providing as much information as possible about the government, key officers, condition of the military and the economy, and prospects for war and peace in the place where he was posted. Those reports are today truly valuable historical sources.

Doges and Councils. Venice was the envy of Europe with its excellent administrative service and its internal stability. The head of the government was the doge (duke), who was elected for life, usually at fairly advanced age. His power declined after 1350, and by 1600 he was little more than a figurehead. Real authority resided in the Great Council, which was made up of all male members of the great families over the age of twenty-five; they totaled about 2 percent of the city’s population. Since it met only on Sundays, in order to carry on routine government business it elected a council of three hundred, which was known as the Senate. It received and sent out ambassadors, appointed the governors for its holdings in the Mediterranean and on the mainland, and named the committees that supervised the city. In times of war and other crises, a Council of Ten made the urgent decisions. Venice was thus an oligarchy; the vast majority of the people had no voice in the government. The oligarchy, while quick to watch out for its own interests, worked to ensure the well-being of all of the residents and was sufficiently successful that there were none of the violent uprisings that marked most other Italian cities. While hardly free of crime, Venice was the safest place in Europe as well as the most prosperous, and credit belonged largely to its oligarchy.

Florence. The other Italian cities maintained at least some elements of their earlier communal government; tensions that this situation created were responsible in part for frequent revolts. Florence retained more of the form of its commune than most, which seems to have been a factor in the social unrest that marked the fourteenth century, culminating in the major revolt of the laborers in the cloth industry in 1378 called the Ciompi Revolt. The Florentine elite responded by changing the government more in their favor, and it then remained unchanged until the creation of the duchy of Tuscany in 1531. Members of all the guilds were subject to the scrutiny, which determined if they were eligible to hold office. The scrutiny usually went against members of the lesser guilds, leaving the names of mer-chants and the wealthier artisans to be placed in a lottery for selection to the signoria for a two-month term. The eight-man signoria served as the executive council to supervise the government officials, but it had to take major decisions such as declarations of war to a council of all the citizens for approval. The signoria appointed the members of the chancery, whose first secretary was chief administrative officer for the city. It was this position that Niccolo Machiavelli held when he was ousted from power in 1512.

The Medici. The post-1378 Florentine system, especially the scrutiny, was open to manipulation by powerful politicians, and none did it better than the Medici, a wealthy banking family. In 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici gained control of the city, and three generations of Medici dominated it until 1494, despite rarely holding public office. They ran a political machine that ensured their supporters were chosen for the signoria. The Medici were ousted in 1494 but returned to power in 1512. In 1531 Florence was transformed into a principality with a Medici becoming its duke.

Holy Roman Empire. The cities of northern Europe had governments largely similar to Florence’s, although few had anything similar to the scrutiny. Only a handful had the kind of independence Florence did. The others answered to a superior power, usually a king or the emperor. Those cities in the Holy Roman Empire took part in what limited administration there was for the empire as a whole. The emperor appointed the imperial chancellor, who was the chief administrative officer. His staff of clerks and diplomats was considerably smaller than those for the other major states of Europe. When matters that concerned the entire Empire needed to be decided, such as a foreign war or the issue of religion during the Reformation, a meeting of the Imperial Diet was held. Its usual function was approving new taxes to allow the emperor to field an army. About 150 princes and great nobles, 100 bishops, and 65 towns had the right to send delegates to the Diet; not all attended every meeting. The northern Italian states and the Swiss refused to attend the Diet, which was therefore largely a German institution. Besides presiding over meetings of the Diet, the emperor’s authority extended largely to directing the foreign policy of the Holy Roman Empire. He sent and received ambassadors, signed treaties, and declared war. On occasion he also served as supreme judge in matters of concern to the entire Empire. For a century after 1350, there were still imperial councils where proceedings were carried on in secret. Bitter complaints about them persuaded the emperor to curtail their jurisdiction, and local administration thereafter was almost entirely under the control of the local political unit.

England and France. The growth of royal administration was a key characteristic in the national monarchies of the late Middle Ages. Since much of English administration was created by the Anglo-Norman kings after 1066, there were many similarities between the English and French governments. The basic principle of royal government was that the king embodied in himself all of the powers of government and handed out a share of it to others to ensure the well-ordered governance of the realm. The king could not do all of the business of the government, even if he wanted to, and most kings preferred to spend time hunting or with the army at war rather than deal with the details of finance or justice. Royal officials were the king’s “creatures,” although his ability to remove them was often stymied by the lifetime tenure that some had, such as the chancellor in France. The kings had always surrounded themselves with close friends, who gave him advice. By 1350 they formed a formal council called the privy council in England and the secret council in France. There was also a much larger council, the great council, made up of the powerful nobles and royal officials. Major decisions were made first in the privy council and then confirmed by the great council.

Great Seal. The chancellor, in England called the lord chancellor, was the chief officer of the realm under the king. His most important duty was keeping the great seal, which had to be used on royal degrees for them to be valid. He could object to sealing a degree on the grounds that it was contrary to the laws of the realm, which usually caused the king to reconsider it, although he could also formally order the chancellor to seal it and make it law. He also supervised the system of justice and served as the chief of the law courts; in France he was automatically the head of the high court called the Parlement.

