Government, Forms of

views updated

Government, Forms of

The forms of government adopted by various Renaissance states reflected their particular historical backgrounds and political dynamics. The most common form of government was monarchy—rule by a single powerful leader such as a king or queen. Most monarchs did not hold absolute power. Usually they worked together with representative assemblies that exercised some control over lawmaking and taxation.

Political systems such as oligarchy, despotism, and absolutism also appeared frequently in Renaissance states. Some systems were based on ancient political theories, while others emerged as a result of new developments. Over time, various European states switched from one form of government to another as political and social conditions changed.


The most complex form of government in the Renaissance was oligarchy—rule by a restricted number of men. Those in power, usually the leading merchants of the city, claimed to represent the interests of the people. Cities with oligarchies often called themselves republics* and looked to the cities of ancient Greece and Rome as models. These republics had laws that guaranteed some rights to all citizens and limited the power of members of the government.

Some cities were ruled by broad oligarchies, with many men sharing power; others were ruled by narrow oligarchies in which fewer men governed. In Italy, Venice, Florence, Siena, Lucca, and Genoa had republican governments dominated by leading merchant families. But the number of men who held power varied considerably. In Florence and Siena, for example, 2,000 to 3,000 men (out of a total population of 20,000 to 50,000 men, women, and children) possessed the right to vote and to hold office. These republics had strict laws regarding the length of political terms, and this limited the power of individuals. In addition, some officials were chosen by lot, not by election. By contrast, Venice, the largest Italian republic, had a more narrow oligarchy. Only about 2,000 to 3,000 men (in a total population of about 175,000 men, women, and children) could vote and hold office. However, the rest of the citizens never tried to overthrow the government because it ruled Venice well.

Many northern European cities also had narrow oligarchies. Cities such as Augsburg, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Lübeck, and NÜrnberg were ruled by oligarchies of 50 to 100 men. But even these oligarchies were not closed. Wealthy newcomers could become part of the oligarchy and participate in ruling the city. Some cities that were linked to larger states such as England or the Venetian republic also had oligarchies with considerable power. The Venetian government permitted city oligarchies to rule and decide local matters, as long as taxes were collected and the town did not rebel against Venice.

City oligarchies were remarkably durable. Although some German cities turned from Catholicism to Lutheranism in the 1500s, the same individuals and families often continued to rule. During the Renaissance, oligarchies became smaller and more restrictive. By the late 1500s, many of them were hereditary, with sons and nephews of former council members following their fathers and uncles in office.


The meaning of the term despotism has changed over time. Originally, the word referred to the relationship between a master and a slave. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used despotism to describe unlawful power exercised to advance the interests of the few against the will of the many. Later, some writers referred to lords who ruled Renaissance cities as despots.

In the late 1200s, rivalries between political factions threatened to tear apart communities in northern and central Italy. To restore order, many towns and cities gave power to the head of a prominent local family. The town councils chose these lords as rulers but kept certain privileges, such as the right to approve or reject the lord's choice of a successor. Over time, the lords acquired political, financial, and military power and often received a title from the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor*. This helped strengthen the lord's power. It also reduced or eliminated the people's control over succession, in effect creating a hereditary dynasty.

Scholars dispute whether the term despotism accurately describes the rule of Renaissance lords. Some have seen despotism as a form of government halfway between monarchy and tyranny*. Others have compared the rule of a despot to the authority of the head of a household over his slaves or the rights of a conqueror over the conquered.

Some scholars have regarded despotism as unlawful rule that destroys the legitimate organs of government. However, this view does not reflect the political reality of the Renaissance. Lords who rose to power during this period did not aim to eliminate traditional city government. Instead, they usually cooperated with existing organizations, and governments continued to function and often grew and prospered under their rule.


Absolutism has two different, but related, meanings. It can signify a form of government in which the central authority has almost unlimited control over the citizens. It can also refer to the idea that legitimate heads of state answer to no one but God and may govern without the consent of the people.

Concept and Theory. During the 1500s various political theorists, such as French writer Jean Bodin, favored absolute monarchy. Bodin argued that the stability of the state depended on rule by a single individual. He and other supporters of this form of government believed that rulers should respect the established rights of groups and individuals. But kings or queens should also have the powers needed to govern effectively, including the ability to act without restrictions in times of emergency. In Bodin's view, subjects should not actively resist the king, but they may disobey royal orders that violate divine law. In addition, the king should generally obtain the people's consent to raise taxes.

By the early 1600s, the theory of "the divine right of kings" emerged to support the claim that rulers received their power from God, not from the people. Some writers viewed the state as a family and compared the king's authority to that of a father over his wife and children. Based on these views, many supporters of absolutism dropped the requirement that monarchs obtain the people's consent before raising taxes.

Practice of Absolutism. The period from the late 1500s to the mid-1700s is often seen as an age of absolutism, during which states increased their power at the expense of representative assemblies, local officials, and the church. As state power grew, central bureaucracies expanded, governments created large standing armies, and monarchs began to exercise greater authority over legislation and state finances.

France was one of the first countries to move toward an absolutist form of government. The turmoil caused by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the late 1500s led to a demand for a stronger central government. France's king Henry IV expanded the authority of the monarchy in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Royal power continued to grow under Henry's successors and peaked during the reign of Louis XIV in the late 1600s. Under Louis, the high court lost the right to challenge royal orders, and the clergy confirmed the king's right to control the French church.

Similar developments occurred during the 1600s in Prussia and Russia. In all these places the monarch's ability to direct public affairs had practical limits. Nevertheless, the power of kings in many countries was much stronger at the end of the 1600s than it had been a century earlier.

(See alsoCity-States; Constitutionalism; Nation-state; Political Thought; Princes and Princedoms; Representative Institutions, Wars of Religion. )

* republic

form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

Resistance to Tyranny

Political thinkers of the Renaissance debated how to get rid of tyrants. Some believed that citizens could resist tyrants who seized property, overturned the rule of law, or threatened religion. In the mid-1550s, English writer John Ponet argued that God grants authority to rulers through the consent of the people. If a ruler acts unjustly, the people may revoke that authority. Other writers stressed the need for formal procedures to unseat a tyrant. The most radical thinkers declared that an unjust ruler's violation of duties gave citizens the right to take any action, including killing the ruler, to defend the public good.

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* tyranny

form of government in which an absolute ruler uses power unjustly or cruelly

About this article

Government, Forms of

Updated About content Print Article


Government, Forms of