Before Church and State

Before Church and State:
A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX
by Andrew Willard Jones (2017)

This book has generated much excitement in Catholic Integralist circles, and rightfully so.  Medieval history is usually written from a modernist perspective, meaning not only one hostile to Catholicism, but one that insists on imposing modern categories of thought onto medieval life.  Jones here tries to present thirteenth century France in its own categories.

Reactionaries are concerned mainly with authority, so the most interesting part for us is Jones’ explanation of how rule was understood as legitimate in St. Louis’ kingdom.  Conservative critics of the modern world deny that authority can ultimately derive from contract, consent, or merit.  It would be impractical to always demand a direct divine election of one’s ruler, and refusing to obey a regime founded in a long-past usurpation is practically the same as anarchism.  Rather, authority must derive ultimately from God but be identifiable by the social fact of present establishment.  (The king is the guy everyone thinks is the king and has been acting as if he’s the king.)  We conservatives living after the age of royal absolutism tend to apply this logic only to the State itself.  We may also suspect that establishment may seem too arbitrary an identifier to the unphilosophical masses, that too sharp a memory is bad for traditionalism; much better for the people to imagine their current dynasty’s rule stretching back without contest into the mythical past.

13th century France presents us with a society that extended the traditionalist logic of establishment consistently across a pluralistic social order, and it did so openly–not relying on any deliberate haziness about the past, but rather on precise investigation and documentation of it.  The social order was not presumed to rest on the laws of a sovereign legislator.  Rather, it was an emergent creation arising from the interactions of Christian peoples presumed to be living in charity and peace with each other.  The generally accepted order was assumed to be legitimate.  When a dispute arose, the job of the king and Parlement was to determine what the established practice actually was.  The king’s power was reactive.  Many actors held power of various sorts, and they did not derive it from the king, but simply from accepted practice.  The king held no monopoly on force.  Nor was the Church excluded from “temporal” concerns.  (In fact, the king and his men–many of them clerics–would have been baffled to hear that they were not part of “the Church”.)

Rather than seeing equality as the key to social peace, equality was regarded as the cause of conflict.  A conflict was resolved when the roles of the two sides had been properly differentiated, so that it was clear who had the right to power over what.  Against all of this was the rival social order–or disorder–of heretics and brigands (with the men of those times making little distinction between the two), against which the Church and king fought primarily with the swords of excommunication and confiscation of property.

This is some potent traditionalism.  One might worry that it would justify any longstanding abuse.  However, the Church has never consented to what she regards as violations of natural law, so any such wicked practice could never truly count as settled.  Suppose you say “But what if our understanding of natural law deepens, and we find that something Christians have always accepted must, in fact, be changed?”  Then I would say that you’re thinking like a progressive.  Of course, “progress” requires a sovereign state with the power to upend the social order to impose social justice.  So if you won’t trust your grandparents’ grasp of the natural law, you’re stuck with the current predicament.

There are other fascinating things in this book.  The first couple of chapters describe the reconstruction of southern France after the Albigensian crusade, where again temporal and doctrinal disorders were inseparable in the minds of both king and pope.  Jones notes that the inquisition has tended to have a bad reputation with historians, while King Louis’ reforming enqueteurs are praised for helping to build the French state, but in fact they were the same sort of people doing the same sort of thing in service of the exact same project.  Reactionaries will be heartened to read about the Church exerting itself to defend the liberty of the English crown against the encroaching constitutionalism of Simon de Montfort.  In final section, Jones speculates that modern political theory is a consequence of Westerners losing hope in the effects of grace and the possibility of a charitable society on Earth.

This book focuses, as is proper for a historical investigation, on a single place and time, but the author encourages us to apply its conclusions more broadly.  Further investigation could show if similar arrangements could be found throughout pre-modern Christendom–or even more widely, as some of the features of traditionalist France may have depended less on the particular theological context than others.

6 Responses

  1. Andrew Willard Jones’s wonderful work has already been slightly criticized for being… perhaps a bit less penetrating, shall we say, in its economic analysis and learning. This is not a cut: no one can do everything, let alone in one book. But there may be an even more fundamental economic issue to consider.

    By modern standards, thirteenth-century France was, economically, thoroughly static, completely unchanging, not merely over generations, but over centuries, to a degree I am not certain we can even imagine.

    William Nordhaus’s 1996 study [Do real output and real wage measures capture reality? the history of lighting suggest not.] used a proxy for economic growth — the cost of a lumen of light. He found that in the 3600 years between 1800 BC and 1800 AD, for the average worker, the cost of light probably dropped only about ten-fold — not perceptible at all, over a human lifetime. Consider this: for 3600 years, everyone, in every society, lived an (economically) zero-sum existence. The wealth of the polity could always be degraded, of course, but its upper limit was fixed; added to, if at all, only by conquest and theft. That was a fact of life, plain as the nose on your face.

    But in the last 200 years, between 1800 AD and 2000 AD, the cost of light for the average worker became at least 30,000 times less than in thirteenth-century France. At least a 30,000 times decrease in 200 years, versus a ten-times decrease over the entire previous 3600 years.

    Just in that way, along with all the other ways one can think of, those people, then, seem to have been very different from us; or at least, they breathed very different air, every single day of their lives, than we do.

    The impact of these bare economic facts of life on their assumptions, on their ideas of what life consisted of, their ideas of stability, of authority, of morality, of grace, of a charitable society and its possibility, of simple justice, their cautions and fears, what they valued, their hope for ‘better’ (and what ‘better’ could even mean, at least in this life), let alone more formal theology, is worthy of further study.

  2. “Just in that way, along with all the other ways one can think of, those people, then, seem to have been very different from us; or at least, they breathed very different air, every single day of their lives, than we do.
    The impact of these bare economic facts of life on their assumptions, on their ideas of what life consisted of, their ideas of stability, of authority, of morality, of grace, of a charitable society and its possibility, of simple justice, their cautions and fears, what they valued, their hope for ‘better’ (and what ‘better’ could even mean, at least in this life), let alone more formal theology, is worthy of further study.”

    Indeed.

  3. “In final section, Jones speculates that modern political theory is a consequence of Westerners losing hope in the effects of grace and the possibility of a charitable society on Earth.”

    Jacob Taube’s conclusion was that, after a millennium of focus on the life to come, the early moderns decided to focus on this life, using obviously only natural means.

  4. […] reviews the book Before Church and State by Andrew Willard Jones, about power dynamics in medieval […]

  5. […] the symbols through which a society represents itself and its worldview.  I have recently read a fascinating study of medieval France that fills in many details of how a sophisticated traditionalist society actually operated.  These […]

  6. […] the symbols through which a society represents itself and its worldview.  I have recently read a fascinating study of medieval France that fills in many details of how a sophisticated traditionalist society actually operated.  These […]

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