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The Relationships between Church and States in Europe


The Middle Ages is a complicated time in history, which continues to attract the attention of many scholars, researchers, and philosophers. Despite the stereotyped perception of this period as dark and backward, the Middle Ages was marked by the birth and formation of many countries and notable accomplishments in various fields of human activity. In this context, the evolution of specific interconnections between government and church occupies the distinctive niche in the development of main tendencies, value orientations, and cultural norms dominated in the historical conditions of that time. Therefore, this paper aims at examining the relationships between church and states in Europe, particularly in the period from 800 to 1122.

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The Development of Relationship

By the end of the ninth century, all the principal states of Europe, including the Holy Roman Empire and Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian states, were Christianized, sharing membership in the Latin Church. Nevertheless, during the medieval period, the relationship between the church and the states, which became predominantly feudal monarchies, experienced different developments mainly characterized by struggles and conflicts for power between kings and popes. In contrast to antiquity, Christianity received a more in-depth philosophical foundation, resulting in that the clergy emerging as a specific social group that had a tremendous influence both on society and the royalty. The formed religious dogmas acquired the force of law and were thoroughly protected by the government. On the background of this picture, the Catholic Church’s significance as a powerful feudal institution grew, introducing into the public consciousness the moral values that served as the basis of universal human culture and European civilization.

The tendency of the strengthening clerical authority was conditioned by that only the church could preserve the remaining ancient Rome’s legacy since, at that time, the most educated class was precisely the clergy. In particular, special attention was paid to the rewriting of manuscripts, due to which many compositions of ancient authors and works on theology were preserved. Besides, the entire written communication and education of elites, the chief representative of which was priests, occurred in Latin, and the leading educational centers became monasteries.

In this regard, it is worth highlighting the papacy position in Western Europe from the ninth century, strengthened after Charlemagne’s death and the declined influence of the Byzantine emperors in Italy. Enjoying their spiritual authority to gain kings’ trust and support, Popes could impact almost all directions of political and social activities. Charlemagne’s descendants who ruled on the territory of his vast empire could be crowned solely with the blessing of the Pope. Furthermore, other influential means by which Pontiffs could intervene in the state affairs and which sometimes allowed them to rise even above royalty were anathema or interdict. In particular, they implied the ex-communication of a Christian and were regarded as the severest ecclesiastical punishments for grave sins.

For disobeying the Pope, kings could be anathematized, which, in Medieval Europe, was dangerous because, due to the prevailing religious consciousness, anybody excommunicated was ostracized. For instance, Henry IV was subjected to this punishment, who, like his ancestors, tried to establish undivided authority over the entire Holy Roman Empire but failed and lost the throne eventually. Besides, if a member of the royal family, such as a prince or queen, fell under ex-communication, they were not allowed to pretend to be the throne or have any power attributes.

Another significant factor contributing to the increasing papacy’s role was the Donation of Constantine supposedly granted by the Roman emperor Constantine in the eighth century. Over the next several centuries, the document, which later appeared to be forged, was frequently used by pontiffs as direct and irrefutable proof of their authority. Under the absence of elaborated law code and effective bureaucracy, which also stimulated political fragmentation, this testimony obtained real significance before representatives of the court. Finally, the clergy could affect state affairs in another way, namely, through blessing or prohibiting marriage between statesmen. However, it is worth noting that even assertive and powerful popes had to gauge the scope of their power realistically, minding that some were overthrown or even killed amid political turmoil.

On the other hand, the final consolidation of the feudal system in most medieval countries, which replaced Roman law, also considerably reflected on the dialogical interaction between church and state. In the feudalism epoch, legal, social relations reach a qualitatively new level, under which the primary economic resource was land, and the producer of material goods was a dependent peasant. Herewith, peasants, unlike slaves and hired workers, could run their farm in many aspects independently; that is, they were regarded as the owners to some extent. In feudal relations, vassals received a land allotment and dependent peasants for service from the seigneurs who, in turn, served the monarch, whose authority was not absolute and limited by large feudal lords. In the area of the political system, landowners became sovereigns, resulting in a decline in state unity and a weakening of the centralizing supreme power. The territory of the state was fragmented into parts, and royal prerogatives were partially transferred to powerful lords.

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Under such political conditions and legal rules, the struggle for the supreme throne intensified, growing into countless infightings, when powerful nobles made war against their kings. On the one hand, the constant risk of usurpation urged kings to seek support, especially from clerics (who possessed significant influence among the populace), through granting privileges, including the right to land. Almost all kings cooperated with the church’s authority in his kingdom closely, exempting them from taxes, which ultimately turned the clergy into an immensely wealthy and influential landowner. The fortune of popes could have been the envy of many European sovereigns. On the other hand, having such advantages, wealthy clerics tended to dictate their terms or even facilitate attempts at usurpation, including through financial aid when they saw a potential threat from the reigning king. Therefore, in such settings, the monarchs were forced to hold their power via personal charisma and arms, rather than unconvincing affirmations about the right to the throne, established by God.


In summary, this paper has explored the development of relationships between church and state in Europe in the period from 800 to 1122. The primary factors contributing to the evolution of church-state dialogue were the increased significance of the papacy institution, the formation of the feudal system, and the clergy’s role as an assignee of Roman heritage. In particular, since the whole written communication and elites’ education occurred in Latin, and the priesthood was regarded as one of the most educated classes, only the church could preserve the remaining ancient Roman legacy. The popes’ authority was related to their tremendous role in the kings’ coronation procedure, the outcome of which exceptionally depended on their blessing. Moreover, the pontiff could intervene in state politics through religious tools such as anathema or interdict that could subject the royal family to ostracism. Lastly, under political conditions and legal rules formed by feudal principles, clerics gained exclusive privileges from royalty and lords, which eventually increased their influence in public affairs.

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