Infernal Politics: Dante and the Separation of Church and State

So I am reading up on 14th century Rome, as noted earlier, and also listening to a course on tape about epics, and both have suddenly converged on a curious note:  the Medieval origins of the separation of church and state.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Throughout much of human history, monarchs and religious leaders were strongly linked, and often the same.  Kings had an official role in the church, and religious leaders influenced or controlled political matters.  But Christianity and the Roman Empire had a somewhat different relationship.  Christianity arrived into the Empire, and was ultimately adopted by Constantine (though the old religion persisted in many ways and places).  Through the next few centuries, Church and Empire coexisted, with the Church being given jurisdiction not only over the souls of men, but also over certain territories in Italy as well.

When Charlemagne brought the kingdoms of the area of Germany under his sway and sought to re-establish the Empire, he went to the Pope for support, receiving the crown of Empire from the Pope himself, and beginning to percolate a controversy.  Did the coronation mean that the Pope had the right to proclaim or at least to recognize the Emperor?  And what sort of temporal power did that give him over the earthly lives of men?

Clashes between various popes and various emperors (and would-be emperors) escalated throughout the Middle Ages as they skirmished over who had what power, with the occasional emperor trying to make his own pope, and the pope claiming the right to anoint the emperor.  During my period of interest, this meant Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) Louis IV setting up an anti-pope to do his bidding, being excommunicated by the “real” pope, but still being desperate to be crowned in Rome as a mark of his legitimacy, especially when some of the German electors decided to elect an alternate HRE, Charles IV, who had grown up in the French court, and was likely under French influence.  Now, remember the papacy is actually in France at this time, in Avignon, and HRE Louis was not the only one fearful of a French takeover of both Church and state.

Enter Dante Alighieri, best known for The Divine Comedy.  He also wrote a book called De Monarchia (c. 1312), in which he argued passionately that the Church (as embodied in the Pope) should have no earthly authority whatsoever, but should be the watchdog of men’s souls.  The HRE, on the other hand, was meant to be the just and suitable ruler over the political affairs of men, maintaining peace and presiding over the earthly kingdom.  While both men derived their power from God, they were granted this power for different spheres of influence.  The Pope had been setting himself in relation to earthly monarchs as the king in a feudal structure, i.e., that he granted the powers of those monarchs, rather than keeping to the sphere he had been given.

Naturally, Dante himself had been condemned for heresy and forced to remain in exile–while he was away from Florence attempting to explain to the Pope why the Florentines would not give troops or money to support a papal army.  The new rulers of Florence, sympathetic to the Pope, declared against Dante in his absence:   If he returned home, he would be burned at the stake.

Dante was not alone in his pursuit of the separation of church and state, such notables as William of Occam (himself a monk) and Marsilius of Padua  also wrote on the subject, urging the Pope to back off from his attempts to raise armies, manage lands and engage in earthly politics of any kind.  It’s interesting that these authors come from within the church as well as from the secular world, representing a variety of nations and backgrounds, yet their voices converge upon the same principles, principles that we now consider vital to the just society.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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One Response to Infernal Politics: Dante and the Separation of Church and State

  1. My type of post, as always! And let’s hope that the principle of separation of church and state continues to remain strong forever!

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