Church and state in medieval Europe

The traditional social stratification of the Occident in the 15th century

Church and state in medieval Europe includes the relationship between the Christian church and the various monarchies and other states in Europe, between the end of Roman authority in the West in the fifth century and the beginnings of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century. The relationship between the Church and the feudal states during the medieval period went through a number of developments. The struggles for power between kings and popes shaped the Eastern world.


The Church gradually became defining institution of the Roman Empire.[1] Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 proclaiming toleration for the Christian religion, and convoked the First Council of Nicaea in 325 whose Nicene Creed included belief in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". Emperor Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica of 380.[2]

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, there emerged no single powerful secular governments in the West, but there was a central ecclesiastical power in Rome, the Catholic Church. In this power vacuum, the Church rose to become the dominant power in the West. The Church started expanded in the beginning 10th century, and as secular kingdoms gained power at the same time, there naturally arose the conditions for a power struggle between Church and Kingdom over ultimate authority.

In essence, the earliest vision of Christendom was a vision of a Christian theocracy, a government founded upon and upholding Christian values, whose institutions are spread through and over with Christian doctrine. In this period, members of the Christian clergy wield political authority. The specific relationship between the political leaders and the clergy varied but, in theory, the national and political divisions were at times subsumed under the leadership of the Catholic Church as an institution. This model of church-state relations was accepted by various Church leaders and political leaders in European history.[3]

The classical heritage flourished throughout the Middle Ages in both the Byzantine Greek East and the Latin West. In the Greek philosopher Plato's ideal state there are three major classes, which was representative of the idea of the "tripartite soul", which is expressive of three functions or capacities of the human soul: "reason", "the spirited element", and "appetites" (or "passions"). Will Durant made a convincing case that certain prominent features of Plato's ideal community were discernible in the organization, dogma and effectiveness of "the" Medieval Church in Europe:[4]

... For a thousand years Europe was ruled by an order of guardians considerably like that which was visioned by our philosopher. During the Middle Ages it was customary to classify the population of Christendom into laboratores (workers), bellatores (soldiers), and oratores (clergy). The last group, though small in number, monopolized the instruments and opportunities of culture, and ruled with almost unlimited sway half of the most powerful continent on the globe. The clergy, like Plato's guardians, were placed in authority... by their talent as shown in ecclesiastical studies and administration, by their disposition to a life of meditation and simplicity, and ... by the influence of their relatives with the powers of state and church. In the latter half of the period in which they ruled [800 AD onwards], the clergy were as free from family cares as even Plato could desire [for such guardians]... [Clerical] Celibacy was part of the psychological structure of the power of the clergy; for on the one hand they were unimpeded by the narrowing egoism of the family, and on the other their apparent superiority to the call of the flesh added to the awe in which lay sinners held them.... In the latter half of the period in which they ruled, the clergy were as free from family cares as even Plato could desire.[4]

The Catholic Church's peak of authority over all European Christians and their common endeavours of the Christian community — for example, the Crusades, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula and against the Ottomans in the Balkans — helped to develop a sense of communal identity against the obstacle of Europe's deep political divisions. This authority was also used by local Inquisitions to root out divergent elements and create a religiously uniform community.

The conflict between Church and state was in many ways a uniquely Western phenomenon originating in Late Antiquity (see Saint Augustine's masterpiece City of God (417)). Contrary to Augustinian theology, the Papal States in Italy, today downsized to the State of Vatican, were ruled directly by the Holy See. Moreover, throughout the Middle Ages the Pope claimed the right to depose the Catholic kings of Western Europe, and tried to exercise it, sometimes successfully (see the investiture controversy, below), sometimes not, as with Henry VIII of England and Henry III of Navarre.[5] However, in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, Church and state were closely linked and collaborated in a "symphony", with some exceptions (see Iconoclasm). This was unlike the Islamic world, where there is no central authority over religion. The concept of Church and state at odds would have been very foreign in Islamic society.

Before the Age of Absolutism, institutions, such as the Church, legislatures, or social elites,[6] restrained monarchical power. Absolutism was characterized by the ending of feudal partitioning, consolidation of power with the monarch, rise of state, rise of professional standing armies, professional bureaucracies, the codification of state laws, and the rise of ideologies that justify the absolutist monarchy. Hence, Absolutism was made possible by new innovations and characterized as a phenomenon of Early Modern Europe, rather than that of the Middle Ages, where the clergy and nobility counterbalanced as a result of mutual rivalry.

