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Sacred Foundations: The religious and medieval roots of the European State by Anna Grzymala-Busse

28 April 2023

G. R. Evans considers an argument about the foundations of Europe

THIS is a book with a thesis. It alleges that there was a fierce contest for dominance between Church and State in parts of medieval Europe, which shaped Europe’s future. It tells this story almost solely from the point of view of the part played by what it identifies as the “Roman Catholic Church”, though with a very brief mention of the Reformation, when Lutheranism sought to replace the Pope with a “Magistrate” as head of the Church.

There are lively insights, but the author makes her case with reference to the work of other scholars instead of citing or quoting the documents in which the developments described were being discussed. Her account often seems unnecessarily distant from those who have so much to tell modern readers about their view of the disputes in which they were involved. It would greatly have strengthened the case that the book seeks to make to hear from them directly.

This is especially a pity in the chapters covering the developments in which the best minds of the day were actively engaged. This account of the formation of “the European State” is set out in five chapters, the first describing the “medieval setting”. The second, on “Rivalry and Fragmentation”, includes the Crusades, and also the Investiture Contest, in which the rivalry of Church and State is clear enough. Then comes a chapter on “Governing Institutions”, another on “Law and Learning”, and the fifth on “Parliaments and Representation”. This calls for treatment not only as social and economic, but also intellectual, history.

A puzzling omission in this account of the formation of a “European State” is the place of developments in the parts of Europe where the Roman Empire persisted in the Byzantine Empire, and where Orthodoxy prevailed. Three maps are provided, for 1000, 1300, and 1648. These show the territories of the Holy Roman Empire of the West once the Carolingian Empire had ended, leaving a great deal of modern Europe outside its boundaries.

Is there a “European State”? The EU might make that claim, but it does not include the whole continent of Europe, and it would be hard to show that all states lying geographically within it share an identity today. The boundaries of a European state are still unclear. The Balkans and the Baltic states continue to present disputed boundaries. Ukraine remains uneasily balanced between Europe and Russia during the current war. Turkey is an Islamic state with a foot in both Europe and Asia.

The problem with the book’s thesis is that the worlds of Church and State were interwoven in the Middle Ages in ways that make it difficult to see them convincingly as at loggerheads to the extent that this book suggests. In feudal societies, the bishops of the medieval Church in the West were senior to the secular nobility, but often also their brothers. Abbots and abbesses tended to be the children of noble families. The Church controlled vast areas of land, but ultimately leaving rights with the monarch, who could choose, but not consecrate, a bishop.

There are many helpful figures that make their own point visually, including maps of the distribution of abbeys and cathedrals.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Sacred Foundations: The religious and medieval roots of the European State
Anna Grzymala-Busse
Princeton University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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