For the second time in the last few weeks, I’ve come across a new book that argues that the Catholic Church was an important source of the foundational commitments and political structures of the contemporary European nation-state. The thesis is in some ways familiar from authoritative treatments by Berman in his “Law and Revolution,” but in others it is in considerable tension with a specific conception, still popular in some circles today, of church-state separation. This book, which looks quite interesting (soliciting Christmas gifts…), is Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State (Princeton UP), by Anna M. Grzymala-Busse.

Sacred Foundations argues that the medieval church was a fundamental force in European state formation. Existing accounts focus on early modern warfare or contracts between the rulers and the ruled. In contrast, this major study shows that the Catholic Church both competed with medieval monarchs and provided critical templates for governing institutions, the rule of law, and parliaments.

The Catholic Church was the most powerful, wealthiest, and best-organized political actor in the Middle Ages. Starting in the eleventh century, the papacy fought for the autonomy of the church, challenging European rulers and then claiming authority over people, territory, and monarchs alike. Anna Grzymała-Busse demonstrates how the church shaped distinct aspects of the European state. Conflicts with the papacy fragmented territorial authority in Europe for centuries to come, propagating urban autonomy and ideas of sovereignty. Thanks to its organizational advantages and human capital, the church also developed the institutional precedents adopted by rulers across Europe—from chanceries and taxation to courts and councils. Church innovations made possible both the rule of law and parliamentary representation.

Bringing to light a wealth of historical evidence about papal conflict, excommunications, and ecclesiastical institutions, Sacred Foundations reveals how the challenge and example of powerful religious authorities gave rise to secular state institutions and galvanized state capacity.

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