2012 New History
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The “Desacralization” of Sacred Royal Power:
Legal Thought and the Legitimacy of the French Kingship in the Late Middle Ages

Phénix Hsiu-Feng Chen

Department of History, National Taiwan Normal University

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, jurists and intellectuals advocated the legitimacy of new royal power based on heredity and birth, which led to the challenge of the traditional royal legitimacy endorsed by consecration (sacre). The principle of “the dead seizes the living” (le mort saisit le vif) as the basis of political power developed into a theory of hereditary succession. It denied the validity and value of consecration, which had long rendered supreme power to kings. The aim of this new political thought based on Roman Law was to protect kingship from the intervention of the Church. In the eyes of Roman lawyers, consecration at the succession of the throne was merely a ritual, or a necessary ceremony, but not an indispensable element of royal legitimacy.

Despite the decline in the symbolic importance of consecration in the later Middle Ages, the general public still believed that only those who had been consecrated could be rightful kings. Moreover, kings themselves held consecration in great esteem. To be more precise, in France, the legitimacy of divine kingship originated from the sacre in the context of medieval political ideology. The bestowing of supreme regal prestige by the chrismation, by means of the “divine chrism,” was deeply rooted in the political thinking of the age, which made it impossible to eliminate consecration from monarchical institutions.

Continuing my previous study, “Regime ‘Sacralization’?—The Coronation of the Frankish Kings,” this article aims to study the evolution of French kingship in the late Middle Ages. Through an analysis of late medieval political and ideological theories, in the historical context of the Hundred Years’ War, I look into the holiness of French kingship, the desacralizing nature of the new political ideology, and the larger socio-political milieu in western Europe, which nurtured emerging nation-states and their attendant conflicts and resolutions. In the late Middle Ages, laws redefined sacred kingship in France. This redefinition was based on historical context and political ideology, both of which were conducive to the formation and consolidation of French autocratic royal power and the development of the modern nation-state.


Keywords: coronation, monarchy, Roman law, The Hundred Years’ War, instantaneous royal succession, autocratic royal power, nation-state.