Written by Vladimir Moss



     Medieval Catholic kings faced two major problems: how to relate to the papacy, and how to relate to the Holy Roman Emperor. 

     “According to classical Roman law,” writes K. Pennington, “the emperor’s sovereignty encompassed all lesser kings, princes, and magistrates. As Johannes Teutonicus wrote in his gloss that was incorporated later into the Ordinary Gloss to the Decretals of Gregory VII: ‘The emperor is over all kings... and all nations are under him... He is the lord of the world... and no king may gain an exemption from his authority, because no prescription can run against him in this case.’ By the high Middle Ages, Johannes’ gloss no longer described the reality of Europe’s political system. In his famous decretal, Per venerabilem (1202), Pope Innocent III stated that the king of France recognised no superior in temporal affairs. After this decretal had been included in collections of canon law, lawyers gave juridical precision to Innocent’s assertion. Some said that national kings were not subject to the emperor de facto, but were so de iure, while others insisted that kings were also completely independent of imperial authority. By the mid-thirteenth century jurists commonly defined the kings’ untrammelled sovereignty with the maxim ‘rex in regno suo imperator est’ (a king is emperor in his kingdom). Legally, therefore, kings exercised the same sovereignty as the emperor.”[1]

     So the authority of the German “Holy Roman Emperor” over the states of Western Europe in the later (Catholic) Middle Ages was as tenuous as the authority of the Eastern Byzantine Emperor had been over the same areas in the earlier (Orthodox) Middle Ages. Therefore as England under the Normans and Plantagenets, and France under the Capetians, increased in strength, they paid little attention to the claims of the German Emperor. (In any case, England had never been subject to Charlemagne or his successors).

     However, England and France could not ignore the competing claims of another kingdom – that of the papacy; and from the twelfth century the relations of both states with Rome were complex and troubled. But it was not only as a power-rival that the papacy influenced the rising nation-states. They were impressed by the scope and efficiency of papal rule, founded on its new system of canon law and a vast net of agents and legates throughout Europe. And so, as Larry Siedentop writes, “despite their continuing struggle against papal pretensions, secular rulers carried two things away from the conflict. The first was papal acceptance that secular jurisdictions had their own origin and validity. The second was a gradual disengagement from a corporate conception of society. This made the relationships one of emulation as well as competition…

     “… A distinct pattern emerged. Feudal kingship gave way to a new form of kingship, a form involving centralization of authority and the growth of bureaucracy. Royal councils, traditionally composed of tribal chiefs or feudal magnates, were reformed along the model of the papal curia. The names give to new, separate agencies varied. But the pattern involved separating legislative, administrative and judicial functions, and giving each into the hands of people with some appropriate training. Often these were ‘new’ men rather than leading feudatories. In this way a wider pool of talent became available, men whose modest origins also made them more amenable to discipline…

     “These changes can be observed in southern Italy and in Sicily, the principality put together by Norman invaders from the later eleventh century. Two things may help to explain why its rulers created the ‘first modern system of royal law’. The first was the fact of proximity to Rome and constant contact with papal government. But the second and more important was their need for a legitimacy that the papacy could bestow. These Norman ‘intruders’ wished to become kings properly so called (a wish which also led Duke William of Normandy to cultivate relations with the papacy, before invading England in 1066).

     “What institutions did the Norman rulers create? They created a system of civil service examinations’ which provided officials to staff new central agencies, a chancery which prepared and issued royal decrees, a treasury (the dogana) which organized and directed an efficient system of taxation, and a high court claiming direct jurisdiction over the most serious cases and providing itinerant judges to deal with lesser cases outside the capital of Palermo. Altogether, the pattern strongly resembled that of the reformed Roman curia. 

     “But Norman innovations did not stop there. These rulers inherited a peculiarly complex set of ‘legal’ traditions, the result of Sicily and southern Italy having been subject, at various times, to Byzantine, papal and Arab rule…”[2] 

     King Roger II of Sicily was the most striking innovator. He made use of the discovery of Justinian’s Digest in order to strengthen his authority vis-á-vis the pope. He was an absolutist ruler who tried to obtain complete control, not only of political matters, but also of ecclesiastical matters within his kingdom – hence his rejection of papal claims to feudal overlordship of the island, and his promotion of his claim to be the apostolic legate to Sicily. So he was less interested in those parts of Roman law that regulated relations with the Church on a symphonic basis, such as Justinian’s famous Sixth Novella, than in the more absolutist elements, which went back to old, pagan Rome.

     David Abulafia writes: “Roger II was several decades ahead of the German emperors in making use of Roman law codes, and it can be argued that he grasped their principles more quickly and firmly than did the emperors: ‘no one should dispute about the judgement, plans and undertakings of the king. For to dispute about his decisions, deeds, constitutions, plans and whether he whom the king has chosen is worthy is comparable to sacrilege.’ The king stood above the law: this was pure Justinian, cited by Roger, with the substitution of the term rex for princeps. In other words, it was a law which was intended exactly to apply to Roger’s kingdom. The idea of the crime of maiestas, or treason, was developed on Roman lines, and was extended to heretics as well, for by questioning the parameters of religion they questioned implicitly the divine election of the ruler. 

