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Summary of Sacred Foundations by Anna Grzymala


  • At the end of the 11th century, the Church became independent from secular rulers, grew, and acquired power. It subsequently shaped the European state in two ways.
  • First, its development led the Church to the create a series of institutions and administrative functions for organizational purposes.
  • These institutions were later copied by states who had themselves to develop in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire.
  • Second, the Church sought to control and administer territories as much as countries did. Due to their proximity, the papacy fought to keep Italy and the Holy Roman Empire fragmented while it led allies countries like France, England, and Spain freely centralize.
  • These two dynamic of rivalry/state building shaped the European state like nothing else has.
  • The Church invented the notions of majority, consensus, legal personhood (corporation), representation, consent, centralization, direct taxation, specific forms of accounting, civil servants, legates, missives, charters, document issuance, reliance on written proofs, universities, and led the rediscovery of Roman law.
  • By building the European states, the Church made itself obsolete. Hubris, internal disputes, and bad management will lead to its weakening. It never got back the power that it had after the Papal Schism.

Table of Contents

  • Summary of Sacred Foundations Written by Anna Grzymala
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Medieval Setting
    • Setting the Stage: Europe 888–1054
    • Church Liberation: 1054–1122
    • Church Triumphant: 1198–1302
    • Broadcasting Church Power
    • Church Overreach and Political Losses: 1302–1417
  • Chapter Two: Rivalry and Fragmentation
    • The Crusades
    • Liberta ecclesiae: the Investiture Conflict and Liberation of the Church
    • The Fragmentation of Europe
    • The Rise of Communes
    • Sovereignty
    • Missa Finita Est? The Great Schism and the State Triumphant
  • Chapter Three: Governing Institutions
  • Chapter Four: Law and Learning
    • The Rise of Civil and Canon Law
    • Civil Law
    • Canon Law
    • The Influence of Church on State
  • Chapter Five: Parliaments and Representation
    • The Golden Age of Medieval Parliaments: 1250–1450
    • How the Church Mattered
    • Institutional Models
    • Majority Rules
    • Legitimation and Justice
    • Consent and Taxation
    • Parliamentary Principles
    • Conciliarism
    • The Church and the Absolutist Turn
  • Conclusion

What Sacred Foundations Talks About

Sacred Foundations is a book written by Anna Grzymala. It explains that the European state developed as a result of the rivalry with and copy of the Catholic Church.

It’s traditionally thought that the European state developed institutions and an administration due to wars. The Church isn’t often brought up in the state-building discussion, and when it is, it is negatively talked about.

Anna Grzymala shows that the bellecist theory doesn’t fit what actually happened and that the Church played a much bigger role in the state formation.

Sacred Foundations is a great book. The only drawback is that it’s an academic book. It’s not easy to read and won’t suit those who don’t have any prior background in the history of Christianity.


Get the book here.

Summary of Sacred Foundations Written by Anna Grzymala


Religion is not an obvious ally of the secular state.

A thousand years ago, the Roman Catholic Church transformed the European legal order and invented a series of concepts subsequently adopted by countries, which led to democracy.

The Church came up with:

  • The development of governmental and parliamentary institutions
  • The rule of law
  • The culture of learning
  • Universities
  • Democracy

The Medieval Church was powerful, wealthy, and owned about 20% of all land in Europe as a result of accumulation, donations, and transfers. The Church was:

  • An economic institution: it levied taxes (the census) and monasteries financially contributed to the papacy.
  • A legal institution: it employed literate clerks, expert jurists, and experienced administrators who were involved in the political life of cities and countries. In some places, the Church made the law and had its own courts.
  • A religious institution: it had spiritual and moral authority. The Church baptized children, redeemed sin, and condemned others -> it was the most legitimate institution to exercise power.

The Church was omnipresent in the life of the people.

The wealth, human capital, administrative capacity, and spiritual authority of the medieval church far outweighed those of any king or prince.

As a result, kings often clashed with the Church when they sought to expand their power.

Through the twin mechanisms of rivalry and emulation, of secular fear and envy, the church shaped state formation.

