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Response to Review of Magnanimous Dukes and Rising States: the Unification of the Burgundian Netherlands 1380-1480

I am very pleased that the translation of my book opens the fascinating world of the Burgundian Netherlands to a larger audience. I think Katherine Wilson gives an excellent summary of its aims and contents. I am very grateful for her very generous review and I can’t contradict her in any respect.

In the final paragraphs of her review, Katherine Wilson makes a series of interesting and inspiring suggestions for further research, which I would like to endorse.

Until recently, the phantom of the modern state of the 19th and 20th century, with its strong centralisation of power and clear-cut territorial boundaries, has haunted the agenda of many medievalists and early modernists. There are two consequences to this. Firstly, many historians chose a teleological approach, trying to legitimize the modern state-system, which in western Europe was essentially completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Secondly, the roots of the modern state as an institution with a monopoly on violence became the subject of research. I doubt if this is a sound approach for the research of state formation in the 19th and 20th centuries, but certainly it blurs our view on the early state of the late Middle Ages. On the one hand, it conceals the mosaic character of most medieval and early modern polities. On the other hand, it denies the fact that the state is far more than just an instrument of power. As an institution, it is also an answer to questions in society regarding (local) balance of power, legal security, and economic stability. The field of tension between the ambitions of the ruler and those of his subjects will differ per place and circumstances. A comparative study of state formation will give new insights into the similarities and divergence of early state formation. A good example in this respect is the recent Government and Political Life in England and France.(1)

Several subjects present themselves as suitable for a comparative approach. In my book, I suggest that the insights of the New Institutional Economics might be of importance for the research of state formation. As Katherine Wilson points out, the intent to which polities and their institutions are subordinate to the powers of economy is an interesting line of further research. The culture of administration is another one: an international comparison of institutions, of legal, administrative and accounting procedures and documentation would be both feasible and enlightening. It would result in a far better insight into the traditions, innovations and forces involved in creating the modern state. An excellent example of this kind of research is John Sabapathy’s Officers & Accountability in Medieval England 1170-1300.(2) Finally, there is the development of collective identities and the use of indoctrination by those possessing or aiming for power. In Magnanimous Dukes, I have avoided this touchy subject, but it might be of crucial importance for our understanding the formation of the (early) modern state. All these subjects are suitable for comparison on a European, or even – why not? – on a global scale.

I want express my gratitude to Katherine Wilson for the thoughtful and stimulating remarks she made in this review. I hope that my book may inspire scholars and students to rethink the character, challenges and merits of the early state.


  1. Government and Political Life in England and France, ed. Christopher Fletcher, Jean-Philippe Genet and John Watts (Cambridge, 2015).Back to (1)
  2. John Sabapathy, Officers & Accountability in Medieval England 1170–1300 (Oxford, 2014).Back to (2)