Tag Archives: secular

“Secular power” in early medieval Bavaria

Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…

Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works.  This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune.[1] Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.

The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.

The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.

Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.

His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated.  That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.

Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…

Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)

Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.

Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.

God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.

[1] J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.


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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