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The British Library, Yates Thompson 36, f. 139r: Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia: Dante and Beatrice encounter Emperor Justinian

Did medieval Christian Europe really produce early forms of secularity? 

Some narratives about secularization and modernization processes which include pre-modern history still tend to postulate a trajectory of an early emergence of secularity in Europe, particularly in the form of a separation of church and state beginning during the European Middle Ages. But more recent findings suggest that medieval Christian Europe remained quite comparable to other cultural constellations: Rather than a secular sphere, political dynamics produced demands for the de-politicization of religion, or at most, situations and social spaces of ‘neutrality.’

In the introduction and the preceding essays in this series, Rushain Abbasi, Conor O’Brien and Christoph Kleine show us that pre-modern societies in the Middle East, Europe, and Japan – which were traditionally understood to lack secularity – already debated and applied distinctions separating religion from non-religion. In the present contribution, which returns to western Europe during the period c. 1050–1550 CE, I would like to complement their argumentation, stressing the need for caution and precision in our endeavour: We can indeed illuminate a cultural genealogy of modern secularities by revisiting forms of the secular from the distant past. But we also need to accommodate the cultural alterity of many historical constellations – not least to avoid the pull of older Eurocentric narratives. 

So far, both scholars of the distant past and social scientists still tend to adapt an influential narrative of an ‘early separation of church and state’ in medieval Europe. This narrative not only localizes the origins of modern secularity in Latin-Christian Europe during the medieval period without taking the close historical parallels and analogies in other global regions into account. It also postulates specific causalities and modalities of the emergence of a ‘secular’ political domain, which allegedly emerged centuries earlier in Christian Europe than elsewhere.

An example illustrating this development and its problems can be drawn from the work of the Florentine poet, scholar and politician,  Dante Alighieri († 1321). Particularly in his treatise On Monarchy, he exemplifies the consolidation of a theoretical discourse concerning the separation of the political and ecclesiastical realms during the later Middle Ages: Dante distinguishes the political realm of the Roman Empire (ruled by the German kings) in great clarity from the sphere of the church. He views both as governed by different principles and bent on different purposes: 

“The foundation of the Church is Christ […] but the foundation of the Empire is human Right [ius humanum] […] the Supreme Pontiff [is meant] to lead the human race to life eternal by means of revelation, and the Emperor to guide it to temporal felicity by means of philosophic instruction” (80 and 90).

Dante’s On Monarchy arose from a situation of controversy and military struggle across Italy, which arose after 1268, as the control of the Italian lands slipped from the grasp of the German kings (who regularly took on the office and title of Roman Emperor during this period). For several decades, political rule over Italian territories therefore remained contested between the Roman popes, who wished to extend their territory beyond the ‘papal states’, the French dynasty, who sought to appropriate parts of Italy, and eventually the German rulers intent on recovering their prior status.

The Florentine Dante was a declared enemy of the popes and championed the new German king and Emperor as a potential source of peace and legal order. Dante’s political vision proposed a political realm largely independent of the church, and a church reduced to a genuinely religious purpose: Particularly in his Divina Commedia (written up to his death in 1321), Dante railed sharply against a Roman church that he viewed as corrupted by nepotism, political ambition and greed, and wanted to see restricted to its prior religious purity. 

Both of these demands fit very well with a modern narrative of a ‘separation’ or differentiation of religion and politics as separate spheres, which was first developed in historical studies, but also adapted in legal scholarship and sociology, for example in Detlef Pollack’s detailed analysis of 2016.[1] All of these approaches focus on a highly unique situation in western European Christianity, namely a series of drawn-out conflicts between European rulers and Roman popes arising when the latter took an increasingly active political role from the reign of Gregory VII. († 1080) onwards. 

In a new hierocratic understanding of political order, these Roman popes not only claimed political overlordship over their territories. They also demanded oversight over the conduct and offices of the clergy and of the laypeople, including political rulers – arguing that the worldly sphere of life and even the worldly rulers should be subordinate to the authority of the spiritual domain. The origins of these hierocratic claims date to controversies about the relation of political and ecclesiastical power arising during the eleventh century, the so-called Investiture Contest from c. 1076 to 1122.

Older historical and legal research tended to view this conflict as a point of origin for the first conceptual distinctions between the religious and political spheres, assuming that the religious and political realm were somehow ‘undistinguished’ during the earlier centuries. Pollack’s analysis follows recent historical revisions, acknowledging the existence of early forms of differentiation between religious and political spheres. Looking at long-term developments, he argues that the recurring clashes between popes and temporal rulers from the 1070s to about 1300 caused situational distinctions to stabilize into “systemic” differentiation (136-140). He also traces the development of political institutions which – as he argues – no longer relied on religious legitimacy, but on secular foundations such as legal authority, historical and “metaphysical” arguments (136-137). This development could very well be illustrated with the quotations from Dante’s Monarchy above.

As I would argue, however, this interpretation still remains closely indebted to a modern understanding of secularity and secularization: It assumes that the European clashes between popes and kings contributed to a desacralization of the political realm and a clearer distinction of the political and the religious domains. Yet if we study the medieval sources carefully, both claims seem to rest on misunderstandings: Medieval authors typically distinguish ‘spiritual and temporal powers’ – but this does not equate a distinction of a ‘religious and secular sphere’, as both domains remain tied to the sacred realm. Nor is Dante aiming to de-sacralize the state. Rather, he demands a de-politicization of the church. 

