Medieval Geopolitics: Questions of Power and Authority between Church and State

By Andrew Latham

The conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV over taxation that I described in my last column gave rise to questions regarding the relationship between the spiritual and temporal powers that, if not quite new, certainly had novel dimensions. Were spiritual and temporal authorities separate and distinct domains or were they merely separate “departments” of a single domain (the respublica christiana)? Could authorities in one domain legitimately intervene in the other? If they could, on what grounds and in what circumstances? Were either the temporal and spiritual authorities supreme, in the sense that they had legitimate jurisdiction over the other? What was the source of supreme authority? In what ways was supreme authority limited?

What gave these questions a different cast from those posed in the preceding “great debates” (such as the so-called “Investiture Controversy” of 1073-1122) was that they arose not out of disputes between Church and Empire over universal jurisdiction, but rather out of conflicts between temporal and spiritual authorities within territorially limited kingdoms like France and England. The ensuing polemical, theological and juristic literatures laid a solid intellectual foundation for the evolution of independent kingdoms as the basic units of the European geopolitical order.

On the pro-papal or “hierocratic” side, these questions were addressed in part by Boniface’s bulls themselves. As mentioned in my last column, these were not particularly innovative statements of the hierocratic viewpoint – indeed, the pope himself said he considered them to be little more than proclamations of long-settled Church doctrine. What was novel was that these arguments were now being directed against kingdoms rather than the Empire. As the church had seldom made strong pronouncements of a hierocratic nature in relation to kingdoms, this created the appearance of innovation – and certainly was interpreted as such by King Philip and his supporters. But the ideas and arguments were essentially the same as had been made since the Gregorian reforms had been launched in the 11th century.

Before There Were Priests

On the dualist side, too, we see both restatements of existing dualist doctrine (that the spiritual realm was governed by the pope and the temporal realm by the emperor) and doctrinal innovations that would set the stage for more far-reaching innovations during the second round of conflict between Boniface and Philip. Consider, for example, the short untitled tract known from its incipit (or opening words) as Antequam essent clerici (“Before There Were Priests”), which was written some months after Clericis laicos promulgated (1296), but before Esti de statu (1297). Traditionally assumed to have been written by, or on orders from, Philip’s chancellor, Pierre Flotte, the purpose of this tract is narrow: to justify the king’s practice of taxing the French clergy in times of war. It draws on a variety of political idioms and tropes (juristic and theological thought, the organological metaphor, natural law, etc.) to make the case that the French king had every right to tax the French church.

On one reading, Antequam essent clerici is nothing more than a fairly straightforward rejoinder to Clericis laicos. Echoing arguments found in a number of authoritative sources (canon law, scripture, etc.), it asserted the French king’s right to tax the French clergy through a series of declarations. The author began by pronouncing that, “before there were clerics, the king of France had custody of his kingdom; and he could make statutes to protect himself and the kingdom against the plots of his enemies….”

Coin of Philip IV – photo by PHGCOM / Wikimedia Commons

Reflecting arguments found in the works of Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and in scripture, he went on to assert that as the Church comprises both the clergy and the laity, libertas ecclesiae is not merely the liberty of the clergy, but of all Christians. The clergy, he then argued in familiar organological terms, are as much a part of the body politic as the laity and as such are obliged to pay taxes for the government and defense of the realm like all other members. And while he conceded that kings or other temporal powers had granted “liberties” (in the narrower sense of specific legal immunities from taxation) to the clergy, the authors declared that this didn’t diminish the temporal power’s jurisdiction over the clergy or its right to rescind those immunities and tax the church in times of necessity. Indeed, the author continued, since clerics could not take up arms in their own defense, they should at least provide the temporal authority with the resources necessary to protect them. In preventing French clerics from doing this, he concluded, the pope is preventing them from exercising their natural right to self-defense.

A slightly deeper reading of the tract, however, reveals an internal logic that departs considerably from the dualist orthodoxy that had long underpinned “the custom of France”. Superficially, of course, the assertions made in the tract are neither new nor particularly controversial. One can find plenty of support for them in theology, canon law and scripture. Read closely, however, they reveal an underlying political conception that is novel indeed: that the spiritual and temporal domains are not separate “societies” governed by coordinate powers, but rather separate “departments” within a single political society, both of which are subject to the jurisdiction of a single, temporal, power. This conception is on prominent display in three of the tract’s most important passages.