The European state was shaped by two different forces:

  1. The rivalry between kings and popes: popes fragment the territory of countries they rivaled with.
  2. The emulation of the Church by the state: the Church built institutions which states copied, leading them to become stronger than the Church, rendering the Church obsolete.

Concepts such as representation, binding consent, and even majority rules relied on ecclesiastical precedents.

Having lost its means to apply pressure on states, the Church began to sell indulgences to earn money, which further weakened its standing and authority, leading to the Reformation.

The Church has rarely been talked about as the development catalyst of state formation. The two main theories are:

  • The bellicist theory: it posits that war made the state and the state made wars. Wars led to the need for resources which prompted the organization of the administration. This theory fails to explain why some countries remained fragmented for so long.
  • The bargaining theory: posits that the state came as a result of a bargain between rulers and their people (social contract).

The state-building process was dual: first, rulers needed to gain control of territory with people on it. Second, they had to build an administrative and institutional structure over this territory.

Chapter One: The Medieval Setting

The relationship between popes and kings can be divided into three periods.

  1. Late 11th – early 12th century: the Church frees itself from secular control.
  2. Early 12th – late 13th century: Church’s power and influence peak. State consolidation.
  3. 14th – 16th century: the papacy challenges rulers who grew powerful.

The Church and the upcoming state subsequently co-evolved through rivalry and emulation.

Setting the Stage: Europe 888–1054

Prior to the 11th century, the European Church was neither powerful, centralized, nor autonomous.

The Church was ruled by secular rulers who also owned the monasteries and other Church estates. Popes were appointed by politicians.

The Holy Roman Empire (heritage of Charlemagne and ancestor of Germany) became the biggest rival to the Church. After collapsing in 888, its Western part (France) elected Hugh Capet (the “Louis” dynasty) to the French throne in 987 and the dynasty ruled until 1848 (with a small interruption after 1789).

The German king Otto briefly tried to restore the Roman Empire in 962 and was crowned emperor by the Pope to get some legitimacy. The empire appointed and deposed a series of popes and exercised significant control over the Church until the 1050s.

But it was neither centralized nor well-governed which led to its disintegration.

Few polities had consolidated by 1000, except for England after William’s conquest in 1066.

Church Liberation: 1054–1122

The Church took control in 1050 after centuries of domination by temporal rulers. The Byzantine and Roman churches split in 1054 and Rome reformed its hierarchy and structure, giving the Pope more power. These reforms clashed with temporal rulers who had to give up control.

In 1059, the Church decided that the Pope would be elected by Cardinals rather than emperors, which led to a series of clashes with the German emperor.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire at its biggest. Source

William conquered England in 1066 with the support of Rome which did not intervene in his business. He seized the land of the Church and redistributed it to members of the clergy he was friendly with.

Church Triumphant: 1198–1302

Popes grew far more powerful (…) from the election of Pope Innocent III in 1198 to the downfall of Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.

Innocent III cemented the power of the Church by implying universal power over all Christian jurisdictions.

Other Popes went even further, up to claim direct authority over all human beings.

Fights with the Holy Roman Empire continued and the pope seized the land it lost in Italy, encouraging the destruction of imperial authority in both countries.

As the Holy Roman Empire shrank, other countries strengthened and established an administration modeled after the Church, which led to centralization and decreased the power of local rulers.

In Spain, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon emerged as the stronger unifying kingdoms.

In Scandinavia, Christian kings replaced local pagan chiefs.

Broadcasting Church Power

The Church reached throughout the entire continent thanks to the bishops, the monasteries, and the cathedrals.

Even as kings gained power, the church remained the single most powerful geopolitical player of its time. Its human capital and its spiritual authority were unmatched, as was its geographic reach.

Bishops were secular administrators and spiritual leaders. They were the chief pastors of the dioceses, a structure inherited from the Roman administration.

In Charlemagne’s day, bishops served as administrators and governors, both local lords and imperial representatives.

The church was often the only source of stability and guarantee of order, and bishops assumed governing responsibility in many territories.

Bishops were judges, offered asylum and settled disputes, and gave shelter to refugees and counsel to warring parties.

