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Christian-government dynamics in europe to 1600

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This essay is a slightly more elaborate version of a piece I wrote in the winter of 2007 at the request of my brother-in-law, Alan Singer, a professor at Hofstra University who wanted to use it for a graduate class project in one of his Education courses and then publish it in a social science journal (Docket) that he edits.  To tackle such a vast topic within a 5-page limit is a fool’s errand, but family is family, and it gave me an excuse to have a good time putting together ideas that interest me with the freedom not to worry about how much I'm generalizing.  Given the constraints, I’m happy with the result.

Interdependence of sacred and secular authority

Religion (embrace of a metaphysical realm relevant to daily and long-term human well-being), whether “official” (an “established” spiritual authority) or independent (a tolerated or rebellious sect), and government (any authority that seeks to bind disparate humans into a harmonious group) have always been interdependent, sometimes reinforcing each other but more often contending for power. Sometimes the two have been fused into a single social authority, as with ruling priesthoods or the Anglican church in England. Anthropological and archaeological studies suggest that no grouping of human beings has ever been without some kind of religious belief, which probably starts as a response to the seeming hostility and randomness of natural forces and produces fundamental cultural and moral expectations.

Secular and sacred powers have typically insisted that a divine hand guides human affairs, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse: divinity rewards a virtuous society with military victory or prosperity, punishes a morally lax society with military defeat or disease or natural catastrophe. Judaeo-Christian history followed this pattern, at least until the Enlightenment and its sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit challenging of religious authority. Monarchic rule has traditionally invoked divine legitimacy; rebels, defining tyrants as instruments of God’s wrath, have no less insisted that God requires a tyrant’s overthrow. Invasion and colonizing of rival nations have been in the name of the attacker’s divinity, even when the victims claim the same divinity.

Political content is always implicit in religious practice. Until relatively recently, the Catholic Church invoked both sacred and secular authority to crush heresy, often with violence. The history of the papacy is filled with internal power struggles and schisms resulting from private agendas as readily as theological nuances. The Reformation saw protracted struggles between ruling elites and established or insurgent religious forces along with mutual massacres among people all of whom called themselves Christian. Spanish colonization of the New World and exploitation of its natives created ongoing debates and sometimes armed conflicts that put different religious adherents on opposing sides when addressing how colonies should be managed or how native people should be treated. Oppressed Protestant groups fled England only to create religious governments that oppressed those with whom the new theocracies disagreed. Contemporary European, North American and Middle Eastern nations or groups continue to intermingle religious agendas with political goals.

Christianity under the Roman Empire

Under the Empire the religious role of Pontifex Maximus was usually held by the current emperor (fusing religious and political leadership) until the legitimization of Christianity a few centuries later, at which point popes filled this role. In its first three centuries, the Catholic (=“universal”) Church was a minority, often subversive, force within the Empire. Numerous Christians, faced with official demands to affirm allegiance to Rome, refused, and their resulting martyrdom only increased credibility and respect for the new sect. With the Edict of Milan in 313 Emperor Constantine, freshly victorious in wars over who was the rightful emperor, declared toleration for Christianity. In 380, seeking to undo the split of the Empire into East (the foundation of today’s Orthodox Church, seated in Constantinople) and West (what became the Roman Catholic Church, seated with some exceptions in Rome), Emperor Theodosius made the Christian Church part of the government, though the Church “was not established or even legitimized by this imperial decree: the decree credit[ed] the Roman Church with institutional functions…[so that the] papacy…began to act as a proper governmental institution…by means of the law.”[1] According to R. W. Southern, “from the time of Constantine religious unity stemmed in the first place from political unity…if only because religious unity depended on some ultimate power of coercion. Hence all future medieval plans for the reunification of Christendom are fundamentally plans for political reintegration.”[2] Theodosius’s reunification lasted until his death fifteen years later, some 80 years before the Empire would fall to Germanic tribes.

