Medieval painting depicting the victory of Emperor Heraclius over the Persians
Part five of the series on Christian kingship, dealing with how royal authority was portrayed in Christian liturgies of the early middle ages, especially liturgies for battle and coronation liturgies; apologies for the footnote numbers strewn throughout the post.
The light in which the Christian ruler of the late empire and early Middle Ages was viewed by the Church and people is best seen through the ecclesiastical liturgies of the period. Treatises on government, epistles of clergymen and individual actions of emperors and bishops are valuable in giving examples of how the relation between Church and government was worked out at various times, but a look at the liturgies of the Roman, Byzantine and early Germanic kingdoms reveal what image of kingship was put before the people on a daily basis. Liturgy reveals the way people lived and thought on a daily basis, and it is by examining these ancient liturgies that an insight can be gained into the basic understanding that the Christians of the early Middle Ages were developing about temporal authority. Lex credendi, lex orandi.
Records of the prayers of regular, daily masses have not been preserved as well as the records of masses for special occasions, such as thanksgiving masses and processions for a military victory, celebrations for the anniversary of an emperor’s reign, coronation liturgies and so on; yet even in the daily liturgies there are invocations for the protections and justice governance of the civil rulers. Ever since apostolic times Christians had accustomed themselves to offering prayers for the rulers, “our ancestral custom,” says Eusebius.1 Once a Christian ruler came to the throne, this aspect of the liturgy took on much more importance. As the Middle Ages progressed, the Church and State grew to be mutual supports for each other. When the two were on good terms, the system worked relatively well.
This section will look at late Roman and early Byzantine liturgies, but will also turn for the first time to the Germanic peoples of the west who were founding the first kingdoms in the lands of the former Western Roman Empire. Here only the early Germanic liturgies themselves will be looked at; discussions about the German influence on the institution of kingship itself will be addressed in the following chapter.
Liturgies for Battle
This era, from about 390 to 565, is the truly formative period of the integration of Church ritual and civil power. During this period the Christianity of the Europe was established beyond doubt, the threat of Arianism was abolished and the Catholicity of the faith ensured, and the first kingdoms of Western Europe were established. For the first time we see the emergence of states that had no pagan background, as did Rome, Greece and the nations of the east.
Not surprisingly, the earliest recorded ecclesiastical liturgies for civic functions center on warfare and battle. The connection of Christian piety with victory allowed for the first real emergence of an integration of civil and ecclesiastical roles. Liturgies were offered on the army field before battle, thanksgiving masses in nearby basilicas after the battle was over (if it was a victory, that is), and masses of petition and supplication, coupled with processions, when a city was under siege. The message to Constantine, In hoc signo vinces, was taken very seriously by Christian clergymen, rulers and common laity alike in the early Middle Ages.
One of the first records of a thanksgiving mass offered after a victorious battle comes from a remarkable letter of St. Ambrose to Theodosius I, in the year 394, after the Emperor had put down a revolt by the usurper Eugenius in the west, who had been acting a de facto ruler of Italy for the previous six years. The Emperor Theodosius had just beaten his rival at the Battle of Cold River and sent a message to St. Ambrose in Milan to notify the bishop of his imperial victory. Ambrose records in a letter to Theodosius how he responded to the news and how he offered what appears to be a novel form of thanksgiving Mass for the victorious Emperor:
"Even though I am unworthy and unequal to such a duty and to the solemnity of such prayers (vota), yet I will write you what I did. I carried your Piety’s letter with me to the altar, I placed it on the altar, I held it in my hand when I offered the sacrifice, so that your faith spoke with my voice and the letter of the emperor discharged the function of the bishop’s offering."2
This extraordinary passage from Ambrose seems to indicate a primitive method of the practice of offering up intentions with the sacrifice of the Mass, in a very literal manner. It is uncertain what he meant when he says, “the letter of the emperor discharged the function of the bishop’s offering,” but it seems to imply a very early development of the ideal of sacerdotal monarchy. The Emperor is clearly not an ecclesiastical figure, but he possesses some vague, undefined priestly power by virtue of his office as head of the temporal order. This allows him to participate in offering the sacrifice of Mass by proxy as it were, through the hands of the bishop. The holding of the Emperor’s letter by Ambrose is a symbolic gesture, but is at the same time a quasi-sacramental one that says symbolically what was only at the time an implied belief: that the ruler of the Christian world could act as both priest and king.