Bishops served as papal deputies, as local governors, and as central administrators.

As rulers changed often due to conquest, they counted on bishops to administer the territories they did not have time to administer themselves.

Around 1000, bishoprics were small states, with almost everything which corresponds to our conception of a state: rulers, governments, central places, citizenship, legislation, taxation.

Finally, bishops served as advisors to the court.

Then there were the monasteries.

After the collapse of the Roman empire, monasteries were a source of theological advances, a literate culture, and reformist zeal.

Finally, cathedrals served the following roles: solemn houses of worship, town halls, marketplaces, warehouses, and even fortresses.

Church Overreach and Political Losses: 1302–1417

A tax conflict opposing the French King Philip IV to Pope Boniface VIII led to Philip’s excommunication. Boniface also issued the Unam Sanctam bull in 1302, which insisted that the pope was supreme above all men.

Philip sent an army to Rome and captured Boniface who died in 1303 out of shock. Then he moved the papacy to Avignon from 1305 to 1376 and chose a French pope, which led to a steep decline in the papacy’s power.

Pope Gregory XI moved the papal court back to Rome in 1376 and died two years later. His successor Urban VI became erratic and despotic. His election was invalidated and the cardinals elected Clement VII instead.

So Urban elected a new college of cardinals and Clement had to flee to Avignon.

The next forty years saw multiple competing popes, two centers of papal power, and papal rivals urgently building coalitions with secular rulers.

Kings took this opportunity to weaken the church, and the matter was ultimately resolved by secular rulers at the councils of Constance (1414–8) and Basel (1431–9).

The Church had lost its standing and relied on secular power to survive, especially after the Reformation.

Chapter Two: Rivalry and Fragmentation

Popes and rulers clashed over authority and territory. While popes supported Spain and England, they fought against the Holy Roman Empire.

These struggles between the papacy and temporal rulers gave rise to some of the defining features of the European state system: the differentiation of the secular and the temporal, the fragmentation of territorial authority, and the equal standing of monarchs.

The undermining of national unity by the papacy strengthened communes.

In the fight for Germany and Italy, neither the popes nor kings were sufficiently powerful to defeat the other. But the papacy was good enough that it took until the mid-19th century for the countries to finally unify.

The papacy used a series of weapons to keep the two countries divided.

First, there were the spiritual weapons: curses and maledictions, the excommunication of rulers, and placing whole countries under interdict (can no longer celebrate mass or receive the sacraments).

Excommunication was one of the most powerful ones but it did not always work. They were used against the rulers who sought to limit the power of the popes. Many kings who were excommunicated were subsequently abandoned by their princes while others were not impacted at all. 44% of excommunications were against the Holy Roman Empire’s emperors.

The problem with excommunication formulating too many of them led people not to take them seriously anymore, so popes also relied on armies. They were often defeated militarily because they weren’t trained to go to war, so they allied with secular rulers for protection.

Becoming a papal vassal was attractive to monarchs whose rule needed bolstering, where succession struggles had weakened the monarchy, for example.

The Crusades

Crusades began under Urban II in 1096.

They contributed to state formation by facilitating taxation, sales of feudal land, reintegration into global trade networks, and the elimination of rivals to ruling monarchs. The Crusades quickly took on a political ton and served against the enemy of the papacy rather than the defense of Christianity.

Crusades against secular European states (Muslim Spain, pagan Baltic states) had privileges, such as indulgences.

European states’ wars against one another were sometimes disguised by the papacy as crusades (Eg: Philip II of France against England).

The purpose of the Crusades after the 13th century was the domination of the Church over the states.

Liberta ecclesiae: the Investiture Conflict and Liberation of the Church

The Investiture Conflict was a major episode in the rivalry between the papacy and secular rulers.

What is the Investiture Conflict (also called Controversy)?

Before the Gregorian reforms, Popes counted on emperors to exercise the administration and control of the clergy (particularly in the nomination of bishops), which means that the papacy had little control over it.

Pope Gregory VII forbade it in 1075 but the German king Henry IV rejected it. The conflict settled in 1122 with the Concordat of Worms ruling in favor of the popes. The consequence was that the state and the Church were now separate.

