What is “Societas Christiana”? (Part 2): A Survey of Medieval Diversity


In Part 1, I examined some terminological difficulties surrounding the terms “Christian,” “society,” and the composite “Christian society.  To begin this post, I must reiterate the governing premise of this blog, that there is no better place to engage with the ideological and practical fundamentals of disagreements about societas Christiana than the Middle Ages – particularly in the West.1

To begin with, we must understand that the societas Christiana of the Middle Ages was, root and branches, the legacy of a fusion between Christian faith and the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world.  The dominant concept and practice of Christian society in the Middle Ages had been inherited from the Roman Empire of the Late Antique period, and underwent several centuries of substantial modification due to the collapse of that Empire in the West.  Between the 11th and 12th centuries, a major overhaul of the legal system took place on the basis of a reassessment of Roman law codes, and in the 13th the works of Aristotle, lost to the West for centuries, were reacquired and began a great revolution in Christian political thought.

If we were to sum up the thought world that governed the Medieval societas Christiana in its variety of forms, the word Romanitas – “Romanness” – would be most apt.  Romanitas was, of course, reformulated for compatibility with Christianity, but it retained enough of its ancient character to make the task of understanding Medieval Christendom so as to learn from it a difficult task for we who live in a Modern world constructed on purpose to be fundamentally unlike all that would have made sense to our ancestors.  Medieval historian Walter Ullmann explains:

Historians, I believe, pay insufficient attention to the overpowering and enduring influence which the Latinized Bible had upon the shaping of public organization.  For one must bear in mind that the Vulgate was the one book with which every literate person was familiar, and this applies with particular force to the personnel staffing the chanceries.  When due consideration is given to the ideological-governmental substance of the Bible, especially the stress on the law, on the derivation of power from divinity, on the relative position of the superior and the inferior, on the function of the ruler standing above the people, on the sub / ditus, and so on, and to the linguistic element, namely the Latin language which evoked so many mental associations with the Roman law and Roman jurisprudence, one will perhaps appreciate the overwhelming impact which this conflation of the divine word with the legal word of the Roman jurists made upon the fallow Western soil.  A moment’s reflection will show how easy in fact it was for this closely knitted system to start on its triumphant career: was there anything, in the West, which could conceivably have impeded the progress of this biblical Romanism?  Perhaps at no other time in European history had an ideology so little to contend with in its path of progress as when Christianity was received both as a religion and as a very specific governmental system.2

An illustration from our own thought and practice may help make the issue clearer. Consider how few Americans reflect on what “American” means in relation to others. We take it for granted that Americanitas, the state of “being American,” is intellectually, socially, politically, and culturally superior to anything else. As Americans, we speak of “making the world safe for democracy,” by which we mean spreading the  obviously superior American form of government and culture as far and wide as we can so that as many people as possible can enjoy the same “freedoms” that we do. After all, what could be more desirable than being American? What, really, are the alternatives? Dark Ages-style monarchy? Communism? Dictatorship? Socialism? The cultural backwardness of undeveloped Africa, where, with minor exceptions the standard of living is like something out of  Gilligan’s Island: “no phone, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury”?  With perhaps only a little hyperbole, do we not say as Americans that outside of Americanitas there is only a graded spectrum of cultural degradation that no civilized person should want to live under? Of course, some non-American states might be relatively better than others, but none of them are as good as Americanitas! How could they be? To ask the question is to answer it.

Assuming the foregoing has helped encourage an attitude of sympathy toward Christians laboring to create a societas Christiana within an inherited matrix of “obviousness” called Romanitas, we should eschew the skepticism that parodies things Greco-Roman in the name of the conceit that unlike our ancestors, we base our Christian society solely on the clear teachings of the Bible.  This is untrue, and we will be unable to learn much of enduring value from the past if we allow present superstitions to blind us.  If we choose to judge the foibles of the Middle Ages by the things we, measuring ourselves by ourselves, take to be the goods of our own, we will not attain understanding of their take on Christian society.  Moreover, we will deprive ourselves of the opportunity to take the wisdom that is there and, following their example, adapt it to our own changed circumstances.

