The state of medieval Europe around the time of Pope Boniface VIII represents a tumultuous time in history with dramatic struggles occurring between the secular ideas of a growing number of individuals, groups, and leaders against the once-dominant influence of the Catholic Church. While politics has been mostly dictated by papal authority, following the beginning of the paradigm shift that favored the localities and nations over the supreme rule of the divine as expressed through the Popes, medieval Europe was making a permanent break with centuries of political and social tradition.
This shift was due to a growing number of advantages the secular authorities possessed—advantages that would eventually topple the supreme authority of the Catholic Church, which ushered in a period of secular change. Furthermore, as cities and towns began to flourish and more artisans and skilled tradesman changed the nature of economics, among other elements in medieval culture, institutions of higher learning that emphasized philosophy and thought began to grow. These produced an ever-increasing din of new voices that were calling into question what it meant to be a subject, and more importantly, what power was most correct to be subject to.
One of the greatest sources of change that signaled a dawn of growing movement toward secularism in the medieval period were the increased assertions by monarchies that political power should rest in the hands of the state and not the Church. In response to what was being seen as an aggressive grab at their historically undisturbed position of power, the Catholic Church, led by Pope Boniface VII, issued a decree that in order to find peace and salvation in heaven, all citizens had to obey and become subjects of the Pope. This was something of an ill-timed and overly aggressive statement at a point when states were consolidating power.
Monarchs such as King Philip IV of France reacted with the most resistance and took broad moves to institute policies of secularism. This sparked a war of policy initiatives between Boniface VII and Philip IV with each taking bold moves to retain authority. For instance, Philip abolished all church personnel and clergymen from his government and no longer granted a tax exemption to the clergy, who were a broad class of men with more wealth than one might associate as appropriate in our modern times. In reaction, a serious of “wars” between the two men; Philip through his refusal to grant money to Rome, and papal bulls declaring god as the supreme ruler over the state culminated in Boniface’s designation as a heretic and Philip’s excommunication. In short, this was the end between any friendly relationship between France and Rome—a severance that would have a significant impact on more than just politics, but would influence society and culture at large.
The advantage of the nation/state and secularism lie in one clear area in particular–money. Taxes accounted for an enormous portion of Rome’s coffers and through their control of the purse strings and the tax changes Philip made, papal authority lost its bite. Without the direct funds from one of the richest nations in Europe, as well as the significant loss of Rome’s political power that occurred when Philip IV eradicated all traces of theology from his political leadership, there were few options the Catholic Church had to restore their once unquestionable power. There is something so implicitly oppositional about this war between the papal and secular that occurred in France—Philip was fighting with tangible power (his influence over tax money and political positions of power) whereas Boniface was fighting with words, bulls and degrees based on concepts which were intangible (statements about God’s supreme power over the state and excommunication). Furthermore, unlike any other monarch in history, Philip IV had several legal professionals at his counsel who aided him in putting policies in action whereas the dwindling papal authority had only the same structure that had guided it for years that could rely on upon threat of excommunication—something that meant very little to the rationality-minded secular king.
Another more general but equally important change was occurring throughout medieval Europe as many new cities began to rise in prominence. Older cities experienced an economic boom and became thriving centers of commerce where distinct class systems began to emerge, which was a rather new event following the ravages of the Crusades and Black Death. With the rise in these localities, all of which had their own developing class systems based on municipal government-like structures that were emerging, came aspects related to open trade of goods and services. People became skilled artisans and laborers, which led to a more even economic system (although certainly still rigidly structured class-wise). This spawned the development of universities and institutions of learning where the arts and sciences began to flourish and add even more fuel to the fire of increasingly bold secular questions about the nature of power and authority. In short, this period produced a new balance power and this rather more egalitarian (in a very cautious, relative sense) balance permitted another main advantage the secular movement had—more numbers overall.
The advantages for the secular movement, which began in earnest with the massive political backlash by Philip IV against the increasingly desperate actions and bulls issued by Boniface VII, were two-fold. First, by depriving the Catholic Church of its funds gained through a system of extreme taxation, as well as by removing the members of the clergy from political appointments, Philip XI was able to singlehandedly take the first steps to secure an advantage over Rome. Without the valuable funds provided through the taxes of the French people and without any political authority left to reverse this, Rome was left defenseless. While it attempted to excommunicate and provide other “supreme” condemnations, the rational and legal-team-led authority of Philip had secured a perfect advantage. This newly secularized state in official terms, coupled with a period of population growth and other advantages that would be addressed if granted more space, allowed for a rise in the population of cities and towns where distinct classes functioned to further the economy in general and allow for institutions of higher learning to develop and disseminate ideas. This new state of learning versus religious doctrine created a world that we recognize now as far different than the one that existed prior to Philip’s succession to the throne and changed the course of Western history forever.