The victory of Theodosius at Cold River also marks another first in the history of ecclesiastical-civic functions: the first recorded instance of a liturgical procession done in celebration of an imperial military victory. Almost nothing is known about the procession itself except that it happened and that it was at the behest of Theodosius.3 Whether or not the Emperor himself took place in the procession, whether it was at the capitol or at the scene of the battle, whether or not there was the use of icons are all things shrouded in uncertainty. Yet within the coming decades, liturgical processions as thanksgiving for imperial victories become more and more common, perhaps the most splendid on record being the great victory procession and triumph given to Belisarius by Justinian upon the conquest of Africa.4 Within the Byzantine sphere, the procession will usually be lead by a bishop bearing an icon of some sort. The special protectrix of Constantinople was the Mother of God. Herakleios would bear this icon on his ship when he came to dispatch the usurper Phokas in 602. Later in the Byzantine Empire, when imperial victories became increasingly rare, the victory procession was replaced by the supplication procession. A city besieged by hostile Arabs or Turks would perform a ritual procession around the walls of the city bearing the icon of that place’s particular patron saint, invoking their protection over the city. Processions would become an integral part of the civic liturgies of the Middle Ages in both the east and the west.
By the era of Justinian, the celebration of a liturgy before a military engagement was a regular facet of the Byzantine military regimen. An example of such a military prayer survives from the Justinianic era. A Mass was celebrated at the army camp or at the site where battle was expected to take place. During the supplications, the commanding officer got down on his knees before the altar and prayed:
"Look upon the Romans at last, look, O highest God…with your power, I beseech you, smash the proud pagans. Let the peoples recognize you alone as Lord and powerful, while you crush the enemy and save your own kind by battle!"5
Then the entire officer corps and all the troops joined in tearful supplications imploring God’s assistance. By this time, the mid-6th century, the association between liturgical ceremony and loyalty to the Christian emperor were firmly fixed. The liturgies were able to unite the community and collectively call out for God’s assistance against the foes of the Empire, while the government got “free advertising” from the Church, which always stressed obedience to the divinely ordained emperors. Surviving Byzantine texts from late 5th and early 6th century liturgies beg God to assist “the princes of the Roman realm that, by thy tranquility and power they might ever be victors with clemency.”6 A similar text uses the form, “Let us also pray for our most Christian emperor, that our God and Lord may subjugate to him all barbarian peoples, for our lasting peace.” 7 Prayers for the protection of the emperors were always included in the Mass somehow. Thus the civic liturgies done by the Church came to provide “an enduring and frequent forum in which the average Roman subject voiced his loyalty to the emperor.”8
Though such liturgies are most popular in the east where imperial strength was felt more keenly, they appear in the west as well where the need for military victory against the barbarians was more pressing. Maximus, the Bishop of Turin, implored God to “defend the city’s ramparts” in a special liturgy when the Ostrogoths threatened the city in the late 5th century. Certain German tribes eventually began to adopt these liturgical occasions for their own military endeavors, and barbarian copies of Byzantine style liturgies begin appearing in the west around the late 6th century, perhaps brought there by the armies of Justinian. A Visigothic liturgy before battle dating from the 7th century fused Christ’s triumph over death with the king’s victory over his enemies in battle. The ceremony seemed to center around the king accepting a blessed standard from a priest. Once the king took the standard, the chorus broke out into antiphons: “Take up the invincible shield of justice! For vengeance! For your power was given to you by the Lord and your strength from the Most High. For vengeance.”9 Even in times of peace, the emphasis on victory was always present in the prayers of the liturgy. A prayer for the king’s victory at the Council of Saragossa in 691 reads:
"May He consolidate his [the king’s] reign in peace through many cycles of years and may He preserve both the race (gentem) and the entire fatherland in tranquility and may Christ’s victorious right hand make him ever victor against the opposing host."10
These examples demonstrate how the Roman ideals of the Christian ruler as Pius and Victor made their way west and found their way into the liturgies of the farthest extent of Christendom. As the last vestiges of antiquity passed away, the emphasis in the west would focus more and more and the Christian king and less on the Byzantine emperor, who by the 7th and 8th centuries was becoming a very remote player in the larger scheme of western European politics.
As Christianity became a permanent part of European culture, the coronation of a Christian ruler took on increasing significance as a civic and an ecclesiastical ceremony. In pre-Christian times the succession to the Roman emperorship was always filled by the last man standing, who usually had to dispose of several rival generals in a series of draining civil wars. This had put the Empire in bad straits by the 3rd century, and even the ascension of the Christian emperors failed to solve this dilemma. Indeed, it may be said that failure to find a stable method of imperial succession was a decisive factor in the weakening of the Roman Empire, from the time when Julius Caesar was stabbed at the foot of Pompey’s statue right down into the numbing series of overthrows and ceremonial blindings that characterized the transfer of power in the Byzantine Empire.
