The ecclesial roots of the modern state

Anna Grzymala-Busse, professor of political science, wants to show the role that the medieval church played in the founding of the modern state: an ancient theme whose renewal faces certain limits.

medieval church and modern state: an already ancient historiographical theme

The role of the Middle Ages in the formation of the modern European state is not a new theme. The traditional theses according to which the state was born between the XVIe and the XVIIe century, on the one hand of war and taxation and on the other hand of negotiation between leaders and society, have been nuanced for a long time and the importance of the central Middle Ages in this process is regularly reassessed.

The author, however, focuses on a particular aspect of this genesis, since she insists on the role of the Church and the Papacy. She states this in the first paragraphs of the introduction: The Church strongly influenced the formation of the European state, that is, the process by which leaders accumulate and assert their authority over populations and territories. () Monarchs adopted administrative solutions and conceptual innovations specific to popes. () While there are many ways to build states, the European state rests on “sacred foundations”, shaped by the deep involvement of religious authorities. The adjective sacred is understood here as religious and more precisely ecclsialthat is to say relating to the Church as an institution.

This thesis seems to be enjoying new success in the field of political science. Anna Grzymala-Busse's work is based in particular on the recent work of the Danish political scientist Jrgen Mller, who published in 2022, with Jonathan Stavnskr Doucette, a book entitled The Catholic Church and European State Formation, A.D. 1000-1500. But again this is an old subject in historiography. It has been discussed numerous times by medivists. It is a shame that these works in Italian, French or German are unknown to the author, because they could have served as starting points for her reflection. The fact remains that Sacred Foundations can constitute a gateway to this theme for those who have until now remained far from these investigations.

Between rivalry and emulation, the protiform influence of the Church on the formation of states

The work offers a chronological framework based on a fairly classic quadripartite periodization. The first period considered (888-1054) is characterized by more or less asserted control of the Church by secular powers, in particular by the Holy Roman Empire. On the contrary, the second period (1054-1122) rather marks the liberation of the Church from these secular guardianships, in connection with the Gregorian reform. This movement of emancipation from the Church finds its culmination in the XIIIe century (1198-1302) which sealed his triumph. The author finally evokes a long XIVe century (1302-1417) marked by an increase in the power of secular sovereigns who would impose their will on the pope.

A. Grzymala-Busse shows to what extent the rivalry between secular sovereigns and popes led to three fundamental phenomena in the creation of modern states: the differentiation between ecclesiastical and temporal authority, the perpetuation of the political fragmentation of the West and the development of a discourse on sovereignty. Alongside more traditional analyses, the author attempts in particular to show that the Papacy would have voluntarily contributed to the political fragmentation of the West, in particular of the Holy Roman Empire, through the alliances it established, the crusades it instigated and the conflicts in which it became involved.

After having studied the logic of conflicts which pitted popes against secular sovereigns and which would lead to the founding of the state, the author focuses on the mechanisms of emulation. This mulation becomes imitation when the kingdoms copy the technologies of governance (chancelleries, chambers/treasuries, judicial bodies) set up by the church. The transmission of these models across Europe gives rise to a detailed chronological analysis (p. 80-81). This diffusion is initially the work of qualified ecclesiastical personnel. In addition to the cardinals, legates and bishops who travel from the papal court to the royal courts, sovereigns call on a series of specialists and experts trained within the Church. It was therefore initially clerics who shaped state structures in the West, before being relayed by lay experts trained in institutions created by European sovereigns.

The birth and growth of the university phenomenon is in fact largely based on the desire of popes and lay sovereigns to have competent administrative staff. Legal know-how is particularly valued in recruitment. The rediscovery of Roman law at the University of Bologna in the second half of the XIe century spread throughout the West and offered new concepts and new weapons to secular sovereigns to support their power and assert their rights vis-à-vis the Papacy. The latter produced a few decades later an effort to systematize canon law, specific to the Church, capable of supporting its claims, including in the temporal sphere. These developments must certainly be seen as the origin of the establishment of legal and standards-based approaches to conflict resolution.