A second crucial qualifier we must observe, especially because confessional uses of history as a polemical tool are all the rage today, is that the societas Christiana of the Middle Ages manifested itself not in one obviously, objectively self-verifying divinely-authorized form, but in multiple forms which spent many centuries arguing with each other and refining their respective positions.  Which one was the real thing?  If that is even a legitimate question to ask, it can only have the answer that we are all of us still grappling with it today. 3

Let us briefly look at some of the diverse Medieval concepts of societas Christiana.  A good place to begin is in the root of the Middle Ages, the patristic period, in which apologists and theologians formulated four distinct positions on the locus of authority in Christian society.  The four positions held then were: (1) “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?,” (2) “The Church is in the Empire,” (3) “The Empire is in the Church,” and (4) “The Church and Empire are separate, but cooperative.”4  Patristic writers extensively debated these four positions, and the debates continued vigorously in the Middle Ages.  Despite the rhetoric of adherents of each position – who, of course, all believed that their position was the obvious truth, and all others obvious falsehood – no consensus was ever reached.  Christians never achieved resolution as to what the societas Christiana could and should look like.  Governmentally, not uniformity but multiformity is the watchword of Medieval Christendom.  Even what appears to the casual or the mainly polemical student of history as a single dominant concept – papalism – was itself riddled with internal ambiguity that allowed for variant views to persist side by side in uneasy, but never suppressed, tension.

Medieval theorists did labor to reduce the four patristic options down, and they were partly successful.  To give a convenient gloss on their work, they reformulated Option (1), “What has the emperor to do with the Church?” as “What is the relationship of the empire and the Church?”, which then could function as a header for the last three options.   Gelasius, the Bishop of Rome, in A.D. 494, attempted to resolve the tension between options (2) and (3) by developing (4) into a position often called “Gelasian dualism.”  This view held that Christian society was made up of two orders, one spiritual and the other temporal.  Each order was theoretically independent in its own sphere of operation, and forbidden to interfere in the operations of the other, but both were required to make up the single societas Christiana.5  Here are Gelasius’ words:

There are two orders, O August Emperor, by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of the pontiffs, and royal power [auctoritas sacrata pontificum, et regalis potestas]. But the burden laid upon the priests in this matter is the heavier, for it is they who are to render an account at the Divine judgment even for the kings of men. Know, O most clement Son, that although you take precedence over the human race in dignity, nonetheless you bend your neck in devout submission to those who preside over things Divine, and look to them for the means of your salvation. In partaking of the heavenly sacraments, when they are properly dispensed, you acknowledge that you ought to be subject to the order of religion rather than ruling it…For if the ministers of religion, acknowledging that your rule, insofar as it pertains to the keeping of public discipline, has been given to you by Divine disposition, obey your laws, lest they seem to obstruct the proper course of worldly affairs: with what good will, I pray, ought you to obey those who have been charged with the dispensation of the holy mysteries?6

Unfortunately, a variety of complex circumstances (many of which will be explored in future entries here) brought about the slurring of dualism toward an extreme that is sometimes called clerical monism.  This view was based upon the assumption of the ontologically-superior status of the spiritual order, held to be above the temporal as the soul was above the body.  Priests holding this view asserted that “civil power was delegated to secular rulers indirectly through the spiritual offices of the clergy.”  Civil power was, in other words, merely derivative from the Church, and could be regulated at will by the agents of the Church.7  A representative example of this view may be found in these words from Giles of Rome in the 13th century:

We intend to show…that all temporal things are brought together under the dominion and power of the Church.  Now we do not intend to detract from earthly power and secular princes and their rights by taking this position, but rather to preserve them.

