Judith Herrin has given us in this substantial but very readable book a superb survey of the period in which the conditions for the emergence of mediaeval Europe came together—roughly the four centuries from 450 to 850 a.d.footnote1 In one sense the book is also a contribution to the genealogy of what we think of as the distinctively European ideologies, left and right, of our own day, though these wider issues are only hinted at. Herrin underlines the specifically Western phenomena that set European ‘Christendom’ over against the Byzantine world and early Islam alike—the lack of a single well-defined locus of sovereign power other than the ‘para-state’ of the Church, territorial division, limited and contractual models of authority—and shows with consummate skill how these emerge in the interaction of the new Germanic kingdoms, the papacy and the empire, and how the empire’s structure is itself modified in its confrontation with Islam in such a way that space is left for the former western provinces to find new patterns of power relations and a highly distinctive ideology, fuelled by tensions absent from both Byzantium and Islam.

The collapse of the Roman imperium in the Western provinces meant that a vacuum appeared in secular political power: civic authorities either dissolved themselves or retreated from their responsibilities. Public works and charities, the administration of justice, and sometimes control of markets in the towns became the charge of the only surviving group to combine basic organizational skills with a powerfully reinforced sense of responsibility—the Christian clergy. Their increasingly central role in urban life guaranteed the survival of towns and their markets as a competitive element within the overall patterns of feudal production in the Middle Ages (p. 73). The eastern empire presents a sharp contrast: there too there is a weakening of traditional civic administration, and in some remoter districts bishops play a role similar to the one they have in the West. But the empire retains a coherent civil service and a large army; so the long-term solution to the problems of decaying or vulnerable administration is a militarizing of local government, so that towns become essentially ‘garrisons and provincial capitals for the protection of the surrounding villages’ (p. 204). Thus, whereas in the West the pressure of barbarian invasion makes eventually for economic creativity, in the East the threats posed first by Persia, then by Islam, produce dramatic recession—because paradoxically, the imperium in the East is organizationally so much stronger.

That strength is both expressed and nourished by the ideology of the emperor as focus and manifestation of cosmic order, as the visible image or participant of divine power—an ideology classically formulated by the historian Eusebius in the fourth century, and surviving with unabated force for over a millennium. Imperial authority is directly delegated from God, and there is therefore no possibility of pluralism in sovereignty or in ideology within the imperium. In principle, the monarch is the sole focus of political meanings—indeed of human meanings—in the inhabited world: he is the channel through which the divine pattern of the universe reproduces itself among human beings. As has often been observed, monotheism is brought into the service of a unitary account of the derivation of political authority (one god, one basileus). And the correlate of the centralizing and militarizing of government in the sixth and seventh centuries is a succession of imperial attempts to enforce doctrinal conformity. This is both a necessary demonstration of the emperor’s authority as inspired teacher and (to a degree perhaps rather underrated by Herrin, at least in respect of Justinian’s theological programme) a struggle to conciliate dissidents, especially in volatile frontier areas, by reworking earlier doctrinal declarations. The unwillingness of successive popes to co-operate uncritically in these enterprises shows how far the papacy—never in the forefront of ‘Eusebian’ ideology—had moved from the endorsement of a single sacralized imperium.

The papacy’s alienation was more than intellectual. Byzantium’s inability to protect its Italian territories against the Lombards left the papacy, from about 600 onwards, to organize its own defence—sometimes by the simple expedient of paying, arming and training the residual troops of the empire, increasingly by diplomacy, first with the Lombards, then with the revitalized Frankish kingdom. The culmination of this process, thanks to the political genius of the eighth-century popes, was the confirmation of a ‘special relationship’ between the papacy and the Carolingian kings, dramatically sealed in the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome in 800; by which time, many erstwhile Byzantine territories had become part of a respublica Romana, an embryonic papal state, and the Lombard kingdom had disintegrated. This alliance with the Carolingian dynasty is significant in more than purely pragmatic terms. The papacy had in effect offered legitimation to the Frankish kings, but a negotiated legitimation, and so a conditional one. On the one hand we have a Germanic kingdom with fluid territorial boundaries and, after the replacement of the Merovingians, a ruling house with little in the way of tradition, let alone sacrality to support it, but with considerable energy and cultural vitality. On the other there is the only institution in Western Europe which can, as an institution, claim the legacy of imperium, with the added sanction of dispensing the promises of eternal reward and punishment, inheriting the apostolic authority of St. Peter. The king cannot, in the nature of the case, be given imperium in anything like the Byzantine sense, because there is no underlying commitment to a unitary polity, the image of a single political order; this is contradicted by the sheer facts of the situation, as well as by the developed tradition of papal refusal to accept the emperor’s doctrinal authority. But the king can be given a favoured status (originally by the conferral of the title ‘patrician’ and the spiritual relation of compaternitas—the pope acting as godfather to the royal children) dependent upon his commitment to the defence of St Peter’s patrimony (the territorial rights of the pope).

