A Review of The Church at the Turning Points of History, by Godfrey Kurth.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IHS Press (September 1, 2007)
  • ISBN-10: 1932528091
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932528091

History is the laboratory of wisdom, says my mentor. But for all the truth of that statement, historians are not men untainted by their share of folly. How many history books, for instance, kowtow to Enlightenment prejudices and insist on portraying the Middle Ages as an unfortunate thousand years of illiterate bigotry sandwiched between the two great civilizations of classical antiquity and the Renaissance? How many posit that the Church during those years was the epitome of reactionary backwardness, superstition, and anti-scientific censorship? How many show the Church as a traditional enemy of popular liberty and an upholder of ruthless monarchs whose power was limited only by a more ruthless hierarchy? How many, in fine, make the Church to be the enemy of human progress in every age, an institution incapable of dealing with the ebbs and flows of history without violent resistance?

Legion are the volumes that so indict the Church, and few are the historians willing to expose these popular myths. Godfrey Kurth, author of The Church at the Turning Points of History, is one of these few. In a day when the mocking bluster of a Voltaire is still fashionable bigotry in academia, it is heartening to read Kurth taking up his task with verve, concentration, and an engaging narrative style — all the while respecting the rigid laws of that humblest of sciences which must submit itself to what the primary sources tell us.

The author, in his day a leading Belgian Catholic historian, a Knight of the Order of Pius IX, and the director of the Belgian Historical Institute in Rome, wrote in French. His translator was Father Victor Day, a priest of the Helena, Montana, Diocese, who is also known for his Englished version of Bossuet’s The Continuity of Religion.

Those unable to read Kurth’s French will be delighted to know that they can imbibe fortifying droughts of the Belgian’s fine cerebral distillations in the old Catholic Encyclopedia,[1] where his articles were attributed — apparently using the preferred Belgian form of the name — to “Godefroid Kurth.”[2] Other works of Kurth’s in English are his Saint Boniface and The Workingmen’s Guilds of the Middle Ages. The latter work was translated by Father Denis Fahey.

As the book’s name suggests, The Church at the Turning Points of History studies the Barque of Peter at critical junctures of history, those pivotal times when one age gives way to another. The “turning points” are given in Kurth’s chapter headings:

  • The Mission of the Church
  • The Church and the Jews
  • The Church and the Barbarians
  • The Church and Feudalism
  • The Church and Neo-Caesarism
  • The Church and the Renaissance
  • The Church and the Revolution

One chapter of the book of especial interest to me is “The Church and Neo-Caesarism,” treating as it does the story of one of my favorite popes, Pope Boniface VIII. The importance of Boniface’s papacy as a turning point will be made clear when we see that this Vicar of Christ had the sad distinction of fighting and losing the battle against the modern superstate.

In the commonly received history of the battle between France’s King Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII — the one that has Boniface being the villain — it is asserted that the Pope was pompously meddling in the affairs of state, intruding on Philip’s lawful right to rule France. In tyrannizing the fair prince so, the pontiff unsheathed the sword of the spirit readily, and issued an excommunication to cow the monarch into submission. This assessment, so untrue and unjust, is one of those deeply entrenched epics of historical mendacity which, like the Black Legend of Spain, pollutes libraries full of history texts. As a friend of mine said, in simpler prose, “it’s not just a lie, it’s a damn lie.”

What gives us just cause to be indignant at the usual treatment of Pope Boniface is the enormity of the historical phenomenon the lie conceals. At a time when the “Ron Paul Revolution” has aroused among the less somnolent of political conservatives an awareness that statism is a serious problem in our day, it is worth considering whence comes this gigantic, accountable-to-none megastate. It is not a product of Christian polity, but a rebellion against that order and a manifestation of pagan “Neo-Caesarism.”

The old order — the one respected and preserved by the unworthy Philip’s royal Grandpère, Saint Louis IX — was Christendom, a Republic of sovereign Christian nations all of which looked to the pope as a leader with direct spiritual power over all the baptized and an indirect civil power in the affairs of state. This set him above nations, bound to none, independent, and therefore disinterested enough to help settle the grievances which would inevitably arise among them. And this the popes did as a matter of routine. Not only that, but within their realms, Christian monarchs were bound by certain limits. True, they were not democratically elected, but their power was delimited by a constitution that did not have to go into writing — a tradition kept alive by Christian consciences. As Kurth puts it:

“To the men of this epoch, the king was without doubt the head of society, and religion invested him with a sacred and inviolable character. But his authority was far from being unlimited; everywhere — in the stronghold of the nobleman, in the walled enclosure of the communes, under the vaults of the churches and monasteries, on the lofty throne of St. Peter — it met free forces which acted as a counterpoise and did not permit the king to exceed the limits established by religion and by custom. The king of the Middle Ages was what would today be termed a constitutional king, not that there always existed written documents which formally limited his power, but because the privileges of the various classes of society were, in effect, a limit which he might not overstep, if he did not wish to hear the voice of public anger grumbling about his throne.”

