Looking Back

December 7, 2010

Today I took a look at my previous efforts to maintain this blog, and was surprised to find how many entries I made during the spring of 2007 – and also that some number of readers managed to find and read these, back before I had my audience of Facebook friends whom I count on for the occasional click or two.
It seems that back then I put down a lot of more random stuff about what I was doing each day, with a remarkable number of references to the reading I was doing in medieval English history. I clearly remember reading the stuff, but until I saw my old posts I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that it was in 2007 that I read it. Maybe it’s a topic I should revisit.

One of my interests in this area is the question of how “government” as we know it evolved – not just the English or Anglo-American form of government, but more broadly how humankind developed the general ability to work together in these large impersonal structures in the first place, everyone more or less respecting laws made and orders given by strangers in faraway places. I imagine that in the earliest days of the species the only effective units of society were groups of people who knew one another, extended families and groups of families. (By the way, a certain Robin Dunbar has calculated that 150 – “Dunbar’s number” – is the maximum number of friends that the human mind is capable of keeping track of. Coincidentally, last time I checked I had 149 on Facebook…)
Now however we have these territorial entities containing in some cases hundreds of millions of people, none of whom will ever meet more than a few of the others, and which everyone takes for granted that they belong to and owe a profound loyalty. How did this happen and what does it mean?

I’ve just been looking through a book called Birth of the leviathan: Building states and regimes in medieval and early modern Europe, by Thomas Ertman, which starts out with one of those annoyingly schematic two-dimensional classifications of pre-modern European states, proposes a pair of variables to account for them, then adds further complications as the scheme turns out not to fit this case or that, until we get a very nice detailed description of the course of events in most of the main countries, explaining exactly why Sweden for instance turned out rather unique… On the one hand the theory is that developments are severely constrained by their starting conditions, but on the other there are so many quirks that can enter into the process that there is no way in the end to do much more than describe each particular instance. I rather like that.

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