Why Care About Medieval Ruler Tenure?

As I get prepared for graduate school, one of the things I’ve been doing is just flipping through recent political science journals (JSTOR, I have missed you) to see what is going on of interest recently. One of my favorite papers from the last few years is of incredible modern interest and relevance…and it’s called “The Feudal Revolution and Europe’s Rise: Political Divergence of the Christian West and the Muslim World Before 1500“, by Lisa Blaydes and Eric Chaney. Blaydes and Chaney argue that the roots of the Industrial Revolution rely on the institutions of the West, specifically the “credible restraints” on rulers that provided a stable climate for investment. This isn’t a new argument, but Blaydes and Chaney take it a step further by demonstrating that the roots of these better institutions lie not in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, but ultimately in feudal Europe.

This isn’t a new argument either, though Blaydes and Chaney provide mathematical backing and a number of empirical tests against alternatives, measuring the key metric of rulers’ tenure duration. As it turns out, ruler tenures were reliably longer in the West and ruler deposals less frequent. The argument for the institutional divergence is an “advantages of backwardness”-type argument. In short, Muslim rulers inherited the administrative machinery of the Roman/Byzantine empires almost intact, and could rule by skimming off the revenue and using it to pay professional militaries. Feudal leaders in Western Europe didn’t have that luxury, as the Fall of Rome destroyed much of the infrastructure, and they had to rely on feudal levies. As a result, “decentralizing power increases the cost of an unsuccessful revolt for the monarch’s rivals”. On the other hand, with professional militaries and bureaucracies in the Muslim world, coups were possible in a way they weren’t in the feudal West. The authors suggest that the operative mechanism is the cost of the revolt, whereas I would place it elsewhere – the rewards of a revolt are much lower, because being a constrained monarch is much less rewarding than an absolute one.

I know what you’re thinking – but how does this apply to Game of Thrones? Pretty well! Book & show spoilers follow, natch. When Danaerys turns the Unsullied against their erstwhile masters in Astapor, and then seizes power in Meereen, she is playing on precisely this weakness of bureaucratized premodern societies – there are high rewards to simply removing the head and stepping in. On the other hand, a palace coup in King’s Landing doesn’t do you any good, for if the Lords of Westeros revolt there’s no Royal Army to stand against them. Robert Baratheon could never have seized power without assembling a coalition of lords sufficient to allow him to hold on to it, and by distributing the appropriate amount of power amongst his backers that later limited his power as King. It’s no wonder that Ned Stark never was tempted to sit the Iron Throne – as Baratheon says before he dies, keeping the squabbling lords in their place is not a great deal of fun. In the absolute monarchy of Meereen, the decision calculus is much different and revolves around the greater privilege of monarchs and a correspondingly higher choice of assassination.

A fun question to consider is when leader tenure stopped being a sign of effectiveness and started being a sign of dysfunction. Today the longest-running leaders tend to be autocrats like Castro or Mugabe presiding over more-or-less broken states. I don’t think there’s necessarily an easy quantitative way to examine this, because in the post-monarchic world sometimes the relevant power-holder is head of government or head of state. In England, it’s the Head of Government David Cameron not the weak Head of State Queen Elizabeth. In the United States, it’s the strong Head of State Barack Obama not the weak Head of Government John Boehner. However, at a glance it seems that Blaydes and Chaney’s argument could be applied to the modern world by measuring regime tenure rather than leader tenure. England’s government, which features robust power-sharing, boasts a strong track of stability since 1688. The United States just hit 225 years since the Constitution. However, in another fun flip-around it is the most highly bureaucratized states that are the least prone to violence and coups. Credible constraints are still very important on the leader, but at a certain point in history the best way of enforcing them became a state monopoly on violence instead of the other way around.

What’s the cause for this flip-flop? Technological considerations seem like an obvious candidate, but the operative mechanism isn’t so obvious. The growing firepower of modern armies, and the impracticality of assembling countervailing forces, seem more likely to lead to tyranny and coups than the opposite. Economic and financial causes are worth considering, with the sovereign forced to act somewhat responsibly in order to assemble those modern armies. Perhaps we should scrape the bottom of the barrel and look at non-materialist causes such as the role of liberalism and the Englightenment. Either way, it’s all very confusing to consider and worthy of further thought.


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