It took the influx of German elements into the world of late antiquity and the notion of prima geniture to stabilize what was an otherwise chaotic line of succession. Gradually, kings and emperors were no longer proclaimed on the battlefield but acclaimed in churches and crowned in elaborate ecclesiastical ceremonials. Many texts from these liturgies survive to this day and are of pivotal importance for the topic of this work. The coronation of a new monarch was where the ideologies of Church and State merged most powerfully, and it is in these texts that the development, rise and fall of the idea of theocratic kingship can be traced.
Before Constantine, there really was no such thing as a coronation. New emperors took the throne by assuming the imperial purple (paladamentum) and laurel wreath. Constantine was the first to implement a regal diadem. He wore the diadem habitually throughout his life and even ordered it placed on the head of his corpse after death. Thus, from Constantine throughout the Christian period, the diadem came to replace the purple as the primary symbol of sovereignty.11 The identification of the authority of the ruler with the authority of God was accomplished by a ceremonial adoration of the monarch by prostration. This seems to be a novelty introduced by Constantine himself. After the placing of the diadem upon the head of the emperor, the emperor received the Sacred Host, at which point everyone present fell down in adoration, ostensibly in worship of the sacramental Presence, though conveniently in the presence of the emperor as well. It seems that the emperor chose this moment, when he had just received the Host, as a prudent one for the act of adoration by prostration, lest some complain about performing a proskynesis in the presence of merely the emperor’s person.12
This idea of the adoration of God being synonymous with the adoration of His chosen ruler runs deep in Byzantine political and religious thought.13 Devotion to God could be gauged by one’s devotion to the God-appointed emperor. Just as there was only one God, so there was only one Empire and one ruler of that Empire.14 An example of this thought is found in the transcripts of the trial of Maximus from the late 7th century. Maximus, a Greek bishop, was accused of heresy and treason and was brought to trail before an assembly of senators and clergy in Constantinople. An excerpt from this transcript reveals how patriotism and orthodoxy were connected in the Byzantine mind:
They made him [Maximus] stand in the middle of the seated senators, and the bursar said to him with much anger and passion, “Are you a Christian?” He replied, “By the grace of Christ the God of the universe I am a Christian.” The former said, “That is not true!” The servant of God answered, “You say I am not, but God says I am and will remain a Christian.” “But how,” he said, “if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” [italics mine]15
One of the charges of which Maximus was accused was denying that the Christian emperor was also a priest. At his trial, he recalled for his judges a dispute he had with one of them, an ecclesiastic named Gregory:
It is for priests to inquire into and define what concerns the saving dogmas of the Catholic Church.”’ And you said, “What, then, is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’ And I said, ‘He is not, for neither does he stand at the altar….Nor does he baptize, or anoint, or lay on hands and make bishops and priests and deacons….While he [Maximus] was saying this, Menas cried, “In saying these things you split the Church!16
What was implicit and undefined in the time of Ambrose had become by the late 7th century a widely held assumption: that the Christian ruler participated in the priesthood. Maximus, in arguing against sacerdotal monarchy, was fighting against the spirit of the times: he was condemned to exile and had his tongue torn out and his blessing hand cut off. He died four years later in 666.
The coronation rite used in Byzantium from the 5th century onwards reflects this development in political and sacred ideology. The first emperor crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople was Marcian in 450, although at first this seems to be because of the Patriarch’s capacity as a civil official and the coronation ceremony seems to have not been a religious one.17 However, by the time of Emperor Leo II in 473 the ceremony includes prayers by the Patriarch; at the coronation of Anastasius in 490 the prayers of the Patriarch and presentation of the Gospels are prominent. The Patriarch then administers an oral and written oath to the emperor-elect, making him swear that he will “keep the faith entire and introduce no novelty into the Church.”18
The first emperor crowned in a Church is the usurper Phokas, in 602. This seems to have been originally a propaganda method by Phokas, who as a usurper, wanted to do all in his power to bolster his image. Though it did not help him much (he was captured and burnt to death by Herakleios in 610, who became Emperor in his place), by that time the entire imperial coronation ceremony assumed a “formal and religious character.”19 The anointed emperors were compared to biblical kings like David and his Christian subjects to the new Israel. 20 The ritual became no longer a transfer of political office, but a divine ordination; no longer the proclamation of a de facto ruler, but the creation of a de jure monarch. In some ways, the Byzantine emperor was viewed as some type of ecclesiastic; in the example above taken from the trial of Maximus, the judge Gregory clearly views the emperor as some sort of priest. This is reflected in the coronation liturgy, when the emperor is invested with a mandyas, or cope, and seems to exercise the function of a minor order in the Eucharistic liturgy that followed.21 This tendency toward sacerdotal monarchy was strongest in Byzantium, where there was a long and established tradition of Caesaropapism.
