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Church and State in the Middle Ages

Updated on December 17, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Separate But Connected

St. Augustine, an early church leader, saw the church and the state as separate entities though they influenced each other greatly.One did not control the other, but they had power within each other.

The heavenly city was one that was not driven by the desires of man. The ones that lived in the earthly city, “living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both….” (1) The church, heavenly city, could not be successfully intermingled with that of the state, earthly city. The church was full of “godliness, which offers due worship to the true God.” (2) Augustine saw the entities as separate and not one body.

But like all relations, they had their tough times. In fact, they came to near war multiple times.


The Investiture Controversy

The investiture controversy was one example that exemplified the conflict between church and state. At one point, rulers appointed church officials. Kings put the officials into office and gave them all their symbols of power and authority. (3)

The Gregorian reforms included the investiture controversy. These reforms were created by the Catholic Church to strengthen the Church power and clear up confusion and controversies that had arisen since the birth of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Hildebrand sated in the Dictatus Papae that “the pope alone could depose bishops, reinstate them, or transfer them from one see to another.” (4) The state was not to have a say in such matters though the had for many years.

The Gregorian reform of the investiture controversy embodied Augustine’s thoughts and beliefs about church and state though other aspects, such as the fact that “the pope had to power to depose emperors,” contradicted that stance as it shifted the state from ruling the church to the church ruling the state. (5) The Church was determined to free itself entirely from the state but wanted a little power of its own over that very same state.

Mirror Actions

Another episode mirroring much of the German investiture controversy occurred in England after William the Bastard conquered the island. Pope Gregory VII supported William’s invasion but quickly found that William was not one to let the papacy rule the island. William was the leader and let the pope know by “forbidding any of his clergy to go to Rome, to receive papal legates, or to appeal to the papal curia without his permission.”

The state was controlling the church in England completely. This led to William’s successors to tax the church and persecution or support the church depending on how they felt about the religious influence. (6)

Augustine’s views of the ‘godliness’ of the state was supported by these actions. He saw the church as guiding the state instead of the state controlling the church. Gregory tried to swing the situation to favor Augustine’s views which he found impossible.


The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was another episode of the Middle Ages that involved church-state relations. This famous and foundational document “contained a long list of baronial rights and privileges that the king promised not to infringe,” “placed severe limitations on the exercise of the financial powers” of the monarchy, and did not allow the king to “proceed against anyone without following the due processes of the common law.” (7)

This did not sit well with the papacy as it took power from the monarchy and gave it to the people, or more realistically the lords, which meant that the papacy lost the chance to influence, or control, England. The drafters were called into account the pope with the urging of the English king. This led to an uprising of the lords. (8) In essence, this went against Augustine’s ideals as it removed the spiritual influence, the heavenly city’s, further from the state. He saw a need for the separation, but saw a greater need for a spiritual influence on the state.

Church to Rule State

Augustine saw that the church and the state could not be completely one unit. Yet, the church which was purer should be influential on the state. Through these episodes, it is seen how the Middle Ages was a time where both sides tugged over this issue yet never quite landed on Augustine’s perfect bull’s eye.


(1) Augustine, “The City of God: Book XIV, Chapter 28, Of the Nature of the Two Cities, The Earthly and the Heavenly,” Medieval Sourcebook,, accessed March 2, 2011.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 243.

(4) Ibid, 258.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid, 285.

(7) Ibid, 452-453.

(8) Ibid, 455.


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