Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sacral Kingship: Introduction (part 1)

I hope you all can help me out with something. I've decided to go through my 2005 thesis on sacral kingship that I wrote at Ave and clean it up a bit, perhaps make it more scholarly and worthy of publication at some point in the future.

To this end, I have decided to post the whole 95 page thesis on this blog, but only piece by piece. Every now and then I'm going to throw up a chapter for your perusal. Please let me know if you think anything could be added, certain points made stronger, certain arguments that are too weak, etc. Basically, I'm just looking for feedback.

Below is the introduction, explaining the concept of the paper and setting out the scope of the project. It was written in the Spring of 2005, so I hope it doesn't sound to juvenile. But that is the sort of thing I am wanting to tweak. Citations can be found at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.

Power from on High
Theocratic Kingship from Constantine to the Reformation

Introduction: Medieval Integration of Faith and Life

From the victory of Constantine as sole ruler of the Roman Empire in AD 324 to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Christian world was united firmly under the rule of a succession of Catholic monarchies. This is an incredibly long period of time. Consider that the European world was only under the aegis of Roman power for 700 years at the most, from Rome’s rise as a Mediterranean power around 202 BC after the Second Punic War to the demise of the western empire in AD 476. Except for a brief period of overlap in the years between AD 324 and AD 476, Europe was ruled by Catholic monarchs for almost 1200 years, five centuries longer than it had been ruled by Rome. For century after century, Europeans of all walks of life conceived of society and the power of the state in Christian terms. Authority came from God and was personified in the king to whom they swore fealty. By swearing fealty to the king, they were swearing fealty at the same time to God and affirming their place in the political institution that came from Him.

The institution of Christian monarchy developed slowly, emerging from the scattered pieces of the Western Roman Empire and giving order to a world that, by all exterior considerations, had completely broken down. This Christian monarchy proved to be one of the most dynamic social creations of the Catholic Church. The concept of the Christian monarch endured firmly throughout the tumults of the Middle Ages, but also allowed itself to be modified over time, all the while preserving its integral character. It was only with the tragic division of the Reformation that the nature of Christian kingship was drastically altered and began to decline; 1789, 1848 and 1917 were the final blows that put Christian monarchy decisively in the history books for good.

Where did the Christian monarchy come from? How did the vision of the Christian monarch change over time? These are the questions that this study will deal with. This is not meant to be a narration of the political deeds of individual monarchs, or of the social development of the institution as a whole (although elements of each will be touched on). Rather, this study is meant to be an inquiry into the specific ideology behind the concept of the Christian monarch. This inquiry will necessarily employ political and social elements, but it is first and foremost a study of the image of power on the theoretical level and how that image changed over the centuries. But anyone who is familiar with medieval history will know that issues on the theoretical level could very easily erupt violently into the arena of royal and ecclesiastical politics, as they often did.

It is difficult today, in light of two hundred plus years of secular materialism and the expunging of God from the political sphere, to understand how ideology and power interacted in the Middle Ages. Images such as those of Constantine calling and presiding over an ecumenical council, Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow at Canossa to obtain absolution from the Pope, or Henry VIII debating passages of Deuteronomy with his government ministers seem alien and foolish to the modern mind. Any 21st century President or Prime Minister who engaged in such enterprises would be mocked, ridiculed and told to keep his faith “private.” But the medieval man knew of no such thing as a private faith, and had he heard of such a notion he would have regarded it as the worst hypocrisy. Modern man might praise a political leader that managed to keep his private religious views distinct from his legislation, but Dante, that medieval poet par excellence, submerged such people in the eighth circle of Nether-Hell, wearing forever the leaden cloak of the hypocrites.1

The point is that there is a divergence in the modern world between faith and life that did not exist in the Middle Ages. This is due mostly to the dynamic nature of the Christian religion. It would not be much of an overstatement to say that post-Roman European civilization was a creation of the Catholic Church. Besides revolutionizing religious thought with its doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it completely reorganized and revitalized European civilization as a secondary effect. Wherever Catholicism went, it structured society around its principles; whenever it came into contact with barbarian tribes where civilization had not yet reached, such as among the Irish and the Franks, the result was a wholly unique Christian culture. Because of the revolutionary nature of Christianity, it could not help but transforming civilization. Christ’s commands to spread the good news to the ends of the earth and to do good to men ensured this transformation. Things such as hospitals, universities, Gothic architecture, charities for the poor, the chivalric ideal and the art of the Renaissance were all creations of the Catholic Church, directly or indirectly. The contributions of the Church to civilization become even greater if one were to count all the advances made by Catholic monks throughout the ages, from Dionysius Exiguus (500-560) who developed the anno domini method of dating, to Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who pioneered the science of genetics. When all the innovations that arose as a result of monasticism are figured into the equation, the contributions of the Church to society become truly immense and unfathomable.

