Political Representation

There are divergent views among political scientists when it comes to the meaning of the term representation.

The author had proposed to select the most typical views and assess how far each of these definitions of representation is applicable to medieval parliaments (for the meanings of the term continued to proliferate long after the Middle Ages, and indeed, does so up to the present day).

One view is that a representative is someone who is authorized to act for others who themselves are responsible for that action as though they had done it.

One possible corollary to this view is that anybody performing functions for such others is their representative.

This is the sense in which we can think of a military dictator as his country’s representative; equally the emperor of China was the representative of the Chinese people.

Clearly, this view of representation does not require the representative to be elected; anyone performing a function on behalf of a group is a representative of that group. In this sense medieval parliaments were all representative. But the sense is fairly trivial.

Therefore another school of thought requires that the representative must also have to answer to the group for what he has done; this is the accountability school.

In what follows, we shall see that this was true of some medieval parliamentary representatives but not true of others. The answer turns on whether they were regarded as delegates with restricted mandates from their constituents or not. We shall return to this important distinction.

Together both the authorization and the accountability schools can be regarded as formalistic.

They concentrate their definition on whether the representative acts after authorization, or whether s/he acts before being held to account, but neither tells us what a representative is like.

Here comes in what Pitkin calls the descriptive schools. They are not concerned with the representative being a person or group that acts for others, so much as one that in some sense stands for for them. What lurks here is the notion of some similarity between the representative and the represented.

In certain respects—the ones that contemporaries consider to be the only important ones—the representative is held to be typical of, identical with, or at least similar to the represented. To the extent that this is believed, that person or (much more realistically) that group is regarded as a substitute for the entire relevant community.

In our present day this view is linked up with ideas of democratic election, and attaining an isomorphism Opens in new window by this means. Outside the city-republics this view was not widely held in the Middle Ages.

On the contrary, in so far as there was conscious theorizing about the nature and role of parliaments (and there was singularly little) these bodies were regarded as a substitute for the meeting-together of everyone in the country because the real thing was clearly impossible.

There was absolutely no demand for an accurate correspondence between the assembly and the community as a whole nor (and here it differed from the political theory of citizenship in the city-republics) any demand that every individual must participate in the framing and execution of policies.

It was not, in short, a democratic doctrine at all. But that the assembly or parliament was of microcosm of community of the realm is the most powerful view we encounter in the Middle Ages. There is a further way in which the Middle Ages visualized these parliaments, which is somewhat akin to the preceding, and that is a symbol; in this case as personifying the community of the realm.

The shortcoming of such views is that they see representation as some kind of mirroring of something else, but have no room for any concept of representation as entailing in some degree the notion of agency; that is to say, acting so as to look after the interests of a the represented.

But once parliaments realized their power to withhold or modify the grant of tax, the members did indeed begin to carry their communities’ petitions and grievances to the king for redress. This is a late development, not found till the later fourteenth century in England. The parliaments were, then, to a certain extent agencies; they acted for the community as a factor or actor acts for others.

To a certain extent they were substitutes: vicars or deputies for the larger community. Equally they could be regarded as ambassadors of the local community. All these notions reflect contemporary ideas of the role and nature of these assemblies.

Such shades of meaning are reflected in the etymology and the changing usage of representation. In classical Latin repraesentare meant to ‘make present’, or ‘make manifest’ some inanimate object, certainly never the populous.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, the Church was writing that the pope and the cardinals represented Christ and the Apostles; and they did not mean by this that they were the delegates or agents of Christ, but that somehow they embodied and personified them.

From there it was a step to applying the verb to collectivities: a community was not a ‘natural person’ but it was a persona, and so it was possible to talk of a persona repraesentata.

This was acknowledgedly fictive—not a real person but one by representation only—or, in the Latin, persona non vera sed representata.

Then, from the end of the thirteenth century, the jurists started to use the word for a magistrate or attorney acting for his community and, though not widespread at first, this meaning gained currency throughout the fourteenth century.

In English, too, there is a steady broadening of meaning from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century that runs somewhat parallel to the Latin. The word represent appears in the fourteenth century, when it can mean either to bring somebody into the presence of another, or to symbolize something other.

In the next century it is found with the additional meaning of ‘to portray or delineate’, even ‘to produce’ a play. Here the word is used to convey the idea of an image, a likeness of something else. It is in the next century that the modern political usage of the word begins to appear.

The OED gives 1509 as the date when it could mean:

But not until 1595 does one find an instance of the word meaning specifically ‘to act for someone as his authorized agent or deputy’.

These etymologies and changing usages do not address certain distinctions which are vital to understanding the differences between the various parliaments in Western Europe.

One of these is whether the representative, in the latest senses covered above, had to be elected or not. Some representative assemblies consisted of members who were nominated rather than elected.

We shall find other examples later, but for the moment it is enough to point to an English Writ of Summons to a shire court in 1231.

It tells the sheriff of Yorkshire to summon the reeve and four responsible men from each vill and twelve responsible burgesses from each borough.

If in the early days, the king or the magnates occasionally nominated people to speak for their shires, the nominees would not necessarily seem to be any the less representative—unless of course conflict had already created distrust and polarized ideas of eligibility.

Another question is whether the parliaments members were plenipotentiaries or delegates with a limited mandate. The practice throughout Europe varied widely.

Confirming ourselves, then, to these, one important distinction between them is whether they were representative of the entire realm or, rather, of historic provinces or even individual towns. Kings found it hard to achieve the former.

The English Parliament is taken as a prime example of an assembly which represented the entire realm, but it is worth noting that English kings did not insist on the representation of Wales, Cheshire, or Durham before the sixteenth century, while the representation of Ireland or the French possessions in the English Parliament was not even dreamed of. These omissions reflect the exigencies of distance, sparse communication, and the intense particularism of the times.

These factors are an important reason for the ineffectuality of the French Estates-General. These same reasons help to explain why so many assemblies had only limited mandates, unlike the (highly exceptional) plenipotentiary mandate of the English Parliament.

Again, the structure of the assemblies could differ greatly. The two chambers of the English Parliament were somewhat exceptional. More common was a meeting of three Estates, together or separately, but there were cases where the Estates numbered four or more (Sweden, for instance); in Poland the towns were usually excluded and the entire body consisted eventually of noblemen.

The powers of these assemblies vis-à-vis the monarch also differed greatly, as well as fluctuating over time.

Generally speaking, the weaker the monarch (either because his title was defective, or because he needed money badly, and so forth) the stronger the power of the assembly. Such was the situation of the German Landtage, and in Poland; whereas the very reverse was true in England until the Lancastrians. Also, the weaker the towns—as in Poland—the stronger the nobility; the reverse was true in Aragon, where the towns were at first much more powerful than the nobles.