First, it is evident where the author argues that libertas ecclesiae applies to the church as the community of all Christians (societas christiana) not just the institutional Church. The principle of libertas ecclesiae, of course, was the ideological wellspring from which Clericis laicos flowed. Since the time of Pope Gregory VII, that principle held that, within the broad societas christiana, the clergy constituted a discrete order that was independent of the laity, amongst whom were included temporal rulers, and thus not subject to lay jurisdiction or powers of taxation. In Boniface’s view, Philip’s attempt to tax the French Church in support of his war against England was simply an inexcusable violation of this principle. Clericis laicos was his effort to defend the liberty of the Church.

Given its centrality to Boniface’s case, it is perhaps not surprising that the author of Antequam essent clerici forcefully challenged the principle of libertas ecclesiae. What is surprising, however, is the way did it. Rather than rehearsing the arguments made against the principle during the Investiture Controversy, the author chose a new line of attack: he rejected the traditional definition of both libertas and ecclesiae that underpinned the entire principle. In the original doctrine, of course, the former term was construed as “liberty” – an expansive freedom of the institutional Church from direct control by the temporal authorities. The author of Antequam essent clerici, however, redefined the term as “liberties” – a narrower term which in medieval times connoted not the broad freedom of a community or institution, but much more narrowly tailored legal privileges and immunities attached to individuals. He then proceeded to argue that while French kings had sometimes allowed popes to grant specific liberties to clergymen in France, they had nevertheless retained the right to nullify those liberties and tax the clergy if the “governance and defense” of the realm required it.

Similarly, the original doctrine assumed that the term ecclesiae referred narrowly to the clergy or the institutional Church. The author of Antequam essent clerici rejected this view, arguing instead that the Church was properly understood to comprise not just the clergy, but all the Christian faithful, priests and lay members alike. This second move in particular was to have far-reaching implications, for the temporal-spiritual divide constituted the ultimate foundation for the Church’s claim to freedom from the temporal authority. By effacing this divide, the author effectively folded both clergy and laity into a single undifferentiated body of royal subjects – or as he put it in familiar organological language of the day, a single body politic.

Having thus established that the kingdom comprised a single political body, he was then able to establish the king’s right to tax all members of that body in the interests of their common defense. The author then drove home the point by asserting that the clergy not only shared in a common obligation on the part of the “body and members” to subsidize the “head” for defense, but had a special obligation under natural law to pay a fee for the defense of the realm since they were barred by canon law from raising “a shield in defense against a hostile sword.”

Dispute Between a Priest and a Knight

In Antequam essent clerici, then, we have one of the first articulations of the view that laity and clergy form a single corporate entity subject to the authority of the king in temporal affairs. This view was more fully elaborated in another pro-royal tract disseminated at the time, Disputatio inter clericum et militem (“Dispute Between a Priest and a Knight”), probably published sometime in 1296-97. As with Antequam essent clerici, the tract has a narrow and concrete goal: to legitimize Philip’s taxation of the French church in the eyes of informed members of the laity within the kingdom of France. But in the course of making this case, the author of the tract echoes and reinforces the novel arguments made in Antequam essent clerici regarding the kingdom as a unified body politic in which both clergy and laity are subject to royal taxation for the purposes of governance and defense. Although there may have been some literary connection between the two tracts, it is more likely that both were simply specific expressions of novel ideas that were beginning to crystallize in France in the late 12th century against the backdrop of rising regnal powers and the elimination of the universal Empire as a competing type of temporal authority.

Disputatio inter clericum et militem took the form of a dispute between a clerical advocate for Boniface’s position and a knight arguing Philip’s position. It opened with the priest asserting the hierocratic position and the knight roundly refuting it. The polemicist-knight’s first rejoinder to the priest was traditional enough: in response to the cleric’s suggestion that the spiritual power was supreme in both the spiritual and temporal domains, the knight argued that “just as earthly princes cannot decree anything with regard to your spirituals, over which they have not received power, so neither can you do so with regard to their temporals, over which you have no authority.”