     “Thus the Sicilian monarchy was not entirely a novelty. The ideas that inspired Roger were late-Roman legal ideas, transmitted through Byzantine Italy, but applied to a new set of conditions: a territorial monarchy whose ruler saw himself as detached from the higher jurisdiction of western or eastern emperor, even of pope. Old legislation was seen to confirm the rights and powers of a new institution, the Sicilian monarchy; what was revolutionary was the transformation of the idea of monarchy from the universalism of the late-Roman codes into the regional autonomy of the Sicilian kingdom…

     “Roger II’s attitude to his monarchy has nowhere been so misunderstood as in his dealings with the Byzantine emperors. Much of his reign was taken up with open or threatened conflict with Byzantium; but in 1141 and 1143 he sent embassies to the emperors John and Manuel Comnenus, demanding recognition of his status as basileus. This is just the moment when his minister George of Antioch commissioned the mosaic of the king being crowned by Christ, and when his relations with the pope were once again difficult over the apostolic legateship. What did Roger mean? The term basileus gave rise to problems. Westerners knew that it was the core title of a long list of titles held by the Byzantine emperor… In ancient Greek, basileus was the word for ‘king’. Western rulers who wished to irritate the Byzantines would send letters to Constantinople addressed to the ‘king of the Greeks’; but the Byzantines saw their ruler as ‘emperor of the Romans’, that is, universal emperor, appointed by God, successor to Constantine. Roger’s idea of a territorial monarchy, separated out of the universal Christian community, was not easy for Byzantium to accept; there was a tendency in Byzantium to… treat the kingdoms of the west as petty provinces ‘allowed’ to function under a system of self-government (though southern Italy and Sicily were a different case – they had been ‘stolen’ from Byzantium by the Normans). What Roger wanted from Constantinople was recognition of the new reality; when he asked to be treated as a basileus he was not cheekily asking to be reckoned as the emperor’s equal, or as the western emperor (in lieu of the German ruler), but as a territorial monarch possessing the plenitude of monarchical authority, described in Justinian’s law-codes. Nevertheless, the Byzantines regarded even this as the height of impudence; the Sicilian ambassador was imprisoned, and relations became even worse than before.

     “A sidelight on these events is perhaps cast by a book written at Roger’s court by a Byzantine scholar just at this time: Neilos Doxopatrios’ History of the Five Patriarchates. This book rebukes the Normans for seizing the lands of the Roman emperor – an extraordinary statement in a work dedicated to a Norman king – but it also argues that Sicily and southern Italy belong to the patriarchate of Constantinople, and are not under the ecclesiastical authority of the bishop of Rome. Roger may have seized on this idea, already exploited in his dealings with the Church, to approach the Byzantine emperor and to offer to re-enter the Orthodox fold. It would be, at the very least, a deft way to put pressure on the pope when he was making difficulties over the apostolic legateship.”[3]

     Re-entry into the Orthodox fold was indeed the only way for a Western ruler of the time, not only to escape from the coils of the papist absolutism, but also to aspire to the ideal of Christian Statehood. For that ideal was not “faith-free”: it critically depended on the acceptance of the Orthodox faith as the pillar and foundation of the Christian State, the source of the rule of law. Unfortunately, however, Roger was almost the last western ruler who even contemplated returning to the Orthodox faith[4], and he himself ruled less like an Orthodox ruler and more like a modern multi-faith and multi-cultural ecumenist. In fact, he embraced ecumenism as a solution to the problems of multi-culturalism, portraying himself in art as both a Latin king, a Greek emperor and a Muslim caliph. Thus Jeremy Johns writes that on Christmas Day 1130, the “had himself crowned King of Sicily and announced that the different communities of his kingdom – Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Jewish – now all belonged to a single ‘three-tongued’ Sicilian people. Arabic, Greek and Latin were all employed by the administration of the new kingdom, but the linguistic complexities of Sicily were not triple but legion: a handful of Normans spoke Norse; many Muslims came from North Africa and spoke Berber; the Jews spoke Arabic for day-to-day matters (writing it in Hebrew script), but worshipped and studied in Hebrew; the ‘Latins’ spoke not with one tongue, but in French, Spanish and a babel of more or less mutually incomprehensible ‘Italian’ dialects. Few were able to communicate in all three official languages, so that, for example, a Latin lord had to issue orders in Romance dialect to a Greek interpreter for translation into Arabic so that they could be understood by his Berber-speaking peasants. In what language was King Roger to convey to his subjects the royal message that they were now a single Sicilian people?

      “His solution was to develop art, architecture and material culture as a new visual language of Sicilian unity. Roger was depicted in the robes of a Latin king, a Byzantine emperor and an Islamic caliph; his coins, documents and inscriptions used all three languages, irrespective of their audience; his palaces and churches combined Byzantine, Islamic and Latin forms and decoration. In all cases, the tri-culturalism of the medium, not the original meaning of the constituents, was the message.

     “The image of Roger in royal garb conveyed ‘king’ to all his subjects in an immediate way that the words basileios, malik or rex did not, but the image of the king conveyed a very different meaning to the loyal Greek minister, the fervent Muslim who rejected Christian rule, and the backwoods Latin baron who despised the sophisticated culture of the court.” [5]



[1] Pennington, “1. Law, legislative authority, and theories of government, 1150-1300”, The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350 – c. 1450, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 432-433.

[2] Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, London: Penguin, 2014,pp. 259, 260-261.

[3] Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, London: Pimlico, 2002, pp. 33, 34-35. In support of this last thought, Richard Cavendish writes: “Whether out of genuine feeling, or as a tactical device against Rome, [Roger] flirted with Greek Orthodoxy” (“The Death of Roger II of Sicily”, History Today, vol. 54 (2), February, 2003, p. 49).

[4] There were exceptions. In the thirteenth century the Hungarian King Andreas II was converted to Orthodoxy by St. Savva of Serbia. And in the next century the Swedish King Magnus became a monk after being washed up at the monastery of Valaam during a storm.

[5] Johns, “The Language of Islamic Art”, Oxford Today. Vol. 17, N 3, Trinity, 2005, p. 13. For a fulsome tribute to the extraordinary mixed culture that Roger produced in Sicily, see John Julius Norwich, Sicily, London: John Murray, 2015, chapter 4.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company