The real role of the Church in the emergence of modern European states

The real role of the Church in the emergence of modern European states Prof. Anna M. Grzymała-Busse
The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State, by Anna M. Grzymała-Busse
(Princeton University Press, €98.00/ £84.00; also in paperback)

They read the roots of the European state in a positive way, and as an endorsement, so to speak, of Augustinian City of God. But that is not quite what the author had in mind. She does not refer to the spiritual dimension of the state, but to the actual mechanics of administration.

She lectures on history and international studies at Stanford and was the author in 2015 of an earlier book, Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy (Princeton, £18.00 PB).

In that book she argued “that Churches gain the greatest political advantage when they appear to be above politics. Because institutional access is covert, they retain their moral authority and their reputation as defenders of the national interest and the common good”.

Interestingly, she shows that “Churches allied to political parties, such as in the United States, have less influence than their notoriety suggests”.

This new book explores the long historical background to the role of religion in the governance of Europe. To put it even more simply, she sees the Church as the only pan-European power that existed at the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the creator of what many deeply conservative people today find dismaying, such measures as the rise of ever-increasing taxes.

The problem arises from the fact that very few people outside universities read accounts of basic research. They prefer their research to come in the recycled form of such books as How the Irish Saved Civilisation or the swiftly moving uncomplicated accounts of Tom Holland that sell so well.

They, after all, are hardly original, but pleasantly related summaries of what has long been known, but it is now not always taught at school. Once every school child knew the significance of Caesar crossing the Rubicon and what it meant: the first strike of a tyrant. But not today. It has to be explained more simply.

Prof. Grzymała-Busse indeed begins where most modern historians begin, with the archives of small towns and units of administration across the continent. What exactly was happening, and not what people later thought had been happening. This is the conflict around which all historical disputes revolve. But what the general public wants today are not the discussions that are a joy to the historian, but the straightforward facts that seem to tell them a story that encourages them in their own point of view.

This is a book which deserves to be widely read, as it explains a great deal about the nature of the Church; it was not just a religious and spiritual organisation. It was a powerful administrative engine, that did the things that governments all do today, and which many of those they rule deeply repent.

Those who read this book and take it slowly, will learn a very great deal. It may well not make them happy, as it deals very much with the City of Man rather than the City of God, but they will learn a great deal about how Europe came to be the way it is today, the European Union and all.