Walter Ullmann distinguishes two broad approaches to rulership in this period: the ascending theory in which rulers get their authority from below (implying the right of rebellion against a wicked ruler)[3] and the descending theory in which rulers’ authority comes from divine will.[4] Before the 11th century, political behavior was minimally a function of theory and largely a response to current events.[5] No one spoke in terms of “church” and “state” but of “government”[6], and the key assumption for both clergy and laity was that “the undifferentiated Christian religion was not separated from politics, politics not separated from morals.”[7] Government and church equally relied on scripture for governance, government using the Bible as support for secular policies, religion viewing government as enforcer of scriptural dictates.[8] Although “[t]he imperial government could have no separation from Christianity,…[t]o the emperor it was the Roman empire, pure and simple, which had become Christian; to the pope this same body was the Church (comprising clergy and laity) which happened to be the Roman empire.”[9]

 The Middle Ages

To R. W. Southern, the medieval Church was itself a version of a state, having “all the apparatus of the state: laws and law courts, taxes and tax-collectors, a great administrative machine, power of life and death over the citizens of Christendom and their enemies within and without.”[10] Indeed, the medieval church “was much more than a state. In the first place it was not, and could never be simply, a state among many: it had to be the state or none at all…. Whether in the hands of pope, emperor, king, or community, the purpose of human government was to direct men into a single Christian path.”[11]

Southern identifies three time periods for the medieval church: the “primitive age” (c. 700-c. 1050), the “age of growth” (c. 1050-c. 1300) and the “age of unrest” (c. 1300-c. 1550). The first stage is typified by ignorance, violence, administrative impotence, and generally “barbaric” (I put this in quotes because one nation’s barbarism is another’s civilization) behavior. People had little confidence in local, regional and “national” leaders, whom they viewed as exploitative and ineffective. As a result, government was dependent on the Church for legitimacy.

The second stage includes the rift between eastern and western churches in the years surrounding 1054, the investiture controversy (1075-1122), and the Christian crusades (mainly 1095-1291), a complex interaction between Church and government beyond my current scope. This was “the high point of Church influence and power in European society, but it also saw ecclesiastical decline.” Because of its near monopoly on literacy, the Church continued to have intimate involvement with law and government administration. But changes during this period also encouraged expanding secular power. “For the first time in its history, Western Europe became an area of surplus population and surplus productivity.”[12] Scorned by canon law as late as the early twelfth century, trade, because “the growing needs of society produced more elaborate forms of commercial organization,” required new thinking by Church lawyers.[13] Europe became assertive and aggressive, pushing its boundaries into new spheres toward the south and east. “An active and blood-thirsty sense of superiority took the place of the fear and resentment towards the outside world,” demanding revision of the principle still active at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 that even in war killing was a grievous sin.[14] On the Church’s side, as the 13th century progressed popes stressed their “supreme political no less than ecclesiastical power”; the Church was to exercise spiritual authority directly, while kings and princes were to exercise secular power on the Church’s behalf. [15] (An interesting example was the right of Church courts to try, and have the option to torture, accused heretics, while secular authority was responsible for carrying out the punishment, often burning, of the guilty.)

In the third stage—which included a devastating famine from 1315-1322[16] and, in the mid-14th century, the worst visitation by the Black Death in its centuries-long presence in Europe—“secular and sacred authorities continued to rely on each other, but power and independence shifted to the State [a relatively new concept], with rulers turning to the Church for support as it suited them.”[17] Rulers often openly resisted papal pronouncements and battled for control over church appointments. Leaders of Italian cities and states “looked on the pope as a potential ally or enemy, to be dealt with in political rather than religious terms.”[18] Europeans “could see that secular governments…were growing in strength and independence, and this cast doubt on the relevance, and then on the validity, of elaborate theories of papal overlordship, universal rule, and sacerdotal supremacy.”[19]

The just war and relations with non-Christians

An expanding Europe in the later middle ages created a growing need to re-define acceptable violence against “enemies” within a nation, elsewhere in Europe, or outside Europe. Inevitably, such justifications relied on Christians having (a) the one true faith and (b) a religious duty to convert those who did not. During the schism of 1054 (or thereabouts: historians vary), a papal representative wrote to the eastern patriarch that “[a]ny nation which dissented from Rome was nothing but a confabulation of heretics, a conventical of schismatics, a synagogue of Satan.” Having cited these words and more, R.W. Southern comments, “I do not think that language quite like this had ever been used before.”[20] This tone, however, is indicative of evolving attitudes in succeeding centuries.

