Political Authority in International Relations: Revisiting the Medieval Debate

Costa López, J., 2020, In : International Organization. 74, 2, p. 222-252 31 p., 0020818319000390.

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  • Political Authority in International Relations

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In international relations, accounts of medieval political authority are divided between those who see a heteronomous patchwork of overlapping authorities and those who claim that the era of the state started in the twelfth century. How can we overcome this divide? I argue that IR's current difficulties in grasping the nature of medieval political authority stem from shortcomings in how the notion of political authority itself has been conceptualized. Thus, rather than starting from a substantive definition of political authority, I focus on contestation over the categorization and authorization of rule, that is, on how authority is produced in historically specific ways as a result of contemporary contestation over what political authority is, who is authorized, and how rulers stand in relation to one another. This reorientation allows us to appreciate how medieval political authority emerged from the competition between four sets of ordering categories: iurisdictio, potestas, lord/vassal, and magistrate. Each one of these four categories understood authority, rulers, and the relation between rulers in different ways. The problem with existing accounts of medieval authority is that they attempt to find the single ordering principle of medieval international relations. In doing so, they not only fail to capture the features of the time but also reinforce a particular approach to political authority that is unhelpful for understanding medieval and modern politics alike.

Original languageEnglish
Article number0020818319000390
Pages (from-to)222-252
Number of pages31
JournalInternational Organization
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Authority, heteronomy, feudalism, sovereignty, Middle Ages, Roman law, TERRITORIALITY, CONSTITUTION, RECOGNITION, SOVEREIGNTY, LEGITIMACY, EUROPE

ID: 96003780