It is in the west that the practice of anointing a king with oil appears. This seems to arise first in Visigothic Spain, seemingly in imitation of the manner in which King Solomon was anointed in the Old Testament. This unction seems to replace the crowning with the diadem as the main feature of the ceremony. The unction was performed by the Bishop of Toledo or another high ranking ecclesiastic after the king made a profession of faith. The best preserved transcript of a Visigothic coronation comes from the coronation of King Wamba in 672, but like the record of the baptism of Clovis, it is shrouded with a miracle story of uncertain origin.22
The English coronation orders provide an especially telling insight into the way the image of the king changed over the course of time. The earliest coronation ceremony, called the Egbertine Order and associated with Archbishp Egbert of York (732-766), contains many elements of sacerdotal kingship. The king is anointed with oil from a horn while the antiphon “Unexerunt Salomonem” (“Thus they anointed Solomon”) is sung. A staff of some sort is presented to the king, with allusions to the bringing of the olive branch to the ark by the dove, but more importantly, to the selection of Aaron as High Priest over Israel when God made his rod blossom. Thus the biblical figures of Solomon, the archetypal king, and Aaron, the archetypal priest, are combined in the coronation of the English king.23 Another instance of sacerdotal imagery comes when the king is presented with three naked swords, one with the end cut off.24 The first two corresponded to the swords of temporal and religious power, representing the king’s promises to govern the state justly and be the defender of the Church. The third was the sword of mercy, cut short to symbolize that the justice of the monarch should be tempered with clemency.25
This implied bend towards theocratic kingship was strengthened after the Norman invasions to give divine sanction to their conquest and was not changed until the after the English investiture struggle. At that time a new order of service was adopted with a much less theocratic emphasis, the Anselm Order, named after the famous Archbishop of Canterbury who struggled against King William II Rufus is the English investiture controversy.
Very significant is the coronation liturgy of the Carolingian rulers, for it is among the Carolingians that the idea of theocratic monarchy was most popular. This is because of the direct correlation in the Carolingian monarchy between kingship and divine sanction. From the very beginning of the Carolingian dynasty, coronation was done by the Pope. It could be argued that it was the Pope who created the Carolingian dynasty by first giving sanction to Pepin to oust the Merovingians in 752 and then by proclaiming and crowning Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800. As with the example of the eastern Emperor Phokas being crowned inside St. Sophia’s, this precedent of papal crowning seems to be a historical accident. If what Einhard and Charlemagne himself asserted is true, that Charles would have never agreed to accept the imperial title at the hands of the Pope had he known about it beforehand, then it is probable that Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as an attempt to both keep the Franks accountable to papal authority as well as counter the claims of the Byzantine emperors to be lords over the papacy.26 Future Carolingian (and later German) imperial coronations retained their link to the papacy: the emperor-elect was always crowned in Rome, took a coronation oath after kissing the pope’s foot, and swore fealty to the reigning pope, as well had an unction performed by the Bishop of Ostia.27 The crowning of Charlemagne created a precedent of imperial authority coming from the papacy.
At first, Charles seemed to have been upset by the coronation, but quickly realized how it could work to his authority. If he received his imperial title from the hands of the Pope, this meant that his authority ultimately came not from himself but from the Church. This could cause problems by making actions of the Frankish kings beholden to papal approval. However, it also meant that Charlemagne was endowed with an authority that no one else in the west was: the authority of God Himself, given through the Pope. Other coronation ceremonies only invoked God’s blessing on the king, but Charles had actually been selected by God and crowned by the Pope, giving him a much broader authority that his contemporary kings. This authority would come back to haunt the papacy; several centuries later, the Holy Roman Emperors would attempt to exalt their authority above that of the popes and constantly plagued the papacy, especially during the years from the Investiture Controversy (1072-1122) until the final victory of the papacy with the concessions granted it by Frederick II in 1215 and 1245. No one could have foreseen this on that Christmas Day in the year 800; but before long, the Carolingians, and later the Ottonians, would use their sacral authority to wreak much havoc in the Church.