The case for the papal crusades against Islam was easy: Muslims had usurped the territory of Christ, and the Church had a right to muster all Europe’s military might to take it back. [21] But the crusades were just one manifestation of sacred and secular expansion. Starting in the mid-13th century, the Church began developing the idea of the just war, a discussion boiling down to when-and-how-can-Christians-justify-butting-into-someone-else’s-business. Exact answers varied, but always assumed the primacy of Church authority. James Muldoon explains two alternative positions—those of Pope Innocent IV (1243-54), a lawyer, and a student of his known as Hostiensis—that “paralleled the better-known debates among the canonists about the respective roles of the spiritual and the temporal powers within Christian society.”[22] The two views agreed “that Christians could lawfully invade and subdue an infidel society; they differed on the grounds that would justify the invasion”[23] While Hostiensis insisted that regal legitimacy came only via ecclesiastical validation,[24] Innocent saw the papal role as supportive of autonomous rulers whose authority, Christian or non-Christian, came directly from God with the pope having “‘jurisdiction and power over infidels de iure but not de facto.’” For Innocent, the pope’s responsibility was to make sure that all nations obeyed “natural law” (according of course to papal definition). “The policy stressed missionary, not diplomatic and military, contacts, the infidels’ conversion, not their martial situation.”[25]

During the next couple of centuries variants on these views emerged. One argument insisted that Christian rulers could act against infidels within their own borders,[26] another that if a secular Christian ruler failed to enforce natural law against infidels (such as Jews) he (I’m unaware of female rulers in the middle ages) could be tried in ecclesiastical courts,[27] and a third that secular rulers could “intervene in the affairs of infidel rulers without first requesting papal permission.”[28]

European treatment of non-Christians within Europe

Such attitudes informed behavior towards non-Christians both within and outside Europe. Discussing religious and secular authorities’ treatment of minorities (lepers, Jews and Muslims), primarily in the 14th century, David Nirenberg contends that “violence against minorities, however motivated by irrational hatred,…only gained meaning and usefulness for contemporaries in the context of much broader social conflicts, ideologies, and discourses.”[29] As much as rulers might prey upon minorities, they also protected them. For Jews, royal protection could be simultaneously redeeming and marginalizing. “The great majority of Jews depended directly on the king,”[30] so that physical attacks on Jews were “violence against the representatives of justice.”[31] Reciprocally, targeting Jews, as during the so-called Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, which consisted largely of the poor, meant “both attacking a much-resented aspect of administrative kingship and dramatizing the state's inability to protect its agents, the Jews.”[32]

Religious and secular authorities alike used religious ritual to oppress minorities. During Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and the day before Easter), for example, committing violence against Jews was a way “in which the sacred was physically experienced and relations of power were criticized.”[33] Nonetheless, secular Holy Week violence targeted not only Jews but also Christian officials who protected them.

Nirenberg devotes considerable discussion to regulation of sexuality as part of regulating minorities. A natural crisis like famine, drought or plague “was thought to be a punishment for the moral failings of a community and its individuals.” In response to a famine in Valencia in 1335, for example, the municipal council blamed sinful activity among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, “namely, sexual liaisons between Christians and Muslims, as well as sodomy between Muslims.”[34]

European treatment of non-Christians outside Europe: conquest, colonization and trade

Starting in 1415, often bankrolled by Italian interests, the Portuguese and, later in the century, the Spanish, began testing the seagoing limits of the world they knew. With papal sanction, subjugation or colonization of “new” territories began based on previous European colonizing experiences. Tribal societies in West Africa, in Atlantic island groups like the Canaries, and in the Americas (even the large Aztec and Inca civilizations) could not withstand Portuguese or Spanish gunpowder, horses, steel, and most of all, European diseases. In such contexts conquering (at least in retrospect) was inevitable, though not always easy. On the other hand, in West Africa the Portuguese learned quickly to avoid the interior because of its diseases, and although Europeans viewed all non-Christians they encountered as inferiors, they rarely tried to subjugate the more sophisticated societies of East Africa and the Asian coast that might successfully compete with European military capability.

By the early 15th century, “[w]here the papacy had once been at the center of contacts between Christian and non-Christian societies,…the initiative for contacts with ‘infidels’ now came from secular states anxious to expand their domains.”[35] National interests were increasingly defined by the demands of trade. The responsibility to spread Christianity became only one of multiple concerns, and the papal role was increasingly limited to mediation between expansionary Christian states—though in the process popes did manage to get Christian conquerors to agree to protect missionaries.

