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23.10.20 Møller/Doucette, The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500

23.10.20 Møller/Doucette, The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500

Møller and Doucette aim to rewrite the social scientific understanding of the precursors to European early modern political and economic development. In revision to a previous generation’s push for bringing the state back in [1], they are “[b]ringing the church back in” (7). Their focus is on how Catholic Church reform movements impacted both internal politics (within polities) and external politics (between polities). They tie ideas-made-practices originating within different locations in the Church to the evolution of a decentralized late medieval political system. The book is a well-researched and well-argued intervention on the importance of the medieval foundations of the modern world.

The core of the book is a new theory of political interactions. In summary, the ruler of any polity faces both an “internal balancing act” (chapters 1-4) and an “external balancing act” (chapters 5-6) with religious actors and ideas playing a key role in both during the High Middle Ages. In their telling, the Cluniac and Gregorian reforms of the tenth and eleventh centuries found support in lay townspeople, who organized against anti-reformist bishops and clergy and demanded political power to control what was permitted or not in urban churches (chapter 3). Anti-reformers were allied with the secular rulers who installed them. These rulers thus faced internal pressures to balance these factions. On top of this, lay and secular reformers had new tools for arguing about proper governance, in the florescence of canon and Roman law. Møller and Doucette describe how ideas of representation and consent in governance emerged from legal creativity. They theorize and analyze the Dominican monastic order as agents of the diffusion of these twin concepts (chapter 4) as the Dominicans had adopted both in their organizational structure and were well embedded among the elite in urban communities. The result of these pressures towards localizing and routinizing governance was a more cellular European authority structure, Møller and Doucette say.

Concurrently, medieval rulers were locked in geopolitical struggles over territory and the inheritance of rulership. Here, again, the authors describe how the Church was central, via the ways popes played rulers against each other (chapter 5). Popes curtailed the imperial ambitions of successive German Hohenstaufen kings (chapter 6), such as how Pope Gregory IV encouraged hereditary rulership in polities on the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire but insisted on election of the German king. Ultimately, they argue that the geopolitical actions of the papacy forced decentralization on the German empire from the Interregnum (a period without a recognized king); this had consequences felt across the continent for other rulers, who faced new and increasing internal pressures in conjunction with the increased geopolitical competition.

Møller and Doucette challenge existing explanations for the advent of representative government and caution researchers against taking fifteenth-century European political conditions, on the eve of modern states, as representative of prior centuries. They accomplish this through careful historical reading to develop their ideas and then equally careful data collection and analysis. The list of data they apply is thorough: the founding of bishoprics; the founding of Cluniac monasteries and Dominican and Franciscan houses; the advent of representative institutions by city; polity size; plus data on economic development, population size, conflicts, geography, and more (see chapter 2 for full description). The quantitative analyses cover cities across Western Europe, with additional quantitative analysis of the Crown of Aragon and the frequencies of its regional representative assemblies. On top of these, they expand the typical geographic scope of prior datasets to include Scandinavian cities, demonstrating that trends in that region did not diverge from the more commonly studied European core.

The book is written for social scientists, but written in such a way as to be accessible to historians. Møller has long been an advocate of more engagement with historical research and more historical thinking by social scientists. [2] The prose is clear and straightforward, making the book accessible to a broad audience, even outside of academic circles. In particular, the authors do a masterful job of explaining complicated statistical procedures in plain language, emphasizing the comparative logic, benefits, and assumptions of their strategies. Historians may especially appreciate chapter 6, “Corollaries of the Hohenstaufen Collapse,” for its centering of historical research rather than social scientific theory, although this chapter does leave the application of critical juncture analysis unexplained. The authors often use tense historical narrative to motivate their chapters, and indeed begin the book in this fashion.

Overall, Møller and Doucette present a very clear and singular story. The alternatives are drawn from social scientific studies theorizing the advent of democracy and the early modern state system. It is a solid strategy for communicating to social scientists about the value of deeper attention to medieval history, and in particular the role of the Catholic Church. Narrative clarity makes the book forceful. And the authors rightly anticipate that their primary audience will be concerned with analytical choices and whether the statistical results are trustworthy.

However, this is at expense to the richness of medieval Church history, which may frustrate some medievalist readers. For example, the influence of Cluniac and Gregorian reforms on secular politics are explained and valorized, in order to convince readers about the importance of the Catholic Church. They are not placed into history in a way that would be generative of more hypothesizing about Church reforms. One useful reconsideration would be about the counter-influence of the Gorze Reform to the Cluniac Reform, as the Gorze Reform spread within the German territories contemporaneously with spread of Cluny in France, northern Italy, and northern Spain. While the Cluniac Reform propagated hierarchical relationships among monastic communities, the Gorze Reform propagated a decentralized associationism of independent equals, a model that would seem to match well the German town movement for self-governance and the persistent associative politics in the region. [3]

On the whole, Møller and Doucette make a convincing case. Their book should be read in parallel with Grzymała-Busse’s volume [4] which appeared at the same time and treads similar ground. Together, they mark a new era for historical social science by attesting to the importance of the medieval world for later developments and by taking seriously religious motivations and the impacts of religious actors.



1. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

2. For example, see Jørgen Møller, “The Problem of History.” PS: Political Science & Politics 55.3 (2022): 525-529.

3. Duncan Hardy, Associative Political Culture in the Holy Roman Empire: Upper Germany, 1346-1521 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

4. Anna Grzymała-Busse, Sacred Foundations: The Religions and Medieval Roots of the European State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022).