Inventing a State? The Ecclesiastical Origins of European Secular Governance


Review of The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500, by Jørgen Møller and Jonathan Doucette

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.


For a century or more, when seeking to explain the trajectory of European state formation, scholars in the social sciences (economists, political scientists, and economic historians) have focused on the critical role played by interstate military competition. From Otto Hintze to Charles Tilly, the emphasis has been on showing how the imperatives of conflict prompted the development of ever more robust states raising more revenue and fielding increasingly larger armies. At the same time, European states were hardly monoliths ruled by autocrats. They were most often characterized by a decentralization of power due to the existence of politically autonomous cities as well as to the presence of parliamentary bodies composed of both elites and representatives of the towns. As princes sought to augment their power, they needed to rule cooperatively with these groups. It is this broad picture that we need to try to account for.

This standard account of European state formation, at least as far as social scientists are concerned, has much to be said for it, yet too often it is presented as a story where the need for a state necessarily led to its emergence. In The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500, Jorgen Møller and Jonathan Doucette remind us that we also need to consider where the ideas and practices for organizing European states came from in the first place. Said otherwise, we need a supply side account of European state formation, because inventing a state is not an obvious thing. Møller and Doucette provide us with a powerful contribution that shows how much of the technology of medieval governance first emerged in the Catholic Church before subsequently being adopted in secular settings. Along with another important recent contribution by Anna Grzymala-Busse, Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State, the new book by Møller and Doucette very usefully augments our understanding of how European states developed.

In a concise and clear narrative, Møller and Doucette take us through the several different stages through which developments in the Catholic Church impacted the development of European states. Their story begins with the collapse of efforts at European unification at the end of the Carolingian era and the subsequent fragmentation of political power that allowed new and existing lower-level entities to assert themselves. Part of this involved the development of new ecclesiastical institutions, especially as part of the Cluniac movement beginning in the tenth century. These were independent of secular control, and they elected their own leaders. In Chapter 2, Møller and Doucette present an impressive new dataset mapping the locations of both Cluniac monasteries and other ecclesiastical authorities. Then, they do the same thing for the development of Europe’s politically autonomous towns, a movement that began towards the end of the eleventh century.  

In Chapter three, the authors take the further novel step of arguing that the Cluniac reform movement served as something of a template for the development of politically autonomous towns. This goes well beyond the existing and well-known argument that urban autonomy was favored by the conflict between popes and emperors during the Investiture Conflict, a theory that works well for the North of Italy during one particular time period but which cannot account for the much more general phenomenon of urban autonomy in Medieval Europe. The statistical evidence for the Cluniac hypothesis shows a strong correlation between the creation of a Cluniac monastery and the subsequent shift of nearby towns to becoming politically autonomous. Descriptive historical evidence tells a very similar story.

Now, the potential problem with giving a causal interpretation to these statistical results is that those seeking to found Cluniac monasteries might have chosen to do so near large towns that already had a high likelihood of becoming politically autonomous in the first place. The causal arrow might have operated in the opposite direction. To deal with this potential confounding problem, Møller and Doucette use an instrumental variables analysis where distance from the Abbey of Cluny—the first monastery in the movement—is used as an independent predictor of whether another location would witness the development of a Cluniac monastery. When using this method, we continue to see that the nearby presence of a Cluniac monastery is a strong predictor of a town becoming politically autonomous. The idea that the Cluniac movement helped serve as an intellectual template for urban autonomy seems clear.

In the next part of their story—told in Chapter Four—Møller and Doucette consider how the concepts of proctorial representation and consent, which were crucial to the development of territorial assemblies in Europe beginning in the early thirteenth century, developed first in the Catholic church, which provided a model for secular authorities. As the authors themselves know well, this is hardly a new argument; it has been well covered by Brian Tierney and other historians. What is new in this chapter is the way that Møller and Doucette develop and use statistical evidence to chart the diffusion of these ideas from a religious to a secular context. In this instance they suggest that it was the Dominican order—an organization governed by a set of assemblies to which lower-level entities sent representatives—that played a crucial role. They show that towns that had the Dominican order present were more likely to shift to having governing councils based on principles of representation. We do not see the same effect for the presence of Franciscans, an order that did not have a formal system of representation. This is powerful new evidence.  

The final part of the book shifts to a higher level to describe how the struggle between popes and Holy Roman Emperors, both in material and ideological terms, helped to further shape the political map of medieval Europe and thus the broader trajectory of European state formation. If we want to understand the fragmented European core running north to south at the center of Europe, the zone that Stein Rokkan wrote famously about, then we need to look again at the prominent role played by the church.

Overall, Møller and Doucette present us with a compelling account that is a very welcome corrective to the dominant narrative in the social sciences about European state formation. War was no doubt crucial in the development of states, but we still need to understand where the ideas for organizing states came from, and many of them came from the Catholic Church. Without these ideas, the trajectory of European state formation might have been very different. If the idea that war drove state formation is often attributed to Charles Tilly, and at times to a somewhat narrow reading of his own work, Møller and Doucette have produced a book that I suspect Tilly himself would have looked upon very favorably.  




Posted on 23 March 2023

DAVID STASAVAGE is the Dean for the Social Sciences and Julius Silver Professor in the Department of Politics, New York University. He is also an Affiliated Professor in the NYU School of Law. His latest book is The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton University Press, 2020).