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.


However, the EU remains a site of borders for many. Europe is experiencing an unprecedented rise in ‘reterritorialisation’, where borders of territory and social relations against non-member states are being remade and restructured. At Romania’s Ukrainian-Moldavian border, boundaries are reproduced through travel visas and trade-related restrictions - something the UK now faces, following Brexit. Participation in cross-border cultural events that intended to promote inter-ethnic understanding has declined across these borderlands since Ukrainian and Moldavian residents require visas to cross state borders into the EU from Romania; this visa requirement prevented the participation of a large Ukrainian delegation of folk artists in a 2005 interethnic festival held in Romania. This demonstrates how a European ‘Other’ is being created, where paper walls of citizenship are creating divisions between EU and non-EU members. Furthermore, a rise in nationalism within the EU, seen through political parties such as ‘Britain First’ and ‘Rassemblement National’ in France indicates ties between sovereignty and territory remaining across Europe, rather than completely divorcing. This New Medievalism is therefore uneven and partial across Europe, as well as exclusive to bodies deemed acceptably European.


It is important to recognise that the complexity of sovereign and territorial relations is not a new phenomenon to be associated solely with globalisation and the end of the Cold War. Mismatches of de jure (legal) sovereignty and de facto (actual) sovereignty have existed within India for several decades following its independence in 1947. The 198 enclaves that exist along the northern border between India and Bangladesh demonstrate de jure sovereignty, as these pieces of land on the ‘wrong side’ of the borders legally belong to the home, rather than host, country. However, all typical services provided by the state are either completely absent or are carried out by residents themselves. In the reverse, the existence of Tibet in northern India as a nation-state with no territory is an example of de facto, tacit sovereignty, where residents claim Tibetan citizenship despite officially being on Indian land.


The separation between sovereignty and territory can seem highly visible due to the increased transnational political, economic, and cultural actions of non-state actors across the globe. However, the relationship between sovereignty and territory is a multifaceted one that has not suddenly been complicated as a result of globalism and neoliberal agendas. Therefore, criticisms of the New Medievalism concept as Eurocentric and universalistic reflect on how contemporary Western experiences continue to be applied inaccurately across the globe.


Further reading:

  1. Anderson, J. (1996) The Shifting Stage of Politics: New Medieval and Postmodern Territorialities?, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14:133-53

  2. Holsinger, B., 2016. Neomedievalism and international relations. The Cambridge companion to medievalism, pp.151-164.

  3. Jones, R. (2009) Sovereignty and statelessness in the border enclaves of India and Bangladesh, Political Geography 28:373-81.

  4. Mountz, A. (2013) Political Geography I: Reconsidering geographies of sovereignty. Progress in Human Geography, 37(6): 829-841

  5. Popescu, G., 2008. The conflicting logics of cross-border reterritorialization: Geopolitics of Euroregions in Eastern Europe. Political Geography, 27(4), pp.418-438.