The intellectual position that made all these achievements possible was a thoroughgoing integration of faith and common life. Since faith was actually taken seriously, its practice had ramifications in secular life. Therefore not only strictly religious functions, like weddings and funerals, but also secular occasions like the construction of a bridge or building, the harvesting of the crops or the christening of a ship also became religious functions, complete with ceremonial blessings. It only followed that this integration should take place also at the highest level of the state. This is the ideological foundation of Christian monarchy.

What exactly is Christian monarchy? It has taken several forms throughout the centuries. This paper will focus on the period from Constantine up to the Reformation. The Christian monarch of this period was the head of a complex social hierarchy, which went down from him though the nobles, merchants and finally to the serfs. The image of power was somewhat similar to the political arrangement. The authority to rule came from God, who vested it in the king. The king ruled by God’s power and by His grace. As the personification of the kingdom, the king’s relationship to God was especially important. The belief of the time was that a godly king would bring blessing to his people while a sinful one would incur judgment. An example of this can be taken from Asser’s Life of King Alfred, which dates from around the 894. There, Alfred’s exile in the swamps of Somerset is attributed to a sin he committed against hospitality in refusing to aid some friends in need. By contrast, Asser attributes the victory of the English over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown to the pious prayers of King Ethelred at Mass. Asser aptly sums up the entire theology of the Christian monarch with one statement: “The faith of this Christian king availed much with the Lord.”2

The grace of God to the nation was mediated through the king, much as the grace of God given to the individual was mediated through the Church. The identification of the king with divine authority went so far that disobedience to the king was usually seen as ipso facto disobedience to God as well. This system seemed to work fairly well, but problems arose when the two chief instruments of grace for the individual and the kingdom, Church and King, were at odds with each other. Who was the believer to have primary allegiance to, and where did the jurisdiction of each come to an end? These struggles dominate the history of Church and state in the Middle Ages and account for much of the development that took place within these two institutions during that time.

Finally, a distinction must be drawn between the Christian kingship of the Middle Ages and that of the early modern era. Christian kingship endured past 1555 and had several centuries of vitality left before it finally got thrown out for good after World War I. Even Queen Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1952, swore to uphold the Christian (albeit Protestant) religion. But there are several important differences between the Christian monarchies of the Middle Ages and those from the 16th century onward.

Medieval monarchy was theocratic monarchy in the truest sense. The kingship and the church were the two authorities that God had established in the world, the latter to reign over the spiritual sphere, the former over the temporal. Oftentimes the distinct spheres of influence of each authority were blurred, but a few common points can be established. First, all authority came from God and all in authority were responsible to God for the just exercise of it. Secondly, the Church and the King (or in the high medieval period, the Emperor) were the supreme authorities on the earth. Finally, the authority of each was mediated to the common people by a complex hierarchy. In the case of the Church, it was the institutional hierarchy and religious orders coupled with the Catholic economy of sacraments, penance and good works. In the order of kingship, it was through dizzying mixture of nobles, lords, dukes, earls, ealdormen, thegns, reeves, barons, counts, knights, vassals, peasants and all men of means who bound themselves ultimately to the king through the system of fealty, which secured the bond of a man to his lord by sacred oath. The two orders of Church and Kingship functioned, in theory at least, harmoniously. The good king was also the pious king who served the Church, and the faithful Churchman was the one who humbly obeyed the God-ordained sovereign. By the cooperation of the two, the faithful were provided with all the means, both temporal and spiritual, they needed to live happy lives and attain to their final end. Life in the Middle Ages is rife with such examples of Church-State cooperation. To use the example of Alfred again, the King decreed in his law that disputes over the ownership of property were to be heard in the presence of a bishop and that any man who violated his oath, as part of his punishment, was to do whatever penance was prescribed by the local ordinary.3

A decisive change takes place in the nature of Christian kingship following the Reformation.4 Though they used different models, Henry VIII of England and the German princes who broke with the Church both inaugurated a new era of Church-State relations: that of state dominance over the Church and of the insistence that the first loyalty of a person ought to go to the state. This was the germ of what would grow into the idea of absolutism, as personified in the 17th century by Louis XIV.