This event is often seen as the most decisive point in church-state relations, driving a permanent wedge between them and confirming the Church in its autonomy.

It had three consequences:

  1. Use of the law: the law, rather than excommunications, was used to argue to find a solution. This spawned the creation of institutions studying and training attorneys for future use -> creation of universities.
  2. Gregory VII and subsequent popes advocated royal elections to maximize leader suitability -> empowered the nobility against the “divinely ascented king”.
  3. Fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire.

But the Concordat did not end the fights between states and the Church as it was a compromise, not a resolution.

Kings continued to influence the nomination of bishops and the papacy continued to tolerate lay investiture (nomination by the administration rather than the Church) in countries it needed the support of (Eg: England after William’s conquest).

The Fragmentation of Europe

The fragmentation of territorial authority after the collapse of the Carolingian empire in Europe is often the starting point for analyses of the rise and consolidation of modern territorial nation-states.

The causes for this fragmentation were:

  • Emergence of urban life.
  • Rise of local warlords
  • Low levels of religious legitimation

But the most potent reason was the role of the Church.

Fragmentation was a deliberate policy of the medieval papacy. The papacy first sought to free the church from imperial influence—and then to preclude an imperial resurgence. As a result, fragmentation is not evenly distributed across Europe, and it is closely associated with papal conflict.

The rulers and territories most involved in conflict with the pope over political authority and territorial rule remained decentralized, disorganized, and disunified until the 1870s. In contrast, the church supported the early Capetian consolidation of power in France and efforts in the Spanish territories.

The fragmentation of territorial authority increases during the heyday of papal rule, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is most visible in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, the church’s chief enemy.

Fragmentation did not end in the early modern era (…) the number of states decreased from five hundred in 1500 to thirty in 1900 (…) but fragmentation persisted through the early modern era, and only ended in the nineteenth century.

Local princes grew in power in the Holy Roman Empire and cities turned into republics in Italy.

Many have claimed that the Church failed to maintain Europe’s unity, but it’s the opposite: the Church purposely divided the continent to weaken the monarchs and keep itself powerful.

By the same token, Popes did not prevent the centralization of countries they needed the support of (such as England against the Holy Roman Empire).

Until its dissolution in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire never became a centralized territorial state.

The Rise of Communes

The close association between communes and fragmentation exists also because papal conflict and fragmentation made it possible for towns to escape imperial rule and govern themselves.

Kings and popes gave them rights and autonomy in order to obtain their support.

As a result, local self-governance started to take off in the late eleventh century and then grew further in the shadow of imperial-papal conflict.


Sovereignty, or a ruler’s exclusive right to control his territory and to defend it from external demands, implies “supreme authority within a territory” and the mutual recognition of this status by other states.

The concept of sovereignty is often said to have been introduced by Hobbes and Bodin (16th and 17th century) or by the Peace of Westphalia, but it was really the popes who introduced the notion with the doctrine of rex in regno suo imperator est: a king is an emperor in his kingdom.

The purpose was, of course, to quash the Holy Roman Empire and its territorial ambitions, even though the practice of sovereignty wasn’t widespread at the time.

But there was a twist: if a king is emperor in his kingdom, this means he also didn’t have to submit himself to the authority of the Pope.

This led to wider acceptance (and practice) of the principle that rulers do not recognize superior powers, including that of the papacy, in England, France, Spain, much of Italy, and even some German territories.

From the early fourteenth century onwards, a widening circle (…) expressed a consciousness of secular power as separate in origin, purpose, scope, and legitimation from the church.

Missa Finita Est? The Great Schism and the State Triumphant

Ironically, the divide and conquer policy of the church made it weaker, as there were no great powers to fund and protect it from its enemies.

The Papal Schism began in 1378 when several Popes (up to three) fought for the papacy, each supported by certain countries, until the resolution of the matter in 1417. Because Europe was fragmented, not one power could resolve the matter.

The Councils of Constance (1414–8) and Basel (1431–9) eventually reconciled the church.

The councils were led by secular rulers who took this opportunity to take more power from the Church. Most papal bulls were now submitted to the authority of kings.