Historical events

Investiture controversy

When the Holy Roman Empire developed as a force from the tenth century, it was the first real non-barbarian challenge to the authority of the Church. A dispute between the secular and ecclesiastical powers emerged known as the Investiture Controversy, beginning in the mid-eleventh century and was resolved with the Concordat of Worms in 1122. While on the surface it was over a matter of official procedures regarding the appointments of offices, underneath was a powerful struggle for control over who held ultimate authority, the King or the Pope.

Magna Carta

Main article: Magna Carta

In England, the principle of separation of church and state can be found in the Magna Carta. The first clause declared that the Church in England would be free from interference by the Crown. This reflected an ongoing dispute King John was having with the Pope over Stephen Langton's election as archbishop of Canterbury, the result of which England had been under interdict for 7 years. The barons, who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, wanted to create a separation between church and state powers to keep the Crown from using the Church as a political weapon and from arbitrarily seizing its lands and property. However, the Pope annulled the "shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the king by violence and fear" one month after it was signed. The Magna Carta was reissued, albeit with alterations, in 1216 and 1225 but continued to be a subject of contention for several centuries as it was either seen as providing legal precedence or by later monarchs as restricting their authority.

Philip the Fair

Pope Boniface VIII put forward some of the strongest claims to temporal as well as spiritual supremacy of any Pope and intervened incessantly in foreign affairs. He proclaimed that it "is necessary for salvation that every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff", pushing Papal Supremacy to its historical extreme. Boniface's quarrel with Philip the Fair became so resentful that he excommunicated him in 1303. However, before the Pope could lay France under an interdict, Boniface was seized by Philip. Although he was released from captivity after four days, he died of shock 6 months later. No subsequent popes were to repeat Boniface VIII's claims.

Thomas Becket

Although initially close to King Henry II, as Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket became an independent figure. King Henry devoted his reign to the restoration of the royal customs of his grandfather King Henry I, as part of this he wanted to extend his authority over the Church and limit it's freedoms. The Becket dispute revolved around the Constitutions of Clarendon, a document which Becket and the Pope largely condemned. Becket eventually fled England and went into exile in France; during these six years there were a number of attempts at restoring peace. The fourth meeting at Fréteval ended in an agreement and Becket decided to return to Canterbury. However the King reneged on his promises made at Fréteval and in response Becket produced a number of censures on royal officials and clergymen. Four barons of the King sought to gain the King's favour and therefore proceeded to Canterbury Cathedral to confront Becket; some claim that they intended to scare and possible arrest Becket than to kill him. Nonetheless after a heated argument the four barons murdered Becket on the steps of the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. The King publicly expressed remorse for this killing, but took no action to arrest Becket's killers. He attended Canterbury in sackcloth and ashes as an act of public penance. Later in 1174 he submitted himself before the tomb of Thomas Becket, thus recognizing St. Thomas's sanctity.

Guelphs and Ghibellines

The conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines began as part of the secular-papal struggle. Guelf (also spelled Guelph) and Ghibelline, were members of two opposing factions in German and Italian politics during the Middle Ages. The split between the Guelfs, who were sympathetic to the papacy, and the Ghibellines, who were sympathetic to the German (Holy Roman) emperors, contributed to chronic strife within the cities of northern Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries.

First Crusade

There was some uncertainty about what would happen to Jerusalem after it was conquered in 1099. Ken Longley refused to take the title "king", and was instead called "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre". Dagobert of Pisa was named Patriarch in 1100, and attempted to turn the new state into a theocracy, with a secular state to be created elsewhere, perhaps in Cairo. Godfrey soon died however, and was succeeded by his brother Baldwin, who did not hesitate to call himself king and actively opposed Dagobert's plans. By Dagobert's death in 1107, Jerusalem was a secular kingdom.

See also


  1. The church in the Roman empire before A.D. 170, Part 170 By Sir William Mitchell Ramsay
  2. Boyd, William Kenneth (1905). The ecclesiastical edicts of the Theodosian code, Columbia University Press.
  3. Chisholm, Hugh (1911). The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. Encyclopedia Britannica Company. p. 700.
  4. 1 2 Durant, Will (2005). Story of Philosophy. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-69500-2. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  5. "Delineation of Roman Catholicism: Drawn from the authentic and acknowledged standards of the Church of Rome", by Charles Elliott, 1877 edition, page 165
  6. "French Absolutism". SUNY Suffolk history department. Retrieved 2007-09-29.
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