Moderns view Medieval government in a very dim light. The Monarch ruled without restraint, arbitrarily lopping off heads here and there at will and riding roughshod over the serfs. They did nothing but oppress the populace. Life was brutal, short and impoverished. Most of this is true of course, yet not the complete picture. The Medievals had a view of society much different than our own.
Regardless of their capriciousness, the Monarch could only summon a fraction of the nation’s resources. It was limited albeit authoritarian and unrepresentative. Monarchs were beholden to the ruling elite in great part to carryout his wishes. He had no bureaucracy to command. And history shows that the monarchy ever vigilant towards rivals in this ruling elite. And thus many a plot would need to be ferreted out; and folks executed and such. He (or she) didn’t command great resources like populist governments can that enlist the loyalty of masses of people, who commit their talents to it. Kings admittedly were highhanded, yet they held very little power and oversight compared to the modern democratic state which insists on regulation of all areas of life. They either had to hire an army as sometimes seen in the late Middle Ages or enlist the nobility to supply arms. No draft here. Arming the disaffected peasant would be political and social suicide.
And yet the monarch could act much more quickly and more astutely than democratic governments. My contention is that with a figure head of Queen Victoria in the monarchy, the British Empire allows the rise of Prussian Germany; then the Prussians were able to take on their rivals one at a time. First they defeat Austria in 1866 alone then France in 1870. Admittedly, one can argue that the British were more concerned with the Empire as demonstrated by their battle to preserve the Ottoman Empire against Czarist Russia in the Crimean War 1854-56. Possession of the Ottoman Empire threatens Egypt and the route to the Jewel of the Crown, India. Nonetheless, the Prussian Empire, if you will, becomes the most powerful state in Europe and claims the same rights and influence as Britain to colonize and such. Hotly, disputed by the British of course.
But Germany had been fought over for centuries with the knowledge a united Germany would be a very imposing state in Europe. This is what the 30 Years War was fought over (1618-1648). Whether a decisive Monarchy could prevent general conflagration is highly debatable and off point, but what it couldn’t do was galvanize the society for war as could Modern governments. Germany’s unity was destroyed in the 11th Century in a conflict between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. Using the weapons of interdict and excommunication Popes garnered the right to appoint Bishops and other clerics and encouraged revolt by the nobility within German states. The resulting civil war and rebellion fractured German unity for centuries.
It takes populist governments to summon the resources of the whole society for good and bad; witness the massive conflicts in the 20th Century. Note it’s the populist governments that have enough weaponry to annihilate not only civilization but life on Earth as it is known today. We live in comfort and relaxation with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
Medieval Philosophy of government saw society best composed into orders. This idea was derived from the Ancient Philosophers, Plato. Plato's Republic envisioned a well ordered society with three classes of people, Philosophers, the Military class and the merchants and workers. The Philosophers would have the role of guiding the state and educating its members. This idea of government endured and was present as late as 18th Century. King Louis 16th called the Estates General prior to the French Revolution; it was composed of the Nobility, Clergy and the commons, revealing the mindset about the ancient three orders of Medieval good government.
Montesquieu, the 18th Century French Philosophe, most influential to the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution opposed this thinking with the a tri-partite: executive, legislative and judicial model, each counter balancing each other. (Makes sense to us, doesn’t it.) But most governments throughout history have been authoritative not consensual as Modern Democracies are nor counterpoised. Note the example of authoritarian China today, which proves itself to be a very successful government, despite our objections based on Liberal democratic principals of freedom of speech, press and religion.
As I stated, the Medievals, if you will permit, had a much different view of the role of society. Today, we see society dedicated to wealth creation to the comfort and welfare of the populace. The ideal of Medieval society was to edify the subjects to acquisition of Goodness, i.e. promote good character. This had its roots in Ancient Society, the Greek and Roman civilizations that placed great emphasis on character building and reform. Biographies were meant to be examples of individuals worthy of imitation not tell alls for titillation. Now it was understood that ultimate Goodness was Christian Salvation with the required acquisition of virtue. Of course today good character simply implies discipline and nothing towards attainment of some ideal character or quality of the Good.
In large part Medieval society was arranged in these putative orders to promote stability; the implicit understanding that lower classes were incapable of running society. It would have been said that the crew couldn’t possibly guide the ship, lacking knowledge with its multiple and competing voices. The skilled captain was best to steer the course, not mutinous crew. This idea was buttressed by the idea on the idea how the society was best ordered: rulers, rightfully placed in position by the Almighty; the Church, tending to the immortal souls of individuals and the common folk to produce the necessary goods to sustain society.
Society wasn’t designed strictly to create wealth or administer benefits to the greater good of the populace, but to the attainment of eternal verities (which nearly all segments of current society Christian and otherwise dismiss) and ultimately the salvation of immortal souls.
