*Sacred Foundations. The religious and medieval roots of the european state*, Anna Grzymala-Busse


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This list is different than most. What sets it apart is not simply that it focuses on books about democracy, but that it looks for ones that will challenge our assumptions and expectations. For those of us who have read extensively about democracy for years, this becomes very difficult. But quite a few scholars do find ways to approach different aspects of democracy in novel ways. They examine concepts in different settings that raise difficult questions that don't have easy answers.

Over the past few years I have found most of the best books on democracy have flown under the radar. This does not mean books about democracy are not popular or do not sell. Liz Cheney's Oath and Honor, Rachel Maddow's Prequel, Heather Cox Richardson's Democracy Awakening and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's Tyranny of the Minority were all New York Times Best Sellers this past year. Those are all amazing reads that I highly recommend. However, they did not make my top five (although Prequel came very close).

Like always my list is eclectic. I have included books focused on Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Two of the books are historical. Three of the books are from first-time authors. But they all touch on questions about democracy in unconventional ways. For those wondering, the list is not ranked. But you'll find they appeal to different people for different reasons. Still, each one is remarkable in its own way.

Stream Sacred Foundations

Earlier this year, when I invited Anna Grzymala-Busse onto my podcast for an interview, she was surprised. She did not think her book said much about democracy. Sacred Foundations is about how the basic institutions of the state began their evolution during the Middle Ages. Grzymala-Busse shows how the Catholic Church laid the foundations for modern understandings of political representation, the legal system, and taxation. Moreover, they developed proto-institutions that European states emulated.

Grzymala-Busse draws connections between Medieval History and contemporary politics in ways that are both unexpected and imaginative. In some ways her work makes valuable contributions to democratic thought simply through a more thorough explanation for the origin of the modern state. It's difficult to disentangle ideas about the modern state from democracy. Naturally, Grzymala-Busse focuses quite a bit on how ideas about representation and the law evolved during this period.

This is one of my favorite books, because it's an academic book that does not read like one. It is written more like popular history than political science, so it's easier to read than some books on democracy that include regression tables and other forms of statistical analysis. Grzymala-Busse provides a clear argument with details that make the reader want to know more. This is all the more impressive considering the topic is largely unfamiliar to most audiences. It's a great book for anyone interested in the history behind modern representative democracy.


Sacred Foundations argues that the medieval church was a fundamental force in European state formation. Existing accounts focus on early modern warfare or contracts between the rulers and the ruled. In contrast, this major study shows that the Catholic Church both competed with medieval monarchs and provided critical templates for governing institutions, the rule of law, and parliaments.

The Catholic Church was the most powerful, wealthiest, and best-organized political actor in the Middle Ages. Starting in the eleventh century, the papacy fought for the autonomy of the church, challenging European rulers and then claiming authority over people, territory, and monarchs alike. Anna Grzymała-Busse demonstrates how the church shaped distinct aspects of the European state. Conflicts with the papacy fragmented territorial authority in Europe for centuries to come, propagating urban autonomy and ideas of sovereignty. Thanks to its organizational advantages and human capital, the church also developed the institutional precedents adopted by rulers across Europe—from chanceries and taxation to courts and councils. Church innovations made possible both the rule of law and parliamentary representation.

Bringing to light a wealth of historical evidence about papal conflict, excommunications, and ecclesiastical institutions, Sacred Foundations reveals how the challenge and example of powerful religious authorities gave rise to secular state institutions and galvanized state capacity.

Awards and Recognition

  • A Financial Times Best Summer Book
  • A Financial Times Best Book of the Year- History


"The origins of the modern European state are conventionally traced to the era between 1500 and 1800. Grzymała-Busse makes a convincing case that we should go several centuries back and look at the way that rivalries between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire and other trends framed the emergence of European states."—Tony Barber, Financial Times

"Carefully crafted."—Choice

"Grzymała-Busse . . . foregrounds the medieval church as the primary actor in the state-building process. Her arguments rest on a masterly synthesis of pertinent secondary literature coupled with innovative statistical representations."—Choice

"[Sacred Foundations] offers a fresh and innovative perspective on the process of state formation in Europe. Even more notably, it places a significant emphasis on the pivotal role of religion in forming the very institutions that continue to shape our world today."—Farah Adeed, Reading Religion

“Fascinating and convincing. Grzymała-Busse advances a set of powerful theses, demonstrating how the medieval Catholic Church played a fundamental role in shaping the institutional foundations of the modern state.”—Carles Boix, author of Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads: Technological Change and the Future of Politics

“Grzymała-Busse compellingly demonstrates the significant role the medieval church played in creating the European state. Clear, persuasive, and precise, Sacred Foundations is one of the most important contributions to the state-formation literature in recent years.”—Melissa Schwartzberg, New York University

“In this rich and compelling study, Grzymała-Busse shows how the Catholic Church, as both rival and a source of knowledge, fundamentally shaped the formation of European states. A must-read for anyone seeking a new explanation that goes beyond emphasizing war.”—David Stasavage, author of The Decline and Rise of Democracy


Anna Grzymała-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, where she is also senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Her books include Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy (Princeton).


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