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Church and State Conflict in Medieval Europe

An analysis of the effects of church versus state conflict and confrontations in medieval Europe.

Politics throughout the years have been influenced by many different ideas and events. Conflict between the Church and state is one of these essential influences. In the Middle Ages, when religion and government were not very well separated, this was especially true. Clashes between the Church and the state were common. Kings and popes frequently quarreled. But although the Church and state conflict is blamed for many problems in medieval Europe, it actually had a positive effect on society because it led to many religious, political, and social advances such as the Gregorian Church reformation, the Magna Carta, and the development of powerful and progressive city-states, especially those of Italy which eventually sparked the beginnings of the Renaissance.

One of the greatest representations of the positive effect of the Church and state conflict was the Gregorian Church reformation. The Gregorian Church reformation was a religious advancement which vastly improved the Church by bringing it back to its roots while reducing greed and corruption. The reformation is named for Pope Gregory VII, who started it as a result of pressure from kings and secular leaders during the lay investiture conflict of the 11th century CE. While trying to win what appeared to be an uphill battle, Gregory realized the importance of improving the Church’s image, and decided to enact a series of reforms to transform the Christian Church. His reformation was “an attempt to separate [the Church] forever from the conflicting claims of the secular world.” The conflict between the Church and state was clearly his motivation for enacting these reforms.

One of the first things that Gregory realized was that election of bishops and priests by lay people had a negative effect on the Church, and on Christianity itself. He threatened any religious leader appointed by a layman with excommunication, the most severe punishment in the Catholic Church in medieval Europe. This move purified the Church by removing secular influence. With his ban of lay investiture, Gregory was “triumphant in his effort to move the Church forward.”

Pope Gregory’s reformation also addressed the problem of simony, the sale of Church positions. Simony was a significant source of corruption in the Church of medieval Europe. In fact, the term “Simony” comes from a corrupt individual by the name of Simon Magnus, who, according to the book of Acts, attempted to buy holy powers from the Apostles. Pope Gregory made simony illegal, and took away simoniacs’ rights to officiate. After this ban, a practice that was previously commonplace was now much rarer, and as a result, the amount of corruption that came along with simony was “irrevocably altered”. The ban of simony purified the Church from these corruptions.

Another significant part of the Gregorian reform was celibacy among the clergy. By the 11th century, this practice was becoming common, despite being outlawed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The Council of Nicaea was the first major meeting of Christian bishops, and established several important Church laws, one being the prohibition of clerical marriage. While originally a belief taken very seriously by Christian leaders, its importance gradually diminished until clerical marriage became relatively common during the Middle Ages. Popes throughout the years had realized this and repeatedly outlawed it, but their efforts had little effect. In 1074, Gregory added a decree of his own to the long list of papal decree prohibiting clerical marriage. But just a year after the issuing of Gregory’s decree, the bishop of Constance permitted his clergy to marry. The idea of local bishops disobeying papal authority infuriated Gregory, who ordered the bishop expelled. After this incident, not only did the frequency of the practice of clerical marriage diminish, but papal power was asserted and taken more seriously. Through his ban of clerical marriage, Gregory “strengthen[ed] the Papacy and extend[ed] its influence”. In this way, Gregory achieved two things at once: The Catholic Church returned to its roots on the issue of clerical marriage, and the papacy now had the power it required to run the Church properly and efficiently.

The Gregorian Church reformation was a religious advance whose effects were to be felt for hundreds of years to come, with its motivation coming from a clash of secular and religious powers. On the political front, the Magna Carta, from which some laws in our modern constitution were taken, was very similar. The Magna Carta provided people with basic freedoms which influence society even today, and the Church versus state conflict was a major motive behind the barons who forced King John to sign it. At the time, England was under interdict as a result of Pope Innocent III’s anger at John over unfair taxes that funded his war with France. Furthermore, the outrageous taxes were financially too demanding for the English people, who were beginning to starve. The barons of England were furious with John and his feud with Innocent, with England’s interdict, and with the fact that they were struggling to survive. They decided to capture John and force him to sign the Magna Carta.

