The Monks who Made Europe

By Jonathan Doucette and Jørgen Møller

For almost a thousand years, the Latin west (Western and Central Europe) has been fragmented in two ways: First, it has been divided into numerous competing political units; second, these units have themselves been internally divided, rulers co-existing and interacting with strong social groups such as the clergy, the nobility, and (after the 11th and 12th century) self-governing townsmen. According to several generations of scholarship, these dynamics are the key to unlocking the mysteries of European state formation.

But if the consequences of external and internal fragmentation have received sustained attention, the same cannot be said about their causes. Most research takes competition between and within states as a given, a premise of European state-formation, or traces it in a vague way back to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. In a new book, published by Oxford University Press, we single out the Catholic Church as the main engine behind what we term the external and the internal balancing act of European state formation. Doing so, we provide a more systematic account of how the two balancing acts arose, and why they only came into their own in the high middle ages, more than half a millennium after the fall of Rome.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is working on a parallel research project and has already written in these pages  about the way the Catholic Church stimulated the external balancing act. We therefore concentrate on the deeper historical developments that created a crisis – or disequilibrium – between lay and religious authority and how these circumstances paved the way for political innovations that affected the internal balancing act.

The crisis of church and state

Much ink has been spilled celebrating the fact that in the Latin west, religious and lay authority was divided rather than unified, but it is often ignored that this division only dates to the 11th century. Until then, according to medieval historians, the Latin west was characterized by a fusion of lay and religious authority not unlike the one that has historically characterized the Byzantine Empire. One reason was that the papacy in Rome had not yet emerged as an independent power center of importance. In the period 700-1050, in the seminal description of English medievalist R.W. Southern,

The affairs of the church received little direction from Rome. Monasteries and bishoprics were founded, and bishops and abbots were appointed by lay rulers without hindrance or objection; councils were summoned by kings; kings and bishops legislated for their local churches about tithes, ordeals, Sunday observance, penance; saints were raised to the alters – all without reference to Rome.

By the turn of the first millennium, Germanic kings had even come to be seen as vicars of Christ, a title that popes would later appropriate. This sacral monarchy merely reflected the normal situation in all great agrarian civilizations. As Ernest Gellner once observed, the rule is that “the priest will become king, or the king will become priest”. But in the high Middle Ages (1000-1300), lay and religious authority became differentiated in the Latin west.

Our book traces this crisis of church and state, as it is normally known, to the ninth and tenth century Carolingian state collapse. This collapse, which was felt most intensively in West Francia (what became France), broke royal power, which until then had been resilient in the sense that kings overawed all other powerful actors in their realms: early medieval polities were king-centered. The result was a dramatic decentralization and privatization of public power, what a previous generation of historical scholarship referred to as feudalism. One aspect of this new “cellular structure for politics” was that local nobles and bishops came to control ecclesiastical institutions. Local lords would appropriate tithes and appoint abbots, and there was no longer a strong royal power to uphold standards in e.g. monasteries, as the Carolingians had done in their heyday.

This encroachment of religious institutions sparked a reaction, which began in monasteries in West Francia and then gradually spread to the papal church in Rome. The main aim of this reaction was to free monks and other clerics to live the vita religiosa in a way that was true to church tradition and scripture. To achieve this, two practices had to be fought: simony (the sale of ecclesiastical offices) and clerical unchastity (also known as nicolaitism). Both practices entangled clerics with lay society in a way that corrupted the Christian, ascetic lifestyle, and which was an anti-thesis to the freedom of the Church.

Today, we associate this reaction with Cluny Abbey in Bourgogne, which was the center of the new reform movement. From here, the “Cluniac” reforms radiated out to particularly southern France, Lorraine, and northern Italy in the late 10th and early 11th century. The reforms were pushed by an alliance between the Cluniacs and secular supporters – often fervent believers – as it was impossible for the monks to change the power relations of society without enlisting lay power. After AD 1050, the Cluniac reforms were transplanted to Rome, there to metamorphose into what we normally term the “Gregorian” reforms, named after Pope Gregory VII, who in 1075-76 unleashed the conflict of church and state by challenging the German emperor’s right to appoint bishops in his realm.

In the book, we analyze how this crisis paved the way for the multistate system and early notions of sovereignty, what we above termed the external balancing act. But here we will look at how the reforms stimulated the internal balancing act, via innovations that primarily took place in monasteries.