Portuguese motives for exploration of the African coast appear initially to have been economic—to find a sea route around Africa and then on to Asia to bypass the long and expensive overland trade route for cherished Asian commodities, to expand Asian markets (and any other discovered along the way), to find natural resources, especially gold, and, by 1441, to traffic in West African slaves. Explorers also sought “glory”—renown, respect, titles—and wealth (first gold, then, in Spanish and Portuguese America, land, preferably with the right to an unpaid indigenous labor force). “During the exploration and conquest of Africa and the island chains of the Atlantic, the Portuguese and the Castilians informed the papacy of their activities in traditional rhetorical forms that stressed their desire to spread the word of God. They acted, however, according to their own dynastic interests, seeking papal approval for courses of action already undertaken.”[36]

For Columbus, conversion is a frequent theme, but so are gold, natural resources, manpower and enough wealth to finance a new crusade to capture Jerusalem. On the day he first sights American land, he writes of the people he observes: “They ought to be good servants and of good skill, for I see that they repeat very quickly whatever was said to them. I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion.”[37] Two days later he notes that the natives pose no military threat, that he has kidnapped several of them, and (a kind of conclusion to a syllogism) that the natives should be enslaved.[38] Three weeks after that, referring to expulsion of the Jews earlier that year (right after the end of the 700-year campaign against Islamic Spain), he appeals to the Spanish monarchs to apply to the Indians the same draconian methods (“‘as you have destroyed those who would not seek to confess the Father, Son and Holy Ghost’”).[39] (The provenance and hence reliability of Columbus’s journal is a textual nightmare; the first version we have is roughly 50 years after his death.)

Columbus’s contemporaries have similar disdain for the “Indians.” In Jamaica during Columbus’s second voyage, the Genoese “gentleman” Michele de Cuneo describes a confrontation with local inhabitants who throw stones at the Spaniards. As if disciplining a disobedient dog, conquistadors kill a couple of dozen natives in a one-sided fight, after which Cuneo rapes a local woman (whom he “captured” and to whom Columbus magnanimously granted Cuneo title) whom he whips when she resists and then contemns as a whore for yielding to him.[40]

Trying to retain a semblance of influence, the papacy engaged with imperial powers, as with the issuance of the Spanish Requerimiento in 1512 (its use ceased in the 1540s), which “contained a statement of Christian beliefs and an explanation of the Spanish presence in the Americas. Before troops launched an attack on infidels, a priest was to read the document to them.”[41] This document was in Latin and read to uncomprehending (or absent) natives, but “[t]he point of the Requerimiento…was that the infidels did have dominium and that the Spanish had to justify their invasion by demonstrating the unwillingness of the Indians to admit peaceful missionaries. Thus, the Requerimiento demonstrated the Castilians’ reliance upon Innocent IV's views on the rights of infidels…”[42]

The half-century after Columbus’s voyages caps “[t]wo and a half centuries of legal and papal thinking about the responsibility of the pope for the souls of all men and about the right of non-Christians to govern themselves free of outside interference.”[43] While motives for Spanish conquistadors and those who followed them in the New World—wealth, glory, and the spread of Christianity, with the order of importance varying among historians—the divine and the civil, Christianity and empire, were always interdependent. “The sixteenth-century Castilians saw themselves as a chosen, and therefore a superior, people, entrusted with a divine mission…[with] universal empire as its goal. The highest and most responsible duty of Castile was to uphold and extend the faith, bringing conquered people a civilized and Christian way of life (the two were regarded as synonymous)…”[44]

The Reformation

Politics and faith intermingled in the split between Catholicism and the variety of Protestant sects that spread across sixteenth-century Europe. Most of the criticisms of Catholicism that produced the division were not new but reached a flash point in 1517 when the monk Martin Luther posted his 95 theses at Wittenberg. “Obedience” being a key virtue, Protestant reformers insisted they were not disobedient revolutionaries but traditional Christians returning the church to some pristine era before Catholic corruption—a condition that began, depending on the critic, any time from the death of Christ to the High Middle Ages. To many, social reform was inseparable from religious. In Germany in the early 1520s, for example, peasants, taking Luther’s views about Christian “freedom” as repudiation of secular oppression, rebelled only to feel betrayed when Luther, himself born a peasant but with no interest in civil rebellion, opposed their taking up arms. Widespread slaughter in the name of true Christianity was rampant across Europe for the next century and a half—in some cases it has continued to the present day—initially between Catholics and Protestants but soon between contending Protestant sects as well.