The differences between absolutism and theocratic monarchy at first seem minuscule, but are very fundamental. While in the theocratic model it is authority that descends to the king from God, in the absolutist model it is not authority but power that is given to the monarch. Authority is connected with the idea of responsibility, to God first, then to the Church and the nation as a whole. A theocratic monarch, by the very nature of his authority, was also bound to Christian morality and piety. An absolutist ruler felt constrained by no such demand and envisioned his authority in terms of raw power.

Another essential difference is the systematic way in which the absolute monarchs did away with the mediating bodies that had played so crucial a role in the Middle Ages. The practice of subsidiarity, which had been taken for granted in the Middle Ages, was phased out in favor of state centralization under the absolutist monarch. Guilds, state funded or privately backed ecclesiastical charities and all such independent bodies were dissolved, transformed, or reigned in under the authority of the monarch. The traditionally quasi-independent noble landowners became agents of the state, in the case of the Prussian Junkers quite literally.5 In its political theory, the absolutist model is almost a kind of Christianized reversion back to the Pharonic idea of kingship and absolute power. However, much of this power existed in theory and not in practice; no absolutist monarch, except perhaps the Russian Czars, exerted the kind of arbitrary power over life and death that a figure like Rameses III or Xerxes did. Nevertheless, absolutism represents at least an ideological, if not practical, regression back to this pre-Christian notion of kingship.

To sum it up: the dynamic institution of Christian monarchy arose from the rubble of the western Roman Empire and proved to be the dominant political model in the west for the next 1200 years. Behind it was an ideology that integrated faith and life, insisting that good kings be good Christians and that good Christians be loyal to the king. Disputes over where the authority of King and Church ended characterize the major political and ecclesiastical issues of the Middle Ages, but the stability of the Christian monarchy and the dynamism of the Catholic religion ensured that the institution of monarchy survived intact, though altered somewhat. By the 1600’s, however,  latent nationalism and emerging ideas about the absolute authority of the state rendered the institution crippled irreparably. Traditional “theocratic” Christian monarchies declined in favor of newer “absolutist” models, which did away with the principles of subsidiarity and of responsibility to the Church in favor of state domination of the Church. The nature of these monarchies ultimately proved inadequate in dealing with the rising tides of liberalism and they all crumbled finally, in 1789, 1848 and 1917.

This work will focus on the formative period of Christian monarchy, the “theocratic” period, from the ascent of Constantine to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. However, it is first necessary to take a brief look at how several seemingly contradictory ideas of power in pre-Christian times were fused by Christianity in person of the Catholic King.

1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto 23 (Penguin Books Edition, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: 1949)
2 Asser, Life of King Alfred, Translated by L.C. Jane, M.A. (Cooper Square Publishers: New York, 1966) 27, 39
3 Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England ( Longman: London & New York, 1998), 268
4Secular rulers exercising disproportionate influence over Church affairs did not start with the Reformation; it had a healthy tradition going back to Edward I of England, Frederick II and Henry IV of Germany and even to Justinian. The difference is that after the Reformation era, what had previously been the personal actions of a few rulers became a dogmatically defined doctrine of state (cuius regio eius religio) and many secular lords tried to do away with Church mediation entirely, insisting that the King ruled by God’s grace alone and was not responsible to any earthly Church or ecclesiastical official.
5 The full-scale conversion of Junkers into the Prussian officer corps began in with King Frederick William I around 1717. (Anthony F. Upton, Europe: 1600-1789. Oxford University Press: New York, 2001), 254


Ben G said...

Hi Boniface,

I like the substance of your essay, but I have some little quibbles.

You write: “From the victory of Constantine as sole ruler of the Roman Empire in AD 324 to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Christian world was united firmly under the rule of a succession of Catholic monarchies.” You seem to be here ignoring the many barbarian Arian monarchies, like that of the Ostrogoths in Italy under Theodoric the Great, or the Visigoths in southern Gaul and then later on Spain. The remarkable thing about Clovis and the Franks was that they converted straight to orthodox Catholicism, whereas the majority of Christian barbarians in the 300-600 period were Arian.

When you said "Pharonic" did you mean Pharaonic?

Perhaps saying "plus" (in light of two hundred plus years) is a bit informal--in light of more than...

"Wherever Catholicism went, it structured society around its principles; whenever it came into contact with barbarian tribes where civilization had not yet reached, such as among the Irish and the Franks, the result was a wholly unique Christian culture."
But didn't the Franks invade a Gaul that had long been incorporated into the Empire? The Franks didn't have Roman civilisation before their invasion, but as soon as they bear any importance as a people, they are in contact with Roman culture.

Fr.A said...

If this was the beginning of a book, I'd eagerly turn the page to read more. It's very good so far.