But there was a rebellion brewing against this order. The crowned heads of Europe had new ideas put into them by the growing class of lay scholars at the medieval universities. As the study of classical Greek and Roman culture became a steady infatuation for many, a roseate image of pagan antiquity dominated the thought of the age. (This trend would develop fully only in the Renaissance, which, Kurth argues elsewhere, is more a continuity of the intellectual trends of the Middle Ages than a departure from them.) Long before the Renassainse, among the scholars of law, the so-called “jurists,” there arose one idée fixe that would rule them all, and that would sow the seeds for both tyranny and revolution. The claim was that the current law, derived from Germanic legal codes, was inadequate; what was needed was the stability, the order, the great and noble lex that our Roman forebears had.

As an example of the fetishism of the jurists, Kurth relates that in Florence, a copy of Emperor Justinian’s legal accomplishment, the Corpus juris civilis, was literally enshrined for public veneration as a relic, candles and all. Especially in Bologna, the professors of law were shaping legal theory and praxis along ancient Roman lines. Arguably, they had a point. After all, the laws of the barbarians were mostly penal, “reactive,” and not the well-considered, all-embracing codes for a high civilization that was the pride of the Romans. For all its merits, there was one serious problem in all this theory: to the Romans, Casear was not only a monarch, but a god. Laws which presume the divinity of the monarch are not exactly compatible with a Christian society, and while the sheer paganism implicit in these laws can be set aside, the absolutism that impregnated the entire system could not be.

Kurth shows the danger of this:

“Here began the deplorable and tragical error. While from a scientific point of view, the Roman law was incontestably superior to the laws of the Middle Ages; while, with regard to civil relations, it displayed a perfection which the barbarian codes could not approach; on the other hand, from a political point of view, it enshrined a system from which, it seems, the minds of the free men of the Middle Ages should have turned away with horror. The most unbridled absolutism was proclaimed as a doctrine with unprecedented boldness and logic. According to the Roman law, the sovereign, that is, the emperor, was a veritable god. Not that the Roman sceptics and the unbelievers of the Empire imagined that he really possessed a divine nature — they knew the contrary but too well — but they conceded that he possessed over his subjects the same power that God Himself has over His creatures. The will of the emperor took the place of justice and law. And though that will was ordinarily but a cruel and depraved caprice, as in the case of such tyrants as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, Heliogabulus, etc., the people bowed before it without resistance and without murmur, and from the depths of their agony greeted the master with the salutation of the dying gladiator.”

Early efforts at reincarnating the ancient Caesars in Christian garb were put down in hard fought battles. The House of Hohenstaufen had a nasty habit of attempting the New Caesarism, but without complete success, as we see from Frederick Barbarossa’s confrontation with Pope Adrian IV at Sutri. After a long stare-down, the Red-Bearded divinity ended up acting as the pope’s equerry, taking the bridle of the papal horse and presenting the stirrup to the pontifical foot of Nicholas Breakspear, the poor English beggar boy who became pope.

But that was the mid-twelfth century. By the fourteenth, things had changed enough, in France at least, that a monarch could defy a pope and get away with it. And Philip, whose looks, not manners, were “fair,” was just brash enough to do it.

Pope Boniface had serious concerns. At home, he wished there to be peace between Christian monarchs. This would allow Europe to return to an unfinished business abroad. It was in Boniface’s reign that St. John of Acre, the last Crusader fortress, fell. With it fell the century-old Latin Kingdom, undoing all progress of the Crusades. Boniface would have the Crusades resumed, but that was impossible as long as England and France were bickering. Bartering a peace, arbitrating as only the pope could arbitrate between sovereigns, this was what the maligned pope set out to do. The minute details of Philip’s resistance I will leave the reader to discover in Kurth’s book. The short version is that Philip simply rejected the authority of the pope in these matters. This was a novelty that the jurists had put into the mind of the fractious monarch.

To Kurth, the rejection of Pope Boniface’s authority had far-reaching ramifications:

“However disastrous from this point of view were the declarations of the King of France for the future of European civilization, they were still more baneful because of the principle which inspired them. For the first time since the beginning of Christianity, they proclaimed the separation of politics and morality. The contrary had been recognized up to that time, and the kings themselves had admitted that their governments should conform to the moral law of Christianity. Philip the Fair denied this implicitly, since he was not willing that the will of the sovereign should be bound in the name of the law. This was tantamount to declaring that the royal power knew no limit, and, as a matter of fact, it no longer would have any other limits than those of its own choosing. It is the pagan theory in all its nakedness: the prince is above the law; his will is the law. As the king wills, so wills the law. And during five centuries it continued to be the axiom that inspired all governments.”

