St. Louis and a Most Christian Kingdom

By Andrew Willard Jones

Before Church and State, St. Louis IX, France
Communion des Louis IX de France. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 5716, fol. 62)

Histories of St. Louis’s rule have tended to be dependent on the narrative of the secular State. In the thirteenth century, France gained territorial integrity. This newly expanded kingdom was increasingly governed by the central authority. The king worked to monopolize violence, bringing more and more “feudal” activities under his purview. To this end, Louis outlawed private war and the duel. The king’s power, we are told, was increasingly the ordering principle, maintaining the peace in the face of the so-called “private violence” of the knightly class, which was previously endemic. In order to effectively exercise his power, Louis rationalized his officials into a bureaucracy complete with salaries and offices. The royal officials of this administration operated under laws, or ordinances, decreed from the center. It was under Louis that these laws were brought together and rationalized in the pursuit of justice and peace. Louis, therefore, built Parlement. Parlement was the place where the conflicts of society were worked out through the new science of law, rather than through violence. Parlement was staffed with expert officials, lawyers, the famous “New Men,” who were the prototype of the middle class, a meritocracy of professionals. As Jacques Le Goff wrote, we are witnessing the “march toward absolutism,” which would all come together under Louis’s grandson Philip. The French kings were building the sovereign State, and by the end of the thirteenth century this sovereignty extended to control of the Church.

Relations between St. Louis IX and the papacy have been largely ignored. Joseph Strayer, in an article titled “The Laicization of French and English Society in the Thirteenth Century,” deals almost exclusively with Philip IV, mentioning St. Louis only once, stating that Louis was somehow resistant to the “nationalization” process. The neglect of St. Louis is far exceeded, though, by the general neglect of the papacy during the second half of the thirteenth century. After the death of Frederick II in 1250 and the start of what is often called the “long interregnum” of the Empire, the history of the papacy seems to become relevant again only with the advent of its conflict with the Capetians under Boniface VIII and with the move to Avignon. Since the papacy is understood to have lost its battle with the French monarchy, and since papal power is essentially defined as its ability to dominate the antithetical power of the monarchy, it is simply assumed that the second half of the thirteenth century was a period of papal decline and monarchical ascent, even if not a period of open conflict.

In this emplotment the seemingly cooperative relations between the papacy and the Capetian monarchy in the thirteenth century are necessarily understood in terms of realpolitik: the papacy needed Capetian support against the Hohenstaufen and their heirs and the French Crown found cooperation with the papacy to be sometimes in its interests. As Elizabeth Hallam has written, “In general political dealings the king managed to remain on good terms with a papacy that could not deny his personal piety, but which he only supported when it suited his own ends: good order in the French Church, the upholding of his royal power and the recapture of the Holy Land from the infidel.” However, because Church and State are opposed principles within this narrative, the rise of Capetian power ultimately necessitated a corresponding decline in papal power. James Powell is so convinced of the mutual exclusivity between the power of the papacy and that of Crown that he argues that Louis IX’s enthusiasm for and organization of crusades, actions to which the papacy had been exhorting monarchs since the eleventh century, were evidence of the decline of the papacy, a decline that resulted in a Church that could be characterized as “desperate” by the end of the century.

I do not aspire to diminish the work of the generations of scholars who have, to varying degrees, worked within the meta-narrative described above. Most have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the medieval monarchies and of the Church, and most nuance their own assertions in a manner that would reduce the purchase for aggressive criticism. Nevertheless, I do believe it to be the case that much work in this field has been handicapped by a matrix of categories and concepts that almost compels a certain narrative structure. Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX is an attempt to change the terms and categories through which we conceptualize and discuss the “problem of Church and State” in the Middle Ages and so to free scholarship to go in a new direction.

I argue that thirteenth-century France was built as a “most Christian kingdom,” a term that the papacy frequently used in reference to it. I do not mean that the kingdom of France was a State with a Christian ideology. I mean that it was Christian, fundamentally. There was no State lurking beneath the kingdom’s religious trappings. There was no State at all, but a Christian kingdom. In this kingdom, neither the “secular” nor the “religious” existed. Neither did “sovereignty.” I do not mean that the religious was everywhere and that the secular had not yet emerged from under it. I mean they did not exist at all. Also, I do not mean that the mechanisms and technologies necessary for the realization of sovereign power did not exist. Nor do I mean that the idea of sovereignty was inchoate, that its integrity was awaiting the development of intellectual systems capable of giving it expression. I mean that sovereignty did not exist at all. “Sovereignty,” the “secular,” and the “religious” have existence only in the specific historical circumstances through which we give them their definitions—that is, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If we approach the Middle Ages with these categories, then really we are writing histories of these modern centuries and not of the Middle Ages themselves. The “State” and the “secular,” like all concepts, certainly have histories, genealogies that reach back as far as one might like to go. The people of thirteenth-century France, however, were not trying to figure out how to build a “Sovereign State” and they were not trying to disentangle the “secular” from the “religious.” They had never heard of these things. Their world made sense, and it was a world that did not contain these concepts. This is the world that I am after.


Dr. Andrew Jones holds a PhD in Medieval History from Saint Louis University and is an expert on the Church of the High Middle Ages. The Executive director of the St. Paul Center and Publisher of Emmaus Road Publishing, Dr. Jones is the author of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX.