Neagoe Basarab – Princeps Christianus

The Semantics of 'Christianitas' in Comparison with Erasmus, Luther and Machiavelli (1513–1523)

by Mihai-D Grigore (Author)
©2021 Postdoctoral Thesis XII, 448 Pages
Series: Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy, Volume 6


The field of political theology in the Orthodox traditions of Europe in post-Byzantine times is an almost unknown area. The book offers a comparison of four mirrors for princes from the beginning of the sixteenth century: The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius (1520), Institutio Principis Christiani of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1516), On Secular Authority of Martin Luther (1523) and The Prince of Niccolò Machiavelli (1513). The author thus provides a cross-section of the history of Christian discourse concerning the concept of ‘Princeps Christianus’ in Europe. These works are representative because they show relevant confessional interpretations in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Lutheranism. The main focus is on Neagoe Basarab, Lord of Wallachia between 1512 and 1521. This important author from Orthodox Europe is here brought into conversation with his three famous contemporaries on such topics as humanity, religion, politics, state, subjects, rulers and freedom.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Preface to the English Edition
  • Chapter 1 Introduction: Beyond Concepts
  • Chapter 2 Neagoe Basarab: A Christian Prince in the Early Sixteenth Century
  • Chapter 3 Erasmus of Rotterdam and His Education of a Christian Prince: On the Ethical Theomimesis of the Christian Prince
  • Chapter 4 On Secular Authority: Martin Luther and the Prince as Servant1
  • Chapter 5 Rule and Method: Machiavelli’s Prince and the Dispensable Semantics of Christianitas
  • Chapter 6 Conclusion: Beyond Concepts, in the Thick of Semantics
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Principal Sources
  • Other Sources and Literature
  • Index
  • Series index

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The following study was accepted as a Habilitation thesis by the University of Erfurt in 2013. As is always the case with a project of this scope, this book owes a great deal to a number of individuals and institutions to whom I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude.

I wish to thank Berndt Hamm, my doctoral adviser at the University of Erlangen, who was the first to believe in this idea. I wish also to thank Vasilios N. Makrides for the energy, skill and dynamism with which he accompanied me throughout the Habilitation process, and for accepting this book into the series in which it was originally published, the Erfurter Studien zur Kulturgeschichte des Orthodoxen Christentums. Thanks are due to the readers of this second dissertation, Alexander Thumfart and Wolfgang Dahmen. I am grateful to Wolfgang Reinhard, Hans Joas, Hans Kippenberg and Michael Borgolte, with whom I spent two inspiring years at the Max-Weber-Kolleg – two years that exerted a decisive influence on my research project. I would like to thank Hans G. Ulrich of the University of Erlangen for enriching conversations on political ethics. Nor should I forget the crucial part played by Nikos Panou of Stony Brook University in developing the chapter on Neagoe Basarab. Thanks are due to Patrick J. Geary of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, for his kindness in facilitating contacts with historians of south-eastern Europe.

The generous support I enjoyed was not only personal in nature, but also institutional. Foundations were laid during my time at the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt, where I benefited from enormously productive exchanges with my colleagues. The University of Erfurt subsequently supported me with a Christoph Martin Wieland Fellowship. I would particularly like to thank the Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University, and especially its executive director Dimitri Gondicas, for having placed at my disposal the Center’s excellent infrastructure for both research and networking. My time there as Stanley Seeger Visiting Fellow contributed decisively to the completion of this book’s key section, that on Neagoe Basarab. Above ←ix | x→all, however, I wish to thank the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, and particularly Irene Dingel, the director of the Department of Religious History, for providing such an inspiring environment in which to continue my research on the history of Christianity in south-eastern Europe.

I would not have been able to bring this undertaking to a successful conclusion had it not been for the indispensable and indefatigable efforts of my proofreaders. My deepest gratitude thus goes to my wife, Birgit Grigore, my Erlangen friend of many years, Johannes Frey, and to Saskia Steinbeck of the Leibniz Institute of European History.

Mainz, May 2015

Mihai-D. Grigore

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Preface to the English Edition

It is a great pleasure to see one’s book appear in English with a major publisher. For this to come to pass has required much hard work on the part of several excellent professionals, whom I would like to take this opportunity to thank.

