Would this work as a definition of a government? “An institution designed to outlast individual human beings that operates within a fixed geographical territory; it has permanent fiscal accounts, offices with mutually consistent and complementary roles that are held temporarily by individuals, and real property. It has some authority over all the people and institutions within its territory (where ‘authority’ means the ability to make and enforce rules claimed to be legitimate).”
If this definition works, then Florence had a government in 1300. Dante, for example, held various offices for his city, was paid for his work out of public accounts, made binding decisions while he was a city magistrate, and represented the government abroad. When he was exiled, he left the jurisdiction and employ of Florence; his office and legal power passed to another man.
In Dante’s time, England basically lacked a government. That is not to say that England was disorganized or backward. The English erected great cathedrals, castles, schools, and universities; their leading cities were international entrep?ts; their knights were capable of ransacking France. Nor was England an individualistic and atomized society–on the contrary, people were bound to one another by obligations, often inherited and unshakable.
But there was no English government. A baron was a personal vassal of the king, to whom he owed certain duties and from whom he could expect protection. Each baron had many vassals who owed him duties (as men personally obligated to other men). And each peasant was a vassal of a minor lord, entitled to certain birthrights, such as use of particular fields and woods, but obligated to work the land of his ancestral village and share the crop with his lord. The borders of the realm depended on what fiefs the monarch had inherited; thus the “national” territory might shift with each change of king.
None of the offices of the realm, from monarch to peasant, was governmental in the modern sense. Take Justices of the Peace: they were the closest equivalents of modern police, but they were not paid, trained, or overseen. They were just vassals of the monarch who were morally obligated to preserve the King’s Peace by sword or by persuasion. There was a public treasury, the Exchequer, but it had very minor importance. Even when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she was expected to pay for what we would call “government” (e.g., foreign embassies) out of her inherited wealth, rents on the extensive lands that she personally owned, plus some import duties. Her claims to sovereign power were controversial, and in any case, she lacked the personnel, the files, and the budget needed to “govern” in the modern sense.
She did obtain an effective espionage service when Sir Francis Walsingham started paying for secret information out of his own pocket; Elizabeth then authorized him to supplement those payments from her treasury. Even so, the English secret service was really just a group of Sir Francis’ servants and retainers, and he was a personal retainer of the Queen. When Walsingham died, so did the organization.
In men like Walsingham, we see the origins of government. He was a professionally trained expert (a lawyer), not a nobleman with any hereditary powers. He held an appointed office, Mr. Secretary, which he was free to quit. He structured his civil service as a bureaucracy and tried to serve the permanent interests of England as a Protestant state, not merely those of his Queen. However, had Elizabeth married Fran?ois, the Duke of Anjou and Alen?on (as she threatened), then Walsingham would have faced a choice. This Puritan lawyer could have become a personal servant of a Catholic French nobleman, or he could have quit public life.
The medieval case shows that we could have elaborate social structures without governments; that is a relevant conclusion at a time of globalization, when governments are losing authority over fixed territories. It is not clear, however, that we can have elaborate social structures and personal liberties without governments.