The Invention of Power: An Uninteresting Blog Post

This may surprise some of you reading, given that it’s my main tool for publicising the blog, but I don’t go on Twitter very much anymore. This is not a decision I particularly regret. (I’ve eaten some tasty bread made of the wheat from that site, but my God there’s been a lot of chaff.) Nonetheless, I do still go back occasionally. Recently, I noticed a group of medievalists dunking on one particular book, and it annoyed me. This tetchy response wasn’t anything to do with them – I’m perpetually cranky at the moment owing to trying to get everything finished at home and also organise an international move whilst planning as much travel between the UK and Germany to spend time with my wife as possible –  but still, I did think to myself, ‘It’s not fair to make fun of a book you haven’t actually read, so I’m going to get hold of a copy and read it really sympathetically and review it for the blog and say positive upbeat things about it.’

The book was The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings and the Birth of the West by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita; and reader, the Twitter medievalists mocking it were absolutely right. This book is dreadful.

This book took up valuable time I could have spent reading about the history of Walt Disney World

Unfortunately, the precise way in which it’s bad is so basic and uninteresting that it’s almost too obvious to mention: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I could leave it there, and I’m tempted to, but I suffered through all nine chapters and by God I’m going to get some blog content out of it.

So let’s start at the beginning. What’s the book’s argument? The book argues that the exceptionalism – by which the author means both the higher relative economic performance and freer, happier societies – of Western Europe and its ‘settler colonies’ can be traced back to a series of concordats made between the pope and the various rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, England and France in the twelfth century. In accordance with the terms of these concordats, a uniform procedure for appointing bishops was put in place, whereby the Church nominated a bishop, who was then accepted or rejected by the king; in the meantime, the king would pocket the temporal revenue of the diocese. This created a series of incentives for both the popes and temporal rulers. Kings wanted secular appointees, whilst popes wanted religious appointees. If the king turns down a Church nominee, he gets more money and/or the potential for a more loyal secularly inclined bishop, but has to pay the political costs of an angry pope. Therefore, the richer a diocese, the more incentive for the kings to be pickier: in a rich bishopric, the potential gains for the kings by not accepting a papal nominee outweigh the potential risks of papal anger. By contrast, in a poor bishopric, the inverse is true, and the Church has more leverage. This creates the incentive for kings to promote economic development to create lots of rich dioceses, whilst the Church would like to retard economic development to create lots of poor dioceses. To promote economic growth, kings needed to incentivize their subjects to increase productivity. This requires making concessions to these subjects to share in the benefits of increased productivity, concessions such as parliaments and other forms of accountable governments. Thus, in areas of Europe covered by the twelfth-century concordats, we would expect to see greater economic development and more accountable institutions than in other parts of the world. This combination of economic development and accountable institutions led to the exceptional Europe and Europe Outremer of the modern world.

…Look, I’m not going to attempt to touch on all of this. As more medievalists get hold of this book, I imagine an interested reader could take to Twitter and see more and more different approaches to analysing its failure as scholarship. For the rest of this post, I’m going to consider the failure of the book as a work of the historian’s craft. Now, it’s worth noting that the author does say:

I am not a historian, let alone a medievalist or a specialist on the Concordat of Worms. Undoubtedly, readers will find here and there a wrong date or an error in some other detail of the story… [but] the big story being told here is what matters, and the big story does not depend on anecdotes or on any individual fact. Rather, it depends primarily on quantitative evidence, which I have supplemented with anecdotes to illustrate rather than evaluate the argument.

The problem is that this book’s problems don’t come from any individual error of fact, but from a complete failure of approach towards the subject. This is ‘Garbage In’: the approach the author takes to historiography, sources, and analysis inherently preclude this book from reaching any useful conclusions.

Let’s start with the historiographical garbage: Bueno de Mesquita is working with a very old-fashioned view of the medieval past. The bibliography is almost aggressively antiquated, and secondary works are deployed with very little understanding of the sources they’re based on. In a section which struck particularly close to home for me, his account of the pre-eleventh century papacy is based on Mann’s The Lives of the Popes vol. 4: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy (1910) and a Wikipedia article. (As an aside, there’s an unnerving amount of Wikipedia in this book for what is supposed to be the product of a veteran scholar – in footnote 9 for Chapter 4, for instance, we learn that his information about episcopal careers throughout the whole period he covers comes entirely from the website.) Historical thinking on this matter has changed since World War One as we have developed better understandings of our sources – notably, in this case, that the fundamental basis for a highly negative view of the tenth-century papacy comes from polemical works trying to justify the Ottonian invasion of the 960s. Sometimes, to be sure, a distance from the orthodoxies of mainstream historical scholarship can prove advantageous; but that does require knowing what they are. This is simply repeating the orthodoxies of over a century ago. 

As this suggests, the book’s handling of evidence is also very poor. The author points towards quantitative evidence to support his conclusions – in a word, data – seemingly without realising that this data is based on sources. This is not even a case of failing to perform basic source criticism. Rather, the author systematically does not engage with medieval primary sources. This is true even at the most crucial moments for his arguments. For instance, to show that his game theory logic works, Bueno de Mesquite has to demonstrate a significant correlation after the concordats between secularly inclined bishops and rich dioceses. His data for whether bishops were secularly or religiously inclined comes – as noted above – from reading Wikipedia summaries, rather than from any kind of engagement with the sources for these bishops’ careers or elections. What this means is that he has 2,709 data points where he has no idea what the evidential basis is for that data. Regula magistri is not usually considered an acceptable kind of evidence, let alone regula anyone-can-edit-orum. Similarly, he determines whether or not dioceses were rich or poor by correlating whether or not dioceses were on trade routes and modern estimates of their potential to produce high-calorie crops. Notably missing from any of this is any discussion of medieval evidence. In fact, this particular methodology is both theoretically and empirically nonsense: first, because it assumes the bishop holds a proportionate amount of the wealth produced within the borders of his diocese; second, because it ignores property held by bishoprics outside the borders of the diocese; third and most importantly – again – because it’s untested against the actual economic histories of these bishoprics. In short, the author’s claims rely neither on primary accounts of bishops’ careers, nor on even vaguely contemporary economic data. In addition to not dealing with medieval historians (modern professionals) whilst writing this medieval history book, he has also not dealt with medieval historians (contemporary authors). What is required to prove any of these claims is a systematic, source-based analysis of episcopal elections and medieval economic history. What we have is Wikipedia. 

