Research / Christianity and democracy

The Christian origins of the modern state

During the past few decades countless different theories attempted to explain the rise of the modern state.

One of the best known among these was presented by the British historian Michael Roberts as early as the mid-20th century. His thesis of a so-called “military revolution” sought the origins of early modern socio-political changes in reforms that took place in military organization between 1560 and 1660 (Roberts 1956). Following Roberts, another British historian, Michael Duffy investigated the connection between the military revolution and state-building more explicitly (Duffy 1986). All these and other such attempts were closely related to Max Weber’s classic definition of the modern, rationally organized state as one having a legitimate monopoly of violence over a given territory, and external sovereignty (Weber 1946).

Although these approaches have a significant explanatory power, they tend to neglect the specific European traits of the rise of the state, not least its medieval roots. As the French historian Jacques Le Goff said, “the medieval heritage is the most important tradition of the Europe of today and tomorrow” (Le Goff 2005, 3).

The present study aims to explore this tradition and show in what respect the modern state (including its political principles and values, its modes of organization, and its legal foundations) is an heir to the Middle Ages. The medieval concept of the state is also closely linked to the role of the Catholic Church. Although the Investiture Controversy (settled by the Concordat of Worms in 1122) in some sense disrupted the religious and political unity of the res publica christiana, removing the emperor and the political order from the sphere of the sacred, “secular” politics still remained religiously grounded until the 16th-17th centuries (Böckenförde 1967).

Even if someone agrees with Le Goff’s statement that “Christendom was but one long and very important episode in a history that began before Christianity and still continued after it began to wane” (Le Goff 2005, 5), the presence and the influence of the medieval church remains non-negligible. As a leading contemporary political scientist puts it, “Political and economic developments as well as state-building in Europe before A.D. 1500 cannot be understood without reference to ecclesiastical infrastructure and the religious teaching of the Catholic Church” (Møller 2019). Møller, who was formerly best known for his widely acclaimed contribution to democratic theory, also points out that recent research has a tendency to interpret even ecclesiastical developments as a lay process, which makes it impossible to properly evaluate the significance of medieval origins (ibid.).

Here we cannot venture into a complete analysis of the Middle Ages, of course. What nevertheless seems inevitable is to outline three basic tenets: the rediscovery of Roman law, the theory of mixed government, and the principle of majority decision-making and representation, all of which were embedded in the changing context of medieval society, and were propagated by the medieval church, thereby contributing to the rise of the modern state...

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