“…our souls, our bodies, and all our temporal goods are under the control of Peter and consequently under the control and governance of the pope, who is known to have succeeded Peter in the position of power and control in the Church.8

On the contrary, and in reaction to clerical monism, royal monism held that “the temporal ruler performed quasi-episcopal as well as royal offices in the Church; indeed, he was a “pontifical” king, “the head of the Church.”9  Applications of this view varied with region, but to take a particularly striking example, in Anglo-Saxon England kings were held to belong to a stirps regia, a “royal race,” in which political and religious functions were indissolubly entwined.  Kings either possessed or lacked a “sacral luck” with the gods that was proportional to the temporal fate of their tribe. Adapted to Christianity, such a view would inevitably result in viewing the king as the head of the Church, the most important member of the societas Christiana, the one upon whom the fortunes of the whole depended. 10

For centuries these two rival conceptions of societas Christiana carried on their ideological – and sometimes physical – conflict, leaving precious little room for compromise to the other.  The flashpoints are famous: Gregory VII vs. Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1076; Pope Alexander III vs. Frederick Barbarossa in the mid-1150s; Thomas Becket vs. King Henry II in the 1060s; Pope Innocent III vs. various secular rulers in the 1190s; Pope Boniface VIII vs. Philip IV “the Fair” of France in the early 1300s; Pope John XXII vs. Emperor Louis IV in the 1320s, etc.   The issues in these conflicts continued to animate Christian thinkers into and beyond the Reformation.  Indeed, in modified forms the issues are alive today. 11

Clerical monism and royal monism, both distortions of the notion of dualism, were the dominant streams of Medieval societas Christiana.   There was, however, a third option which occupied the cultural fringes of the world, an option based on a principle of radical dissent from established orthodoxy.  This option is a complex one, for it produced a welter of micro-societates, some of which remained more or less comfortably within the mainstream societas and others of which consciously held themselves outside it, and so drew down upon themselves violent persecution.  Examples of the first radicalism would be the Franciscans, who advocated a radical standard of poverty, and other monastic groups which advocated great reduction of ecclesiastical power in secular politics.  Examples of the second would be groups such as the Petrobrusians, the Waldenses, the Albigensians, and the Cathars in the 12th -13th centuries, the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the 13th and 14th, the Lollards in the 14th, and the Hussites in the 15th century.  Still others, such as the Devotio Moderna in the 15th century occupied more ambiguous positions relative to mainstream orthodoxy.12  Yet another thread, an apocalyptic one, ran through these centuries, including figures such as Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan Spirituals, and Savonarola.13

It is important here not to immediately accept Medieval judgments about the “heretical” status of such groups, for the identification and prosecution of heresy was often wrapped up closely with the need to justify existing political concerns by physically protecting them from dissent.14  When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D., there occurred a fusion of spiritual and temporal concerns Unlike for we Moderns, for Medievals religion was a fundamental part of the civic order itself.  To hold any nontraditional belief in open, sustained opposition to the established authorities was equivalent to opposing the entire culture. 15  Further, to propagate a heresy to other people was usually considered “soul murder.”  Differing theological beliefs were for the Medievals what the “culture war” over moral issues is for us – except that we do not pursue our cultural opponents to the death.

Nevertheless, again, we must avoid simplistic assessments.  Dissent was a complex affair in the Middle Ages.  Close studies of actual instances of it, such as the multiple, conflicting reforming movements that radically polarized Christendom in the 11th and 15th centuries, shows that often the lines between truth and error were not so clear as those involved at the time thought.  And since always in the backdrop was the inherited matrix of Greco-Roman notions about the nature of society, “heresies” must be evaluated carefully to discern to what extent they were judged erroneous less because of their doctrinal stances and more because they incarnated alternative, threatening modes of Christian society.  It is arguable, for instance, that the reforms of Pope Gregory VII in the 1070s were not merely about “the Gospel,” as Gregory himself proclaimed, but about a way of life that moralistic Christians found appalling – the way of allowing priests to marry and treating Church offices as heritable property.16  Likewise, it is arguable that John Huss was executed by the Council of Constance in 1415 less for his specific doctrinal positions than for his radical insistence that no one could possess legitimate authority if he were guilty of a mortal sin – a view that would have undermined many occupants of offices in both church and state, causing social revolution.17

Above I said that I discern four main varieties of Medieval societas Christiana, but to this point I only described three.  The fourth, true societal dualism, hovered in the background of royal and clerical monism for centuries.  It was championed by such thinkers as Hincmar of Rheims in the 9th century, Dante and John of Paris in the 13th, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham in the 14th, and certain strains of conciliarism in the 15th.18  Itself containing a variety of sub-positions, this true dualism, which might be called the fulfillment of Gelasius’ fifth century statement, purged of the erroneous monistic interpretations, attempted to balance the “sacred authority” of the clerics with the “power to command” of the civic rulers.  Admittedly, also, sometimes the balance is difficult to discern, since many of these authors were directly reacting to extremes of clerical monism, such as those of Giles of Rome and Augustinus Triumphus.19

