International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 09 November 2017  
Unit 1 - Lesson 2 - How was the medieval state different to the modern?

What is a state?

A state is more than a government. The difference between state and government is like the difference between weather and climate. Governments come and go, but states remain. A state is an established means of rule over a bordered or ‘sovereign’ territory and the people that live there.

How the state rules over its people depends on the type of government and state’s constitution. The constitution is an established set of rules which govern how the state should operate. Representative democracy is a modern type of government (demos = people), where the people are citizens who participate in the decision-making process and who have equal rights (to vote, to freedom of speech, to a fair trial etc.) guaranteed by a bill of rights, that is built into the constitution.

In a medieval monarchy (mono = one), the people are subjects of a king or queen, with rights of participation dependent of their ‘station’ or social standing. The aristocracy (rule of best) who owned lots of land were very powerful; the landless peasants had little or no rights at all.

A modern democratic state has an executive, a legislature and a judiciary. In the UK, the executive (Prime Minister and Cabinet) proposes laws, the legislature (Houses of Parliament) debates and amends these laws and judiciary (Supreme Court) decides whether the new laws are allowed by the constitution. In a modern democratic state, the people who exercise power in these institutions have usually been chosen by the citizens through election. See the Jay Foreman video on this.

In the US, the three branches of government look like this:


The Houses of Parliament in London look medieval,
but were actually built in the 19th century.

Three parts of the state are deliberately separated to stop any one part from becoming too powerful.  A modern democratic government is a collection of individuals, usually member of the same political party, which has been chosen by the people, to temporarily run the state. This is an important responsibility because a state raises taxes and operates a police force and they distribute and re-distribute resources and wealth. The state has authority to control us and make us do what is in the interest of the state, even if this means going to war against other states.  There are three ways through which the state controls the individual, through using coercion, persuasion and by generating consent.

Firstly, an individual agrees to be governed by the state, they give their consent to be governed, when they rationally accept the right of the state to govern their actions. They accept that the state has authority over them and that it is in their interest to obey the state.  For example, I agree to pay my taxes because that allows the state to pay for rubbish disposal.

Secondly, an individual may also obey the state because of the powerful mechanisms of persuasion the state is able to employ.  As long as the state controls its education system it will have a powerful way of influencing how its citizens think.  For example, if I study my national history in school, I will feel more patriotic.

Finally, states are defined as having a 'monopoly of the legitimate use of force'. (Weber) An individual will obey the state because they fear the power of the agencies of state coercion: the police, the courts, the army etc. For example, I will not break the law (even if I feel a law is wrong) because if I do, I might be imprisoned.

The state opening of parliament in the UK

How the state exercises control can be summarised in a table: 

Coercion Persuasion Consent


The government has power if it can coerce or force an individual to act against their will, e.g. imprisonment.


A government has influence when people’s behaviour can be deliberately directed without their conscious awareness of this direction, e.g. education.


A government has authority when people accept that the government has the right to control their actions, e.g. elections.

All states use coercion, persuasion and consent to control the individual, but the modern democratic derives its authority (and has legitimacy) because the citizens have consented to be governed through elections. There were no elections in the medieval state, so government depended much more on coercive power and persuasive influence. Much of what we are going to study over the next two years, is concerned with how our modern democratic states came into being; how it evolved from the absolute monarchies that dominated the medieval world.



1. Visit Download and save this Smartnote file state_words to your computer. Click on 'Open an existing Notebook file' and choose the 'state-words' file you have saved.

a) For words you definitely understand and can define, change the colour of the word to green. Those words you think you understand, colour orange, and those you do not understand colour red.
b) Rearrange all the words into three groups. Group 1 - words that are types of states. Group 2 - words that are state institutions. Group three - words that are concepts associated with states.

2. Describe the main differences between the medieval feudal state and the modern democratic state.

3. Define and learn the following political concepts: state, constitution, executive, legislature, judiciary.

4. Explain the difference between power, influence and authority by using an example for each which excludes the other two, i.e. give an example of someone or something that has power but neither influence nor authority.



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