The schism marked “the end of the medieval papacy” and its claims of unquestioned moral and political authority. (…) The Great Schism showed popes to be petty politicians vying for power, rather than men of God. The intense secular partisanship and competing factions belied the notion of a true and universal church.

Cardinals and bishops now had the upper hand within the Church.

As a result of the schism, the church was impoverished, and its attempts to regain revenue streams further decreased its moral authority.

The Church was now submitted to taxes, so it sold positions within its hierarchy to earn money. It was so profitable that the practice was formalized, and the Church lost its moral authority.

The papacy eventually reasserted its spiritual role in the last 15th century. But it never recovered the power it had before the Schism.

Chapter Three: Governing Institutions

Emulation is the second mechanism by which the medieval church influenced state formation, as royal courts adapted church templates for ruling institutions.

The structure of royal administrations was simple, and relied on monetary resources extracted from lands that belonged to the king (a heritage of Rome.)

Taxation was ineffective. Charlemagne declared a tithe for the Church, but only collected roughly 1/30th. Kings didn’t have enough emissaries.

Private royal households and public administration were indistinguishable.

By the 13th century, the bureaucracy was well-organized.

Literacy and record-keeping spread, new schools of higher education emerged, both canon and civil law were systematized, tax collection began in earnest, and the very notion of office, as separate from the person, developed after the ecclesiastical reforms of the eleventh century.

These innovations arose straight from the Church administration.

The papacy reformed its court in the eleventh century and developed a separate clerical state under papal control. The Gregorian reformers “came to see that they could only effect their programme by constructing effective, centralized institutions”.

The big advantage that the Church had was its obsession with record keeping.

On the other hand, royal administrations rested on three pillars:

  1. The Chancery: the nerve centers of governance for both popes and secular rulers. They responded to petitions and issued letters of justice -> the chancery and the judiciary coevolved.
  2. The Camera: tax collection. The Church developed administrative record-keeping, direct taxation, and compliance techniques, and even some specific accounting forms transmitted from France to England by the Church.
  3. The Judiciary: the petitions, judges, courts, and jurisdictions. The systematization of law provided new concepts of justice and led to a flourishing new culture of learning and human capital.
  4. The Rota: a court for both secular and clerical appeals.
  5. The Penitentiary: a tribunal of mercy, issuing forgiveness of sins and other moral matters.

After the Schism with Constantinople, Rome began a series of reforms.

  • Expansion of the papal administrative machinery
  • Formalization of governance through legates and councils
  • Establishment of capable clerical officials to run the administration
  • Establishment of a centralized hierarchy at whose top sat an unquestioned ruler

The church developed new technologies of governance, such as legates, missives, and charters; new methods of record keeping, contract enforcement, and adjudication of disputes; and novel extraction techniques.

The Cardinals were designated as sole electors of the Pope in 1059 and evolved from a group of Roman aristocrats to a Church institution. They began occupying functions and fulfilling roles.

The states began to formally levy taxes to finance the Crusades.

The scale of the crusading enterprise taught kings how to mobilize the resources of their countries, and the pope’s authorization of the taxation even of the clergy for the purposes of the crusade made them aware of their powers.

The money was important and needed, so there was a need to ensure compliance. The papacy used for that purpose the law, deputies, and profit-sharing.

  • Law: the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared that tithe payments had priority over all other charges or taxes (Canon 54), and participation was mandatory.
  • Deputies (like bishops) collected the taxes.
  • Profit-sharing: Those who collected the taxes got a cut (kings, bishops, etc).

The papal justice system was the first to issue documents and rely on written proofs. Citizens who had been disappointed by the secular courts could appeal to the pope, which led the administration to expand.

The very resources that the church had earlier provided—literate clerks, able administrators, and institutional models—bolstered secular administrative autonomy and capacity.

They also rendered the Church almost useless. The secular administration developed and they hired secular people to make it function.

Conclusion: The innovation of the papal courts and administration led the states to copy and implement them. These states would not have been able to develop to the extent that they did had they not had a model in the Church to copy.