According to some students of history, true dualism only began to come into its own during the Reformation of the 16th century, and was developed by various Protestant jurists and Protestant-influenced philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries into a position of “secularity” (not the same thing as “secularism”).  This position, it is said, stands the best chance of balancing the spiritual and temporal aspects of societas Christiana in fidelity primarily to Scripture and secondarily to the best elements of the Western theological-political tradition, avoiding the extremes to which both Roman Catholics and Protestants are often prone.  At some point in the future I may engage this intriguing reading of history, with which I am sympathetic, but for now I can only note its existence.

This post has been altogether too short, and has exhibited the character less of analysis than of bibliographic summary.  While this format has its shortcomings, I hope it serves to demonstrate the key point that Medieval thought about societas Christiana was fantastically diverse, and that there is likely much we can learn from it for our own attempts to think about and live out the societal implications of the Christian gospel.

1.   I say this because we are too close psychologically to iterations of societas Christiana in our own day; historical distance can give us perspective.
2. Walter Ullmann, The Relevance of Medieval Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp. 13-14
3. I say “if it is even a legitimate question to ask” because I am unconvinced that there is a de iure divino form either of the institutional church or of civic Christian society.  But as my purpose on this blog is to avoid polemics whenever possible, I will not pursue this matter further here.
4. George Hunston Williams, “Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century,” in Church History, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sept. 1951).
5. According to Gelasius, this scheme of authority flowed from orthodox Christology: as Christ was two natures in one person, so were there two orders in one Christian society.  Indeed, to have only one order in which kings were also priests or priests also kings was, Gelasius said, the political characteristic of paganism.
6. Cited by R.W. Dyson, Normative Theories of Society and Government in Five Medieval Thinkers (Edwin Mellen Press, 2003), pp. 85-86
7. Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, trans. Theodor E. Mommsen and Karl F. Morrison (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pg. 3.
8. On Ecclesiastical Power, By Giles of Rome, trans. Arthur P. Monahan (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), pgs. 73-74, 76
9. Ibid., pg. 4
10. William A. Chaney, <i>The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity</i> (Manchester University Press, 1999), pg. 7
11. For instance, a stream of Reformed thought today identifies membership in the visible church as a Christian’s most important citizenship, and does not scruple to say that true human culture can only get started and only be legitimate when it is considered an ancillary to the liturgical practices of the church.  Thus does the old clerical monism of the papalists find a home even in purportedly Reformational circles.
12. See Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings, trans. John van Engen (New York: Paulist Press, 1988).
13. See the compilation Apocalyptic Spirituality, trans. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).
14. As well, a major problem of interpretation for us is that many of these groups have left infrequent records in their own voices, being known to us mostly from descriptions and polemics by their opponents.
15. <i>Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe</i>, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), pg. 3
16. Among other sources, see I.S. Robinson, Authority and Resistance in the Investiture Contest (New York: Manchester University Press, 1978); Walter Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government  in the Middle Ages, second edition (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1962); Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, (University of Toronto Press, 1999).
17. Consider the remark of Pierre d’Ailly at Constance when he understood Huss’ view of authority: “It was not enough for you to despise the spiritual order by attempting to overthrow it by your writings and teachings, and now you also wish to overthrow the status of the royal order and of kings?”, Matthew Spinka, John Hus at the Council of Constance (Columbia University Press, 1965), pg. 202.
18. See, among other works: Karl Frederick Morrison, The Two Kingdoms: Ecclesiology in Carolingian Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964); Dante Alghieri, Monarchia, trans., Prue Shaw. Cambridge University Press, 1995; John of Paris, On royal and papal power, trans. Arthur P. Monahan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974; Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of Peace: The Defensor Pacis, Alan Gewirth, trans. (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1956); William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
19. On the latter figure, see Michael Wilks, The Problem of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages: The Papal Monarchy With Augustinus Triumphus and the Publicists (Cambridge University Press, 1963).
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