The monastic roots of urban self-government

There is nothing new in arguing that monasteries played a key role in medieval social, political, and economic development. It was in monasteries that classical Latin (and occasional Greek) manuscripts were preserved in the early middle ages and where many technological innovations were first tried out. In a recent contribution, Andersen et al. argue that the Cistercian monastic order spread what they term a form of proto-Protestant work ethic to the regions – normally uncultivated back-of-beyond areas or even wilderness – they sought out.

In our book, we instead look at how monastic orders affected political institutions. We show that the Cluniac order’s fight for ecclesiastical self-government in the 10th and 11th century spilled over into towns ruled by bishops. To enforce the church reforms – forbidding simony and nicolaitism – pious townsmen who were part of the Cluniac alliance had to take power from lord-bishops who had hitherto ruled many towns in the name of kings and emperors and who were often anti-reform. A famous example is Milan in northern Italy, whose archbishops were not only known simoniacs but also allied with German imperial power. Meanwhile, the Cluniac model of ecclesiastical self-government provided a blueprint for urban self-government. As the figure below shows, the result was that the first wave of urban self-government in Europe, before AD 1200, engulfed areas where Cluniac influence ran high and where royal power was feeble.

The first wave of urban self-government in Europe. Towns within 100km of a Cluniac monastery are counted as proximate.

Crucially, this first wave of urban self-government preceded both the medieval commercial revolution and the intensification of warfare, which began in the second part of the 12th century. Established theories, emphasizing bellicist mechanisms and bio-geographical endowments, have a hard time explaining these early developments. Our work on the Cluniacs addresses this gap.

We also show how another monastic order, the Dominican mendicant order, contributed to refining urban self-government after AD 1200. By then, Cluniac influence had ebbed – the aforementioned Cistercians were founded as a reaction against what was perceived as a Cluniac lapse into well-living and ceremony. The Dominicans represented another reaction, this time against the absence of pastoral care in most medieval towns and the way this enabled the spread of heretic ideas such as those associated with the Cathars of southern France.

Within one generation, the Dominicans – taking their name after their founder Dominic and established in 1216 – spread across most of Europe. With them, they carried not only a new mendicant asceticism and concern with providing pastoral care; they also spread the practice of political representation. The reasons for this were twofold. First, Dominic used practices of proctorial representation, developed within the Catholic Church in the two prior generations, to structure his order from top to bottom. Second, townspeople were exposed to these ideas as the administrative skills of Dominican friars – the order valued education highly – were used extensively in town government.

Due to the order’s success in spreading across Europe, it even introduced representative institutions to towns outside the Frankish heartlands of Western Europe, that is, to areas that had not been affected by the Cluniac reform program. As the figure below shows, towns in Scandinavia were thus much more likely to have assemblies after a Dominican monastery was established.

OLS regression with city and century fixed effects. Sample consists of 30 towns located in Sweden and Denmark.

Monastic orders as hotbeds of political innovation

Why, in medieval Europe, was it so often monks who developed and spread new ideas and political precepts? In the book, we provide a scope condition for this, in the form of the aforementioned disequilibrium created by the Carolingian state collapse and the ensuing crisis of church and state. However, there were probably two more specific reasons that the medieval monastic environment was so innovative politically.

First, the antinomies of monastic life created an inherent logic of reaction that enabled radical innovations. As Diarmaid MacCulloch puts it, “[w]ell-functioning monasteries constantly do their best to reform themselves, because monastic life is always prone to lapse into unheroic comfort and modified austerity.” We see this in the cases of the Cluniacs, Cistercians, and Dominicans: all three orders deliberately set themselves against what they perceived as a corrupt clerical establishment and an impious lay society; interestingly the Cistercians rebelled against perceived Cluniac ossification and the Dominicans against the way the Cistercians (and other monastic orders) deliberately isolated themselves from lay society. Second, the lack of violent repression as a tool to control the monastic organizations that were spread across the European continent necessitated new ways of governing that could not simply be copied from lay society.

Monastic orders therefore became the hotbeds of political innovations, despite the fact that they represented a deliberate retreat from the world. This paradox lies at the core of medieval political, social, and economic developments.


  • Jørgen Møller

    Jørgen Møller has a PhD from the European University Institute, Italy and is currently professor at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research interests include conceptualization of democracy and the rule of law, patterns of state formation and regime change, the historical development of state systems, and historical comparative methodology.

  • Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette

    Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette has a PhD from Aarhus University, Denmark and is currently assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research examines, among other things, the spread of urban self-government in medieval Europe, the impact of religious movements on institutional change, and the role of the state in promoting democratization.

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