Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX
by Andrew Willard Jones.
Emmaus Academic, 2017.
Hardcover, 510 pages, $40.


Before Church and State, from the historian’s perspective, is undoubtedly a seminal work: refreshing in its approach, provocative in its argumentation, and thorough in its research. From the layman’s perspective, it is a brilliant 28-page introductory essay with 422 pages of dull and somewhat repetitive notes. The thesis, however, is so valuable and so profound that even to the layman that brief essay makes the book worth its price. Indeed, the book has achieved something almost unknown to academic presses: popularity. It became (in admittedly particular circles) a minor best seller shortly after its publication.

The book is a work of history by a relatively young professor named Andrew Willard Jones, now affiliated with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology at the Franciscan University of Stuebenville. It is about the world of King Saint Louis IX of France, and its narrative is partially guided by the life of one Gui Foucois—a lawyer, soldier, secretary to King Saint Louis, enquêter; then priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, papal legate, grand penitentiary, and finally pope: Clement IV. As the reader follows the future pope through the middle stages of his career, Jones uses the circumstances of each stage to illuminate the ways in which Christian society at the time must be understood.

The thesis of Jones’s book is simple: everything that we thought we knew about theMiddle Ages is fundamentally mistaken, and the study of the Middle Ages in modern times has frequently, indeed almost always, amounted to the study of modern preconceptions and prejudices about the past. This is not to say that we know nothing at all, or that every technical paper on twelfth-century crop cycles or Carolingian numismatics is worthless. What he means, rather, is that historical scholarship heretofore has failed to penetrate the mind of the Middle Ages; we have not made the effort to discover that world as it was experienced by its occupants. The main obstacle to our understanding of the medieval world, indeed, appears to be our understanding of our own world, and our routine application of modern conceptions to a past in which they do not belong. We have ignored or discarded the concepts proper to our area of study. Instead of looking at the microbe through the microscope, we have effectively been studying the lens.

Many examples of Jones’s thesis are provided, with much detail. Here are a few: “secularism” did not exist; the distinction between “temporal” and “spiritual,” or between “church” and “state,” did not exist; peace in temporal matters was peace in spiritual matters, and vice versa; the “state” itself did not exist, nor did “sovereignty,” nor “law”; “violence” is not a necessary characteristic of society but a disrupter of it, for society is peace; and governance is not determined, as Weber thought, by a “monopoly on force.” Of course, every one of these theses is buttressed by pages and pages of careful argument and explanation, extensively referenced and footnoted.

While Jones protests that his discipline is history, many of his arguments are made clearer when contrasted to the modern misconceptions he aims to dislodge. Take the first: that “secularism” did not exist. We are accustomed today to think in terms of things religious and things secular. Our world is secular, though it contains pockets of what we call “religion.” There are secular people and there are religious people, and there are even people who are “religious” above all else, to whom faith is the most important factor, the most fundamental element of their being. When we think of medieval society, however, we recognize that it is “more” religious—we might even say that it is religious simpliciter.

Against this understanding Jones argues that the notion of “being religious” is a woeful anachronism. One cannot measure how religious a society is whose members cannot conceive of ever having been anything else—the spheres between the sacred and the secular simply had not been created yet, and society had not yet been split apart along those lines. But the distinction goes further: this is not merely a community of Christians, but a community which is itself Christian, to whose every facet and function that label can be applied. To describe these functions in their relation to the whole, Jones uses a term coined in the time of the Albigensian Crusade, the negotium pacis et fidei—the “business of the peace and the faith,” where both are ordered toward a single end.

Here is how the argument proceeds throughout the book. A thesis is proposed, and its contrasts to the received way of thinking are stated. A novel term or phrase, which captures the meaning of the concept Jones intends to convey, is coined. Examples are given and the reader is reminded of the thesis, and of how it is fulfilled in each example. More examples and illustrations follow, interspersed with commentary and further reminders of the initial thesis that the author is attempting to prove. The chapter’s key phrase, generally italicized, is woven throughout the argument like a refrain; sometimes it will occur several times in a single page. This sort of writing, which is not quite narrative nor exactly analytical, is frequently boring, but it produces its intended effect: the reader gradually adopts Jones’sconcepts as his own, and begins to make sense of them in relation to the people they describe. By the third or fourth chapter the reader has begun to think with a medieval mind.

It is well that Jones begins with the concepts that he does (“secular,” “religious”), because by the middle of the book, the argument has advanced to a point where the reader’s recently acquired thirteenth-century brain begins to come in handy. Chapter 7 (“The Lord King Orders That the Plain Truth Be Found”) marks the beginning of Jones’s attempt to present, in his characteristically exhaustive approach, the operating principles of the king’s high court—in short, the preservation of peace, or, just as often, “peaces.” Peace was the stick by which society was judged, and keeping the peace was not seen simply as a business of more violently putting down the already violent, or of the absence of non-state-sponsored violence. The “state” did not have a monopoly on violence at all—those who acted to correct criminals and disturbers of the peace were acting not on behalf of the king, but in defense of that peace. It was not negative in character, not the mere exhaustion of cruelty, but a positive flourishing of the kingdom’s subjects—as Jones puts it, Louis was not seen as the master of the peace, but as its servant. The king served the peace by seeking the king’s justice. A great mound of court documents is adduced and summarized for the reader. The scrupulousness and care with which Louis’s court attended to the peace is everywhere in them evident.

Not every argument in the book requires as much imagination as these. The concept of sovereignty has never stood on completely sure footing, and Jones’s argument that it did not exist in Saint Louis’s France will likely find purchase with some readers thinking of our own times. Jones’s notion of society as networks of friends, made manifest in acts of counsel and aid, consilium et auxilium, might find an echo or premonition in the increasingly decentralized social world of the Internet. “Networks of cooperation, of loyalty, of debt, of favor, and of friendship,” which “cut across any lines we might be tempted to draw,” whose members “deployed what power they controlled” together toward common goals—perhaps there is something of this growing in our own day, where Facebook events can coordinate flash mobs, and “viral” social media can be used to do anything from raising money to help a dispossessed family to connecting people with the lost relatives they didn’t know they had. There is an interesting chapter on the development of canon law in the thirteenth century, and a somewhat less interesting chapter wherein the author attempts to describe this society in Thomistic terminology.

Jones’s accomplishment in this book is undeniable. He has issued a challenge to his profession, asking them to rethink the way they approach their task as historians in a radical way, and he has argued his case as convincingly as one could imagine. His lasting achievement, at least in the estimation of this reviewer, remains to be seen. Whether others will follow along the path he has cut out of the wilderness we do not know. But he has taken the first step.  

William Borman writes from New York.