Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Church-State”

By Andrew Latham

In this post and the three that will follow I will discuss the evolution of the later medieval “Church-state” – that is, the Church as both a “unit-of-rule” and as a “war-making unit.” If you’re interested in why the Church did what it did – and how it was able to do so in the political sphere – I think you’ll enjoy this series.

As a unit of political rule, the medieval Church-state actually comprised three inter-related structures.

Development of the Papal State – Image from University of Oregon / Wikimedia Commons

First, there were the Papal States, sometimes called the Patrimony of St. Peter.  Originally little more than a narrow concentric band of territories surrounding Rome, by the eleventh century it had expanded to include Ravenna, the Pentapolis, the Duchy of Benevento, Tuscany, Corsica, Lombardy and a number of Italian towns and cities. As the Feudal Revolution unfolded, the emergence of powerful city-states and petty principalities, coupled with the machinations of both the Holy Roman Empire and the commune of Rome, seriously weakened papal authority in these lands. Nevertheless, the Papal States survived as a political unit throughout the medieval era and constituted an important aspect of the Church’s political infrastructure.


Second, Church rule took the form of an episcopal-monastic complex that extended throughout Latin Christendom. The basic organizational unit of the Church was the diocese (an administrative unit supervised by a bishop) and archdiocese (aggregations of bishoprics, roughly equivalent to an Imperial Roman province, administered by an archbishop), which together were responsible for recruiting, training and supervising the priesthood and for providing religious services directly to the laity. Within this structure, bishops and archbishops had significant autonomy – indeed, they were typically subject only to the dictates of doctrinal orthodoxy as agreed at periodic episcopal councils. They also had enforceable rights of taxation (the “tithe”) and could raise revenues from Church lands as would any feudal lord.

Paralleling this structure was a network of monasteries – centers of communal living in which “regular” clergy (i.e. clergy subject to monastic rules), monks, and lay members pursued lives of piety, learning and economic self-sufficiency.  These, too, could be significant land-holders, exercising feudal control over their serfs and appropriating economic surplus from them.

This episcopal-monastic complex remained highly decentralized until the Gregorian Revolution of the eleventh century, at which point the papacy began to assert its supremacy and improve hierarchical control and central administration within the Church.  Subsequent to Gregory VII’s papacy, the Church’s ability to exercise translocal rule over the episcopal-monastic complex improved dramatically.

Detail of a miniature of a pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, British Library MS Royal 10 D VIII f. 133v

Finally, there was the “universal” dimension of ecclesiastical rule: the direct authority of the pope and his episcopate to command and forbid in spiritual matters throughout all of Latin Christendom. Following the Gregorian Revolution, the Church also asserted authority to command and forbid in certain secular matters as well – i.e. to insist on the right to invest or depose temporal rulers who had failed (in the Pope’s judgment) to meet their responsibilities to God – although this authority was never effectively imposed or universally recognized throughout the medieval era.

In the aftermath of the Gregorian Revolution, ecclesiastical authorities began reconstructing the Church. Paralleling, indeed often anticipating, developments in the temporal sphere, the Church developed the various “technologies of rule” needed to pursue its fundamental purposes and assert its claim to sovereignty and at times temporal supremacy. Like all other princes, for example, the pope possessed a court or Curia, which combined his household, chief administrators, advisers and officers and that served as the nerve center of his government.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this court developed an accessible and highly regarded appellate system through which the decisions of lower ecclesiastical courts could be appealed and reversed. This enabled the papacy to break the potential independence of intervening layers of political authorities by making their right-to-command conditional upon continual and ongoing papal ratification.


The curia also developed a system of “provisions” through which major and minor ecclesiastical benefices were assigned by the papacy rather than by local officials (whether temporal or spiritual). Along with the expansion of papal jurisdiction, the extension of papal control over ecclesiastical appointments served to propel the Papacy to nearly complete dominion over the Church by the thirteenth century.

Late 14th century image of a Pope – BNE Vitr. 23.12 Arbre des batailles

During the fourteenth century, the curia further evolved into the nerve center of the papal administrative structure.  By 1350 it had come to comprise several offices or ministries, each having specialized responsibilities and powers related to the administration of the Church.

The first of these was the apostolic chancery, which was responsible for producing letters issued in the pope’s name and for maintaining the papal registers. This office, headed by the vice-chancellor, responded to petitions (common letters), appointed judges to hear particular appeals (letters of justice), transmitted letters related to papal benefices (letters of provision) and issued correspondence related to administrative, diplomatic and financial matters. It also had its own court for hearing cases related to letters of justice.


The second was the apostolic chamber, the curia’s financial department.  Its heads were the chamberlain and the treasurer.  This was the office responsible for administering the papal revenue system, which grew considerably in both scope and sophistication during these years.  Among the revenues collected through this office were the service tax (servitia paid upon receipt of a major papal benefices, annates upon receipt of minor ones), the fructus intercalares (the revenues of vacant papal benefices), general taxes on clerical income (ten percent of income), charitable subsidies (special taxes on clergy for special purposes), the ius spolii (which involved the appropriation of the moveable property of deceased clergy), and the census due from the jurisdictions that were papal fiefs. The chamber also maintained a court that adjudicated financial disputes.

The third major office was the Rota, a court dealing with cases related to papal benefices.  Finally, the curia included the office of the penitentiary, which was “able to provide absolution from sins and ecclesiastical censures, to grant marriage dispensations, and to commute vows and penances.”

The medieval Latin Church-state, then, had a number of characteristics that made it a unique unit of authority (that is, unlike other forms of medieval state): its raison d’être was to govern the spiritual life of Latin Christendom; it monopolized authority over religious matters; it exercised universal jurisdiction in spiritual and sometimes claimed it in temporal ones; it had a well-developed – and distinctive – administrative structure; and it had access to revenues unavailable to any other political unit.

It was not, in other words, simply another medieval kingdom like those that were emerging in the western Frankish realms. Nor was it an empire like the one that had evolved in the eastern Frankish lands. Nor, finally, although it was centered on the city of Rome (and for a time Avignon), was it some form of urban polity. In other words, it was not just another state with a thin veneer of religiosity.


Instead, in the aftermath of the Gregorian Revolution, the medieval Latin Church-state emerged as a distinctive institution of rule existing alongside, and to some extent superimposed upon, the various forms of sovereign state that were evolving in Latin Christendom.

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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