On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire

Sooooooooooooooooooo, current governments enacting laws based on religious ideology, amiright? Here in the modern Western world, we’ve grown accustomed to governments largely agreeing that we have freedom from and of religion, by and large.  Obviously, at some points (*ahem*), this doesn’t work out and particular individuals push for religiously motivated legislation. This usually doesn’t go well for us women. Funny that.

Often, people who want to do my head in will refer to this kind of religious influenced legislation (or, you know, executive order (*cough*)) as being ‘medieval’, which as I have pointed out several times, is not helpful. More to the point, in this case it’s not even accurate, because there sort of kinda was separation of Church and State in the medieval period, at least in the Holy Roman Empire, but it worked in the exact opposite way.

So the Holy Roman Empire was essentially established on Christmas Day 800 when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne was a total bad ass, as many important historians have noted, and had essentially united all of Western Europe under his rule, for the first time since the fall of Rome. Boy had his shit on lock, unlike Leo. Leo was, shall we say, not that popular. He showed up in Aachen because he got his ass beat down while on procession through Rome, and almost got his eyes and tongue cut out.

His beat ass showed up at Charlemagne’s court, looking for protection and Charlemagne was like, ‘Hey home boy while I’m here keeping you alive, why don’t you crown me Emperor?’ Leo was like, ‘Say no more, fam’. That’s where the trouble started.

When the papacy finally got some power, they decided to straight up change the narrative on this one. It wasn’t that the Emperor was decided already, and he got a Pope in to do the honours.  No no – The Pope got to decide who the Emperor was going to be and it was the crowning that signified this. Charlemagne is probs still rolling in his grave about this.

The Popes tried to justify the idea that they were kingmakers in a number of ways. One of these was by referring to the Donation of Constantine. The Donation was a document that claimed to have been written in the fourth century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine I, (You know, him what Constantinople was named after?), and to give control over the western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope. In reality that was what we might now refer to as an, um ‘alternative fact’ (*cough*), and it was really just something made up in the eighth century when the papacy was trying to justify its existence. Anyway Popes liked this big ol’ lie and were like, yeah see, we run this show? I’ll tell you who gets to be Emperor.

The reason that they were picking Emperors at all, if they were so powerful that they were supposed to control all of Western Christendom, is because it was considered that there needed to be a separation of powers. The Church, you see couldn’t be involving itself in worldly matters, because as members of the clergy, Popes weren’t supposed to shed blood. As a result, Popes were supposed to pick Emperors in order to do all the violent shit that statecraft involved/involves.

In the fourteenth century, Pope Boniface VIII wrote about this in his 1308 bull Unum Sanctum.* He expressed this idea by saying that Popes were possessed with two ‘swords’ granted to them by God as the representatives of Christ on earth: one of spiritual power, and one of temporal. Since Popes couldn’t be violent, they granted their own ‘sword’ of temporal power to Holy Roman Emperors during the imperial coronation ceremony.  All of this meant, essentially that there was no imperial power that did not flow from the papacy, and that Emperors were meant to wield their temporal power for the benefit of the papacy.  Moreover, because an Emperor received his power from the Pope, if he were to piss off the papacy, or engage in sinful behaviour, the Pope should be able to depose him and go find someone more representative of the papal brand.  Homeboy made it clear that ‘it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subjected to the Roman pontiff”**, Emperors included.

The point of all of this? The way the separation of Church and State went down in the medieval period was essentially the Church trying to get the Holy Roman Empire to do what it wanted because it couldn’t be violent. It used religious means to attain secular ends. Today, the opposite thing is true. The state uses its legislative power to enact secular orders based on religious ideals.
So the next time you are angry because a bunch of sad old angry men decided that they can tell women what to do with their bodies, don’t call it medieval. Call it what it is – totally fucked.

*See A. Friedberg, Corpus iuris canonici, Vol. II, (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1879-81), pp. 1245-6. On Unum Sanctum, see Friedberg, Corpus, p. 48; Zdeněk Kalista, Renata Ferklová, Karel IV.: jeho duchovní tvář (2nd. ed.)  (Praha: Vyšehrad, 2007), p. 96.

**‘Porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus, definimus, et pronuntiamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis.


For more on politics and the medieval period see:
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

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