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Medieval Europe’s International Order: Analytical Essay

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increasing interest in relations between Western society and Islam in discussions on international politics and religion.

The terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City is certainly one of the most important events of the 2000s, but not the only one. With the rise of Globalization that some consider a Westernization of society, many have begun to question the current model of the international system, especially those countries that do not come from a Jewish-Christian historical background.

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This essay will trace the roots of this complex relationship by analyzing the historical events of past centuries. The main issues addressed in this paper are the Medieval Christian conception of international order, in particular, the role played by the Catholic Church on the one hand, and Islam on the other in its development.

In medieval Europe, there was the so-called Res Publica Christiana, a term coined by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II to indicate the worldwide community of Christianity united by the Empire as political institution, Roman law as common law (jus commune), Latin as the language of supranational culture and communication and Roman Catholicism as religion. The Great Schism of 1054 had divided Christianity between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church led by the Patriarch of Constantinople, then the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire as well.

Yet, Kings, Princes, Marquises, Dukes, Counts, and Barons of Western Europe all lived together in this international system alongside the Pope and the Empire competing for the leadership of Christian society. A mixture of supranational, transnational, national, and subnational structures, represented by the Church and the Empire, the various kingdoms, and local lords, therefore formed the European feudal society.

Nevertheless, even Emperors were not exempted from papal jurisdiction since the Pope, who represented God on Earth, acted as the judge of all Christians, and the canon law operated throughout the entire Western Christian world. For instance, several Popes intervened in international conflicts between Christian kings in the 13th century to prevent wars and to keep the peace. Moreover, those who did not obey the Pope could be excommunicated and even deposed from the throne, as happened in the famous episode known as the Walk to Canossa, when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, was humiliated at Canossa in 1077 by Pope Gregory VII.

There was however a difference between internal affairs and external affairs to the Christian world. Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas of Assisi, two theologians who lived in the early and late Middle Ages respectively, theorized a distinction between the concepts of 'just war' among Christians and 'holy war' against the infidels.

The Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II in 1139 banned the use of crossbows against Christians because of their firepower. Not being able to influence Muslim armies and heretics, he allowed it against them. This resembles an ante-litteram form of The United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons.

Let us now consider the relations of medieval Europe with non-Christians from an international point of view and the influence that Islam had on the development of Western society.

The expansion of Islam, which contended with Christianity the claim of universal religion, represented a serious concern for the Christian West indeed. Born in Arabia in the 7th century, in a few decades it began to spread in North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Southern Italy, and Spain. While the Middle Ages represented a dark period for European history, for Islam it was the golden age and the period of maximum expansion and development, both technological and cultural.

In Islam, unlike the Catholic Church, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was absent. Imams, Quran experts, guided Islamic communities in prayers, but there was no centralized religious structure since it was quite horizontal.

The Islamic world itself was divided between Shiite and Sunni Islam, and into several Caliphates led by the Caliphs, who were both political and religious leaders of their country.

Since they were all religious leaders of Islam, there was no separation of state and religion. Medieval Europe was far from secularism as well, but everyone recognized the spiritual superiority of the Church, and all the rulers ruled because the Pope consecrated them. The Church for centuries acted as an international organization above the states, while the Islamic international system could be considered as anarchic.

Constantinople, located on the border where Europe ends and Asia begins, was called the “Gateway to the East” because of its strategical importance. Despite being Orthodox, they were considered the stronghold of Christianity. Therefore, the fall of Constantinople, conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 led the West to rethink its relationship with Islam. The nomadic Turkish tribes from Central Asia precisely, once they arrived in Europe converted to Islam and later founded the Ottoman Empire, which became the new leader of the Islamic world. Another international actor then entered this system. The Catholic Church was divided between those who wanted to wage another holy war against the infidels before they expanded into the rest of Europe and those who proposed a diplomatic solution to it. Among the latter was Nicholas of Cusa.

Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), the famous thinker and theologian whom our university is named after (also called Niccolò Cusano, Niccolò da Cusa or Nicola Cusano in Italian, Nicolaus Cusanus or Nicolaus de Cusa in Latin, Nikolaus Krebs von Kues o Nikolaus Chrypffs in German), was very involved in this matter since he was the Pope's ambassador.

In 1454 after the fall of Constantinople and the conventional end of the Middle Ages, he wrote De Pace Fidei where he proclaimed religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity. He had previously published De Concordantia Catholica in 1433, where he set out a conception of the world in which each Christian and non-Christian kingdom and principality coexisted in harmony.

When the Protestant Reformation broke out in Europe in the 16th century, the Catholic Church faced another problem on the international scene. Protestant reformers rejected papal supremacy, the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Church, and its hierarchical conception of world order. The Catholic Church immediately reacted with the Counter-Reformation and the suppression of heresies.

Entire states adopted the Protestant religion for the opportunity to assert their independence from the Catholic Church and full spiritual and temporal sovereignty, as in the case of and the Anglican Church where the king was the head.

Wars of religion became so violent and endless that a third-party authority above all was necessary to guarantee peace and order between Catholic and Protestant factions within the country. This authority was found in the State.

Although there were internal conflicts between Shiites and Sunni Islam, they never became as violent as Christian wars, so there was never a need for a neutral state.

French political scientist Jean Bodin lived during the wars of religion in France. He advocated the necessity of a strong central state to end the conflicts. Bodin was a member of a third faction known as 'the Politiques', which claimed the superiority of the French state over both Catholics and Protestants. In his best-known work Les Six livres de la République (The Six Books of the Republic) he proposed the absolute monarchy as the best form of government. The original sovereignty of the King did not come from the Pope anymore, but directly from God.

After the Catholic-Protestant Schism, the Church found itself even more weakened and fragmented, causing its influence on other countries to diminish.

With the rise of national identities, permanent armies, and a centralized taxation system to finance them, people began to support their own kings even when they went against the Pope's will and were under the threat of excommunication. The Pope consequently lost a tool of direct influence on the politics of other states, while remaining the spiritual leader of the Christian community capable of influencing Christian societies indirectly.

The birth of absolute monarchies throughout Europe and the end of feudalism brought the beginning of the state-centric system in international relations.The Papal States became just a power among others and lost their primacy.

Nolan (2006) argued that Europe ceased to be a Res Publica Christiana exactly between the 16th and 17th century wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and became a 'state system' with a sharp separation between church and state. The principle of cuius regio, eius religio ('whose kingdom, its religion') implied the inviolability of national sovereignty (a new conception of sovereignty, which emerged in the process of territorialization of a people and its culture) and the non-interference in the national jurisdiction of nation-states. This principle, first formulated at the Peace of Augsburg (1555), was confirmed at the Peace of Westphalia (1648) alongside the principle of auctoritas superiorem non recognescens, an important step towards the creation of the modern nation-state. Some historians consider this event to be the real end of the Middle Ages.

In conclusion, the Catholic Church had a great importance in the development of the medieval European international order and of the current international system, since the latter was born in the 17th century as a reaction to the first and, despite its changes, it is substantially the same even nowadays. In my opinion, due to globalization and new key players like China, we will probably see further changes in our lifetime in the international system. The bet is not about if, but only how much it will change compared to today.

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