Sep 1, 1981

Inventing the State: the Investiture Conflict

“By appealing to written rules instead of to what men remembered, the Gregorian reformers initiated a fundamental change in Western thinking.”

Frederic L. Cheyette
Amherst College

“The Invention of the State.” from Essays on Medieval Civilization. Eds. Karl Lackner and Kenneth Roy Philip. University of Texas Press, 1978. Austin and London.

In his essay, Prof. Cheyette searches, not so much for the origins of the typical European state, as for the idea of the state, its laws, and institutions. He particularly hopes to understand how the modern West came to think of the state and human law as coercive. Certainly, such a notion did not originate with the ancient Greeks. They considered the healthy state and its laws as essential to the good society and the individual. Cheyette traces the genesis of the modern attitude to the Middle Ages.


He contends that, during the early medieval period, little if anything abstract was expressed about the state, law, and authority until the eleventh century. Up to that time, Europe had survived as a society which was based on a largely oral tradition. Ideas expressed orally could not be abstract, because they issued from a specific person—a king such as Clovis or Charlemagne, a doomsman, an official, or a priest. Charters referred to men granting and receiving land but not to feofers, feoffees, vendors, and buyers.

Thinking in more universal terms evolved gradually after the great “medieval awakening” which began around the middle of the eleventh century. The growth of literacy and the concomitant appeal to texts diminished the role of the person and expanded the domain of the general and abstract political thought.

The one specific event which acted as a catalyst for this change was the imperialpapal Investiture Controversy. This struggle concerning the right to install bishops and abbots forced spiritual and secular officers to think about the nature of their function and authority and damaged the theoretical justification of political rule. In the course of debate, individuals such as Pope Gregory VIII (1073–1085) and Henry IV (1050–1106) came to be thought of not so much as persons but as generalized holders of an office.

In his Dictatus Papae, Gregory VII argued that the powers and rights of the papal office were vastly superior to the secular powers inherent in the office of emperor. Secular powers, he argued, originated from men ignorant of God, who secured their authority through pride, plunder, and treachery.

Cheyette contends that, after the Dictatus, men began to “see office and property not as having character but as impersonal and abstract because derived from an impersonal and abstract body of rules.” By appealing to written rules instead of to what men remembered, the Gregorian reformers initiated a fundamental change in Western thinking.

Those reformers of the eleventh century conceived their divinely ordained task as one of returning the Church to the purity it had in the days of the Fathers. Such an intent could only have arisen within a literate community, for it depended not on oral tradition but on texts. Patristic writings were to mold one’s judgement of the world. The insistence that truth was to be found in texts, and not in what people did (custom), proclaimed the atemporal, abstract nature of those writings and of the offices and authority which they sanctioned.

Thus, authority and, by extension, law and the state came to serve as an abstract, impersonal, literate structure of coercive force. For the later Middle Ages, as for the modern man, they became essentially an apparatus, the human embodiment of the Other and the Other’s compulsion.