My thanks are due above all to Hermann Ühlein, my German editor at Peter Lang. Not only did he have a decisive role to play in the publication of this book’s original German edition, but he was also instrumental in launching its successful entry for a translation grant from the association of the German book trade – the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels – for whose support I am most grateful. I wish to thank Graham Speake and René Gothóni for kindly accepting this monograph as part of the Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy series. Dr Speake also offered his generous and expert guidance in seeing this translation through its various stages. Lucy Melville, Publishing Director at Peter Lang Oxford, was crucial to this book’s successful production. Meanwhile, the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz provided me with the infrastructure necessary to complete this project. I am particularly grateful to Irene Dingel, the director of the Institute.

Special credit is due to the efforts of Joe Paul Kroll, who succeeded admirably in translating some extremely difficult – not to say hermetic – theoretical, theological, patristic and philosophical arguments into English while not letting himself be confounded by the complexities of south-east European history. It has been a pleasure working with him, and I am grateful for his kindness, diligence and cooperation as well as his expertise.

I wish to express my warmest thanks to all the above and to many others whom I have not mentioned by name – and to all in the certainty that this important achievement in my academic life would not have been possible without them.

Mihai-D. Grigore

Mainz, October 6, 2020

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Introduction: Beyond Concepts

This project’s hermeneutic contribution consists not in demonstrating how atomised – in a deconstructive sense – are such blanket terms as ‘Christianity’, ‘Christianitas’, ‘Protestantism’, ‘Orthodoxy’ and the like. Its challenge rather consists in explaining how manifold plurality in Europe might sometimes nonetheless allow surprising instances of parallelism or simultaneity to emerge or persist. Within the framework of a distinct ‘European history of religions’ (as opposed to a ‘history of religions in Europe’),1 the present study seeks to examine how differences are formed and emphases overlap within a particular semantic field of European Christianity, and how its particularities and specificities emerge.

On the one hand, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf2 has already called attention to the fact there are no such things as religions – in an essentialist understanding of that term – or even denominations. What we are faced with are rather local or regional configurations of accents, emphases, peculiarities, influences, hybrids and processes of transfer and communication, which must be considered and understood in their diversity and complexity. Such a diagnosis applies to virtually any religious form found in Europe, irrespective of era or place. On the other hand, we are aware of the presence of concepts that likewise exerted an influence over European cultures across time and space. They still do so, for Europe has always been in possession of a so-called ‘political language’ by which complex communication and the understanding of historical events were mediated or which even determined them.3

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What I am concerned with above all are those mechanisms which, in terms of the study of religion, can be regarded as forms of the emergence and efficiency of norms in the political theology of the early sixteenth century. An instance of this process can be found in Christianitas, the idea of the Christian faith of the European peoples, which conferred something of a shared sense of identity on pre-modern Europe. Notwithstanding all due caution against generalisations, the integrative and normative power of this concept simply cannot be ignored. But what does Christianitas actually mean?

Though it is ubiquitous in early modern Europe, the term ‘Christianitas’ seems strangely elusive. That discussion surrounding it might be approached from three different angles testifies to the fact that this syntagma is far from being self-explanatory. Attempts to address it out of context soon meet with insurmountable obstacles; further points of reference are needed.

First, Christianitas can be considered as a geopolitical dimension, to the extent that Europe is regarded (often from outside)4 as the one continent that was historically largely Christian.5 As an idea, ‘Europe’ was associated with the continent’s progressive Christianisation, a process today discussed as the ‘making of Europe’, in which Christianisation is understood as a form of political consolidation.6

The development of Christendom consisted of more than the spread of a new religion. Numerous scholars have pointed out that the ninth to the eleventh or twelfth centuries was the period of the ‘birth of Europe’: the political units that took shape then continued with some variations to become Europe as we know it.7

Accordingly, Europa Christiana was used to denote a unity of faith and largely also of (political) culture8 whose geographical frontiers, though contested, were fairly well defined.

