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The Shifting View of the Church Between the Time of Louis IX and Machiavelli

Updated on February 28, 2011

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The Shifting View of the Church Between Louis IX and Machiavelli

      Throughout history there have been many conflicting views on how it is exactly that religious beliefs should, if at all, coincide with political ideals and actions. There have been times of the complete entanglement of these institutions, and times of a complete rejection of each other. Perhaps no period exemplifies such a change in so short a time as the period of time between 1144 and 1520. During this time, civil authorities in Europe rapidly shifted from having profound respect for and at times submission to the church, to viewing the church as a subservient political tool which should be used to obtain a desired end at the state or government’s discretion.

     In the year 1144, the king of France Louis IX decided to go on a crusade in service of the Catholic Church’s attempt to retake the holy land from the Muslims who had captured it. This was in no way an original idea, as it was the seventh of such crusades which had been struck up in Europe around that time. It seemed that many powerful people in Europe had an eager desire to fight for God. What is interesting about this crusade is the manner in which it was begun. After being bedridden for some time, the king suddenly regained strength and immediately asked that a cross be brought to him. It was understood that if he were to pick up the cross, it would be a sign that he was planning on taking on the mission of God by making an armed pilgrimage to the holy land. King Louis IX did in fact take up the cross and went out on crusade. Although the church would occasionally call on certain political figures to assist in the fight at certain times, he did so even without being explicitly petitioned to do so at the moment. This is indicative of his own strong religious convictions determining the future of his entire kingdom. His example was immediately followed by many other noblemen of France including the king’s three brothers and Jean de Joinville, who would later write a memoir detailing the king’s personal life and journey on the seventh crusade. Undertaking a crusade was no simple task, as much money was necessary to even reach their destination. To gain enough capital for his voyage, Jean de Joinville mortgaged most of his property. For a wealthy man to risk his life, as well as all that he owns, for the sake of a sort of religious quest in the name of God surely shows a strong devotion to one’s beliefs. He did not however, take all the money he received with him, but rather out of Christian charity first gave much of it away as retribution to anyone who claimed to have suffered grievances at his hand. As the crusade began to take its course, they initially experienced some degree of success. They managed to capture the city of Damietta without suffering any major losses, and proceeded to collect anything of value which they found within it. There was point during the deliberation of the loot which truly showed how closely the church was intertwined with the king’s campaign. That point was when the army was commanded to bring any goods which they found to one of the king’s consuls not through any legal commands, but rather under “pain of excommunication”[1] In this instance, a political and military leader is expecting his own men to follow orders more thoroughly if they are told that their actions bear spiritual consequences. This mindset the importance of the church in government continued with King Louis IX all the way up to his death in 1270, when he made a last letter to his son Prince Philippe. In the letter he detailed the major concerns and duties associated with ruling a kingdom. The very first point he makes, before any mention of worldly power or success, is the importance of personal faith. In it he states; “My dear son, the first thing I would teach you is to set your heart to love God; for without that no one can be saved.”[2] Such an example of the church working vicariously through the personal decisions of the political leaders at the time, and the reaction of the general public accepting these decisions, denotes the underlying respect and loyalty to the church at the time

     In 1348 the bubonic plague swept through Europe and into Florence, Italy. In Florence at the time was a man by the name of Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote extensively on the conditions by which the people of Florence were suffering. In his works, there is a continuing theme of a decline in all previous moral and civil structure. In The Black Death, he explains this by saying “In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city” [3] Everywhere Boccaccio turned, people were dying without regard for age, morals, and status. In death, everyone appeared equal no matter how great or small they had been. There seemed to be nothing which could stop or control the disease. He describes this when relating how “In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing.”[4] He wrote that “Nor were the countless petitions humbly directed to God by the pious, whether by means of formal processions or in all other ways, any less ineffectual.”[5] Even the most religious people, with all the power of their faith, could not so much as slow their fates. In fact, those that held to previous notions of Christian charity were more at risk than others. Charity would entice them to care for the sick and bury the dead, both of which would end in almost certain death. Faith thus became something which was contrary to the natural drive to survival. If one hoped to live, it was necessary that physical survival became the primary focus above all else. The success of those who lived by adhering to this new code only served to promote this view even after the disease had subsided. If religion was utilized, it was merely as an instrument to hopefully come out of the plague unscathed. This led to the view of religion as a means to an end, a view which Boccaccio certainly had in mind when he wrote Nature’s Revenge. In this tale, a young hermit uses his religion simply as a means to his own end. Taking advantage of a young girl’s innocence and ignorance in religious matters, he, in Boccaccio’s words “therefore thought of a possible way to persuade her, with the pretext of serving God, to grant his desires.” [6] Ultimately, he succeeds in warping her concepts of religion and proceeds to have sex with her until she eventually encounters another man who, ignorant of the situation, decides to take her as his wife. Throughout the story, religion is seen by all involved as strictly a way by which one may achieve his or her goals.

