Gelasianism and the Two Powers in Medieval Europe

Coronation of Henry III

Images of kings, bishops, barons, priests, knights, monks, peasants, and the pope all likely appear in one’s mind when thinking about medieval Europe.  After all, society at the time was characterized by the rigid hierarchy of feudalism, and the most prominent players within that system were either members of the clergy or of the State; they were either part of the spiritual world or the secular world.  During these times, the two were often one and the same.  The prince-bishop, which is exactly what its name describes it as being, is a shining example of the fusion of these worlds.  The idea of there being Two Powers, spiritual and temporal, has been known as long as governments and religions have existed.  Likewise, the two have come into contact in different ways throughout the ages.  In many societies, such as ancient Egypt, the ruler was seen as a god.  For a long time in the Roman Empire, the Emperor was simultaneously the head of state and the chief priest, the Pontifex maximus.  Jacques Maritain, speaking of the ancient ways, says, “The pagan City, which claimed to be the absolute whole of the human being, absorbed the spiritual in the temporal power and at the same time apotheosized the State.”[1] 

The rise of Christianity would directly challenge this notion through its belief in a monotheistic God and the separation of religious and secular matters.  The Gospel says on the matter, “And he said vnto them, Render therefore vnto Cesar the things which be Cesars, and vnto God the things which be Gods” (Luke 20:25).  Maritain asserts that in this statement, Jesus “distinguished the two powers and so doing emancipated the souls of men.”[2]  For this, Christians were persecuted during Antiquity, especially during the rule of Emperors such as Nero and Diocletian.[3]  However, when Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Christianity became protected by the Empire.  Constantine would also grant the Church many privileges and powers, such as being exempt from taxation, having civil authority over Christian communities in the cities, exempting the clergy from military service, and using the Imperial treasury to fund the Church’s material and missionary needs.[4]  He also convened the first ecumenical council in 323 AD at Nicaea.  Later, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD.[5]  With the rising acceptance of Christianity came the need for the Church to maintain its autonomy and ensure it did not become a tool of the Empire.  Even further than that, the Church even wanted to assert its own power over the State in some matters.  St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, would advance this cause in a very significant way by excommunicating Theodosius and forcing him to perform an act of public penance.[6]  This would not be the last time a Christian ruler was excommunicated.  Despite this, there was still no doctrine or school of thought that existed which spelled out the relationship between the Church and State. The emergence of Gelasianism would change everything.

Statue of the Emperor Constantine in York, England

In 494 AD, Pope Gelasius would write to the Emperor Anastasius on the subject and set forth the first definitive Church teaching on the relationship between the spiritual and temporal powers.  This letter was in reaction to the Emperor’s attempts to “regulate doctrine on behalf of the Church.”[7]  First, the Pope confirms what was already known, that, “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power.”[8]  However, in the next sentence, the Emperor is told that “Of these that of the priests is the more weighty” and further that “in [religious matters] you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will.”  At first glance, it may appear, then, that the Pope is saying that the Church is above the Emperor.  However, in the second paragraph, the Emperor is told that the ministers of religion acknowledge “the supremacy granted you from heaven in matters affecting the public order”.  So, then, the Emperor has divinely granted supremacy in the temporal sphere, while the Church has divinely granted supremacy in matters of a spiritual nature, and each is to respect the other’s supremacy.  Fr. Gomes says, “According to this theory, the Church is in charge of all issues of a spiritual nature, while the Empire is in charge of its own temporal affairs.”[9]  Of course, there remains the question of what exactly is meant by the spiritual power being “more weighty.”  Maritain offers one interpretation, that of the medieval Church, which is that “The Church has thus a right of authority over the political or the temporal itself, not because of political things, but because of the spiritual principle involved.  One sword is under the other: not to be oppressed in its own sphere, but to be controlled and directed by the upper sword as regards the latter’s own sphere.”[10]  One of the main reasons the Medieval Church believed in the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal was the idea that “the spiritual power is responsible for the salvation of the temporal.”[11]  While Maritain and Emma Knight believe that Gelasius held to the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal, Tellenbach and Gerd strongly maintain that “neither he nor the Fathers of that age had yet reached the idea that on earth the Church was supreme over princes and emperors.”[12]  Thus, two interpretations of Gelasius arise.  One is the duality theory, which maintains that the two are equal, each being supreme in their respective realms, while the “doctrine of the indirect power asserts the general subordination of the temporal to the spiritual and consequently the right of the spiritual power to impose restrictions, wherever necessary because of some connection with the good of souls, on the sovereignty of the civil power.”[13]