Note well what follows, for here Kurth demythologizes the febrile blather we are often handed as history:

“It is well to note the origin of royal absolutism in Europe. We are at the antipodes of the Christian theory of power. The principles formulated by Philip the Fair were those which the Popes opposed and defeated in their twofold struggle against the Hohenstaufen; they were those which henceforth would be invoked whenever there was question of humiliating and belittling the Holy See, or whenever, despite the resistance of the Holy See, there was question of encroaching in one point or another upon the patrimony of Christian public right bequeathed the nations by former ages. And it is worthy of remark that a great number of historians, followed by a a veritable mob of second-rate minds, persuade themselves with a naïveté almost ludicrous, that these theories of royal absolutism are Catholic theories.”

Philip did not limit himself to humiliating Boniface in the matter of England. He also chose to violate the Church’s immunity from taxation in his realms: “Philip was always in need of money, and his jurists had taught him that the possessions of his subjects belonged to him. Accordingly, he took whatever he could lay hands on. He took the possessions of the Knights Templars, he took the possessions of the Jews, he took the possessions of all the taxpayers by coining false money — it was natural that he should also wish to take the possessions of the Church.” (Contemporary Americans will note that Philip was ahead of his time in at least two ways. Thanks to his revolutionary lawyers, the government theft we know as “eminent domain” was widely practiced in fourteenth-century France. It appears there was also an early prototype for the Fed!)

After a number of further insolent maneuvers, including imprisoning the bishop who was Boniface’s legate and forging a papal bull to force out of the Estates General a bill of indemnity for his own criminal obstinacy, Philip received the Pope’s reply in the form of Unam Sanctam, which Kurth calls “a solemn and moderate exposition of the pure Catholic doctrine on the relations between the two powers, in accordance with the tradition of the Church.” At the same time, Boniface prepared Philip’s excommunication.

Philip replied by dispatching the jurist William of Nogaret to hatch a plot against the Pope. The end of this was the famous “outrage at Agnani.” Kurth’s description commands our attention:

“Boniface was without defense. He donned his pontifical insignia, and, holding in his hand the keys of St. Peter, awaited his enemies. Neither this grandeur of soul, nor the majesty of the Vicar of Jesus Christ, nor the white hair of a man of eighty-six years, moved the criminals. The Pope remained in their power for three days; the third day the inhabitants of Anagni rose in opposition and drove them out. Boniface did not wish that they should be pursued, but so many emotions had broken his strength and a few days afterwards he expired.”

Dante, a contemporary, and no fan of Pope Boniface’s, wrote of the episode in his Purgatorio, “I see the fleurs de lis enter Anagni, I see the Christ imprisoned in His Vicar, I see Him again given over to derision, I see Him again drenched with vinegar and gall, and crucified between new thieves.”

What is the upshot of Philip’s audacity? The birth of the modern superstate. No longer accountable to the Pope, no longer part of a larger Christian Republic, autonomous in its head who had inflexible rule guaranteed by iron-clad laws, the new Leviathian could do what it wanted.

In making the monarch supreme and accountable to nobody, Neo-Caesarism began a chain reaction which neither Philip nor his jurists could have predicted. Kurth: “From a national point of view the absolutism of kings has broken the equilibrium of the social body, concentrated all the life in the head, atrophied free institutions and made revolution the only possible corrective of tyranny. Nor is that all. The Christian nations wrenched from the guidance of the Church have not found their way; they seem condemned to travel the whole cycle of error before finding their way again. Ever and anon they turn to new systems which become bankrupt one after another. Philosophism, liberalism, socialism, anarchism, to say nothing of the intermediate doctrines, are the legitimate heirs of royal absolutism; like it, they will betray their promises. The unrest will last as long as the destiny of the Christian nations remains in the hands of a political system which does not worry about Christian principles. The Catholic Church, seated at the foot of the Cross, waits calmly for the day when revolution shall have finished the education of mankind.”

To the victor goes the spoils, and one of the spoils is writing history. Philip and his jurists did more to Boniface than strike his body at Agnani; they struck his reputation. To this day, Boniface’s history is most often told through the unsympathetic lens of the very men responsible for the outrage at Anagni. Kurth writes of the forgeries and lies concocted in an effort to ensure that Boniface would be remembered as a villain, and that is just what has happened.

But thanks to many historians, including Godfrey Kurth, the memory of Boniface has undergone a rehabilitation.

[1] The articles penned by Kurth in the Catholic Encyclopedia are: Belgium; Burgundy; Charles Martel; Clotilda, Saint; Clovis; Egmont, Count of Lamoral; Frankenburg, Johann Hoinrich, Graf von; Franks; Fredegarius; Granvelle, Antoine Perrenot de; Netherlands; Philip II (Spain).[2] The name is of Old German origin and means “God’s peace.” Jeffrey is the more common English form. Godfrey has about 24 variations, including Gaufrid, Geoffrey, Geoffroy, Geofroi, Gioffredo, Godefrid, Godefridus, Goffredo, Goffrey, Gofrido, Gotfrid, and Gottfried. Saint Godfrey of Amiens was a French saint who died in the early twelfth century.