Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Medieval Elections

It's Election Day in the US, a good time to blog about medieval elections.

Athens may have invented direct democracy, where all the citizens got to vote on major decisions, but the Middle Ages invented representative democracy, where people elect those who will represent their views in government or elect those who will lead them.

Voting was the normal way to settle difficult issues in the church, where it was assumed that God would speak through the majority.  A unanimous decision of course was best, but a majority would work (or, as was sometimes said, the "wiser part").  Church councils settled such complex issues as the nature of the Trinity (Nicaea, 325) by getting all the bishops together and voting.  New church leaders, bishops, abbots (over monasteries), and popes were elected by those who would serve under them.

Even today new popes are elected by the College of Cardinals, the major priests of the city of Rome and the most important Catholic bishops from around the world, who are considered to represent the views and wishes of their flocks.  Sometimes there are multiple ballots before a consensus is reached.  Today the ballots are burned after each round of voting, and chemicals are added to give dark smoke if no one got the requisite two-thirds majority.  Those waiting outside are hoping to see white smoke, which means a new pope has been chosen.

Medieval kings were also elected.  There was no ballot box, no get-out-the-vote effort, and only a very tiny fraction of the population voted, but it was still an election.  When a king had died, the most powerful men of the country, including dukes, counts, and bishops, would assemble to elect a new king.  They were considered in some sense to "speak" for everybody else.  Kings would have liked to be hereditary, but they really only established the hereditary principle at the end of the Middle Ages.  Before then, the assumption was that a worthy king would have royal blood, but he still needed election.  (Kings were doubtless irritated that counts had held their offices by heredity since the tenth century.)

A king with an adult son could die in the happy hope that the great lords of his kingdom would elect his boy.  To make sure this happened, kings often had the election held while they were still alive and sitting there, in which case the younger man would become co-king with his father.  But the great lords were perfectly capable of electing someone else.  In England, after Henry I died without sons in 1135, the English barons promptly "forgot" their promise to elect Henry's daughter Mathilda as their king and instead turned to her cousin Stephen, who they hoped would be a weaker leader.

Medieval cities all had elected city councils from the twelfth century on.  Here any citizen of the city with a certain amount of property would vote.  The city council was very much representative democracy, a few fellow-citizens elected to represent the will of the (male) populace in running things.  City councils in fact preceded mayors, though most cities decided fairly early that a mayor, a single elected executive, made a lot of things function better.

Hope everybody got out and voted today!

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

For more on the medieval church and kings, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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