The Ebstorf Map, a fourteenth-century mappa mundi, depicts Europe as a continent whose civilisation is ordered and unified by roads and cities ←2 | 3→and which is situated on the right hand of the risen Christ.9 Christianitas long served the traditions of Europe as a medium of communication founded on shared values; as such, it symbolically and declaratively placed Europe on the world stage as a whole.10 There was then – as there is now – a discourse of ‘European values’, of the ‘cultural values of Europe’, of ‘Europe’s cultural and intellectual roots’.11

Given the absence or indeed impossibility of a ‘value-neutral concept of Europe’, it seems not at all far-fetched to consider ‘Europe’ first of all as a ‘historical idea’.12 St Augustine and the entire tradition inaugurated by him considered Europe to be an oikumene bounded in the East by the river Don. Contemporaries in the Middle Ages and early modern period saw this boundary as separating not only Europe and Asia, but also the world of Christian faith from that of the infidel or heathen.13 In the account of his voyage to meet the Mongol khan, the Franciscan Wilhelm von Rubruk (d. 1270) wrote of the Christian world ending at the Tanaïs (Don).

On the other hand, Europeans of the early modern age became increasingly aware of their continent’s geographically small stature. Against the background of this realisation, Christian Europe came to think of itself as having an eschatological destiny for the benefit of the wider world. Steadily, we find late medieval authors referring to the mission of the ‘Europeans’ to Christianise the world.14

This reflects an increasing awareness that Europa Christiana was no longer as self-evident as it had been at the time of the Crusades. Europe now faced multiple threats, from the Tatars and Ottomans as well as from internecine religious conflict. Multiple levels of perception began to open up. People had to come to terms with the idea that, for instance, Christian cultures persisted under the non-Christian rule of the Ottomans, which meant that the idea of a unified Europa Christiana was consigned to the past. Among the conceptions of Europa Christiana that sought to ←3 | 4→accommodate this reality under the impression of the perpetual Ottoman threat was locating the European boundary at the lower Danube, where so-called ‘free Christendom’ was now said to begin. The notion of the Danubian Principalities as the ‘gateway to Christendom’ has remained influential in European historiography to this day.15

Yet Christianitas may also be understood as having – secondly – an anthropological frame of reference in human beings themselves. Christianitas thus appears as a horizon for action that is both existential and practical, a way of life that is proposed to and indeed expected of adherents of the Christian faith. At issue is the conformity of individuals, but also of communities, to a canon of virtues and attitudes going back to the person of Christ, the archetype of the Christian ‘new man’. The task is to make Christ present among human beings repeatedly and at all times, to instantiate and perpetuate Him in His historicity. Moreover, how else to do so but in the improved humanity of the God-man, the imitation of whom is the task of all human beings? The Christian – to amplify an idea of Martin Luther – is Christ Himself, Christ-like or indeed equal to Christ, a Christomimetes, a Homoousios.

This second complex of Christianitas contains a third, namely its anthropological and political reference with its strong ethical implications, in which the above-mentioned instantiation of Christ is brought to bear specifically in political life. The Christian state conceives of itself as a concentric entity built around the archetype of Christ, who on the one hand is active and effective in a generalised form in each political subject. On the other hand, Christ is imagined as ruling among human beings in intensified presence and guiding their destiny in the shape of the Christian ruler. It is from this third aspect that my study takes its cue.

The present book is structured around the comparison of four well-known ‘how-to books’ or ‘mirrors for princes’16 published in continental ←4 | 5→Europe in the early sixteenth century: The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius (c. 1520), Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince, 1516), Martin Luther’s Von weltlicher Obrigkeit (On Secular Authority, 1523) and finally Il Principe (The Prince, 1513) by Niccolò Machiavelli. The point of common reference here is the normative concept of the Princeps Christianus, that is to say, how each author imagines the ruler to relate to Christ. To be a ‘Christian ruler’ derives its justification, legitimacy and purpose from the ruler’s quality of being able to re-present17 Christ Himself, time and again to make Him actively present in the state.