Finances. In England all royal financial matters were handled in the Exchequer, headed by the lord treasurer. The French system was divided into a chamber of accounts, which was responsible for accounting, and a treasury, which collected and dispensed royal revenues. The French monarchy had three types of taxes: the largest was the taille, originally a war tax that appeared during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which was collected only from commoners on the grounds that the nobles served the king with their blood; the gabelle was a tax on salt; and the aide, a sales tax and the oldest of the three, developed out of the practice by medieval kings to ask for aid for war. In addition, the king had revenues from royal properties, tolls on commerce, and his role as head of the feudal system. The English tax system was more complicated, as the king collected a large variety of taxes, including the old danegeld, which had been first imposed by Alfred the Great to fight the Vikings.

Military. War was the major reason why kings raised taxes. In peacetime they were expected to live off of their properties and feudal dues. The king was the commander- in-chief of the army, and in England it rarely fought without him in command. On the few occasions when he was not present, a prince took his place. In France there was a larger military establishment. The constable was the king’s lieutenant in the field when the king was not present with the army, which was fairly often, and he also had extensive duties in seeing to the army’s maintenance during peace-time. He was also a major figure in the king’s councils. By 1500 his responsibilities at the court frequently prevented him from commanding in battle, and the marshals, whose original task was to keep order in the army as it marched, often took command. By 1600 there were four marshals in the French army. The admiral was responsible for coastal defense; he rarely commanded a fleet at sea. The French army that fought in the Hundred Years’ War, except for its mercenary Italian crossbowmen, was made up largely of the feudal levy. Nobles who held fiefs were obliged to provide military service for them. The English fighting men were almost all paid for their service in that war. The English monarchy had replaced feudal service with a tax called scutage that replaced military service for much of the English nobility. France did not get a professional army until 1445, when Charles VII created fifteen royal cavalry companies. They were paid out of the taille, which the king had been given the right in 1439 to collect for the duration of the war with England. Like nearly every war tax in his-tory, it continued to be collected after the war.

Parliament. In 1362 Edward III promised the English Parliament that the monarchy would not impose a new tax on wool without its consent. It was the first time that the king committed himself to consulting Parliament about raising taxes. For more than a century the English kings had been calling meetings of the major men of the realm because they found it easier to raise money if they had the consent of those who had to pay. By 1362 Parliament was organized into two houses: Lords, which included the bishops and the greater nobles; and Commons, which had representatives from the lesser nobility and the towns. By joining the petty nobles with the bourgeoisie from the towns, the English system avoided the problem of the bitter division between nobles and commoners found in France. The kings found that they usually could get what they asked for from the Parliament and called it to assemble often. It became an important part of the English system of government. When Henry VIII asked it to approve of his degrees for breaking the ties of the English Church with the papacy in 1531, it created another important precedent for the steadily increasing authority of the Parliament.

Estates General. In France a similar institution was called the Estates General. It was composed of three estates: the churchmen or First Estate, the nobles or Second Estate, and the commoners, usually townspeople, or Third Estate. The final vote on an issue was done by the whole estate, that is, a total of three votes. On issues such as taxation, the Third Estate usually found itself outvoted two to one. The commoners were far less likely to accept a new tax imposed on them than was true in England, where there was a greater sense that their representatives had approved of it. The Estates General, therefore, never developed an important role in French government, because the kings found that it did not prove helpful and did not call it often. Unlike England, there were provincial estates in France, which were easily bent to the king’s will, and the French king found it easier to raise taxes from them than the Estates General.

The Cortes. Similar institutions were found in nearly every medieval realm. In the Spanish kingdoms they were called the Cortes, which also had three estates as in France. In Aragon the Cortes gained extraordinary power to supervise the king and his officials, and in the century before the union with Castile it was the most powerful in Europe. The Spanish monarchs after 1469 preferred the Castilian system of a weak Cortes, and by 1592, when Philip II formed a unified Spanish government, the Aragonese Cortes had lost most of its power.

The Sejm. In Poland-Lithuania, the representative institution, the Sejm, gained power to the detriment of the king’s authority in the sixteenth century. Every nobleman was eligible to attend along with delegates from a large number of towns, and even Jews sent deputies representing their communities. In 1505 King Alexander pledged that the king could decide nothing without the consent of the Sejm. Once the Polish monarchy became truly elective after the Jagellonian dynasty ended in 1572, the Sejm steadily increased its powers through concessions demanded from the successful candidates, and it changed from being a valuable check on royal power to becoming an obstacle to effective government in Poland-Lithuania.

Castile, Austria, and the Papal States. The other monarchies of western and central Europe were administered largely as France and England were. Their governments had developed from much the same institutions and practices, and France in particular served as a model for other realms, especially for those on its borders. Castile’s administration was a smaller version of France’s. The principalities of the empire had even smaller administrations, although that of Austria grew in size and sophistication after the Habsburgs became entrenched as emperors. Among the most poorly administered realms before 1500 were the Papal States. Despite the impressive advances in administration that the popes made for governing the Church, they made little effort to improve the governing machinery for their Italian lands until the reign of Pope Julius II (1503-1513).