     Long after the plague had died out, a certain political theorist named Niccolo Machiavelli began to write his opinions on how a government should be properly run. Around 1513 he penned The Political Uses of Religion, which compared the political structures of the time to ancient Rome for the purpose of recalling how Roman leaders would exploit religion for personal gain. By doing this, he correlates Christianity to the polytheism practiced by Romans, putting them on the same level as equally effective possible sources of manipulation of the general public. He urges princes and all heads of state to keep religion alive so as to have a principle of unity and morality for the purpose of order within the state, and insists that they externally observe whatever those beliefs require of him. He notes that “The rulers of a republic or of a kingdom, therefore, should uphold the basic principles of the religion which they practice in, and, if this be done, it will be easy for them to keep their commonwealth religious, and, in consequence, good and united.” [7] This is a clear example of the ideologies which came from the plague resurfacing to use religion as a means to an end. Yet another one of his suggestions is that occasionally it is necessary to be bold enough to be bad to obtain success. To illustrate his point, in Learning to be bad, he mentions how Giovampagolo Baglioni might have fully suceeded in Perugia by making an example of Pope Julius II when the pope came to personally remove him by simply killing him when he had the chance. This would obviously break every single tie to which kingdoms in Europe had with the church up to that point, and yet he suggests it casually as a means to an end. In True and False Virtue, he again takes a stance against morals and their institutions when he implies that political success is the highest priority. He does this by stating that virtues are disposable when they hinder the desired result of a civil authority. He boldly proclaims that “This is because, taking everything into account, he will find that some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practises them, ruin him, and some the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity.” [8]

     As is evidenced in these three separate ideas, the role of church in the state
evolved substantially over a period of roughly four hundred years. At the time of Louis IX, there was a strong sense of personal faith and morals in the leaders at the time, which in turn affected their decisions and directed their societies towards an end which was in line with the church’s ultimate goals. The kings and other civil authorities generally had a deep respect for the church in both the faith which it upheld and the direction in which the church desired the state to move, even going so far as to risk all of their possessions in pursuit of favor with God. This attitude fell away with the coming of the Black Death however, as any upstanding faithful nobility who would previously have been examples for the public either died or were left as equals with the rest of the plague survivors. Of these that remained, the ones who still truly practiced Christian charity were left with even dimmer chances of living because of the risky nature of their duties. If religion was brought up, it was oftentimes merely used for the tradition of burying the dead or as a last hope for the living. On top of this was the fact that many religious became more and more extreme, to the point of being outcast from both cities and the church. This left, for the most part, only potential leaders who would do whatever necessary to achieve their sole desire; to stay alive at whatever cost. Because of this, the church and religion began to fade into the background as something to be used as a last resort or when useful, as well as the target of occasional ridicule. These ideals held their ground and began to sink deeper into the bits of the generation which survived the onslaught of plague. Many who nominally associated themselves with the church now also began to catch this new plague of self-preservation at any cost, and began to take advantage of their positions in whatever way possible. This only served to push the laity further and further away both spiritually and politically. The relationship between church and state had already changed drastically since the time of Louis IX. Once Machiavelli put his thoughts on religion as a whole down on paper around 1513, it was clear that the relationship was now entirely different. Not only did individuals see the church as something to be used for personal gain when necessary, but now even their princes and kings were being encouraged by their consuls to directly undermine or utilize the church in any way that would result in political gain. Even killing the pope, the head of the entire church, was not out of the question if the time called for it. Where there had once been the personal virtues and sacrifice for the cross, there was now no real vice and no selfishness to great when personal or political achievements could be made.

     In conclusion, within the span of four hundred years, from the time of King Louis IX to the time of Machiavelli, civil authorities in Europe shifted from having profound respect for and at times submission to the church, to viewing the church as a subservient political tool which should be used to obtain a desired end at the state or government’s discretion. While Machiavelli held the belief that fortune and God were virtually the same idea and that “It is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.” [9] Saying you can control God means that you believe things are not entirely up to God. Therefore, it is not necessary to always follow God’s will, but on the contrary to stand against Him if necessary for self-preservation and advancement. This could not contrast more with the view of God and the church in the time of Louis IX, who once advised his son “Set your heart to love God; for without that no one can be saved.” [10]


Boccaccio, Giovanni. "Nature’s Revenge." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 353.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. "The Black Death." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World . New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 343, 346.

Joinville. "Saint Louis and the Seventh Crusade." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 329 .

Joinville. "A Fatal Crusade." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World . New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 338.

Machiavelli, Nicholo. "The Political Uses of Religion." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 370.

Machiavelli, Nicholo. "True and False Virtue." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 381.

Machiavelli, Nicholo. "Fortune Is a Woman." In Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 385.

[1] Joinville, “Saint Louis and the Seventh Crusade”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 329.

[2] Joinville, “A Fatal Crusade”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 338.

[3] Giovanni Boccaccio, “The Black Death”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 346.

[4] “The Black Death”, P. 343.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Giovanni Boccaccio, “Nature’s Revenge”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 353.

[7] Nicholo Machiavelli, “The Political Uses of Religion”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 370.

[8] Nicholo Machiavelli, “True and False Virtue”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 381.

[9] Nicholo Machiavelli, “Fortune Is a Woman”, Penguin Custom Editions: The Western World (New York, 2009), P. 385.

[10] “A Fatal Crusade”, P. 338.


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