The idea of comparing Basarab’s mirror for princes with those of Erasmus or Machiavelli is not a new one.18 Dan Zamfirescu, the Slavist and Basarab scholar, is only one Romanian voice to have expressed such a desideratum, but it has so far remained unfulfilled. Scholarship was caught in endless debates on textual criticism or linguistics, or – worse still – gradually lost interest in Basarab as a character supposedly ‘over-studied’ in his native Romania. The volume produced to mark the 500th anniversary of Basarab’s coronation as ruler of Wallachia,19 published by the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate from a sense of somewhat reluctant obligation to the prince it canonised in 2008,20 had a laughably small print run and ←5 | 6→was not free of clerical and hagiographic bias. A comprehensive analysis of the content of Basarab’s work is still outstanding, not to speak of a comparative perspective that would consider Basarab as a participant in a pan-European discourse and debate on normative Christian references in the exercise of power.

Against the background of a general discussion that rightly seeks to prevent the reification of Europa Christiana by emphasising the regional, confessional and religious diversity of ‘Christendom’ past and present, this study attempts a new approach. My inclusion of Basarab assumes that Christianitas may nonetheless be sustained as a geopolitical term as long as it is considered in its plurality, its polyvalence, and is understood as a mesh of interrelated phenomena. From this it follows that to speak of Europa Christiana would make no sense if the continent’s south-eastern, Orthodox21 part was to be excluded.22 That part is to be thought of as in no way exotic, new, different, fascinating, special or even peculiar, but rather is Europe and ought as a matter of course to be treated as belonging to the European whole.23

The example of Basarab’s mirror for princes testifies to the fact that the traditions of south-eastern Europe are not so different at all in their history, their religious discourses and the history of their Churches. Basarab ←6 | 7→also shows that Orthodox Christianity was preoccupied with the same theological and political issues as the rest of Europe and participated in and responded to these debates. Far from representing ‘the other’ Europe, it was every bit as European as, say, its Catholic, Lutheran or Calvinist traditions. To borrow a pointed question from Vasilios N. Makrides: ‘Is Orthodox Eastern and South Eastern Europe so different from the Latin West that it needs to be examined on its own, separately?’24

Considering ‘modernity’ not as a historical caesura or epoch within a linear conception of time, but rather in its etymological relationship with the Latin modus, opens up an understanding of modernity as a manner of being of one’s time. To do so changes the terms of the discussion and helps to realise that every era in the history of the world was somehow and at its time ‘modern’ itself. Such ‘modernity’ is to be imagined not as a radical break, but rather as a continuing process of bringing human ways of life up to date.25

Bearing this in mind, a study of Prince Basarab offers a twofold approach to Wallachian modernity or, to be more precise, Wallachian proto-modernity. On the one hand, Basarab and his mirror for princes fit squarely into a European trend that uses the form of the specula principum to scrutinise the syntagma Princeps Christianus. On the other hand, Basarab’s reign is when the first signs of a Wallachian ‘proto-modernity’ – this time indeed understood chronologically – are discernible. The key factors here are a distinct ‘internalisation of rule’ and the regulatory use of a variety of measures and procedures in the practice of rule. There certainly are peculiarities to this ‘modernity’, for instance the absence of secularisation,26 which suggest that we would do well to keep in mind Shmuel N. Eisenstadt’s idea of ‘multiple modernities’.27

Careful readers will have noticed that this comparison is framed as a synchronous look28 at the ‘career’ of a normative term in the history of ←7 | 8→European Christianity – the term ‘Princeps Christianus’. The chronology of this account is of secondary importance to the extent that the authors considered here did not know each other, the exception being Erasmus and Luther. This study is conceived as a cross-section through the history of Christian discourses at the European level. For this purpose, I have chosen, as it were, four snapshots – four works of the same genre that were written independently of each other within ten years. They are representative because of their confessional connotations of south-east European Orthodoxy, (humanist) Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism respectively.

The hermeneutic interest in the comparison lies in the limits against which key concepts run up as well as in the historical determination of religious discourses, as seen from the perspective of the study of religion. What happens to the discourse dynamics when Basarab, Erasmus or Luther speaks of the ‘Christian prince’, but their meanings diverge to varying degrees? How are analogue conclusions possible under conditions of mutual ignorance? At stake here is the key question of the diffusion of religious ideas throughout history, which from shared sources (Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, classical and Hellenistic authors) draw different conclusions, while also displaying some remarkable instances of agreement. Accordingly, the present study also considers the author’s historical milieu or the textual history of each particular work.

