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Recentering the Catholic Church in European State Transformation

July 26, 2021

Over at Broadstreet, Anna Grzymala-Busse provides a cool overview of her project on the role of the Catholic Church in European state transformation.

How did the state arise in Europe? The canonical answer is Charles Tilly’s: “war made the state and the state made war.” The starting point is the fragmentation of territorial political authority in Europe after the collapse of the Carolingian empire in 888, and the ambitions of rulers in the early modern (1500-1700) era. To expand their rule, monarchs and princes fought bitter wars with other other—and to fund this increasingly costly warfare, they extracted taxes. Domestic institutions such as state administrations, fiscal offices, and parliaments arose in response to these needs. In these “bellecist” accounts, rulers who succeeded in building up the administrative and military apparatus of war went on to consolidate their territorial gains and ensure the survival of their states. These relentless pressures eventually meant fewer and bigger states, from as many as 500 independent states in Europe in 1500 to 30 four centuries later.

… I take Tilly to church, and question each of these core pillars of the bellecist story. I show that roots of many state institutions are found in the medieval era, not the early modern. Fragmentation was not simply a post-imperial legacy, but a sustained and deliberate policy. The biggest rival for an ambitious medieval ruler was not another monarch, but the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful and wealthy political actor in the medieval era (1100-1350). Secular rivals struggled with the papacy—but they also adopted its effective institutional solutions. As a result, familiar domestic institutions such as legal systems, parliaments and concepts of representation, direct taxation, and chanceries all emulated church templates.

This revisionist account of state formation builds on recent work that explores the deep historical causes and consequences of urbanization, the rule of law, the Crusades, the rise of universities, and parliaments. It emphasizes, however, the role of the Church as both the critical rival for medieval monarchs, and the main source of institutional and conceptual innovations for these would-be state builders.

As Grzymala-Busse stresses, her own work is part of a growing intellectual momvent. Jørgen Møller, among others, is working and publishing along similar lines.

(Møller, interestingly enough, is also involved with a developing research program that examines how succession and marriage dynamics shaped the political and economic trajectories of European polities. These two research programs – like pretty much everything else in the study of European state formation – are connected in multiple ways. It is difficult to discuss marriage and inheritance in Medieval Europe without reference to the Church; Latin Christendom probably looks very different without priestly celibacy.)

I do think that there’s something a little odd about the fact that centering the Catholic Church is a revisionist take. This is definitely one of those times that “conventional wisdom” in political science and historical sociology is out of step with “conventional wisdom” in the rest of the world. As best I can recollect, older histories of European political development took the importance of the Catholic Church as a settled matter. It wasn’t exactly a minor player in Medieval politics, law, early bureaucracy, and institutional arrangements. If my kid’s experience is any indication, high-school European history courses still mention multiple pathways of influence.

But it’s true that major works on state formation in the 1990s and 2000s barely carved out a role of the Church as a political formation and institutional influence.

But it’s true that major works on state formation in the 1990s and 2000s barely carved out a role of the Church as a political formation and institutional influence. You might get arguments about religion as something more like an ideational force or source of identity. We certainly had debates about the impact of the Protestant Reformation on state formation. This is fairly late in the game if we’re talking about, say, the ‘medieval origins of the modern state’ or the emergence of representative assemblies. Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan is a partial exception, but it focuses on a fairly narrow pathway. The most influential works on the European state formation at best marginalize it.

This absence is matters. Grzymala-Busse discusses a number of explanatory puzzles that look pretty different when we take the Church seriously. For example:

One result of this rivalry was the continued territorial and political fragmentation of Europe. A broad scholarly consensus emphasizes that this atomization is the foundation for subsequent political and economic development of Europe. Subsequent medieval governance was a disjointed system of local authority and incomplete territorial control, a raft of principalities, ill-defined kingdoms, and territories controlled by warlords.

Yet this fragmentation was no accident. Popes worked assiduously to keep any one ruler from getting too strand reassembling Charlemagne’s empire. The Church deliberately played rulers against each other, and used doctrine, intimidation, and wars by proxy to ensure that no powerful rival could arise that might threaten its political or territorial interests.

Anyway, you should read go read the piece itself, as well as her review essay on the topic. I can’t do the overall sweep justice. I’ve been pretty checked out of the state transformation literature for almost a decade. I’ve missed a lot of interesting and significant developments.

If you’ve known me for a while, you can probably guess how this post is going to wrap up.

I dislike calling warfare-centric theories “bellicist” – a word that means someone who advocates war. I know I’ve lost this battle. But for some reason the label is connected in my mind with a substantive concern: accounts of European state transformation that stress military conflict do not all look alike. Some focus on the so-called military revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and argue that it – in brief, pike formations plus handheld gunpowder artillery, canons, ships capable of fielding canons, and star-shaped fortresses – explains the emergence of, more or less, bureaucratized, sovereign-territorial, relatively centralized states. Some claim that the frequency and intensity of warfare is positively associated with state capacity (“more war, more state!”). Scholars such as Ertman offer more nuanced theories. Tilly’s 1992 book is sprawling, complicated, and often hard to pin down.

Many years ago I wroteon this very weblog – about my particular frustration with the way that Coercion, Capital, and European States gets handled in a lot of the state-formation literature. It’s not obvious to me, for example, why the persistence of small political units in the Holy Roman Empire – and its successor confederations – is, as Grzymala-Busse’s post suggests, a problem for Tilly’s argument. There’s slack in the theory, and they did wind up getting incorporated into larger in the latter part of the 19th century.

More generally, I think there’s a risk that “bellicist” accounts have become the realism of the state-transformation literature. They’re both often aggregated in problematic ways; they both serve as a very convenient theoretical foil. In consequence, both approaches tend to remain a bit “frozen in place.” Very few scholars feel much compulsion to attempt major theoretical reformations. There is not, as far as I know, a major effort to look at warfare-centric theories and say “okay, how can we update this approach to make sense of the empirical problems and alternatives that have emerged over the years?” But there probably should be.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.