Secularity in the Middle Ages

It’s often assumed that there was no such thing as the ‘secular’ in the European Middle Ages. How could there be, when the public authorities were firmly and whole-heartedly committed to promoting religious observance,  even burning heretics when required? Wasn’t the secular invented along with rationality and progress by the Enlightenment?

However, we need to be careful not to confuse ‘secular’ with ‘atheist’. In fact, it can be argued that the secular is hard-wired into Christianity, as a religion (more controversially, it’s also been argued that secularity is an intrinsically Christian concept: but that’s a debate for another blog post!).

Early Christian thinkers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, were careful to distinguish things that were religious from things that were polluted (e.g. pagan sacrifice); but they also had a third category, of things that were neither inherently positive nor evil. For instance, Christians ought to obey pagan rulers, provided they were legitimate and did not command the faithful to carry out impious acts. Political authority could be in this sense secular.

This stance of neutrality has often been attributed to the circumstances of the religion’s origins: Christ was crucified by the Romans, but his followers (or most of them, anyway) did not call for the empire’s destruction. After all, had Christ not said that ‘My kingdom is not of his world’ [John 8:36]?

Of course, Christianity eventually took over the empire, and historians like R.A. Markus have talked of the secular being ‘drained out’ of the world as a consequence. Yet my initial findings suggest that we should tread carefully. People kept on reading the Church Fathers, including those who’d written before the Empire became Christian, long after circumstances had changed dramatically. Ideas about the secular might have changed, but we shouldn’t assume the concept itself just went away.

I came across an excellent example of this yesterday. In the late 12th century – many centuries after Augustine – Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, came into conflict with King Henry II of England over, among other things, the extent to which he and his church were subject to royal jurisdiction. One of the king’s claims was that even though Thomas was a cleric, he still had to come before the royal court concerning land that had been given to him: property was ultimately a matter for kings to decide about, not bishops.

But a near-contemporary biographer of Thomas, William FitzStephen, was having none of it:

[The property] was secular: given to God, it was made ecclesiastical. Secularity was absorbed in it by a claim of divine right. Hence the secular court has no right to hold the archbishop liable”*

(translation in Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket).

The Latin word translated as ‘secularity’ here is secularitas. What did William FitzStephen mean by that word, and by talking about the ‘absorption’ of the secular? Was he arguing that church land was holy, and outside even a Christian king’s control? In which case, was he suggesting (even if only rhetorically) that King Henry was a ‘secular’ ruler?

I admit that I’m not yet entirely sure of the answers to these questions. But I do think that ruling out the secular from the Middle Ages would not be a good place to start if we want to find out.

Charles West (@pseudo_isidore)

* For the keen Latinists, here’s the crucial text:
Fuit secularis; data Deo, facta est ecclesiastica. Absorpta est in ea secularitas a titulo divini juris
From Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (Rolls Series), vol. 3, p. 60.

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