Another question observant readers might ask is why a comparison should be made with Machiavelli, an author who may well be described as indifferent to Christianity. Yet the answer is already contained in the question: if we are to reach an understanding of the norms and duties imposed by early modern European cultures, it is crucial to observe how the decisive realm of politics becomes uncoupled from Christian theology, how political discourse becomes indifferent to Christianity and how new lines of epistemic and theoretical argumentation come to be articulated. The choice of Machiavelli was guided by the following question: what is it that causes the theoretical potential of Christian political theology to become exhausted and causes the Florentine segredario to take a different turn? And why did this occur in the sixteenth century, thoroughly religious as it was?

The crucial part here is played not by the ‘rationalisation of Christian theology’ of which Rodney Stark has spoken. According to Stark, reason ←8 | 9→had been thought of as God’s most important gift to man, allowing the latter to explore Creation and put it to his own use. This was supposedly the precondition of (technological and economic) progress.29

My argument, on the other hand, is that Christian theology, which in spite of the space it gave to reason was still preoccupied with matters transcendent and otherworldly, did not per se prepare the ground for the early modern idea of progress. The preconditions of the early modern renewal were rather the sensualisation of religion,30 the incorporation of human experience and sensory observation and the development of methods for deriving knowledge from immanence and applying that knowledge to the calculation and prediction of the future. In Machiavelli’s case, we can observe the attempt to develop a method by which the history of the world and the future of humankind were to be shaped. His example is indispensable to tracing this transition and the concomitant ‘scientisation’ of political discourse.

Methodologically speaking, the four mirrors for princes discussed here are objects of a ‘thick description’ in which the texts and their contexts are examined with regard to the semantic dimension of the concept of the Princeps Christianus. Of course, this process will also draw upon secondary sources – correspondences, chronicles, accounts or vitae – to ensure that the analysis remains ‘grounded’ in history. It would barely be possible to conceive of a history of ideas that could dispense with a consideration of the intellectual contexts in which ideas live and function. Historical events are reflected in theories, and theories in their turn may make history.31 Accordingly, this study is not intended solely as a contribution to theory formation and hence does not draw exclusively on theoretical writings.32 How these authors are rooted in the microhistory of their surroundings is of crucial importance to the analysis of their works.33

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I decided on a descriptive, cultural-historical34 comparison of four contemporaneous works on a single theme, in the expectation that the comparative method would turn out to be fruitful if trans-regional discourses and problems were traced.35 Although wherever possible I avoid passing judgement on the authors, methods and viewpoints examined here, I do try, in the last chapter, to use the concept of the ‘Christian ruler’ in order to present the semantics of Christianitas as a complex and lively dimension in which to the observe how political, theological, anthropological and biographical aspects are historically interwoven in Europe.

Every comparison needs an organising parameter. Before looking at the materials in which historical thought manifests itself (texts, oral traditions, images, rituals, monuments, memorials etc.) it is necessary to know what are the facts of the matter that are to be examined in the first place.36

In the present study, accordingly, the comparison is structured around the syntagma or even the concept Princeps Christianus, as it is used in the literary genre of mirrors for princes in the early sixteenth century or, to be precise, the years 1513 to 1523.37

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If one decides to pursue a comparative approach, one should do so in the awareness that this is a demanding one indeed,38 and one that comes with certain dangers.39 The objects of comparison are isolated from the complex context of their development and posited as singular, valid bearers of a general principle.40 Consciously or unconsciously, the claim to examine entire phenomena in their complex and interwoven totality is abandoned in favour of ‘surgical’ yet effectively mutilating operations such as ‘selection, abstraction, and detachment from context’.41 Yet this objectification of the points of comparison nonetheless offers an insight into the plausibility of comparison as a method of scholarship in cultural history. For it is indeed the case that

values, norms and symbols receive their contours only by being situated in the context of social practices, their bearers and the conditions under which the latter act. Comparing them reveals information on the historical reality of particular societies. Historical comparison of cultural interpretations of patterns of action thus virtually challenges us to take seriously culture’s dependence on context and to explore the possible connections between cultural and social history.42