The existence of the two powers and their relationship would be maintained and expounded upon by later popes such as Pope Symmachus and Pope Nicholas I.  However, certain events would greatly alter the dualist theory of separation.  First, the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire would create an intellectual and political vacuum.  Petty warlords and tribal rulers took the place of a single unified State, and the clergy became some of the only people with legal and administrative knowledge.  The Church had no equal in terms of power and organization.  Because of this, “the ideas of State and Church ended by becoming amalgamated in men’s minds.”[14]  Then came Charlemagne and the creation of the Holy Roman Empire.  Charlemagne was a highly capable administrator and warrior, but as Lecler argues, he still relied heavily on clerical advisors and his rule took place within an ecclesiastical context.[15]  Of course, another very important aspect of Charlemagne’s rule is that he was crowned Emperor by the Supreme Pontiff.  “In crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo was reasserting his status through the symbolism of a pope crowning and, therefore in some senses, creating an emperor, which would not have been lost on [Charlemagne].”[16]  Clifford Backman stresses that Charlemagne believed the emperor was the sole power in Christendom and that the Church was merely a tool of the State,[17] and no doubt his successors and colleagues likely believed similarly, which is the exact opposite position of the Church, as Pope Innocent III would later assert that “The Pope is the head of Christendom, the Emperor is no more than his ‘arm’, the agent of execution for material needs”[18], a view held by popes before him.  Such differences would be the basis of two monumental conflicts between the Church and the State in the Middle Ages.

Audomar of Thérouanne & Dagobert I, Unknown Artist

The first of these conflicts would be the Investiture contest of the 11th century.  Basile claims that “It is important to note that before the Investiture Contest of the eleventh-century, the [two swords allegory] was always intended to suggest harmony and mutual accord between the two powers.”[19]  On the contrary, Knight holds that “the Investiture Controversy was primarily a clash originating from fifth-century ideas which were put into practice and developed by an eleventh-century papacy”[20] and that is “was representative of the division, conflict and blurring of borders between the two realms.”[21]  Essentially, Knight claims that the seeds had been planted hundreds of years prior in the letter of Gelasius, and that the papacy had advanced the ideas and developed them to take power, rather than simply using them as a defense against an overbearing State.  She also holds that the controversy was less about the issue of lay investiture and more about asserting power.  Both authors agree, though, that the two powers were not in harmony during this controversy, and that Church and State fought an ugly battle.  In a 1059 AD synod at Rome, the practice of lay investiture was formally condemned for the first time, and it was then decreed that the Pope could only be elected by the College of Cardinals and that the Church had been corrupted by state influence for too long.[22]  There was still more to be said on the matter, though.

In 1075 AD Pope Gregory (or someone close to him) wrote the Dictatus Papae, a document containing twenty-seven statements on papal power, such as the pope alone being able to instate and depose bishops, depose emperors, and release subjects from fealty.[23]  This angered Henry IV and he and the pope exchanged numerous letters.  As briefly as possible, Gregory VII and Henry IV excommunicated each other multiple times, Henry IV invaded Rome, set up antipope Clement III in 1083-1084 AD, and continued to fight against Gregory VII until the pope died in exile.[24]  During this time, the arguments over power were varied, and different appeals to Gelasius were made.  One interesting development was in the writings of the Anonymous of York, who maintained that, in fact, the State had supremacy, saying, “in Christ the royal power was the stronger element than the priestly through relating the royal power more to divinity and the priestly to humanity and arguing that divinity was predominant over humanity in Christ.”[25]  The Anonymous of York also rejected the primacy of Peter, which together seem to foreshadow some later disputes such as the Protestant Reformation and founding of the Church of England by Henry VIII.  Meanwhile, “Gelasius’ phrases about the two powers continued to be quoted by the ecclesiastical party, but their meaning had changed.  Where earlier they had been understood to involve the setting of the two powers side by side, the point to which importance was now attached was the superiority of the one over the other.”[26]  On the other hand, “Henry IV now accuses the pope in the same way that post-Gelasian popes had accused the emperors: ‘Contrary to God’s ordinance he desires to be king and priest at once.  He wishes to discredit the king’s sacred dignity, which derives from God, and can only be taken away by God.’”[27] 