Speaking almost directly to the argument between Innocent and John, the very first clause of the Magna Carta strived to separate the crown from the Church. It says that “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired”. This lays out one of the most important rationales behind the creation and forced signing of the Magna Carta: the barons could not live under interdict; they could not live with the feud between their King and the Pope, so they aimed to simply keep the two entities away from each other. The first clause ends “We have also granted to all the free men of our realm for ourselves and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written below, to have and hold, them and their heirs, from us and our heirs”, an “introduction” to the heart of the Magna Carta. This introduction was followed by some of the most important and influential laws and rights ever written, including habeas corpus (clauses 36, 38-40), prohibition of taxation without representation (clauses 55-57), and prohibition of “paying” one’s way out of the legal system (clauses 17-22, 24).

Although less obvious than the Magna Carta or the Gregorian Church reform, the development of city-states in medieval Italy also had a correlation with the Church and state conflict. This is apparent during many quarrels between the Church and state. As both secular and religious powers were entwined in conflict, a clear pattern of development can be seen in these city-states. This pattern can be seen during the aforementioned lay investiture conflict of the 11th century. In Italy, one of the most important Florentine Churches, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, was built. The Basilica is a symbol of Florentine art, which thrived during this period. In Genoa, politics flourished during the investiture conflict. Power slowly shifted from the Holy Roman Emperor and the Bishop of Genoa to a council of elected senators. Genoa essentially became a Republic during this period. Very shortly after, the Lombard League of city-states was founded. The Lombard League was an organization dedicated to stopping imperial powers from gaining ground in city-states, and promoting free communes. By the turn of the 12th century, “some 300 Italian towns were effectively independent city-states”.

Also, during the reign of Frederick II, Italian-city states experienced a freedom which allowed them to grow and develop. Tensions were high as Frederick’s territory encircled the papacy. The city-states were able to “[exploit] the vacuum of political power”. The “vacuum” came about as a result of the conflict between Frederick and the Pope. This gave the city-states a good opportunity to grow and develop.

The Church and state conflict also had a positive influence on the growth of Italian city-states during Pope Boniface VIII’s conflict with King Phillip VI of France. As part of the conflict, the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, in France. The increased distance between Italian city-states and the papacy gave the city-states even more independence. The independence allowed populations to flourish and grow to the point where the populations of Florence, Milan, and Venice were all exceeding 100,000. This was crucial because of the Black Death, which occurred in the 14th century, shortly after the move of the papacy to Avignon. Without this period of prosperity of Italian city-states, they may not have survived the Black Death, or been around long enough to give us the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was one of the most prolific times in the fields of art, education, and intellect. Its influences are undeniable, from Michelangelo’s art, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s radical scientific ideas, to the start of an individualistic philosophy called humanism, to another great Church reformation enacted by Martin Luther. The Renaissance first began in the major city-states of Italy after the Hundred Years War, around 1450. During the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, wealth was noticeably concentrated in the city-states which survived the Black Death. This wealth was one of the influences which brought the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and started the time period characterized by incredible advances in artistic techniques, the creation of a world where humans constantly pushed their talents to their limits, and the creation of the Protestant Church. The Church and state conflict, which allowed city-states to flourish despite the Black Death, was one key reason the Renaissance could happen.

The Church and state conflict was a driving force behind decisions and events which promoted the development of political, religious, and social ideas. Driven by Pope Gregory’s fight over lay investiture, the Gregorian Church reformation was a crucial step towards making Christianity what it is today. The Magna Carta, written by English barons who were motivated by the conflict between King John and Pope Innocent III, provided English citizens with basic rights and freedoms which shaped the course of their history, and even the entire world’s. And with the independence gained as a result of the Church and state conflict, the development of Italian city-states led to the Renaissance, a period of innovation in the fields of art, religion, and philosophy. Although frequently viewed as a major problem in medieval Europe, the Church and state conflict was the basis for several constructive changes which helped move society forward.

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