If we abandon comparison in the mode of the social sciences, which seeks to find confirmation of general principles, in favour of historical comparison – to adopt Patrick Geary’s polarity – this choice is in favour of the thick description of a cultural context. At issue here is a comparison within a cultural sphere – ‘European Christianitas’– and thus an approach to considering closely related and situated occurrences and discourses. We are in the realm of that ‘comparison between similar things’ which demands that we forgo generalisations:

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Such a comparison helps scholars above all to see the objects of comparison in their nuanced and differentiated complexity and thus to open their eyes to the potential inherent in complex phenomena. Patrick Geary aptly distinguishes between the heuristic and open comparison, on the one hand, and that intended to prove a point or serve as an example, on the other.44

The latter kind of comparison tends to be particularly encouraged by similar cultural contexts. Jörn Rüsen has warned historians that intercultural comparisons were in danger of examining ‘exotic’ cultures only from our perspective. This means applying our own concepts and meanings to other cultures, though these ascriptions are alien and only hamper communication.45 The present analysis has thus set itself the task of focusing on a Christian, European cultural compass centred on shared cultural reference points, for instance on the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers and the authors of Greek and Roman antiquity. In this cultural sphere, to produce advisory literature for rulers in the form of mirrors for princes had already been customary for centuries during the period studied here.

‘Cultures can and should be [however] compared also with regard to the fundamental ideas that define the form and content of reality and of human self-understanding.’46 All the cultures I consider here are European and part of a common history, and here we find them at the beginning of the sixteenth century asking urgent questions about the authenticity of the Christian ruler. This schematic description of the material under consideration here does not preclude difference, specificity and nuance. On the contrary, observing and describing them are central to this study, which incorporates them and traces their concurrence in overarching concepts like Europe, Christianitas and Princeps Christianus. The theoretical assumption, ←12 | 13→here methodically developed in the sense of a history of entanglement (Verflechtungsgeschichte),47 is that there are no such things as closed cultures or cultural spheres, but rather dimensions of interdependence, communication, mobility, exchange, transfer, semantics.

I draw support from the fact that the four authors, though they may not have known one another, referred to more or less the same set of events, personages or ideas – for instance wars (of religion), Pope Leo X, the religious status of secular authority, etc. – and interpreted them in ways that sometimes diverge and sometimes overlap. If I may be permitted to appropriate the terminology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Niklas Luhmann, we are confronted with a manifold bricolage of structures and forms that are subjected to semantic processing. Such interrelatedness stands in the way of clear boundaries and identifications. Though borders seem to recede under scrutiny, the sources do speak in terms of ‘us’ and ‘the others’, of ‘Christians’ and ‘non-Christians’ or indeed ‘infidels’, and inasmuch as they do so, no serious exegesis can afford to ignore these constructions as they are. As long as the sources give an insight into the history of so-called ‘big traditions’, those traditions may be said, in a certain sense, to be. The final chapter will consider the manner in which history is thus depicted, moulded, symbolised and interpreted.

I have tried to make this book’s structure as intuitive as possible. Each one of its four parts examines a single author, and these strands are then tied together in a concluding chapter. Each section is divided broadly into a biographical and historical part, a part concerned with the history of texts and the critique of sources, and finally an analytical part. The main focus of this comparison, however, is on Neagoe Basarab, who is largely unknown, though his importance is considerable. The section devoted to the Prince of Wallachia (1512–1521) opens this study and is approximately three times the length of the sections on Erasmus, Luther or Machiavelli.

The reason for this emphasis is that the only extant research of any note on Basarab is in Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian and modern Greek, and addresses problems and events of which there is little awareness in Western scholarship and which thus require detailed explanation. Moreover, ←13 | 14→Basarab’s mirror for princes is simply far longer than those of his better-known contemporaries. It is also worth remembering that of the four authors who write of the (Christian) prince and how he is to behave and rule, only Basarab was himself a prince. Experience, which Machiavelli extolled as an essential epistemic category, is a quality that Basarab possessed in a form that sheds entirely new light on the Florentine’s much-vaunted ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’. Seen from that perspective, the present study may be seen as something of an exercise in popularisation,48 all the more so for having been completed in 2012, the year in which the 500th anniversary of Basarab’s accession to the throne was celebrated.