Chapter Four: Law and Learning

The legal revolution of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries was a monumental step in the creation of the rule of law and a culture of learning in Europe.

Rulers and popes sought to make their authority official and used Roman law’s principles in order to do so.

The Church (…) advanced the ideas of the impersonal state, property rights and contracts, corporations, and the very notions of the equitable rule of law and the government as the common good.

Canon and Roman law eventually fused together, which led to three consequences.

  1. Law became a key way to resolve disputes, rather than violence or theology.
  2. Royal rule became even more identified with justice in the twelfth century. Justice evolved to become centralized and hierarchized and government activity and size increased.
  3. There was a demand for legal experts, which led to the building of universities.

The Rise of Civil and Canon Law

The medieval development of law followed the rediscovery of Roman law in the 11th century. Both Roman and canon law followed the same development of interpretation, compilation, and used the same concepts.

Lawyers learned both of them and practitioners used both too.

They were so close that the gaps in canon law were filled with civil law.

By the 13th century, the two systems were equal and equally drawn from one another by legal experts.

Civil Law

Justinian’s Corpus (a collection of legal texts commissioned by Justinian in the 6th century) and the only copy we have of The Digest were owned by a monastery in Pisa since the 700s.

The manuscripts were copied and Irnerius began to interpret them, along with four main collaborators, together known as the “fathers of the law. By 1080, students were learning about it at the University of Bologna.

Roman law asserted that the emperor could not be deposed and held both temporal and sacred powers. Logically, secular rulers encouraged the study of and spread of Roman law.

Everywhere, the rise of formal justice went hand in hand with the development of more complex governments and the concomitant need for revenue: “kings employed lawyers to argue their need of men and money, and clerks to record the results”

Canon Law

Efforts to collate and systematize canon law had already begun in the eleventh century, thanks to the pressure of the Gregorian reform and the Investiture Conflict.

Gratian revolutionized canon law with his Decretum around 1150, which systematized 3800 canonical texts. This led to the creation of a system of canon law which had several consequences:

  1. It made a clear demarcation between civil and ecclesiastical legal concerns, and between theology and canon law. Canon law asserted and spread the concept of property rights as well.
  2. It emphasized papal sovereignty, and the role of the pope as the supreme judge and legislator.
  3. Canon law conceptualized the Church as a collective fictive entity and the pope as its head. Individuals could be fallible, but the Church could not.
  4. New legal activity in the Church.

The importance of knowing the law grew within the Church.

The majority of medieval popes after Gratian were canon lawyers.

The assertion of church autonomy, its centralization, and legal reform all went hand in hand.

The Influence of Church on State

Canon and civil law influenced each other, much as rulers and popes themselves did.

The coevolution of canon and civil law influenced the state in three different ways:

  1. Law as a weapon: the Church wanted law to be ubiquitous because it used it better than the states did. Popes used the law to influence the rulers, built universities, and sought the best lawyers. The states quickly did the same with the popes by the mid-13th century.
  2. Church influence on secular law: the papal and secular justice systems both relied on one another. Bishops relied on the king’s officers for the enforcement of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the clergy provided much of the civil business of the king’s courts.
  3. The Rise of Expertise and Human Capital: the rise of law led to the creation of universities and created a culture of learning. The first university in Europe was a law school. This led to higher literacy, fostering of trade, growing markets, etc.

Bologna was founded in 1088 out of an informal assembly of students eager to obtain training in Roman law.

The number of universities founded by secular rulers or the Church was roughly equal, until the Reformation when the states clearly overtook the Church.

Chapter Five: Parliaments and Representation

The roots of European parliaments reach deep into the Middle Ages.

Parliaments arose between 1250 and 1450. They were made up of a group of noblemen helping the king give justice.

These councils also often governed communes (they still do in England.)

These forms of councils existed much before the Church, but the latter provided the institutional templates, voting rules, and the concepts of binding representation and consent.

The innovations the Church introduced were:

  1. The synods and councils introduced the notion of majority.
  2. The parliaments took part in the justice and taxation processes made possible thanks to the Church’s innovations.
  3. Representation and consent were also invented by the Church.
  4. The Church developed the concept of legal personhood (used for corporations, for example).
  5. Doctrine of conciliarism: overruling a bad pope, equivalent given to parliaments later on.

