I mean a long fight.
I’ve been reading Norman Cantor’s Medieval Lives, a short book advertising itself as character sketches of a few important Middle Age figures. In reality, it’s a densely-packed but highly-readable study of the interplay among religious, social, cultural, and political factors in the development of medieval civilization. By spacing the biographies a generation or a century apart, Cantor makes it possible to trace the evolution and influence of ideas over time.
One sketch is of the first Chancellor of Oxford and inventor of the modern scientific method, Robert Grosseteste. Grosseteste was also a fierce defender of Church privileges and the rights of ecclesiastical courts.
Before that, though, he tangled with Henry III over the exclusive right of ecclesiastical courts to try clerics. Few students at Oxford were there to enter the priesthood, but because the University was under Church control, they were required to nominally be members of a monastic order. As a result, when they got out of hand, as students often would, Grosseteste would routinely write the requisite letter to the common law courts testifying that they were members of the clergy, exempting them from civil jurisprudence and permitting them to be tried by the much more lenient church courts. The traditional conflict between town and gown thus took on overtones of a larger dispute – the extent of domain of civil society over the Church.
Eventually, Grosseteste would set the tone for his collaborators in the Franciscan Order to support Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against the crown. And we’re all familiar with the English crown’s resistance to papal duties, and Henry VIII’s financial duress leading him to separate from Rome and confiscate monastic property. But even in 1253 or so, this tension was manifesting itself in a very specific, very legal, jurisdictional dispute.
To that extent, it looks a lot like the current disputes over the Obamacare contraception mandate – how much room for private or institutional religious conscience is there in a secular civil society? It also demonstrates how much ground has been lost in that fight, and why Orthodox Jews are rushing to make common cause with a historic adversary and recent friend.