It is ironic that the two had exchanged places, the State now being on the defense and attempting to assert its independence against an extremely powerful Church.  In the end, the debate continued well after Gregory’s death, but was eventually resolved for the most part when an agreement was made on the Concordant of Worms in 1122 AD.  Of course, much happened between the death of Gregory VII and the Concordant, but ultimately it is enough to know that this was a struggle between Church and State based on power and supremacy, and that Gelasius’ letter was still highly relevant, having multiple interpretations and being used by multiple parties.  Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet state that “The age of the Investiture Controversy may rightly be regarded as the culmination of medieval history; it was a turning point, a time both of completion and of beginning.”[28]

The second major conflict, and really the last of the middle ages, would begin because of a taxation disagreement.  While some taxation of clerics already existed, Philip IV “the Fair” would make “special levies upon particular Church groups” which, coupled with the preexisting unpopularity of taxation, would lead the French clergy to write to the pope for help.[29]  In response, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull Clericis Laicos which declared such laws illegal on based on canon law.[30]  Philip responded by refusing to pay French territorial Church dues to the papacy, which drew the ire of the pope, leading to the promulgation of Unam Sanctam in 1302.[31]  This bull would mark the high-point of papal claims to power and a new version of Gelasianism, that is, the direct power theory, summarized as being “The Pope [possessing], in principle, all jurisdiction in civil as well as in religious affairs.”[32]  The bull states, in succinct and frank language, that “[both swords], therefore, are in the power of the Church… the [temporal] is to be administered for the Church but the [spiritual] by the Church; the [spiritual] in the hands of the priest; the [temporal] by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.”[33]  “Where Innocent III had applied the allegory only to the emperor…Boniface employed the allegory of the two swords as a means to subordinate all monarchs to the pope.”[34]  This is Gelasianism taken to its absolute extreme, focusing almost entirely on the idea of the spiritual power being the higher of the two, and taking that to mean that it has supremacy in every aspect of society.

The question is whether this development in thinking is a natural conclusion or a perversion of a once good idea.  Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet believe that Gelasius and the early Church fathers never had this sort of supremacy in mind, and that “the assertion that the Church of the early middle ages claimed authority over the state must be eliminated from historical works wherever it is found.”[35]  Lecler agrees, saying, “At the time, there was as yet scarcely any question of a jurisdiction, strictly speaking, by the Church over things temporal.”[36]  Basile says that though it is true Gelasius maintained the spiritual power as the superior or higher power, “This does not include the ability to dictate the day-to-day workings of the temporal power, nor does it make the Emperor a vassal to the See of St. Peter.”[37]  Backman, though, points out that “nearly every assertion in the bull had been made by earlier popes”, no doubt having Innocent III and Gregory VII in mind.  After all, Gregory VII, “Invoking the pope’s power to bind and loose…sets forth that he has the power to ‘take away from and grant to each one according to his merits empires, kingdoms, principalities, churches, marches, counties, and the possessions of all men.’”[38] 

The cause of this radical departure from the early Gelasian theory by middle and late medieval popes, as mentioned previously, may be the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the feudal anarchy which ensued, which elevated the Church to the first position in Europe in terms of power and influence, giving it a virtual monopoly on knowledge, writing, law, and administrative capabilities.  The fact that the Holy Roman Empire was created by the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor by the Pope, and contains the word ‘holy’ indicates that between the start of the feudal anarchy and the middle of the medieval ages, the Church and State had become nearly indistinguishable.  Despite this, Boniface VIII’s efforts to assert total papal power failed.  Why?  According to Sellery and Krey, “A new moral force had arisen, the force of national interest”[39]  Lecler offers an explanation as to why this was the case, saying that during the 13th century, “Under [the resurgence of Roman Law] was reborn the idea of the independent State, distinct from the Church in the same way as the old Roman Empire had once been distinct—the idea, in fact, of the State as a great secular power, not as a mere administrative unit of the ecclesiastical system.”[40]  In a sense, Unam Sanctam was too little too late.  Innocent III had successfully asserted the idea of rulers being administrative “arms” of the Church years prior, and at that time the papacy was at its zenith, so there were few who could oppose the claim.  During the time of feudal anarchy, it would have been difficult to refute that that both swords were held by the Church and that kings and soldiers often exercised temporal power on behalf of the spiritual power.  But by the time of Unam Sanctam the State had grown in power and independence and would no longer allow itself to be subject to the Church.  As a result of this disagreement, Boniface VIII was taken captive and would go on to die in custody. After the election of a Frenchman, Clement V, to the papacy, protests broke out due to rumors that his election was tainted by the influence of the French King, resulting in the flight to Avignon in southern France which would kick off the brief period known as the Avignon Papacy.[41]  Papal power would decline significantly after this, and never again reach the height it had achieved under popes such as Innocent III and Gregory VII. 