To Dante, the Empire – which he described pointedly as the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ – remained the central pillar of a divinely instituted, sacred world order which put the oversight over the church into the hands of temporal rulers. Dante even asserts that the worldly, political election procedure legitimizing the Emperor was a smokescreen for divine providence:  

“[God] alone foreordained this order, that by it in His providence He might link together all things, each in its own place. If this is so, and there is none higher than He, only God elects and only God confirms. Whence we may further conclude that neither those who are now, nor those who in any way whatsoever have been, called Electors, have the right to be so called; rather should they be entitled heralds of divine providence” (90). 

Here, Dante even sacralizes the role of the German princes. In his later Commedia, he also pointed to the central role of the ancient Roman Empire in the divine plan, asserting that the church had long been supported and controlled by the Emperors. 

We thus have to make an important conceptual adjustment when we compare these discourses to modern secularity: The separation envisaged by Dante (and by other authors from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries) does not imply the separation of a religious and a non-religious sphere. Both ecclesiastical authorities and worldly rulers remain invested with religious legitimacy – in Dante’s version of their relation, the Emperors indeed have an older and stronger sacred legitimation than the current popes. The realm of ‘temporal rule’ is thus quite distinct from a ‘secular sphere’ – it remains deeply imbued with Christian norms and values. 

This distinction may seem small. But as I would argue, it has far-reaching implications which force us to revise the narrative of a medieval origin of modern secularity – and to capture historically specific formations of secularities, we need a highly operationalized definition.

If we are interested in discourses concerning the distinction of the church and the temporal, political domain on the conceptual and institutional plane – which would constitute most of the definition of ‘secularity’ formulated by Christoph Kleine and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr – we do indeed observe various ‘secularities’ in medieval Christian Europe. Yet these discourses cannot be linked to the emergence of a ‘secular’, non-religious sphere in the modern sense, as the temporal domain was not generally divested of religious authority or norms. 

Nor did the conflicts between popes and rulers set Europe on a path towards a ‘secular state’ – an idea that was at the most tossed around by medieval political theorists. Admittedly, medieval and early modern Christian rulers could become very forceful towards religious elites if they found them useless or threatening. But generally, rulers sought to maintain a sacralized status, argued for the divine ordination of their powers, and actively sought to shape the religious domain to fit their political agenda – typically by allying with religious elites who conformed to their expectations. 

Rather than withdrawing from the religious domain, secular rulers and authorities confronted by politically hostile religious groups typically sought to de-politicize them – often in dynamics which were then called ‘reforms’ or indeed ‘Reformations’, in which rulers disestablished religious communities or replaced one religious elite with another. Though we do not know their inner worlds, medieval Christian rulers and political elites typically remained Christians, and would therefore desire a pure and authentic religious establishment. As political actors, they sought to ally with religious elites they could control, influence or at least live with. Therefore, we need to wait until the eighteenth century for a European state which understood itself as ‘impartial’ in religious matters, or for political elites advocating for ‘secularism’ in the sense of a total removal of religious influence from the public sphere.

Altogether, this means that configurations of diffentiation in pre-modern Latin Christianity remained quite close to the pattern that has typically been postulated for Islamic cultures: From late antiquity and the early medieval period onwards, political rulers allied themselves with powerful religious elites, and typically defended the hegemonic status of one religious community or church against the competition of others. They were often highly appreciative of the religious minorities within their realms, as these typically – like the Jews in Christian Europe – enriched the economic and intellectual life of medieval polities. For this reason, minorities were often provided with legal privileges and protection in exchange for service and financial contributions – though much more consistently in the Islamic polities than in Christian Europe, where this protection was largely eroded by the end of the medieval period. 

Yet neither the Islamic dhimma law nor medieval and early modern Christian toleration of dissenters and non-Christians rested on the concept of a ‘secular state’. Rather, the legal and political frameworks remained permeated by the values of the dominant religion. While Islamic and Christian political powers often enabled rather free interactions among members of various religious communities, the relevant social spaces do not seem to constitute a ‘secular sphere’. We may probably understand them best as ‘zones of neutrality’, in which religious identities could be pushed to the background on the condition that the unspoken cultural hierarchy was accepted. As we may note, however, this situation is not too dissimilar to scenarios still prevailing in areas of the modern West.

If we want to build towards a truly comparative perspective, we should therefore not only continue to work on shared frameworks and explore and document various historical secularities. We also need to engage with historical alterity and the specific divergences between pre-modern and modern constellations. In this task, a critical re-evaluation of western European Christian dynamics may be highly useful to provide a better basis of comparison for new comparative findings from different cultures around the globe.

[1] See Detlef Pollack, Religion und gesellschaftliche Differenzierung Studien zum religiösen Wandel in Europa und den USA III, (Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 113-145. Among older views, see especially Harold J. Berman’s Law and Revolution (1983) and the analysis of older historical scholarship in Mayke de Jong, ‘The Two Republics’, in R. Balzaretti, J. Barrow, P. Skinner (eds.), Italy and Early Medieval Europe. Papers for Chris Wickham, (Oxford University Press, 2018), 486–500.

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