The Golden Age of Medieval Parliaments: 1250–1450

Medieval parliaments became widespread in the 1290s, evolving from the king’s council.

The word “parliament” first appeared in 1236 in England to describe “a meeting of the king and his councilors acting as a court of last resort”.

They were more likely to arise where leaders were strong and the territory, small because the presence of its members and was mandatory, and it was easier to travel over smaller territories. Parliaments preferred consensus over debates, conflicts, or constraints.

Parliaments rose for several reasons.

  1. War: wars had to be financed, so taxes had to be raised, and the debate around who to tax was done in the parliament in the presence of the people that would be taxed.
  2. Growing population: population growth meant people became wealthy and sought to govern their cities by being a part of assemblies.
  3. The reinterpretations of Roman private and contract law underlay notions of consent and representation.

How the Church Mattered

Medieval parliaments were characterized by the fact that attendance was mandatory and the members were summoned rather than elected.

Notions of consent and of representation arose, but suffrage and democracy did not.

The Church shaped the rise of parliaments in three ways:

  1. The Church showed the example with the synods.
  2. The transformation of parliaments into democratic institutions required Church principles.
  3. These norms and practices were diffused across Christendom by bishops.

Institutional Models

By the time the first assemblies began, the Church had already several centuries of synod experience behind it.

The bishops that attended these synods weren’t part of the reform-making process as much as they were there to approve these reforms. The reforms were prepared by the papacy, approved by the bishops and enforced by them as well.

The first parliaments followed the same principles. Attendance was often mandatory and the members participated to approve the reforms that had already been drafted.

Royal councils by the twelfth century looked like church synods and were dominated by clergy and their concerns.

Majority Rules

Majority rules were adopted from consensus and unanimity, both coming from the Church.

Feudal contracts relied on mutual consent, guilds and fraternities chose leaders by consent, and kings summoned assemblies to consent to taxation.

Consensus and unanimity evolved to qualified majorities in the late 11th century with the Gregorian reforms.

Legitimation and Justice

Both the medieval Church councils and parliaments served to legitimate the ruler.

Much as with their parliamentary successors, the main role of papal councils until the late twelfth century was judicial activity, resolving internal disputes.

Yet the main role of medieval parliaments was to dispense justice. Much as the church councils had done, medieval parliaments initially served as both councils and courts of justice, and the growth of royal jurisdiction reflected the growing demand for order and civil legislation.

Parliaments dealt with petitions and requests and enforced the king’s laws.

As the institutions took care of petitions, more and more were addressed which led the justice system to grow in response.

Taxation led to new forms of representation and consent.

In 1215, Innocent III summoned the Fourth Lateran Council to discuss taxing Church chapters, so he invited them to hear from them (invention of consent). In 1217, Honorius III issued the decree Etsi membra corporis which established the chapters’ right to be heard through their representatives.

This fostered the idea of political representation.

At some point, the Church chapters refused to be taxed/decided to limit the taxes imposed on them, which introduced the idea that the assemblies could constrain the pope the same way parliaments can constrain the executive today (notion of conciliarism).

Parliaments increased in size and representation as taxes increased along with them. Members of parliaments were made up of the people that were taxed and they had the right to negotiate how much taxes they paid.

By the 1370s, the Commons had become the focal point for legislative activity, since filing a petition through the Commons ensured it would be heard by the king.

The French king did not levy direct taxes so the parliament remained constrained to a justice administration role.

Parliamentary Principles

  • Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus debet comprobar: that which touches all, shall be approved by all. Came from the Church and was first used by Pope Innocent III in 1200 to summon representatives from cities in the Papal States.
  • Binding Representation: representation made quod omnes tangit possible. It was developed by the Church when Church chapters would be taxed. Since consulting all chapters was not possible, the Church used the Roman concept of procuration (representation by proxy) and applied it to voting and discussion.
  • Universitas: a corporation that can be treated as a person (can sign contracts, own property, etc). By 1170 to 1200, however, a literature on corporations and their representatives began to flourish, and after 1310, knowledge of corporate representation became widespread. This notion was used by the papacy in the 11th century for its own autonomy.