While the Reformation was a general time of turmoil, polemics, violence, and national upheavals, the English reformation was the only reform movement driven from above and with the goal of fusing state and church. In the later middle ages, well before the Reformation, England had been the foremost European nation to challenge papal authority over local rule,[45] and although the popular image is that Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547), desperate for a male heir, turned England to Anglicanism so he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in fact Henry’s England was part of this long history of tension between papal influence and aspirations for national independence from Church authority.

Four years after Luther posted his 95 theses, Henry attached his name to a Catholic tract condemning Luther, earning from the Pope the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title which all succeeding English monarchs have retained despite its origin. But in part because of the divorce issue, by the late 1520s pressure for change was mounting. Without sanction from the papacy, Henry divorced Catherine and in early 1533 married Anne Boleyn. The English Church officially separated from Rome in 1534. Other motives, however, reinforced the movement of events: many in the English establishment itched to join the continental reformers, and Henry used the outlawing of Catholicism as an excuse to seize the large and lucrative network of English monasteries.

Anglican doctrine continued to develop under the regency of Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547-1553), but Edward’s sister, Mary (reigned 1553-1558), re-instituted Catholicism as the national faith. Prelates who had abandoned Catholicism came under pressure to return to it. Some did, often to be brought to some kind of account when Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) returned the nation to her father’s Anglicanism. But the opposition to Mary’s Catholicism was not just about religion. Although there was indeed considerable desire in the country to remain Protestant, there were also basic political fears, as of foreign domination when Mary married Philip II, Catholic monarch of Spain (who 35 years later sent his ill-fated fleet, the Spanish Armada, against the England of Elizabeth, whose sins included rejecting the new widower Philip as a suitor).

    England’s bouncing in 25 years from Catholicism to Anglicanism to Catholicism and finally Anglicanism again produced moral crises for both secular and clerical Protestants. What would happen to your soul if you repudiated the anointed clergy who interceded with God on your behalf? What was your spiritual duty when you swore a holy oath to the Pope and then came to realize that Catholicism was the Antichrist? Where did your true loyalty and obedience lie when your religious conscience conflicted with loyalty to the reigning monarch? Over such dilemmas the Catholic Thomas More went to the block under Henry and numerous Protestants burned at the stake under Mary. The political heritage of the Anglican Reformation included the outlawing of priests, marginalization of secular Catholics, multiplication of Protestant sects, a civil war, regicide, an interregnum of theocratically based rule, and an extended history of rival claimants to the throne.


J. H. Elliott (1989). Spain and Its World, 1500-1700: Selected Essays, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. (1963). Journal and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, New York: The Heritage Press, 1963.

James Muldoon (1979). Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels the Church and the Non-Christian World, 1250-1550, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

David Nirenberg (1996). Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

R. W. Southern (1970). Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Walter Ullmann (1970). A History of Political Thought the Middle Ages Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.


[1] Ullmann, 20.

[2] Southern, 61.

[3] Ullmann, 12.

[4] Ullmann, 13.

[5] Ullmann, 14.

[6] Ullmann, 17.

[7] Ullmann,  16.

[8] Ullmann, 32.

[9] Ullmann, 36, 38.

[10] Southern, 18.

[11] Southern, 21.

[12] Southern,  35.

[13] Southern, 40.

[14] Southern, 35

[15] Southern, 143.

[16] For an in-depth treatment of this appalling period, see William Chester Jordan (1996), The Great Famine, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[17] Southern, 51.

[18] Southern, 50.

[19] Southern, 48.

[20] Southern, 71.

[21] Muldoon, 7.

[22] Muldoon, 17.

[22] Muldoon, 141.

[24] Muldoon, 9-11.

[25] Muldoon, 68.

[26] Muldoon, 19.

[27] Muldoon, 23.

[28] Muldoon, 24.

[29] Nirenberg, 43.

[30] Nirenberg, 28.

[31] Nirenberg,  footnote 60, p. 36.

[32] Nirenberg, 50.

[33] Nirenberg,  201.

[34] Nirenberg,  142.

[35] Muldoon, 105.

[36] Muldoon, 133.

[37] Morison, ed., 65.

[38] Morison, ed., 68.

[39] Morison, ed., 91

[40] Morison, ed., 212.

[41] Muldoon, 140.

[42] Muldoon, 141.

[43] Muldoon, 136.

[44] Elliott, 9.

[45] Southern, 50.

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