Medieval Religion and Political Engagement, Part 2: Biblical Precedents

[This post is part of an ongoing series, inspired by the upcoming presidential election in the United States, seeking to answer the question: What does the medieval period have to tell us about Christianity and political engagement? For an introduction to the series, and some general examples, see Part 1; for the next post in the series, see Part 3, on monasticism.]

Contexts for the issues I posed in the first part of this series do not originate in the medieval period, but stretch back in time, to the authorities that medieval people themselves consulted: the Bible and early Christian writers. And yet medieval Christians looking back to the Bible as the ultimate authority found questions about religious political engagement in scripture, with varying answers and no clear resolution.[1]

Hats off to the Papa: Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I, by Antoine Vérard (fl. 1485–1512).

Medieval people found various justifications for war and colonization in the name of God throughout the Old Testament. This begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be the chosen people, and continues through the narratives of the Pentateuch and beyond, as the Israelites invaded and conquered the Promised Land. Such a model allowed for various medieval powers to justify notions of colonialism and empire, just as it still fuels some thinking in modern politics. Here we might consider the eighth-century monk Bede’s (672/3-735) view of the English people as an extension of the Israelites as God’s “chosen people”;[2] or Charlemagne’s (r.768-814) view of a pan-geographic kingdom that led to the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire as a type of Christian extension of the earlier Roman Empire.

Regarding earthly kingship, it is salient to revisit 1 Samuel, in which God negotiates with the Israelites (through the prophet Samuel) about establishing a monarchy. At first, when the Israelite people request a king because they want to be like neighboring peoples, God and Samuel are skeptical. In the end, however, a human monarchy wins out over theodicy. This scheme was only compounded with further complexity for early Judaism and Christianity when they were colonized by imperial powers like the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. Thus, rebellion against imperialism also takes center stage in early Jewish stories like the books of Judith and 1-2 Maccabees. In many of these texts, the notion of a Christ or Messiah is propped up to push back against imperial powers in a type of liberation theology where God’s people are ultimately the victors. These same ideas also permeated the New Testament, since the earliest Christian authors were very familiar with this view of salvation history. In this way, New Testament authors appropriated political terms like evangelion (gospel) for religious proclamations, setting up Jesus as the divinely sent Messiah who would topple all earthly rulers and kingdoms.

Models of kingship and empire would need further negotiation after the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, as new monarchical powers emerged across Europe, giving rise to the early foundations of our modern nation-state governments. Rulers like Charlemagne and Henry II (to name just two famous examples) saw their kingships as God-given rights, handed down from the same divine anointing that they found in the Israelite monarchy. Charlemagne was so fond of the biblical books of Kings (including 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles) that he refers to them as his own model for kingship in his collection of legislation known as the Admonitio generalis. In a famous passage from the prologue to this document, we find:

Nam legimus in regnorum libris, quomodo sanctus Iosias regnum sibi a Deo datum circumeundo, corrigendo, ammonendo ad cultum veri Dei studuit revocare: non ut me eius sanctitate aequiparabilem faciam, sed quod nobis sunt ubique sanctorum semper exempla sequenda….

(For we read in the Books of Kings how the saintly Josiah, by visitation, correction and admonition, strove to recall the kingdom which God had given him to the worship of the true God. I say this not to compare myself with his holiness but because it is our duty, at all times and in all places, to follow the examples of the saints….)[3]

And while Charlemagne (the presumed author) waves aside comparison with himself, he also subtly implies that this is precisely the parallel that should be drawn: he stands in a line of divinely chosen kings going back to the Old Testament.

When considering how medieval people might have viewed their responsibilities to the powers that be, we might recall Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17, “Reddite igitur quae sunt Caesaris Caesari et quae sunt Dei Deo” (“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”; cf. Matthew 22:21). Whatever this might have meant in the first century, for medieval Christians, the commandment is made more convoluted by complicated loyalties: for example, splitting belongings between tithes to churches, alms to the poor, donations to monasteries, taxes to governments, feudal payments to lords, and gifts to patrons. Of course, peasants, clerics, lords, and kings alike were all concerned with what freedoms and rights they could enjoy, and there was much discussion of these issues in the growing legal traditions of the Middle Ages. Surely medieval people felt just as offended when taxes went up as we do.

The Magna Carta, British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106.

One key example is the English Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215, which addressed a host of issues, part of which were freedoms, taxes, and feudal payments to the English Crown. This same document, in fact, begins by establishing the separation of church and state: “In primis concessisse Deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, et habeat jura sua integra, et libertates suas illesas; et ita volumus observari” (“In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed”).[4] Since this document in some ways influenced modern legal traditions, it should cause some pause to consider the implications of these separations for religious and non-religious alike.

Chosen people, imperialism, divine rights of kings, rebellion, and separation of church and state—all of these rested in biblical precedents. They certainly resist any clear or monolithic system for negotiating views of politics from a Christian perspective. Instead, biblical contexts and various interpretations only add to the bigger picture that makes sense of some of the competing tensions presented in part 1 of this series. And, in many ways, the multiplicity of such views make for a much more interesting sense of the medieval period than simplicity.

[1] References are to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the dominant text in medieval Western Europe, as in Biblia sacra iuxta Vulgatam versionem, ed. Robert Weber, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005); translations are from The Holy Bible: Douay Version Translated from the Latin Vulgate (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1956). A parallel presentation of the Vulgate and Douay Rheims translation is available online at

[2] In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.

[3] Capitularia Regum Francorum, ed. Alfred Boretius, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, 2 vols. (Hanover: Hahn, 1883), 1:52-62 (no. 22), at 54; translation from Charlemagne: Translated Sources, trans. P. D. King (Kendal: P. D. King, 1987), 209-20, at 209.

[4] The Latin text and English translation of the 1215 Magna Carta is available online at Orbis Latinus,


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