The fiction of a corporation was a useful one: it made both representation and forms of economic activity possible. (…) Universities established themselves as corporations of students and masters, often in the face of hostile local authorities.

These innovations spread in Europe through university professors, the clergy, papal decrees, etc.


Conciliarism is the ecclesiastical fusion between representation and consent. The idea was that councils had supremacy over the pope because reform required consent and the entire church was present at the great councils.

The purpose of conciliarism was to limit papal supremacy. And yet, it:

  1. Paved the way for absolutism both within the papacy and the monarchy, and the supremacy of secular rulers over the church.
  2. Conciliarism indirectly promoted the spread of the Protestant Reformation because the Pope was busy dealing with powerful councils rather than the Lutheran challenge.

This principle quickly spread in Europe.

By 1400, the whole Western Church was engaged in trying to replace papal monarchy with conciliar government.

Every country in Europe sought to do the same with their rulers.

Conciliarist influence peaked with the Great Schism (Reformation), and the search for its resolution.

Conciliarism was defeated at the Council of Basel (1431-9) when Pope Eugenius IV persuaded secular kings and princes that it was a dangerous idea for their rule.

Pope Pius II (r. 1458–64) then issued the Execrabilis bull in 1460, which condemned conciliarism and prohibited the review of papal decisions by councils.

Conciliarism had a few consequences:

  1. It created division within the Church which secular rulers used to reinforce their own power.
  2. Conciliarism continued to shape the development of secular politics. They also made the difference between the seat and the person that occupied it.
  3. The debacle made popes skeptical of reforms, worried that the organization of further councils would take all of their power away. So they took time to react to Luther.

The Church and the Absolutist Turn

Parliaments began to fade away in the 1500s because the colonies brought enough money and taxes weren’t necessarily needed.

Absolutism was coming back in Aragon, Castile, France, and parts of Germany.

The conciliarism episode led to the development of new theories of the benefits of absolutism.

Pointing to the Great Schism, these theorists argued that plurality bred discord and destabilization, while papal (and secular) monarchies meant unity and stability

The Council of Trent consolidated the Church but did nothing to stop the Reformation.

The Reformation itself empowered rulers: Protestants gained territorial churches and property, while Catholics extended secular authority into ecclesiastical sphere.

In general, the Reformation reasserted the rights of national assemblies.


The challenge and example of religious authority galvanized state formation in Europe.

The Church is responsible for many historical developments.

  1. The territorial fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire was no accident but an explicit purpose of the papacy to weaken it.
  2. The Church provided an institutional model for states. Taxes, courts, and parliaments all came from the papacy.
  3. The Church instigated the importance of respecting the law and the culture of learning on the continent. The need for law expertise after Roman law was rediscovered led to the creation of universities across the continent.
  4. The Church’s concepts of consent and representation made European councils much different from the ones in other cultures.

States were not constructed due to wars. Quite the opposite. The fragmentation that the Church created in Europe followed by the construction of the states that the Chuch was responsible for were the very things that caused these wars.

The adoption of these concepts by the states eventually rendered the Church obsolete.

It’s interesting to observe that the Church had to be independent, otherwise it could have never done what it did.

The Byzantine Church, for example, never got the power of the Catholic Church after the Great Schism because the Byzantine Empire already had an administrative structure – the state was already formed!

The Emperor was the one directing the Church, not the other way around.

The final irony of European state development is that democratic and secular institutions can have their roots in an authoritarian and religious organization. Not surprisingly, many modern analyses have focused on how the Catholic Church stymied economic growth and how the Reformation freed Europe to pursue knowledge, reason, free markets, and property rights. Yet in the picture that emerges from this book, the medieval church, in all its secular ambition and spiritual monopoly, also brought about the separation of church and state, learning, universities, and human capital, the primacy and rule of law, and the concepts of representation, consent, and sovereignty. The most secular of state institutions can have the most sacred of foundations.

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Summary of Sacred Foundations by Anna Grzymala


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