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The Formation of Modern Nation States

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  • 0:05 Europe Prior to the 1500s
  • 1:52 The Decline of Feudalism
  • 2:44 Monarchs Emerge
  • 5:11 Church Power Declines
  • 6:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains the formation of the modern nation-states. It will highlight how the decline of feudalism, as well as the decline in church power, helped bring about the modern nation-state. It will also feature several monarchs who ruled during these times.

Europe Prior to the 1500s

In today's modern world, the idea of nations and nationalities is widely understood. For instance, I'm an American, and so are these guys. These folks are not. Although we're all rather friendly, we come from different nations, and this makes sense to us.

Nationality was not so common before the 14th century
People of Different Nations

However, this concept was not always understood. In fact, prior to the 1500s, the known world was without concrete nations or, to use the scholarly term, nation-states. In today's lesson, we'll be focusing on these modern nation-states and how they came about. For our purposes, we'll focus on two main factors which led to the rise of nation-states. They are: the decline of feudalism and the decline of Church power.

To begin, a nation-state is a defined territory with a sovereign government, made up of people sharing a common culture, history, and language. It's what's usually meant when we hear terms like nation or country. The medieval period of Europe, which lasted from about the 5th to the 15th century, saw most of Europe entrenched in feudalism. Feudalism is a political and economic system based on land ownership. Under feudalism, most people lived on land owned by a wealthy nobleman. The land owned by a noble or lord was known as a fief and was almost a kingdom in itself, with its own laws and practices. Although the common folk may have heard of a king, it was the wealthy land owner who ruled their lives. Their allegiance was to him and his land, not to a crown or a country. However, this all started to change during the 15th century.

The Decline of Feudalism

The development of trade routes led to the creation of new towns and cities.
European Trade Routes Developed

After the Crusades, or wars fought between the Christian West and the Muslim East over the Holy Lands, European soldiers began returning home with tales of the wealthy East. This led to the development of trade routes between the East and the West, and in just a short time, towns and cities began developing along these routes. Over time, these towns began demanding independence from local lords, realizing they could stand on their own. Making matters even worse for the feudal lords, towns became beacons of freedom for poor workers looking for life beyond the yoke of feudalism. Instead of feeling trapped by generations of poverty, the poorer classes seized the opportunity to become free merchants and craftsman within these new towns. In short, as towns grew, feudalism's grip began to weaken.

Monarchs Emerge

As feudal lords were losing their grip, a number of European monarchs seized the opportunity to consolidate power by allying themselves with the growing merchant class. An excellent example of this was Louis XI, who ruled France from 1461-1483. When Louis XI took the throne, France was still in the grips of feudalism. However, during his reign, he won the allegiance of the merchant class by encouraging trade through the building and maintaining of roads, which made commerce much easier. Of course, he imposed taxes to pay for these improvements, but since trade was increasing, people were more than willing to trade in feudalism for taxation from a strong, stable king. In fact, Louis XI is seen as one of the first modern kings of France, who helped take his country from a group of feudal kingdoms to a unified country.

Henry VII was instrumental in creating the powerful nation state of England.
Henry VII Portrait

Perhaps one of the best examples of a monarch bringing about a strong nation state through trade is Henry VII of England's Tudor dynasty. Henry VII came to power at the end of England's civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. Like Louis XI of France, he encouraged trade by improving the infrastructure of England. He also negotiated several trade agreements and bolstered the English economy. The greatest of these was the Intercursus Magnus of 1496, which gave England a strong hold on the European wool trade. By the end of his reign in 1509, England was a prosperous nation unified under the Tudor dynasty.

Feudalism not only fell due to the increase of cities and towns, it was also violently ejected by some European rulers. For instance, throughout much of medieval times, Russia was really not much more than the area of Moscow. However, over the course of several hundred years, the princes of Moscow swallowed up more land, eventually growing their claims to what is today modern day Russia. When Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, came to power as Czar of Russia in 1547, he waged war against the nobility, killing many on his path to unquestioned power. Like Louis XI and Henry VII, he gained the loyalty of the merchant class by giving them positions in his new state bureaucracies. Although thousands of nobles died, Russia emerged as a strong, centralized nation.

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