It is this idea of conditional legitimation that represents the novelty of Western European polity—the theological expression of that diffused sovereignty already discussed, the socio-economic base of the feudal town-and-country relations. Political authority is conceived as answerable to something other than the interest of the group in which it directly operates. Theologically, this looks back to Augustine’s City of God, with its ideal of the ruler as pastor of souls and servant of the Church; more specifically, it is the programme advanced by Isidore of Seville in the Spanish Visigothic kingdom of the early seventh century (though Judith Herrin fails to pick up the full Augustinian resonances of Isidore’s language and so gives the latter undue credit for originality). As pastor and churchman, the king has the right and duty to be active in promoting ecclesiastical reform, but does not have authority over the Church. Thus when Charlemagne finally receives an imperial crown and title, and assumes the general role of defender of the faith in the West, his authority, insofar as it is religiously legitimized, is firmly within the terms approved by ecclesiastical orthodoxy as understood in Rome. What is more, the title of emperor and the brief flourishing of a kind of Romanitas at Charlemagne’s court do not strike deep roots: the legitimation of a monarchy in these terms can and does apply beyond the Frankish kingdom—wherever a monarch accepts the Augustinian or Isidorean view of what his role is—so that a single ‘empire’ in the West never becomes a serious political reality. Spanish kings—and later, Anglo-Saxon kings—were anointed to their dignity by bishops, in a ritual deliberately recalling biblical precedent rather than imperial models; and anointing, combined with the elective and contractual elements of Germanic kingship in general in these centuries, served to consolidate a pattern of limited territorial powers, a plurality of monarchies dependent upon, and also constantly liable to challenge from, a theology articulated by what I have earlier called the ‘para-state’ of the Catholic Church. The neo-classical rationalism (what is sometimes called the Whiggery) of Aquinas’s political theory, the theological coolness about the mystique of royal authority that characterized the Middle Ages, the theologies of legitimate resistance or even revolt developed by late mediaeval Augustinians, all reflect the fact that the papacy of the eighth century was in a position to prescribe the terms under which it would sanction civil authority, and that the western provinces had long since lost any lively sense of possibility of a unitary imperium.

All this reminds us that concepts of legitimation are far more fluid than textbook sociology might suggest. What it means for religious rhetoric to offer ‘legitimacy’ will itself depend on the specificities of political history and the nature of particular religious institutions; so that the Byzantine Church’s ideological role is profoundly different from that of mediaeval Catholicism. Theories of the divine delegation of royal power are relative latecomers on the Western European scene (mediaeval imperialists, anti-papal theorists like Wyclif, Renaissance ‘nationalists’ all argued that the sovereign as source of positive law is above the law and so directly answerable to God); so that in one area at least the Enlightenment critique of inherited or traditional authority retrieves a much older style of argument. Indeed, it could be said—though this is to go a good way beyond what Herrin claims—that there is a characteristic European interest in the justifying of claims that has something to do with the theological conviction not simply (as is sometimes said) of the contingency of the created order but of the contingency of prevailing political arrangements. There is at least a possible disjunction between appearance and reality, and a consequent fear and suspicion of ‘idolatrous’ misperception, traceable in late mediaeval science, in Lutheranism, in the whole tradition of epistemological anxiety that pervades European philosophy, in the Marxian accounts of fetishism and objectification. Lucien Goldmann classically observed the interaction in seventeenthcentury France between uncertainty and mobility in social status, philosophical scepticism, and ‘tragic’, voluntaristic styles of religious belief (the unknowability of God, the hiddenness of providence); if the above reading of the early Middle Ages is right, this particular interaction is part of a much longer history.

But there is one issue which concentrates all these questions with unusual intensity, and Herrin is right to use it as a kind of climax to her study. Attitudes to sacred images in East and West carry, explicitly and implicitly, understandings of cosmology and of political power; the fierce debates over the veneration of icons in eighth and ninth-century Byzantium, and their western repercussions, bring these understandings into focus. The Byzantine world had quite rapidly developed a cultus of icons: images of Christ and the saints were both powerful protectors of threatened cities and communities and accessible signs of meaning (separable from a public cult administered by professionals; Herrin has written well, here and elsewhere, about the role of women in the development of devotion to icons). Insofar as there existed a theory for icon worship it related to the capacity of the material order to reveal the spiritual—a capacity grounded not only in creation in general but in God the Son’s incarnation in a material body. Icon-worship is thus bound up with a socially unifying and epistemologically optimistic metaphysic; it is often defended by appeal to the analogy of the veneration given to portraits of the monarch. The image participates in the life and power of what it depicts and diffuses that power beyond the immediate sphere inhabited by the prototype. Herrin argues that the official repudiation of icons for substantial periods in the eighth and ninth centuries is motivated by two factors: the critical condition of the empire, now in retreat in the face of Islam, and a bad conscience about Islamic (and Jewish?) criticism of Christians as idolaters. These are of course connected: if the holy images are not doing their job, are they not then deceits, false appearances? Christ is represented truly, the iconoclasts held, by the symbol of the cross and by the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. Thus the danger of a full-scale scepticism or pessimism about the ‘invisibility’ of the holy is warded off by appeal to an abstract symbolism and a public liturgy; and the emperor’s authority remains unquestioned, or if anything, reinforced by his role as purifier of the cult, as himself a ‘true’ imitator of Christ.