Finally, the author attempts to evaluate the role played by the Church in the creation of parliaments in the West at the end of the Middle Ages. It first provides the model of representative institutions through synods, councils and conclaves, which bring together different levels of ecclesiastical leaders. These assemblies are governed by a repertoire of rules and areas of competence which are often repeated on the scale of the sovereign territories of the West. Through its reinterpretation of Roman law, the Church also gave birth to concepts such as the consent of individuals, binding collective representation anduniversitiesa term which originally means the community capable of governing itself. These practices and these concepts are disseminated in Christianity by the clergy, especially by the prelates, and result in the theory of conciliarism which affirms the superior authority of the council over the pope. This ancient idea had its heyday during the Great Schism (1378-1417), a period during which several popes disputed legitimacy. The very lively reaction of the Papacy towards this political movement, particularly on the intellectual level, provided tools to the nascent European states to then shape absolutism. In He sovrano pontifice. Un corpo e due anime: the papal monarchia nella prima et moderna published in 1982, Paolo Prodi had already underlined the laboratory role played by the Church, and in particular by the Papal States, in the formation of the modern state. Even if he adopts a later chronology, since he focuses his remarks on Modern Times which he begins in the second half of the XVe century, the themes he analyzes, such as law or curial administration, largely overlap with those of Sacred Foundations. It is also a shame that this work does not deal with these proposals which have become a landmark in historiography.

In the conclusion, A. Grzymala-Busse very appropriately qualifies the general thesis of his book, noting that the creation of the modern European state is based on several factors. While the Church plays an important role in this process, it is far from unique. The author also proposes, in a very interesting way, to reverse the old paradigm according to which the state is born from modern wars. On the contrary, it would be because states were able to develop administrative and financial capacities during the Middle Ages that they would be able to wage wars on a larger scale in the modern era.

Papacy and political fragmentation of Europe

Anna Grzymala-Busse is not a historian by training, so we will forgive her approximations in her scholarship. Her work is not based on the analysis of historical sources, but rather on a careful reading of the recent bibliography, mainly Anglo-Saxon, to which she applies social science methods. This methodological contribution certainly constitutes the main originality of Sacred Foundations, even if it raises certain questions. The demonstration is based, for example, on numerous occasions, on a statistical analysis based on linear regression using the ordinary least squares method. This approach notably supports one of the strong theses of the book: the territorial fragmentation of Europe would be the result of a deliberate policy of the Church aimed at neutralizing the threat of the Holy Roman Empire (). Popes used various tactics to destabilize and fragment the power of monarchs they deemed hostile (p. 177). These tactics are believed to have been implemented by the Papacy primarily through proxy wars, crusades, and geopolitical alliances. However, the method of ordinary least squares seems difficult to apply to this specific area of ​​study like other phenomena mentioned in Sacred Foundations. How to define and count Conflicts in which the Papacy is involved in the central Middle Ages and the modern era (p. 62)? How to define and count boundaries at the same periods? The undertaking is a challenge, both in the (evolutionary) definition of the terms of the subject and in the collection of data. The raw figures on which the reasoning is based come from secondary sources which do not aim to be exhaustive. This type of quantitative method applies such long periods and such broad subjects seems difficult to maintain at a time when, as the author herself points out, the conservation of sources is random.

Beyond these methodological difficulties, it seems difficult to transform a possible statistical correlation between the conflicts in which the popes were involved and territorial fragmentation, into a systematic causal relationship. To say that sovereign pontiffs have often used the political strategy of divide and rule is a truism, but does this strategy correspond to a long-term enterprise carried out on purpose in particular against the emperors?? It is not certain that we should essentialize papal policy over several centuries in this way, when it appears subject to very significant reversals with each new election to the throne of Saint Peter.

Against the thesis supported by this book, it is also possible to affirm that the popes sought to work in favor of the unity of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, provided that, from their point of view, this unity must be achieved under the pontifical banner. The history of the medieval West largely corresponds to a succession of conflicts between popes and secular sovereigns, in particular the emperor. These conflicts certainly contribute to creating political fragmentation in the West, the fact remains that the final objective of the popes is to impose on unified Christianity a magisterium, if not a political authority, with a universal vocation. In the light of the European political map of the early modern era and the concomitant construction of increasingly independent states, this attempt proved to be a failure.