Ottoman Empire. While the Christian states had administrations that were largely similar across Europe, the Ottoman Empire’s was far different. The sultans took over the administration of the Byzantine Empire they conquered, but it too was different from the Western style of government. The Byzantine emperor had been the absolute despot of his empire in matters of state and religion, and the sultan easily took over the same role. As the absolute head of Islam he protected its holy places, interpreted

its law, which served as civil law in Muslim states, and led its fighting men in war against the infidels. In a way that was never true in Western Christendom with its competition between pope and rulers, the sultan combined in himself supreme authority of both state and religion. The sultan also ruled millions of Christians and Jews who lived in his empire. The sultan did appoint the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church and the chief rabbi of the Jews, but as long as those subjects paid their taxes, which were heavier than for Muslims, and did not rebel, they were allowed to govern themselves in what were called mullets. The most unusual feature of the relationship between the Ottoman state and its non-Muslim subjects was the practice of taking boys from Christian families as part of their tax and raising them as Muslims and soldiers. They formed the Janissaries, whose fanaticism in battle and loyalty to the sultan became legendary. They often gained high government and military positions, although they officially were the sultan’s slaves. The practice led to many conversions to Islam among the Christians of the Balkans, creating the Muslim population that is still present in many Balkan states.

Sultan’s Household. Since the sultan was the absolute despot of his empire, his household was the center of administration. That had been true earlier in the Middle Ages in the West, but it had disappeared by 1350, although many of the royal offices had emerged out of the royal household. Part of the household was the harem, which included all of the women at the court. Muslim law requires the seclusion of women, and the harem was guarded from prying eyes by a corps of eunuchs (emasculated men). The sultan’s mother was the most powerful member of the harem. Beginning with Selim II’s succession in 1566, she was usually young when her son succeeded to the throne, and she maintained power and influence over him for a long time. In theory she was less powerful than the grand vizier, but often she had greater influence than he did. The grand vizier was the chief administrative officer of the empire. He received the sultan’s seal upon gaining the post and had the right to make nearly all decisions and appointments for the sultan, although he needed to clear the major ones with his ruler. When the seal was taken from him, it was the signal that he had been dismissed from office; his execution frequently followed.

Change. After Selim II became sultan, the independence of the grand vizier increased significantly. One official who answered directly to the sultan and not through

the grand vizier was the treasurer, who had complete authority over the imperial fiscal system. Another was the commander of the Janissary corps, who usually rose through the ranks and in the later empire, sometimes to the office of grand vizier. This method of advancement meant that the major officials of the Turkish state often came from Christian families, but they were Muslims by the time they gained office, as all officials had to be. The admirals of the Ottoman fleet usually were also former Christians, but they were renegades who came into Turkish service as adults. By bringing some of their subject peoples into government service, the Ottoman sultans were able to overcome the problem of the relatively small numbers of ethnic Turks in their empire, bind the subject peoples more tightly to their rule, and create an impressive administration for their vast empire that lasted into the modern era.

Colonies. The effective administration of vast overseas colonial empires was also a problem for the Spanish and Portuguese after 1492. In the East the Portuguese were content to build up an empire of trading posts without directly ruling more than a handful of people, but in Brazil they faced much the same situation as the Spanish, and there the administration was largely the same. Already in 1503 the Spanish government established the Board of Trade in Seville to control completely all trade and travel to and from the New World. In 1524 it created the Council of the Indies, which oversaw all appointments in the colonies, created and implemented policy there, and controlled the military. Once the Inca Empire had been conquered in 1529, Spanish-ruled America was divided into two kingdoms, New Spain (Mexico) and Peru (most of South America), and Spanish viceroys (vice-kings) were appointed to rule them. They had most of the authority and privileges of the king but only for a three-year term. While they were the heads of the royal courts in the colonies called the audunda, the other judges could appeal to the king in Madrid, which was a major check on the viceroy’s power. Another check was royal appointment of the captains of the captaincies-general into which the large colonial kingdoms were divided. All of the major officers in the Spanish colonies came from Spain, and most intended to return home after their terms were up and their fortunes made. This situation prevented them from becoming well entrenched in their colonial posts and too sympathetic to the colonial-born Spaniards, the Creoles. The Spanish kings were amazingly successful in appointing men who remained loyal, and they also established a loyal administration for their vast empire that lasted until 1800.


Christopher R. Friedrichs, The Early Modern City, 1450-1750 (London &, New York: Longman, 1995).

Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London & New York: Longman, 1989).

De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution (Lexington, Mass. & Toronto: D. C. Heath, 1981).

Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation (Lexington, Mass. & Toronto: D. C. Heath, 1981).

David Nicholas, The Transformation of Europe 1300-1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Eugene F. Rice Jr. and Anthony Grafton, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (New York: Norton, 1994).

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