Friday, August 16, 2013

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Secular and Ecclesiastical Power in the High Middle Ages

I have been reading Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir. The 12th century has been called the High Middle Ages, a time of transition between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. In order to understand the book, I did some background research which I have described in two previous posts. (Preparing to read about Eleanor of AquitaineFurther preparation for reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine) I have also posted on Eleanor's biography.

A key element in the book deal with the evolving relationship between secular and ecclesiastical power. (Note that I am not focusing here on economic or other kinds of power here.)

The Catholic Church at the time exercised spiritual power over the people of Europe. Headed by the pope, it operated through a hierarchical structure including archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons. It governed the religious lives of the people -- baptizing them, marrying them, forgiving their sins, and burying them. It could annul their marriages, and excommunicate them,  consigning them to pariah status in life and eternal damnation. These powers extended to the aristocracy and indeed to kings, queens and emperors. Moreover, officials of the church were subject to ecclesiastical  courts, not to civil courts;

The secular power symbolized by the king included control of the military, raising funds, coining money, defining weights and measures, and the administration of the law. France and England were evolving modern states from feudal society. In feudal society, kings were feudal overlords, ruling through networks of barons who in turn had subordinate landowners. The structure was based on armored and mounted knights who led what we would now see as local militias. Henry II, Eleanor/s husband and king, made notable changes in the administration of all of these functions, notably creating the basis of what became English common law and increasing the borrowing power of the government and its power to raise income -- both enabling him to raise a larger, more professional army for longer periods. Eleanor instituted a system of weights and measures.

Both the Church and the state were in many ways less strong that I expected them to be at the time. The church was in schism, with a rival pope to the pope in Rome. It was beset with corruption. The boundaries of states were in flux as states were seeking to expand their borders by invading others. Indeed, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire forced Richard the Lionhearted to recognize him as overlord as a condition of releasing him from custody after Richard had been kidnapped on his way back from the Third Crusade. Moreover, the rules of succession were sometimes challenged; Henry II became king of England after a war of succession between his mother, Queen Matilda and King Stephen; Richard's brother John sought to usurp the crown. The king of France was overlord of the Angevin territories in mainland Europe and the Holy Roman Emperor was briefly overlord for England. Moreover, there was continuing pressure from other kings on the mainland border territories, and revolts by those who theoretically owed allegiance to the king.

I think of institutions as being socially constructed, albeit no less real for being so. The church and the state had power because of what people believed. But it is difficult for us to fully appreciate what people believed and how strongly they believed it eight centuries ago. I suspect that the 12th century was a period in which those beliefs were in real flux, and the power of church and state were similarly in flux.

People in the Middle Ages believed in heaven and hell and depended on the church and its officials help them achieve one and avoid the other. They believed that the Catholic Church was God's representative on earth and that its officials served by the grace of god. Excommunication put one's soul in peril, but also made the excommunicate at real peril from his neighbors. If the church put a community under interdiction the response of other communities imposed poverty and deprivation on the community members. The depth of these believes must have been much greater than we in Western societies can easily perceive, and those believes gave the Catholic Church real power.

So too, people believed kings ruled by divine right, and that the social order was divinely ordained. I find it hard to imagine what the psychological impact of that belief must have been on the king and queen themselves. That this belief was held by those around the king must have influenced their behavior and there must have been a cycle of mutual reinforcement. The compliance of people with the rules of the state was of course forced by the power of the state, but when the people lost faith in the king, the state and its legitimacy, that power would dissipate. I am a product of a society that believes that governments are created among men and that the just power of the state comes from the consent of the governed. It is all but impossible for me to appreciate how different was the perception of the state and its foundations in 12th century Europe.

In the 12th century, both church and state were geographic expansionists. The Catholic Church dominated Europe, but was expanding against Islam both in the Levant and in Spain. The French and English kings were both seeking to expand their kingdoms, but were limited by the ability to extend military power over distance, and indeed to administer large territories. Note that Henry II in ruling the Angevin Empire was seeking to expand the medieval state power not only over England, Scotland and Ireland, but also over a number of Duchies and Counties in what is now France, adding to the state put together by William the Conqueror lands that were brought be Eleanor in their marriage. In order to do so, he spent a great deal of time putting down rebellions and when he was not doing so, traveling through his domains to show the power of the state to local communities.

Both the church and the state were also seeking to expand their authority within the geographic regions that they controlled. The church was building an expanding network of churches, cathedrals, abbeys, monasteries, etc. and was a major land owner. The king was seeking to increase his power to command economic resources. to make the military power more effective, etc. In this expansion the king sought to increase power over the church in some areas and the church to increase power over the king.

I note that the evolution of religious power and of the power of the state have been ongoing processes for centuries, continuing today. Some of the problems of the church in the 12 century eventually triggered the Reformation. States have grown larger, with two states now having more than a billion citizens,

The conflict between Henry II and Thomas of Becket can be understood in part as a symptom of the co-evolution of ecclesiastical and secular power. It focused on three issues:
  • the power of the king to raise money by taxing the church
  • the power of civil courts to try clerics accused of secular crimes
  • the power of the pope versus the power of the king over the church in England,
Becket exemplified the conflict in his person. A deacon from a family headed by a Norman knight, he was raised by Henry II to be Chancellor of England. As Chancellor he was noted for an expensive life style, for his close association with the king, and for his energetic advancement of Henry's secular agenda. He was nominated by Henry to be Archbishop of Canterbury (requiring that he be ordained a priest); Henry apparently influenced the English Bishops and the pope to accept the nomination and Becket became the primate of England. He apparently changed to a much more abstemious lifestyle, far more devoted to prayer, and became a defender of the churches prerogatives. Eventually he was tried in civil courts on charges of malfeasance during his service as chancellor. He fled England and there followed a period of years in which he sought refuge on the Continent while various people -- including the king of France -- sought to reconcile him with Henry II. Ultimately he returned to Canterbury after obtaining a safe conduct from Henry, but returned to his opposition of Henry's key efforts to extend power over the church. Apparently energized by an angry outburst by Henry, four knights murdered Becket.

The murder drew international attention and condemnation. Weir suggests that it weakened Henry's forces and strengthened those of his opponents. Eventually Henry was absolved by the pope on the basis of a penance consisting of a public whipping on the steps of Becket's Canterbury Cathedral. Becket himself was sanctified and his tomb in the Cathedral became the most important pilgrimage site in Europe for a time. Weir further suggests that as people believed that as Henry was restored to Backet's favor and absolved of the murder, his enemies lost heart and his forces were quickly able to put down his military enemies.

On the one hand, the story illuminates the level of faith in the Catholic Church in the 12th century -- a faith we may find hard to fully understand today.

On the other hand, this was the opening stage of a long process. Henry VIII broke with Rome, creating the Church of England with the king at its head. He destroyed Becket's tomb and had Becket's bones removed from the cathedral.

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