I shall leave it to the conclusion to provide a theoretical underpinning for my analytical instrument, the ‘semantics of Christianitas’, which will follow from the theoretical discussion of the insights gained in the preceding chapters. Some of the central terms used in this study nonetheless warrant a brief definition beforehand.

Politics, the political, public sphere. The concept of the ‘political’ to which this study refers is founded on the fact of common human existence and the forms of association that it engenders. These forms enable institutionalisation, semanticisation, agency, symbolisation, organisation and, finally, the existence of a public sphere, all of which are dimensions of the political. The political thus appears as the framework of the public sphere that forms human existence. Human existence takes place and is fulfilled as shared public existence49 – not by individuals, but by persons.

In the Christian cultures of early (as opposed to late) modern Europe, the public sphere as the medium of political discourse was subjected to norms rather than being a free or neutral space in which actions, values, ←14 | 15→norms, rules and procedures might be negotiated.50 It was no ‘level playing field’ in which forces and tensions might be balanced, but rather a space that was centred and organised, a predetermined space. We are talking about a cultural and historical dimension that was dependent on the faith in Christ with all its implications. People in pre-modern societies had no notion of a state as distinct from the social system of hopes, desires, symbols and norms. This system turns individuals into political persons: ‘Human beings are animals which, by virtue of being embedded from the outset in public networks of social relationships, first develop the competences that make them into persons.’51

The ‘political’ accordingly appears as a semantic field of ‘politics’ and the ‘public sphere’, in which communication forms the bond between members of a political community. In the first book of his Politics, Aristotle recognised this decisive role played by communication between actors in the field of the political.52 Politics, the political and the public sphere are made possible, according to Aristotle, by language. It is only by language – that is, by communication – that human beings can form states and thus become ‘state-building creatures’.53 I accordingly find the description of politics as communicatio politica by William of Moerbecke, the first translator into Latin of Aristotle’s Politics, to be very apt indeed.54

My notion of the political is situated between, on the one hand, an idealism that treats it as a transcendent idea, a metaphysical ‘locus philosophiae’, in Claude Lefort’s term,55 beyond the immanence of human society and the world, and on the other hand the socio-political liberalism of Jürgen Habermas or Niklas Luhmann, in which the political is imagined as a pure process of societal communication.56 According to this latter ←15 | 16→conception, the political represents the societal process of a constantly renewed distribution of power between social actors, who are driven by their interests and the institutions regulating them.

The political, as it is understood in the present study, is what Alf Lüdtke has called a ‘social practice’ encompassing objectified obligations, norms, values and concepts.57 Society and culture enact the political in a set of normative and ideal obligations whose emergence and interpretation may be culturally specific, but which may take on lives of their own and be generalised across cultures.58 This, for instance, is the case with such ideas as ‘Christian rule’ or the Princeps Christianus in the period I am examining here.

Recent scholarship in political science distinguishes three levels at which the political unfolds and works:

First, we find ourselves at the level of the subjectivity of political persons, of ‘the people’, of ‘subjects’. With their attitudes, desires and proclivities, whose political effects can be detected in ‘basic attitudes’ and ‘valuation patterns’, they shape the political in a decisive manner.59

At the second level, we are faced with the symbolisation of the political as a ‘public space of significances’.60 This means that the world in which we live is signified and symbolically implied through the prism of meaning that is either found or created.61

Finally, the political appears as the ‘institutional framing’ of public communication, of balance, equity and negotiation. Institutions serve as forms to regulate tensions and inequities and to make binding decisions, from which the legitimacy and authority of political power derive.62

