The Bitter Medicine Of Christendom

The christianisation of the pagan communities of Europe was sometimes achieved by fire and the sword, but just as often came about by voluntary accession in a manner not entirely unlike the expansion of the European Union. Europhiles claim that these countries join because they want to be part of Schumann’s great vision, or at least because they want to get rich. Cynics might suggest that they join because the alternative is to be locked out, with nobody to play with except the Russians. Signing up means being treated as equals, or at least a legal framework that mandates it. In the middle ages there was more at stake, as pagan nations were fair game for conquest by their neighbours, so that accepting the new religion worked as a kind of diplomatic recognition and non-aggression pact. You could even become a papal vassal, which afforded even more protection.

There is, of course, a price to EU membership: acceptance of the acquis communitaire. It was not so very different a calculus for the pagan nations of Scandinavia and East-Central Europe; what they had to accept was baptism, ecclesiastical organisation, canon law and tithing. As you might expect, sometimes rulers were more enthusiastic than their subjects, given that the acquis of Christianity tended to support their positions. Also as you might expect, nations signed up and then backslid as much as they felt like; you submitted to baptism and bishops, waved goodbye to the victorious Christian army, then killed the missionaries and rebuilt your pagan temples. Similarly, as the EU discovered in the Noughties, you have a lot more leverage over countries that want to be admitted than over those who already have been. No EU member has yet been wholly suspended, though they used Austria to practice on; in contrast, Innocent III excommunicated crowned heads at the drop of a hat. Again as you might expect, this tended to be counter-productive in terms of popular sentiment; as it was, everyone was soon speaking of the papal curia the way the British Tories speak of Brussels.

Again, for a medieval pagan king, accepting baptism meant setting up a diocesan structure that would open up whole new avenues of rent-seeking and increase the amount of wealth that could be extracted from his subjects. Much of this newly extracted wealth would be the property of the church, but would remain in the country to be seized when the time was ripe – which was what the Reformation was generally about. Given that the nearest equivalent to multinational corporations was in fact the Church itself, its bishoprics, abbeys and orders, the medieval papacy’s insistence on ecclesiastical independence of the secular power begin to seem quite familiar to us; it is, in fact, the neo-liberalist doctrine that national rulers must not interfere with cross-border extraction.

A third parallel is with the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and other bodies concerned with human rights and the treatment of minorities. The medieval papacy claimed rights of interference in the affairs of Christendom’s member states, often but by no means always involving the aforementioned protection of ecclesiastical independence and consequent private enrichment. This could extend to the protection of valuable human resources, or Jews as they were then known, although in contrast to the modern situation, attitudes to national self-determination were generally negative. The bottom line was, however, that contravention of the economic rules of the game could result in a papal banner for one ruler and the consequent demoralisation of his enemy. All Englishmen know about the Battle of Hastings, but not all of them know that Duke William was waging one of the first papally-sanctioned military interventions, a holy war or crusade before the term was invented. Of course such papal sanction could very easily be gamed or even forged, confer Saddam and the WMDs.

Posted on April 11, 2011 at 10:36 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Economic Universals In Funny French

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