Medieval representative assemblies: collective action and antecedents of limited government

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Medieval monarchs in Western Europe responded to financial and military pressures by instituting representative assemblies. Three estates (classes; orders) were represented in these assemblies: clergy, nobility, and burghers. In the late medieval and early modern periods, some states tended towards absolutism (e.g., France); others towards constitutional monarchy (e.g., England). The German historian Otto Hintze conjectured that two-chamber assemblies were more likely to resist monarchical encroachments on their political authority than three-chamber assemblies. We argue that the two- versus three-chamber distinction is coincidental to what was truly relevant: whether chambers were estate-based or had mixed representation from multiple estates. We provide a comparative institutional analysis that emphasizes political bargaining and the costs of expressing special versus common interests. This analysis suggests that mixed representation assemblies, all else equal, provided a stronger check on absolutism than their estate-based counterparts. We also provide historical case studies of France and England that lend insights into why an estate-based Estates General arose in the former, while a mixed representation Parliament arose in the latter.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-192
Number of pages22
JournalConstitutional Political Economy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018


  • Comparative economic development
  • Medieval constitution
  • Medieval economic history
  • Political property rights
  • Polycentric governance
  • Representative assemblies


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