The knight then proceeded, however, to make an argument that was truly innovative, even if its purpose remained traditional and dualist. Simply put, the polemicist-knight responded to the priest’s assertion that that the pope is the vicar of Christ and therefore omnipotent by arguing that “there were two times of Christ: one of humility and the other of power. That of humility was before His Passion, and that of power after His resurrection.” He then went on to accept that Peter was indeed appointed as Christ’s vicar, but only with respect to the time of humility, not that of power and glory. The power conferred on Peter and his successors, therefore, was not that of temporal kingship (which Christ had explicitly rejected during His time of humility), but of purely spiritual lordship.

In this way, the knight cleverly accepted the priest’s hierocratic premise, but rejected his hierocratic conclusion. Popes were supreme only with respect to the spiritual domain, leaving kings supreme in respect of the temporal – the classical dualist argument at the heart of “the custom of France”. Finally, the polemicist-knight attempted to counter the priest’s strong suit, the ratione peccati argument, by claiming (somewhat unconvincingly) that if priests have jurisdiction over every matter involving sin then they will have jurisdiction over everything and that the temporal courts might as well close down. He ended by quoting Christ in the Gospel of Luke who, when asked to adjudicate in an inheritance dispute, declared “Man, who made me judge or divider over you?” The author of the tract seemed to believe that Christ’s denial of any judicial role in temporal matters subsequently bound his successor Peter and thus all subsequent popes.

The king in his kingdom is the emperor of his kingdom

Having more or less convincingly disposed of the priest’s opening arguments in favor of papal supremacy, the polemicist-knight then turned to the task of establishing the French king’s right to tax the French clergy. Kings and princes, he argued, have both a duty to defend the realm and a derivative right to raise taxes for that purpose. With respect to the taxation power, he put his case thus: “For it is granted by plain reason that the commonwealth should be defended at the commonwealth’s expense and that it is entirely just that every part of it which enjoys such defense should shoulder the burden along with the others.”

When pressed by his interlocutor, the polemicist-knight conceded that the temporal powers had sometimes granted privileges and immunities to certain members of the clergy (though, emphatically, not their property). But these grants, he argued, were not irrevocable. Rather, as they were granted for the public good of the commonwealth, so they could be rescinded for the public good of the commonwealth. He concluded that not only should the clergy be grateful for the generosity of princes in making the original grant of privilege, and so happy to contribute to the princely purse when necessity appears; but they should also recognize that any such grants made by princes to the Church would be revoked if the interests of the kingdom demand it.

A king in his tent – image made around the year 1400 – Hs. Kynžvart 85 Histoire de France fol. 077v

This is where the tract began to go far beyond the traditional dualist argument that there were two coordinate domains, the spiritual and the temporal, and that popes were supreme in the former while princes were supreme in the latter. Throughout this part of the document, the knight was at pains to establish the supreme authority of the king. While recognizing the heteronomous shackles that limited the king in practice, the knight claimed that the king of France was both the supreme judge and the supreme lawmaker in his kingdom. He argued that at the time of the “fraternal division” of the Empire on the death of Louis the Pious in 840, the kingdom of France withdrew from the Empire and that “whatever authority the Empire itself formerly held in the part that was withdrawing… [was] ceded by it to the prince or king of the Franks in the same fullness.” The king thus recognized no superior temporal authority within his kingdom – indeed, although he didn’t use the precise formulation, the author was clearly invoking the doctrine of rex in regno suo est imperator regni sui (the king in his kingdom is the emperor of his kingdom). In short, the knight argued that there was no restriction on what the king of France could do if he thought it in the interests of the kingdom. He grounded this supreme temporal authority in natural law, prescriptive right and the historical division of Charlemagne’s empire into East and West.

Most of this part of the tract, though, is devoted to making the case not simply that the king is supreme within his kingdom, but with effacing the line that had traditionally divided that kingdom into two discrete societies: the temporal and spiritual. The traditional dualist view, as we have seen, was that the temporal and spiritual realms were distinct societies, each with their own powers and jurisdictions and each headed by distinct authorities deriving their power directly from God. Like Antequam before it, Disputatio started out as a defense of this view. In the course of countering the hierocratic line, however, it introduced a new element that took it well beyond the settled dualism of the time. The polemicist-knight ultimately rejected the idea that kingdoms comprise two discrete societies with two different heads. Instead, he asserted, the temporal and the spiritual domains were merely departments of the same society; both were ultimately subject to the supreme authority of a single head, the king.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: A medieval king depicted in the 14th century – British Library MS Royal 19 D II  fol.142r

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