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Is the world witnessing a new medievalism?

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford


With the demise of (explicit) Cold War tensions in the early 1990s and the intensification of globalisation, discourses surrounding sovereignty and territory have stepped into the limelight. Sovereignty is the supreme power the state possesses over a populace within a given area: territory denotes this area over which the sovereign power rules. Whilst seeming inextricable, the rise of neoliberalist attitudes that encourage nation states to engage in economic, cultural, and political competition with one another has inflated the importance of supranational, transnational, and intranational actors.

In other words, globalisation is argued to erode the power and identity of nation states in favour of larger supranational organisations such as the EU, or smaller subnational bodies such as capital cities. Labelling this a ‘New Medieval’ world nods to the political order of medieval Europe where neither states, the Church nor other territorial powers exercised full sovereignty but instead participated in complex, overlapping and incomplete sovereignties. This is a contentious debate however, attracting considerable dissent as well as support.

The EU is widely cited as a manifestation of contemporary globalisation that overlays the ‘mosaic of nation states’. The growing prominence of supranational EU institutions eroding nation state sovereignty from above, and subnational non-state actors and regionalism eroding from below, is attributable to neoliberal attitudes where common markets and movement across borders produces economic benefit. This works to undermine traditional sovereign-territory relations, with the transboundary Single European Market (SEM) demonstrating how nation-states become dependent on the economic progress of others, affecting in turn politics and culture. Stand-out cities such as Paris, Berlin, and London highlight this New Medievalism where European politics, economics and culture appear to concentrate. Furthermore, people here embody hybrid identities with their city and the EU. For example, many Parisians will identify simultaneously as European and as Parisian. The EU demonstrates how a reconceptualisation of the relationship between sovereignty and territory is needed.