←16 | 17→

Rule. The working use of the term ‘rule’ (Herrschaft) in the present study follows Alf Lüdtke in understanding the complex of rule as a ‘force field’. More importantly still, rule presents itself as a complex not fully fathomable by language. It is semantics: ‘Rule moreover denotes a social praxis which particularly palpably absorbs such realities as are irreducible to language.’63 Rule as a force field emerges between actors shaped by and exposed to their historical environment. The interaction that takes shape here forms a sphere of communication, exchange and conflict, between political subjects.64 The ruler as active factor and subject at the same time shaped in the late medieval and early modern period the rule. This is not to say that the ruler was the absolute subject of rule. He was, as a part of the aforementioned field, in equal measure an object of rule, exposed and subjected to its dynamics.65

I am thinking here of the complex phenomenon and process of legitimating rule in the European traditions of the early modern age. Conformity to the traditional canon of valuations, to the normative centrality of certain persons, actions and texts, to the moral presence of the ruler in the field of (religious and political) tension between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, to a praxis of rule guided by procedures and institutions. These were not only dimensions of the ruler’s credibility, but criteria of legitimate rule tout court.66 The subjects are accorded the part of active observers by the right of protest, which offers them means to combat illegitimate and unjust rule ranging from ‘rebellion’ and ‘treason’ to ‘tyrannicide’.

This is key to understanding the discussion of the Princeps Christianus as a burning issue in the early sixteenth century: there was broad agreement that the consolidation of early modern territorial rule had to come to terms with multiple sets of social and religious problems, while also requiring a ←17 | 18→unified normative canon that would serve to bridge differences and provide orientation to both rulers and their subjects.

The examination of historical concepts ought to bear these considerations in mind, as Quentin Skinner has emphasised:

At the time Princeps Christianus or Christian normativity represented a highly effective political instrument indeed and as such provide the modern scholar of religion with ample subject matter for research.

Political Theology. The present study is also conceived as an analysis of discourses of political theology in the early modern era. Despite many claims to the contrary, Christianity and political theology are by no means incompatible.68

←18 | 19→

The concept of ‘political theology’ that informs the present analysis has little to do with that of Carl Schmitt, the well-known proponent of political theology as theological justification of anti-secular political orders.69 Moreover, I take it to mean neither a theological vindication of politics nor the task of social and political criticism that the Churches sometimes take upon themselves70 – nor, indeed, is it a demand for such political activity on their part.71 By no means should it be mistaken for a theologia negativa, the critique by Christians and Churches of what they perceived to be un-Christian about society and politics exemplified by Johann Baptist Metz.72 Such views would be too simple to do justice to a complicated phenomenon. Nor would I consider political theology to be a mere aspect of any engagement with theology. As I understand it, Christian theology itself possesses political valences and takes on political forms, be they institutional, symbolic or subjective.73

By its very claim to universality, Christianity encourages and facilitates the emergence and ordering of human communities. From the beginning, Christian instances saw themselves as instances of the citizens, and their theology represented the civil dimension of religious existence in the manner of a θεολογία πολιτική (theologia civilis). ‘The Christian religion was [from the outset] a process of communication by media, both written and spoken […].’74 A ‘global communication event’ took shape by, and around, media as a communicational environment itself. By its very nature, therefore, Christianity was and is political.75

Christianity and Christianitas are to be considered as dogmatic, practical and institutional entities that, by virtue of their founder, their shared body of scripture, their common institutional framework and their claim to ‘one truth’, certainly aim at universality. Yet as assertions such religious claims have often existed in tension with historical reality, as exemplified ←19 | 20→by the relationship between Christianitas (as an ideal) and one form or another of theologia civilis (as the concrete historical discursive form taken on by a metaphysical idea).


XII, 448
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 448 pp., 4 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Mihai-D Grigore (Author)

Mihai-D. Grigore is a historian and scholar of religion. He is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Religious History at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, Germany. Mihai-D. Grigore studied Orthodox Theology at the University of Bucharest, specialising in historical theology and Byzantine history. He obtained his PhD in Church History from the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen and Nuremberg, Germany, with a dissertation on historical anthropology about honour in medieval West-Frankish society, based on a case study of the Peace of God in the tenth and eleventh centuries. He was then postdoctoral researcher at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies and in the research group ‘World Regions and Interactions: Area Studies, Transregionally’, both in Erfurt. In 2012, he was Stanley S. Seeger Research Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University.


Title: Neagoe Basarab – Princeps Christianus
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462 pages