In the formative years between the fall of the Roman Empire in the west and the rise of the Carolingians, there is much development in the ideals of what Christian kingship meant. Following the precedent set by Constantine and the late Roman emperors, the first place where the civil and ecclesiastical elements of the Empire came together was before of after a battle, where prayers for victory and thanksgiving celebrations were the way the Church sanctified the imperial war effort. Soon the crowning of the emperor himself became an ecclesiastical function; first Marcian was crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 450, then the usurper Phokas had his coronation done in the Church of Hagia Sophia in 602, hoping the cement his shaky claim to the purple. These actions became precedents in subsequent coronations and did much to contribute to the idea that the Christian ruler was both a layman and an ecclesiastic of some sort. It was for denying this connection that Maximus the Confessor had his tongue pulled out and hand cut off in 662.
Coronations in the west followed loosely on the imperial models, though the unction, in imitation of David and Solomon, replaced the assuming of the purple (paludamentum) as the central act of the ceremony. Kings were generally crowned and anointed after swearing to uphold the rights of the Church and rule justly, the idea being that the regal authority was being conferred by God, mediated through the Church, to the king in order that the ruler might partake in God’s governance of the temporal order through his office. There were always implications of some sort of vague ecclesial authority on the part of the king, such as the symbolism of the swords used in the Egbertine Order and the allusion to the anointing of Aaron; in the Carolingian ceremonies, it is more defined since the connection between Church and State was stronger.
During this period, 476-800, Europe clearly moved from the Roman sphere into the Germanic sphere of influence. The next section will briefly examine how the transformation of Europe into a German entity altered ideas about kingship and how the Germans contributed to both the rise and fall of theocratic monarchy in the Middle Ages.
1 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History,10.8
2 Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986), 107-108
4 Procopius, Bella, 4, 9, 3
5 McCormick, 246
6 Ibid., 240
8 Ibid., 237
9 Ibid., 309
10 Ibid., 321
11 Herbert Thurston, “Coronation,” In “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, vol. 4, ed. Charles G. Herbermann (Robert Appleton Co.: New York, 1908), 380
12 Ibid., 382
13 This ideal is very prominent in the coronation ceremony of the Russian czars as well, which was influenced greatly by Byzantine coronation orders. The metropolitan bishop prays as he presents the crown to the czar: “Most God-fearing, absolute and mighty Lord, Emperor of all the Russians, this visible and tangible adornment of thy head is an eloquent symbol that thou as the head of the whole Russian people art invisibly crowned by the King of Kings, Christ, with a most ample blessing, seeing that He bestows upon thee entire authority over His people” (ibid., 386).
14Another example of Byzantine Caesaropapism comes from the “Life of St. Euthymios”, a 10th century Patriacrh of Constantinople. Euthymios says to the emperor: “It is right, sire, to obey your orders and receive your decisions as emanating from the will and providence of God. For the king’s heart is in the hand of God.” Vita S. Euthymii, 1
15 Maximus Confessor, “Selected Writings”, Translated by George C. Berthold, (Paulist Press: Mahwah, N.J., 1985), 17
17Herbert Thurston, “Coronation,” In “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, vol. 4, ed. Charles G. Herbermann (Robert Appleton Co.: New York, 1908), 381
20The imagery of the Christian emperor as a new David goes back to Ambrose, who compared the military victories of Theodosius I to the triumphs of Joshua, Samuel and David, “by the outpouring of heavenly grace.” ( St. Ambrose, Letter 62) Coins and inscriptions from the reign of Herakleios depict him as a new David.
21Herbert Thurston, “Coronation,” In “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, vol. 4, ed. Charles G. Herbermann (Robert Appleton Co.: New York, 1908), 382
22 The legend is that a miraculous vapor arose from the head of the king after he was anointed with oil, which those present took as a supernatural portent (ibid.).
24This may be a take on the popular “Two Sword” theory of the Middle Ages, which will be expounded on later.
25The king took three oaths as he was presented with the three swords. After each oath, the people present responded with a hearty “Amen.” The oaths corresponded to rule of the state, defense of the Church and extension of mercy, as the swords symbolized. “First, that the Church of God and all Christian folk should keep true peace at all times. Amen. The second is that he should forbid all robbery and all unrighteous things to all orders. Amen. The third is that he should enjoin in all his dooms justice and mercy, that the gracious and merciful God, of His everlasting mercy, may show pardon to us all. Amen.” (ibid.)
26“It was then that he [Charlemagne] received the titles of Emperor and Augustus, to which he at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.” Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 28
27Herbert Thurston, “Coronation,” In “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, vol. 4, ed. Charles G. Herbermann (Robert Appleton Co.: New York, 1908), 385