HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Rulers and Subjects (1)

This week's big question

How did early modern Europeans justify political inequality (i.e., the rule of kings and queens)?

Video introduction

Learning outcomes

By the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

In addition to the Big Question for every week's Lesson, we will often include a series of more detailed questions that should help you develop your thoughts on that Big Question. For this week, these particular questions are:Once you have read the sources and thought about the questions, go to the Forum in Sakai. The general instructions for the Forum discussions are in the Syllabus. Please review them.

Note: No single post can answer the Big Question for the Lesson, or even all aspects of the particular questions. Therefore, your goal in each of your posts should be to identify and answer a part of a question. You do this by focusing your answer on one or a small group of sources, because all good historical answers are based on sources. You should also remember to build upon, not repeat, the answers that have come before your posts in your Forum Group.


Citizens and their representatives versus subjects and their rulers

In Canada (as in other modern democracies) we think of the country's citizens to be the ultimate source of political legitimacy. Citizens vote to express their collective will, and the members of parliament they elect have a duty to represent them in the federal parliament in Ottawa. All Canadians of voting age (including most, if not all, of the students in this course) have the right to vote for their elected leaders. This year (2020) there is some speculation that Prime Minister Trudeau might call an early election (or have one forced upon him by a Non-Confidence Motion in the House of Commons), in which case many of you will have a chance to vote this year.

The model of political power based on citizens and their representatives was not the dominant one in medieval and early modern Europe (that is, during the period that we study in this course). Democracy is an ancient idea, but most early democracies were limited to very small political communities (usually cities), and citizenship was limited to landowning (i.e., fairly wealthy) men. Under these rules, most of the people in the course would not be allowed to vote!

In the dominant model of political power before the modern era the most important people were not the majority of citizens but rather a very few rulers. Most of these rulers were born into positions of privilege and authority, and they were thought of as a separate class: the nobility. Today, the word "class" often has an economic meaning; we are a member of the working, middle or upper classes, depending on how much money we earn or have. In medieval and early modern Europe, class had a different range of meanings, the most significant of which were based on family status, not earnings. Family status determined to a very large extent the kinds of opportunities that a person could enjoy in a lifetime. The widely-held view was that members of the nobility (a minority) were born to rule, while the majority of the people were born to obey their social superiors. In other words, the majority was made up not of citizens but rather of subjects.

In this week's Lesson you will learn about important elements of the intellectual foundations for the authority of European rulers over their subjects. Be aware that these were ideals, which means that these ideas were the way the writers and thinkers who we'll be reading thought the world should be organized. However, ideals are not always the ways things really were. You should keep this potential tension between ideal and reality in mind as you read about the estates model of society and the Great Chain of Being. For this week's Lesson, it is enough for you to do your best to make sense of what for most of us today will be very strange ideals. If you are going to do your job of understanding past ideals effectively, you will have to do your very best to avoid judging the views you will be trying to learn.


In the Course Introduction we emphasized that history is not the past but rather questions that we ask of sources from the past. Think about this a little bit more for a moment. We can't get in a time machine to visit the past, so the past is something that we can never study directly. The only evidence we have about "it" are the bits and pieces from it that have survived. These bits and pieces are always incomplete; they are the evidence that historians use to reconstruct the past.

In the first Toolbox in the Course Introduction you learned about the basic concepts of historical thinking. These concepts help you break down the steps that we use in studying the past so that you do a better job at asking questions and searching for answers -- a little bit like a detective might when searching through clues to solve a mystery. In this week's Toolbox we'll look more closely as four aspects of the use of evidence from primary sources.

Probably the most basic and important skill all historians practice is the analysis of primary source evidence. Therefore, if you've ever taken a history course in university before, you've probably already had some good practice with this skill. We can break down the analysis of primary sources into four parts. These are:

This week in your Forums you should practice applying these four skills when you discuss your answers to the particular questions about the primary sources. How do you do this? Try to answer questions such as the ones on the posters below whenever you read primary sources and write about them.

How do you apply these skills when you write in the Forums? Here are some examples of how you can "source" your evidence:

  • "In his 1709 treatise about royal authority, Bousset argued  that..."
  • "In x ways Elizabeth I's speech to the English Parliament is similar to [or different from] James I of England's speech from several years later."
  • "The Wikipedia article on xxx suggests that ______, a point which is illustrated by [primary source yyy]."
  • "While Steven Kreis argues in 'Medieval Society: The Three Orders' that ____, evidence from [primary source aaa] seems to present a more complicated picture."

Primary sources

You should focus on the following primary sources in your answers to questions in the Forum this week. They include 3 excerpts from early modern texts by 3 authors.

Secondary sources

Read the following secondary sources to help you understand and contextualize the primary sources. You should practice reading the sources "critically" (not to be confused with "negatively"). Critical reading, like critical and historical thinking, is careful and discerning, and is aimed at understanding an author's views in a fair and full way. For example, avoid using unfounded clichés and generalizations when you read.

When you read critically you are constantly asking questions of the text. For example: Does the evidence in the source support or complicate the answer to a question that you are proposing? Are there other explanations that the evidence allows? You've read some additional primary sources. Do these sources help you think about your questions and answers differently?

Supplemental materials

If you're interested in learning more about medieval history, check out courses offered by Prof. Andrew McDonald of Brock University's History Department. Prof. McDonald is an expert in early British history, and among the courses he offers are:

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