Failed states and the Carolingian EU

Part of becoming a historian is learning the historiography of your particular specialism: how and why did studies of a particular topic develop as they did? The early historiography of particular subjects tends to be written down in review articles: discussion of modern historians and in particular the link between their political and historical views is mainly imparted by oral tradition instead. (One of the reasons that Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (Harper, 1993) was so controversial was that it made such informal discussion/gossip (sometimes scurrilous) available to a wider audience).

Linking views on history to contemporary politics in this way is an interesting and sometimes enlightening experience, provided it isn’t used at the expense of actually engaging with the historical argument being made. If you automatically dismiss Marxist historians or those in Catholic orders, for example, you’d miss some very important studies. It also encourages you to think of how underlying political assumptions and recent events shapes your own work…

The study of the Carolingian period has had a boom after the Second World War. Not just a number of French and German scholars, who were interested, but also Dutch and British ones. And in many cases this was linked to positive view of the European (Economic) Community/EU. At some level Charlemagne’s empire becomes a prefiguration of a multiethnic, united Europe that goes beyond nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalism. (This relationship is also seen beyond medievalists: there is an annually awarded ‘Charlemagne Prize’ for the person who has done most to promote European unification (

There are obvious problems with the analogy, since Charlemagne’s empire was achieved by conquest, sometimes marked by considerable violence. But it’s still a more inspiring model than Napoleonic Europe, let alone the Third Reich. (I’m not sure to what extent there was a postwar revival in interest in the Roman empire, another possible precursor model for the EU). And even now I suspect you wouldn’t find a British scholar of Carolingian Europe (or early medieval Europe as a whole) who is anti-EU.

I subscribe to this same combination of a positive view of the EU and a fascination with Carolingian Europe and yet mine is a slightly different take, from someone who entered medieval scholarship fifty years after the war. In particular, I am a post-Yugoslavian historian of the early Middle Ages.

I think it is because of the break up of Yugoslavia that I look at the early medieval state from a more sympathetic view than many previous scholars. There has been a tendency to stress the Carolingian state’s inadequacy on many fronts – the many problems with its system of justice, the limited ability of the centre to control the regions, Francia’s relatively rapid disintegration into smaller units. (A lot of this seems to be based implicitly either on comparisons with late nineteenth century bureaucratic states or an idealised Roman Empire). But the lesson I take from Yugoslavia is that a relatively ‘successful’ and ‘modern’ state can collapse into chaos remarkably quickly. And conversely, thinking about both former Yugoslavia and other ‘failed states’, that it is very difficult to rebuild a collapsed state. There are several specific problems. One is that to regain a state’s monopoly on the legitimate authorisation of violence is extremely hard once private militias or a ‘self-help’ tradition of revenge attacks have developed. Secondly once sectarian/factional/religious/ethnic hatreds have either been developed deliberately or at least not been countered effectively, they become self-perpetuating. Thirdly, it is very hard to tackle widespread governmental corruption: you can hardly dismiss the corrupt from office if the majority of officials are corrupt. And fourthly (and linked to this): to get non-corrupt officials, you need them relatively well-paid by the government, which means you need an effective tax system, which means you need non-corrupt officials collecting the tax in the first place, which is a virtuous circle it’s hard to get started on.

All this means that even if you know what it takes to create a successful state it’s hard actually to achieve it starting from unfavourable conditions, as both Bosnia and Afghanistan have shown, along with numerous African examples. In which case the Carolingian attempt at governing an empire shouldn’t be judged too harshly: large-scale order is hard to maintain, and it’s even harder to create. And it also raises a more worrying thought about our own countries. How resilient are they in reality? To what extent are modern nations just confidence tricks, only sustainable as long as most people are prepared to buy into their illusions?


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