Representation and Written Constitutions: The Origins of Freedom?


Introduction to Representative Governments

Arising once more in the 13th century, representative governments were based on the resurgence of Roman political philosophies. The purpose was for the king to bring the growing influence of towns and their economies under his authority. These towns were full of non-feudal, non-oath-giving individuals. It would be nearly impossible to control them or obtain an oath of fidelity, so they started bringing in leaders from these communities and conferred on them the sovereignty of the towns they came from to “represent them.” This was the king’s way of bringing the entire area under a central domain without extracting loyalty from individuals like vassals and allowing a more direct bargain on his end.

Centralization and the Loss of Liberty

The central authority swallowed up entire towns and cities. Large numbers of individuals who never gave consent or agreement to their ruler would nonetheless be subjected to his rule. Instead, the “majority” who were supposed to be “represented” by selected community members were used as justification to take away the liberty of others. Mobs began to replace individuals. The king now only had to bribe and handle a few representatives eager for handouts instead of providing a service individuals would consent to. Here, we see the rise of the modern state where a central authority worked with “representatives” to give each other special treatment as they began to manipulate the people for their benefit.

The Shift in Feudal Dynamics

More and more, autonomous peasants and fief holders were no longer considered a part of a feudal agreement under customs but under the rule of the king, who held authority over a geographical area. He would attach to them obligations they supposedly owed him. Obligations on peasants and serfs increasingly became harsher after the 13th century.

Rise of Professional Parliaments and Taxation

The rise of these professional parliaments also brought permanent taxation and standing (therefore more extensive and deadly) armies, making money rather than land the dominant power. The heavier taxes, regulations and obligations placed on peasants by parliamentary governments led to revolts. Professor and historian Chris Wickham explained “Revolts of this kind were very rare in the early Middle Ages, when state power was relatively weak…The fact that they became more common after 1250 and much more common after 1350 was a result, above all, of the fact that states…taxed more heavily and ruled more intensively than they had before. They were a reaction to a more intrusive state power.” As peasants were subjected to parliamentary legislation against their will, they rightly revolted.

Manipulation Through Representation

The rise in influence of the English parliament was not for the benefit of “we the people” but as a route for King Edward III to raise more money for his war with France. The older feudal customs originating organically from the community and Christianity were too restricting on power-hungry Monarchs. A mechanism was needed to bring about change (Parliament and legislation), but the people would never agree to such a thing, so the desired changes needed to be made “in their name.” They need representatives able to be successfully manipulated, as King Edward did when he made various concessions to Parliament so it would cooperate with his agenda. From its inception, the return of Roman ideas of the state has been used to manipulate and abuse the people. After experiencing the long-term effects of republics and representatives the 15th-century Italian friar Girolamo Savonarola wrote: “know that the only purpose of parliament is to snatch the sovereign power from the hands of the people.”

Consequences of Representative Government

Thus, the representative form of government did not arise to give the people representation but to allow the king to control masses of people more easily. It would not only set the path for internal political and civil wars, peasant revolts (many of them now being deprived of consent), and the destruction of the unified whole but also eradicate individual liberty and self-governance at all levels. The peasants who revolted in England grumbled they now had “no sovereign to whom we can complain, or who would be willing to hear us.”

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Large-Scale Peasant Revolts and Magna Carta

As parliamentary legislatures increased governmental power, substantial peasant rebellions began in France in 1358, England in 1381, Catalonia in 1395, and Germany in 1524. In the generations and centuries following the implementation of Roman ideas during the 13th century, we see large-scale peasant revolts and documents like the 1215 Magna Carta attempting to restore the liberty previously existing under kingship. For example, King John violated feudal laws, and thus the barons rightfully forced him to sign the famous Magna Carta. Historian Bede Jarett OP described the Magna Carta as ”undoubtedly a feudal document in intent, drawn up by the northern barons, placing the king under restraint set out in terms of feudal principle; it was an elaboration of his coronation oath forced on a king who had broken it.”
To fund his war in France, King John implemented unjust taxes and erected powers not in accord with established laws and customs. The people, the Church, and the barons all objected to his actions and forced him to sign the Magna Carta to return to “ancient and just laws.” The Barons demanded he “restore those laws and ancient liberties, and was bound by his oath to observe them.” If he refused to uphold his end, the barons and the people would no longer be loyal to him since he had broken faith in them. Historian Frederic Austin Ogg wrote, “The primary purpose of the barons in forcing the king to grant the charter was not to get a new form of government or code of laws, but simply to obtain a remedy for certain concrete abuses, to resist the encroachments of the crown upon the traditional liberties of Englishmen…Not a new constitution was wanted, but good government in conformity with the old one.” Magna Carta was not a great document of freedom overturning hundreds of years of despotism, but desperate attempts by free people to prevent the plague of Roman ideas from transforming kings into emperors or monarchs.

