Blame It On the Reformation (Part 3): When Disruption Started

Another feature of the Reformation that harmed the West, according to Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, is the state’s increasing power, including the authority to regulate religious life.

Historians frequently regard the Reformation as a natural extension of secular authorities’ increasing control of the church in the fifteenth century. Such a view distorts more than it discloses, because the doctrinal disagreements introduced by the Reformation radically altered the nature of the long-standing jurisdictional conflicts between ecclesiastical and secular rulers.(146)

What that long-standing relationship was, however, is another question, one settled by Francis Oakley in his book, The Mortgage of the Past. He describes the conflict between pope and emperor during the Investiture Controversy this way:

Historically speaking, “there is really nothing unusual,” Brian Tierney has rightly argued, “in one rule aspiring to exercise supreme spiritual and temporal power. That . . . is a normal pattern of human government.” What was unusual instead about the European Middle Ages “was not that certain emperors and popes aspired to a theocratic role but that such ambitions were never wholly fulfilled.” The governmental dualism that sponsored this novel state of affairs was doubtless the cause of an immense amount of wasteful and destructive conflict. But it was conflict that marked the birth pangs of something new in the history of humankind: a society in which what we now call the state was gradually stripped of its age-old religious aura and in which its overriding claims on the loyalties were balanced and curtailed by those advanced persistently by a rival authority. That rival authority [the papacy], in turn, in no less significant a fashion, found its own imperial ambitions thwarted reciprocally by the competing power of emperors and kings. A society that was distinguished, therefore, by a deeply rooted institutional dualism and racked by the internal instability resulting there from. [40-41]

In other words, well before the Reformation came along to introduce doctrinal pluralism and instigated appeals to magistrates to prevent other magistrates in league with Rome from taking off the heads of Protestants, the medieval church, thanks to the ambitious claims of the papacy, introduced something new. This division between the secular and sacred was, as Oakley says, new in the history of the planet (except for Jesus’ own words about rendering to Caesar and to God). It also created an instability and rivalry in European governing institutions that predated the Reformation.

Another way of putting this is that from the perspective of the Eastern church circa 800, medieval Rome did to the unity and comprehensiveness of Constantinople what Gregory asserts about Protestantism. Not only did the Western church break with the East in 1054 to divide an earlier version of Christendom. But soon after that division came papal claims to supremacy during the Investiture Controversy that unsettled the existing political order in Europe and that further prevented a restoration of the older and historic Christendom.

In which case, Gregory’s decision to start his narrative with medieval Europe is arbitrary. If you start five hundred years earlier, Rome is the one guilty of setting into motion modernity, its pluralism, and its hegemonic nation-states.

2 thoughts on “Blame It On the Reformation (Part 3): When Disruption Started

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I have read quite a bit on the origins of the state and (based only on reviews and quotations) I really don’t think Gregory would have many friends among historians of the modern nation-state, who put the origins of the state at war-making and taxation, with a later revisionist justification on the grounds of unifying religious factions let loose by the Reformation. I’m mainly relying on Tilly and Ertman, but also Giddens, Gellner, Hobsbawm, Porter and Spruyt. Most agree that the rise of the English state (for instance) was NOT the English Reformation but the centralizing enclosure efforts of the Tudors, pre-Reformation. In “Birth of the Leviathan,” Ertman says this:

    “It is now generally accepted that the territorial state triumphed over other possible political forms
    (empire, city-state, lordship) because of the superior fighting ability which it derived from access to both urban capital and coercive authority over peasant taxpayers and army recruits.”

    Maybe that’s too Marxist, but I’m 2K so I get to be Marxist in my historiography. It’s like Gregory hasn’t read anything written on the history of the state in the last 40 years.


  2. I agree with Gregory here. Prior to the Reformation the church as it existed in western Europe was a state institution, or more accurately a quasi governmental partnership. Take for example the latest Egyptian constitution which is going to have the Egyptian state fund an agency which studies Islamic tradition and law and think of ways to apply those laws to civil society. That institution is then going to do the drafting process for the laws that go before the Egyptian parliaments. In 15th century Europe you could imagine something very much like that existing. Right prior to the English Reformation Henry’s chancellor was Cardinal Wolsey, an untroubled theocratic government.

    After the Reformation and the religious diversity that followed an untroubled theocracy is problematic. You cannot have a wildly divergent state, so if you have wildly divergent religions they can’t serve as the basis for the laws of the state.


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