Gelasian ideas of spiritual and temporal power and the relationship they have with one another would be the basis for the views and struggles between Church and State in medieval times.  It would be multi-faceted, too, both clergy and kings using it to advance their cause.  Both the investiture controversy and the events surrounding Philip IV and Boniface VIII took place within the context of Gelasius’ letter and can be characterized primarily as conflicts of power and of interpretation, not of specific policies or ideas.  Today, we live in a society of secularism, where the Church exists as an institution with no formal civil power.  Instead, the State has a monopoly on temporal power.  However, in places like the United States, religious liberties are protected, and the State is barred from establishing a religion or persecuting people based on their religious beliefs.  I would argue that this can be attributed to Pope Gelasius, as his letter advanced the idea of some separation of Church and State far before our time.  Everything that happened during the Middle Ages between the Church and State helped to form the world we live in today, and it is interesting to consider how letters and bulls made permanent marks on history.

[1] Maritain, Jacques. The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. (C. Scribner, 1930), 1.

[2] Maritain, 2.

[3] Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. (Oxford University Press, 2021), 21.

[4] Backman, 43.

[5] Backman, 46.

[6] Backman 50.


[8] Robinson, J. H. “Gelasius I on Spiritual and Temporal Power, 494.” (Internet History Sourcebooks Project, 1996).

[9] Gomes, Evaldo Xavier. “Church-State Relations from a Catholic Perspective: General Considerations on Nicolas Sarkozy’s New Concept of Laïcité Positive.” (Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 48, no. 2, 2009), 202.

[10] Maritain, 12.

[11] Knight, Emma. “What was the Investiture Controversy a controversy about?” (Durham theses, Durham University, 2005), 9.

[12] Tellenbach, Gerd, and R. F. Bennett. Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest. (New York, New York: Harper, 1970), 36.

[13] Maritain, 14.

[14] Lecler, Joseph. The Two Sovereignties: the Relationship between Church and State. (New York, New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), 56.

[15] Lecler, 55. 

[16] Knight, 22.

[17] Backman, 162.

[18] Lecler, 59.

[19] Basile, 4. 

[20] Knight, Abstract.

[21] Knight, 1.

[22] Backman, 293.

[23] Backman, 294.

[24] Knight, 85-89.

[25] Knight, 91.

[26] Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet, 158.

[27] Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet, 158-159.

[28] Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet, 162.

[29] Sellery, George C., and Krey, August C. Medieval Foundations of Western Civilization. (New York, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929), 283-284.

[30] Sellery and Krey, 284.

[31] Sellery and Krey, 284-285.

[32] Lecler, 60.

[33] Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam.

[34] Basile, 8.

[35] Tellenbach, Gerd, and Bennet, 36.

[36] Lecler, 53.

[37] Basile, 129.

[38] Knight, 78.

[39] Sellery and Krey, 285.

[40] Lecler, 64.

[41] Backman, 535.


Robinson, J. H. “Gelasius I on Spiritual and Temporal Power, 494.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project, 1996.

Gomes, Evaldo Xavier. “Church-State Relations from a Catholic Perspective: General Considerations on Nicolas Sarkozy’s New Concept of Laïcité Positive.” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 48, no. 2 (2009).


Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam.  Transcribed by Bob Van Cleef, Catholic University of America, CUA Press, 1927.

Knight, Emma.  “What was the Investiture Controversy a controversy about?”, Durham theses, Durham University, 2005

Maritain, Jacques. The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. C. Scribner, 1930.

Tellenbach, Gerd, and R. F. Bennett. Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest. New York, New York: Harper, 1970.

Lecler, Joseph. The Two Sovereignties: the Relationship between Church and State. New York, New York: Philosophical Library, 1952.

Sellery, George C., and Krey, August C. Medieval Foundations of Western Civilization. New York, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929.

Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, 2021.

This essay was originally written for a medieval history class I took last semester.

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