Probably the worst failure to think about evidence comes when he talks about art – trying to prove the changing relationship of ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’, he scoured four popular art history textbooks for images from the period in question, decided if they had a ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ subject matter, and has the gall to put the results in graphs as though it shows anything about the Middle Ages!

[edit 23/04/22: this comic came up today and seemed very appropriate. (source)]

It does produce the amusing image of Charlemagne’s court as a hotbed of ‘secularism’ – because art history textbooks have a lot of pictures of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. I also can’t prove this (because – just as in the case of secular/religious bishops and rich/poor dioceses – I can’t find a list of which data points count as what either in the book or on his website), but I did find one of the art history textbooks he used online, and based on the datapoints for the graph in question, I think he’s counting this portrait of Otto III as secular art, which is pretty funny because, y’know, it’s an illustration from a gospel book. So this book doesn’t engage with the evidence from which it is claiming to draw data and as such can only produce inherently flawed conclusions.

This brings us, finally, to the analytical garbage. Because the author does not engage with the sources for the medieval world, and because the secondary works he reads are badly out of date, his assumptions about the period are fundamentally flawed. The distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is probably the biggest pile of nonsense here. The definitions Bueno de Mesquite gives of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is as follows:

Bishops are classified as religious (i.e., aligned with the pope and church) if their job prior to becoming bishop for the first time was a religious post, such as abbot, monk, hermit, deacon, archdeacon, or priest. Bishops are classified as secular if their prior post was as an agent of the secular authorities, such as court ambassador, chancellor, tutor to a monarch or his children, and the like, or if their biographical information indicates that they were specifically linked to or were suggested as a candidate by the secular ruler over the diocese to which they were appointed.

The whole analysis here rests on the idea that a clerical career = a pro-papal stance = an anti-royal stance (and, the inverse: secular career = pro-royal = anti-papal). This chain of assumptions might look plausible if all you’re reading is The Papacy in the Days of Feudal Anarchy, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of familiarity with the evidence. Notably, Bueno de Mesquite rarely discusses particular examples. We get a lot of abstract hypothesising (‘a king would be motivated to do such-and-such’…) without any systematic, source-based analysis of what specific people actually did. This has the useful effect of meaning that his assumptions don’t have to be tested against contemporary sources – who needs that when you have models? And this is true again and again – bad assumption after bad assumption, leading to faulty question after faulty question, all supported with worthless ‘data’ but clothed in the trappings of science to lend it an air of false authority. 

Why does this matter? Everyone who reads this book will have their own criticisms (I haven’t come close to covering all the issues – I leave the problems with the framing of the initial question, for instance, for others to deal with) and their own reason it matters, but for me it’s to do with the intellectual value of expertise. This isn’t the same thing as ‘being an historian for a living’. Good history is like good woodwork: you don’t have to be a professional to do it, but you do have to have a grasp of the tools, materials, and techniques. The problem with this book is not that it’s wrong. It’s that it’s so obviously, basically wrong, but presented by a senior academic with such a pretence of authority that its fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle Ages runs a serious risk of being influential, making it concomitantly harder to not be wrong in the future. Good history requires craftsmanship; this has no craftsmanship, and has the potential to devalue craftsmanship as a key attribute of historians.

I don’t like being this negative. This book does have good bits. There’s a really interesting discussion of ruling coalitions in Chapter 2 – turns out the senior political scientist is very good at explaining political science theories. However, if you want that, read a political science book. The Invention of Power has two grains of wheat in a warehouse of chaff. Even worse, the ways in which it’s bad are obvious and boring and mean it can’t possibly be recommended, even to point and laugh at*.

*Except the ‘art historical’ analyses. Those are so amazingly ill-thought out that it genuinely is quite funny.


2 thoughts on “The Invention of Power: An Uninteresting Blog Post

  1. Honestly, that sounds like such a god awful book, but the sad thing is there are so many books out there like it. Too often, a political scientist, psychologist or a specialist in any other non-medieval, non-history based field, will draw on medieval history to help explain some grand narrative about global economic development, the decline of violence over time, psychological and social attitudes to sex today or whatever, without engaging at all with either primary sources or anything that’s been written by medievalists in the last thirty years, the last fifty or even (in this case) the last hundred. I’m instantly reminded here of stuff like Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature.”

    On the one hand, I most certainly don’t believe that medieval history writing should be left only to tenured professional medievalists, and that it is highly damaging for our field if we are regarded as snooty elitists. But at the same time, stuff like this is just plain insulting – if a medievalist were to write about a topic in economics, political science, psychology, human biology or whatever without reading the relevant up-to-date secondary literature they would rightly be hounded for it or their work not even be considered worthy of publication. But the fact that Bruce Bueno des Mesquita can do this and almost get away with it just boggles belief. And the way he handles data and and sources more generally – would he accept that from his own students political science essays?

    I’ve seen plenty of podcasters, journalists and amateur scholars who have handled medieval history in a 100x more nuanced, informed and scholarly manner than this. Seriously, why can a tenured academic in another discipline think he can get away with such sloppiness?


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