Since at least the Enlightenment, it has been popular to regard the medieval period as a kind of ‘dark age’ that isn’t worth studying. After the collapse of Rome in the West in the fifth century AD, so the popular story goes, Western Europe plunged into a period of crushing superstition, in which society was utterly dominated by the Church and ‘secular’ learning was lost. Western Europe was saved only by the Renaissance, when a sudden resurgence of Classical learning slackened the grip of the Church and awakened the West to secular modernity.
Oxford Professor Larry Siedentop’s latest book—Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism—seeks to address this imbalance. Christian morals and the medieval developments of the Church were integral to the development of Western liberalism, natural rights, and—ironically— the modern secular state. Without Christianity, we wouldn’t be benefitting from any of these now.
Siedentop’s account begins with ancient Greece and Rome, where he makes an important point: that the pagans had no concept of the ‘individual.’ Greek and Roman society was composed not of individuals, but of various tribes or familiae governed by a semi-religious heads (the Roman paterfamilias), who were subordinated to the city or state. An assumption of ‘natural inequality’ prevailed; it was accepted that some people were born to rule, others to be ruled. Many people—including women and slaves—could not be citizens, and so were denied rights and regarded as ‘sub-humans.’ There were no governing religious morals, and was no concept of individual liberty.
Enter Saul of Tarsus, aka Saint Paul: a thinker who turned the Roman world upside-down. Siedentop—who takes an unapologetically technical view of Christianity—argues that Paul, inspired by his conception of Jesus, essentially overturned the idea of natural inequality. With his innovative philosophy—‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’—Paul made a controversial argument: that all humans possess a soul, and all are equal before Christ, regardless of birth and gender.
Siedentop describes how early Christian thinkers like Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian developed ideas of moral equality and religious liberty, the development of monasticism in Egypt and its spread throughout the east and west, and the transformation of the ancient hero from the wily, ‘Odysseus-like’ aristocrat to the defiant Christian martyr. He also describes the important fifth-century debate between Augustine and Pelagius over human nature. While Pelagius believed perfection of humans, the law, and the church was possible, Augustine emphasised ‘that human weakness and vices beset all societies,’ and that no single human or institution could achieve perfection. Through his emphasis on the imperfection of the human soul, Augustine ‘became the greatest single influence on Western theology for the next thousand years.’
Siedentop then outlines the developments that occurred in the West after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Western church—usually headed by descendants of powerful Roman families—played a crucial role in converting their new barbarian overlords to Nicene Christianity, and thereafter the ‘Christianisation’ of barbarian law codes. Christianity also saw the disappearance of the religious basis for the paterfamilias, a change in attitudes towards slavery—which was increasingly frowned upon by the church—and the emergence of monasteries as centres of learning.
For some three centuries after 476, Siedentop argues, the church was the only unifying moral institution in Western Europe. The situation temporarily changed with the rise of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty at the end of the eighth century. Their most formidable figurehead, Charlemagne, aimed to establish a Christian power in the west to rival the persisting one in the east. Inspired by earlier thinkers like Pope Gregory the Great, who had claimed a ruler’s primary responsibility was the ‘care of souls,’ Charlemagne frequently requested that oaths of allegiance from his subjects—sometimes including women as well as men—should be taken in the local vernacular. For Siedentop, ‘that emphasis on individual will … represents a momentous moral step.’
At the same time, Siedentop argues that Charlemagne’s efforts to establish a permanent governing class gave rise to feudalism, and after the disintegration of the Carolingian empire in the late ninth century, power was increasingly localised and anarchy abounded. Yet the church proved determined to assert its morals even here: in the late tenth century, the ‘Peace of God’ movement developed across Western Europe, compelling powerful knights and lords to respect the property of the church and the powerless— including paupers, pilgrims, women, children, and various others. A concept of natural rights was lurking beneath the surface.
The true turning point came with the Papal Revolution in the later eleventh century, when Rome—during the Pontificate of Gregory VII—made its ‘declaration of independence’. Though it acknowledged power of kings in secular matters, Rome now considered itself to hold supreme authority over affairs of the church.
The declaration heralded the drafting of copious canonical laws founded on ideas of natural justice and moral equality. These were important in the development of natural rights, and Rome’s ‘declaration’ resulted in the division between church and state. The latter reform made the modern secular state possible.
The final section of Siedentop’s book examines how the later medieval era laid the foundations for the concept of natural rights. The High Middle Ages were characterised by the growing power of the papacy, of which the crusades is an especially powerful expression. This had unintended consequences. Not only was there ongoing conflict between the Popes and secular rulers, but suspicion of the papacy began to trigger urban and rural uprisings, and the foundation of two popular monastic movements: the Dominican and Franciscan. The latter—which spread more rapidly and was the more populist of the two—was especially important for the history of rights; the Franciscan order generally supported individual liberty, and throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was at the forefront of a debate over the nature of rights. Especially notable was the Franciscan Friar William of Ockham, whom Siedentop describes as an especially powerful defender of ‘both natural rights and the limitations of human reason.’
The story ends with the fifteenth-century conciliar movement—a pre-Reformation movement which, inspired by theories of natural rights by Ockham and the canonist writers, aimed to restore a more representative and legitimate government in the papacy. At this point, Siedentop spells out the main conclusions of the book: ‘in its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity … the roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.’
Given how little regard academia currently has for medieval history, Inventing the Individual is a book that certainly needed to be written. Siedentop makes a compelling argument—that liberalism owes much to Christianity—and offers convincing primary and secondary evidence in support.
Nevertheless, some criticisms must be made.
Siedentop takes a pan-European approach, and tends to treat all regions of Western Europe—France, Italy, Germany, Christian Spain, and England—as a whole. Yet modern liberalism, as a distinct political ideology championing legitimacy of government and natural rights, is generally believed to have emerged out of the British Isles between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Siedentop does not attempt to explain why modern political liberalism ultimately emerged in England and then spread to France, and not vice-versa.
While Siedentop certainly makes an excellent point about the absence of the concept of the individual in the pre-Christian world, he does not always give Greece and Rome credit where it is due. His tendency to dismiss them as ‘default’ ancient societies is perhaps unjustified; while the Athenians and Republican Romans lacked a concept of individual liberty, they did dabble with ideas of (primitive) democracy, legitimate government, the rights of citizens, and the rule of law—ideas important to modern liberalism. This book would have been more satisfying if it had taken a more even-handed approach to Greece and Rome in the opening chapters.
The book also tends to disregard the other half of medieval Christendom—the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This is a pity, given that eastern Christendom was also influenced by the doctrine of the equality of souls, and although it also saw some of the most extraordinary expressions of Christian values, it took a very different path to the West. Perhaps because the eastern central government did not collapse in the fifth century, an ideology gradually developed whereby ‘individuals’ were subordinated to the semi-religious figure of the emperor. Unlike the West, therefore, the east never developed a strong division between church and state, ideas of individual liberty, or the rule of law.
Though he does touch on this issue occasionally, Siedentop largely misses the opportunity for an interesting discussion on the growing divide between the ‘autocratic’ Christian east and the more ‘liberal’ Christian West throughout the early medieval period—crucial though it was for the West’s identity.
Nevertheless, this is an important book which addresses many common misconceptions of the role Christianity played in making the modern world. Though sometimes dense, it is an informative read, and might well turn your understanding of medieval world upside-down.