This Medieval ideal has pre-Christian roots. Plato’s The Republic contains the famous allegory of the Cave. In this allegory humanity is seen chained to a wall in a cave. They can only view the shadows of the real objects projected on the wall of a cave. They never see behind them to the outside. Never seeing the real objects outside but simply the shadows, the Cave dwellers were deluded in thinking that the shadows were reality. One individual escapes, runs out the cave entrance and discovers the real world. He comes back to explain his discovery and is killed by the others, as if he were a madman (much like Socrates was executed by Athens in 399 B.C.). In the Platonic world of ideas, truly Real things are not of this world. Thus society would have a view to these Real things, the eternal verities.
The society in this Plato’s Republic was dedicated to promoting the virtues which in turn are meant to lead us to apprehension of the ultimate ideal, The Good. Society would be led by the Philosopher elite who would edify it into striving to obtain the virtues.
I’ve spoken of ideals but reality of Medieval could be far different and almost always was I’m sorry to say. Part of the Modern’s repugnance of the Medieval is its intolerance. Some of the most outrageous instances of intolerance were the outbreaks of pogroms against Jews that occurred throughout the Middle Ages, especially in the aftermath of the Black Plague, a disease that killed over one third of Europe.
Medieval Spain was no exception to this intolerance. Persecution of Jews arose in late 14th and continued on throughout the 15th Century until all Jews were expelled in 1492. A ferocious persecution took place in 1391 which persuaded many Jews to convert; these were termed Conversos. This it would seem to have solved it but there were doubts about the sincerity of the conversions. Spain’s response was what is known as the Spanish Inquisition. Still unconvinced the Monarchy determined to rid themselves of the Jews altogether by a measure of ethnic cleansing. A truly sad episode in history.
In the Middle Ages intolerance manifested itself in another way: witch burnings. Some thousands of individuals, two thirds women, were executed for the practice of witchcraft. This started with the Papal Inquisitions in the late 14th Century. Once in the grips of the Inquisition there was a presumption of guilt and confession was only way to evacuate yourself, but with the practice of witchcraft the penalty was burning. Oddly enough the vast majority of witch burnings occurred in the 16th and 17th Centuries after the Reformation by Protestants. Once again highly regrettable episode in European history. Of course witches were executed in other societies as well, not to condone the practice in any way. And Orthodox Christians, in Eastern Europe and Russia, didn’t see the need to terrorize their members.
Yet, how do they compare in the light of the barbarities of the 20th Century? Death camp? Gulag? Incineration of Cities? death and destruction in the millions. And potential widespread Earth destroying use of nuclear weapons?
One motivation for the witch burnings, besides pure malice and misogynistic intent, lies in the idea that the society had the responsibility to educate, inform and caution its members regarding the care of their immortal souls. Burning would provide a very public warning to other members of society that this was most serious. In the Medieval mind burning the witch could lead to the repentance of the practitioner of bad magic and be a dramatic admonition to the society.
This begs a question: why such intolerance in Medieval Western Europe? First answer of course is the presence throughout history of intolerance across the world. One can point to pre-British Hindu India with its suttee (emolation of the widow on her husband's demise) and the ostracizing of the Intolerables. See the mass murders in the 20th Century of seemingly civilized nations not overlooking the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turk in 1915. Still this is offensive and causes one to wonder, why? Tough question.
In centuries prior there was no need for such draconian methods and as stated Orthodox Christians didn't practice this at all in Eastern Europe or Russia; places not known for their modernity. Charlemagne outlawed the belief in witches, no less, in the 8th century. Witchcraft was not a major concern. The catalyst was the Papal Inquisition but things didn't get frequent until the Protestant Reformation and the burnings were centered in southwest Germany. My theological spin is that the Reformers viewed spiritual transformation of man as ineffectual; he remains fallen and depraved in nature. This meant our spiritual state was virtually crippled. Congress with the spirit world could only be demonic. Those claiming intercourse with it, as witches did, would be much more threatening and suspect than previously. Very important however the Reformation was a religious reform and there was less tolerance of pagan elements in society. Thus in southwestern Germany Roman Catholics participated in witch burning.
A broad conclusion can be sketched out. Western Christianity needed to be mitigated with Enlightenment to cool fervent religious impulses. Being a devout Orthodox christian I don't want to dismiss religious impulses, so I won't agree with secular humanists that humankind is best viewed as the naked ape. I just arrive at the obvious; it's best not to burn your fellow neighbor.
Then again I counter Modern's hedonistic view; whatever turns you on and floats your boat attitude. Character education is greatly needed and the Christian church has carried out this needed task in Western Civilization for nearly two millenium. The Atheistic desire to de-christianize Western civilization will lead to a moral relativistic disaster. Civilization needs moral framework, thus note the rise of Islam in Europe.