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This is why the Bible was important in medieval politics

In contemporary politics, Bible verses are sometimes used to mobilize supporters or to support political decisions. More recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify this administration’s policy of separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents. Later that same day, Close. Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the attorney general’s sessions pointing to biblical injunctions that urge people to obey the law.

In response, opponents of the policy pointed to the problematic (modern) history of the use of this verseor focused on the need to correctly contextualize what Paul may have meant in his letter to the Romans.

We could also seek to Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), known to fill his Twitter feed with individual Bible verses. This, as expected, caused certain groups to ask him to stop and leads others to pretend that he is misusing/ misunderstanding the scriptures.

The debate here doesn’t really seem to be about the Bible per se. What I mean is that no one really claims that the Bible does not to say that (although perhaps they should, given the acts of interpretation required of any translation). Instead, the argument really centers on interpretation – what this verse means. And discussing how best to understand the Bible as it relates to politics has a very, very long history.

Although there are many examples from earlier periods, I have recently been struck by the tradition – and arguments – around Bible verses used in the Middle Ages, particularly how they were used by the King of France in the end of the 11th century to say a lot about the memory, the power, the legitimacy and the proper role of religion in politics.

The story begins with a king – Philip I of France (1060-1108). He was an extremely interesting character for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that in 1092 he fled with the wife of the Count of Anjou and took her as his own. This arrangement was further complicated by the fact that King Philip I was also already married. Nevertheless, he rejects his first wife (Berthe de Hollande) and remarries, this time with Bertrade de Montfort.

The papacy was not happy about this, the family of Philip’s first wife (which included the powerful Count of Flanders) were not happy about this and perhaps understandably the Count of Anjou was not particularly happy of that. Philip, I had to be careful.

This therefore makes one of the first official documents he issued after his marriage all the more curious as it conveys surprising strength and confidence.

It’s a weird document.

The document itself details a donation to the monastery of Marmoutier in Tours, France. It’s weird because Marmoutier was a monastery that wasn’t really aligned with the king, but it was related to the Count of Anjou – the ex-(or possibly still-) husband of Philippe’s new wife .

The document is also bizarre, it directly quotes verses from the Bible, which was very rare in contemporary royal documents of this type. It begins with a reference to Romans 13:1 (!) to say that all power comes from God, but connects this verse to Book of Wisdom 6:7 and the suffering that the powerful must endure, before concluding with a crude paraphrase Luke 12:48 which reminds the reader that with great power comes great responsibility.

Context is important here. The fact that Bible verses are do not common in these royal documents warns us that something special, something important is going on here. Why here and why now?

And that brings us back to tradition. And in the nearly 1,000 years of Christian commentary before our 11th-century donation to the monastery of Marmoutier, only one other author – 1 – links these specific verses together. It is a letter from an archbishop to a king, dating from the end of the ninth century.

In this letter, the Archbishop directly linked these verses as mirrors of each other. They were a challenge and a warning. They reminded the king of the burdens of his office, of the responsibility the king owed to God who had put him on the throne and to the people he ruled. But the verses were also meant to comfort the king. If the king acted in the name of God, God would support him with victories and prosperity.

So what does all this mean?

If we read the Bible verses from the 11th century document in this tradition, we can see that our author was conjuring up the ghosts of the past. The 11th century author used these Bible verses to suggest that his king sat squarely, rightfully in tradition. Philip I was like his ninth-century predecessors and perhaps even like the ideal King David, who himself took another man’s wife and always found favor with God.

In other words, these three brief biblical references taken together, put into proper historical context and read into their tradition, said that Philip I – in taking his new wife, in patronizing this new monastery – was acting entirely within his rights, that his power derived from God and that he would in fact be rewarded for acting as he did. In other words, these three brief biblical references taken together, put into proper historical context, and read as part of their tradition, say much, much more than they appear.

Ultimately, we must remember that Bible verses, when referenced in political or cultural contexts, are never “naked.” The tradition they are clothed in shimmers like a prism, appearing differently depending on your particular vantage point. The person who unfolded this verse, however, is counting on his audience looking at the prism just right, the refracted light just so, revealing the truth of what this verse “really means.” By paying attention to the context and tradition when we see these verses, we can begin to see more colors displayed and therefore more of what is actually going on. And this is as important a lesson for understanding the medieval world as it is for understanding ours.