The Late Medieval Peasants’ Dilemma

The late medieval peasants were hit from two sides at once. The rise of towns, merchants, and their financial interests overpowered feudal customs, rural aristocratic lords, bishops, and even at times, the new monarchs. As a result, the people were “freed” from the oppression of lords and obligations (obligations tied to the benefits they received from feudal arrangements) but quickly found their new capitalist representatives far more oppressive than the lords they had freed them from. Abolishing the feudal order freed representatives from their severe limitations and enabled them to pass legislation in their favour; greed overcame personal relationships. The new rulers (generally the rich merchant types who ruled the towns) placed harsher taxation and oppressive regulations on the peasants. Not surprisingly, the massive peasant uprising of the 13th-14th centuries and beyond often came from towns where the local bishops and lords were recently overthrown as secularism began to show its tyrannical head.

The freedom and self-governance known to peasants under the kings of the Middle Ages have never been achieved in “the West,” and the replacement of monarchs with elected officials has only worsened the situation. Moreover, the later revolutions overthrowing the local lords were not led by “the people” but by the upper class, wealthy urban capitalists who transferred the power of kings to themselves and removed the old limitations while preferring to enact new legislation.

The Illusion of Written Constitutions

As written law came into broader acceptance, lawyers (who generally studied and were influenced by Roman ideas in Italian universities) began to impact the understanding of law. Historian Susan Reynolds wrote, “The written customs of the later Middle Ages reflected a kind of law that was just beginning to emerge in the thirteenth century and was fundamentally different from the pre-professional, customary law.” Professor Edward James wrote, “The very act of issuing written law codes gave the king more of a role in the law than he had had before.” It began the transference of customs owned by the people to written documents enforced and controlled by rulers. They were snatching sovereignty from the people and entrusting it to the rulers.

Written documents such as the Magna Carta or the United States Bill of Rights were not advances in liberty but signs of its decay. These documents set “limits” on what areas the government could not intrude on in response to the newly claimed powers of the kings. Not only do we see how these written documents no longer work, but they give the impression and set up the provision, that all other areas of life are open to the possibility of government control as well. Further, a written document to “preserve” rights simply means those rights can also be taken away when their preservation is no longer desired.

Even worse, it says the rights written, protected, controlled, and “interpreted” (always in the direction of more government control) by federal judges are dependent on human agents. The Declaration of Independence claims our rights come from the creator, but those rights are only valid when written, ratified, and interpreted by federal judges and politicians. In other words, God is secondary, and his inalienable rights must first be filtered through the government to ensure and adequately understand and apply the rights God has granted. We have set up a secular priesthood to interpret God’s desires for us. Documents such as the Bill of Rights could be better understood as people submitting to their government to rule over them while desperately holding on to a few cherished liberties – for a time.

The Superiority of Unwritten Customs

Customs remained better intact than written law because rulers could not manipulate them in the same way. Further, under unwritten customs, “limitations” on government, such as the Bill of Rights, are unnecessary and dangerous. The people are the owners of their rights derived from God and nature. They don’t need political activists appointed as judges, lawyers, and politicians to tell them their rights. Officials serve them, not the other way around. No “limitations” are necessary because the rulers have no “rights” or authority. Medieval historian Fritz Kern wrote, “The State itself had no rights…It can, for example, raise no taxes, for according to the medieval view, taxation is a sequestration of property.” It was not judges or kings who “interpreted,” created or manipulated law; instead, under customs, Durant wrote, “The community itself was, therefore, the chief source of law.”

Under kingship, you would far more need a document declaring the king’s rights and “limitations” on the people, not the reverse. But, of course, that could never happen because it would assume the law belonged to the governors, not the governed.

Representation Undermines True Liberty

Even the idea someone is needed to “represent” you is defensive; it says your liberty, customs, and ways of life are not ensured unless you have a proper majority in various governmental groups doing your bidding. You must constantly be under attack and trusting/needing officials to protect you; the predictable result is you get no protection. It says you are not the protector and owner of your rights; someone else is. You’re transferring your God-given inalienable rights into the hands of politicians.

Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty
Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty by Jeb Smith


  • Smith, J. J. (2024). Missing monarchy: Correcting misconceptions about the Middle Ages, medieval kingship, democracy, and liberty.


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