The Middle Ages aren’t a period people would normally associate with democracy. This was, after all, the period when kings and princes ruled through hereditary right and military prowess and the mass of the population were landless serfs working on their estates. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out in the two articles on Judaism, Christianity and the origins of western democracy, the Bible expressed and commanded the fundamental values at the heart of democracy – the moral commitment to denounce tyranny and to work for the common welfare of humanity, and the idea that everyone is equal before God. These ideas continued into Christianity, which took over Roman constitutional theories of popular sovereignty.
In this essay I hope to continue my examination of the way Christianity contributed to the emergence of democracy through the establishment of limits on the power of monarchs. This was achieved through the notion that sovereignty belonged to the people, and was only delegated to princes. The idea of delegated authority, elaborated by Canon lawyers, strengthened the position of the consultative assemblies that had been called by monarchs as an instrument of government since the early Middle Ages, and allowed them to develop into parliaments. Canon lawyers also stressed that monarchs were bound by the law, and that the people were also the source of law in the case of the popular customs that comprised much of medieval law. Philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Aquinas considered monarchs and authorities should interfere as little as possible in popular customary law as too much legistlation and interference in custom weakened the law generally. The result was that by the end of the Middle Ages many states in Europe had developed parliaments and governmental assemblies to advise and check the power of the monarch, as well as other constitutional limits to their power.
In this first part of the essay I shall examine the strong sense of popular rights, which existed in the Middle Ages, the existence of medieval republics and monarchical states governed through parliamentary assemblies, such as the republic of Novgorod in Russia and the Italian city states. I will also discuss the existence of the feudal assemblies kings and princes had called to advise them and assist them in government since the France of Charlemagne, and how these developed into parliaments in England and Spain, noting that the papacy approved of these governmental assemblies and called and used similar assemblies in the government of its own territories, the papal states. Although Thomas Aquinas considered that monarchy was the best form of government, nevertheless he also argued that the best form of the state was a well-mixed constitution, which included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. His view that the sovereignty on which the monarch based his power belonged to his people was developed by later philosophers and theologians to justify the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler.
Medieval View of Popular Rights and Sovereignty
The Middle Ages also possessed a strong sense of popular rights, which the king was bound to uphold, and whose violation by the king was just cause for resistance to the sovereign. The Sachsenspiegel, a medieval 14th century law code, stated clearly that if the king acted contrary to the ‘good customs’ of the people, their resistance to him to recover their rights was not a rejection of their allegiance. 1 As kings owed their sovereignty to the people, the people therefore possessed the power to depose a corrupt or tyrannical king. Manegold of Lutterbach, defending Pope Gregory VII during the Investitures Contest with the German emperor, stated that ‘since no-one can create himself Emperor or King, the people elevates a single one person over itself to the end that he may rule and govern it according to the principle of righteous government; but if in any wise he transgresses the contract of which he is chose he absolves the people from the obligation of submission, because he has first broken faith with it.’ 2 The result of this conception of popular sovereignty was that by the end of the Middle Ages, some statesmen, philosopher, theologians and lawyers had developed constitutional theories of the people as the foundation of the state that come very close to the modern conception of popular democracy. The Seneschal of Burgundy, Philippe Pot, at a meeting of the French estates-general – a meeting of the representatives of the nobility, clergy and ‘third estate’ to discuss the state of France after the death of Louis XI, declared that in the case of a king who was unable to govern, the right to rule lay in all the people, not just a few.
‘I wish to tell you, as far as my intelligence will allow me, what I have learned from great and wise men on the authority and the liberty of States. It is certain that the royal power is a dignity and not the property (haereditas) of the prince. History relates that at the first the sovereign people created Kings by its vote. It is in its own interest that each nation gave itself a master. The whole world repeats that the state is the creation of the people. If it is so, how could the people abandon its charge? How can flatterers attribute supreme power to the prince who exists only in virtue of the people? That being so, what is the power in France which has the right of governing when the king is incapable of doing so? Clearly this task reverts neither to a sole prince, nor a handful of men, but to all, that is the people, the giver of power. This task it must take up as it were its own, all the more so because it is always the victim, the sole victim of a bad government.’ 3
Republic of Novgorod Ruled by Governmental Assembly
The vast majority of European states remained feudal monarchies, ruled by kings and princes, though with governmental institutions that limited their power and represented the interests of the wider people. A very few states, however, did develop a very democratic character very much like the later constitution monarchies in which kingship was limited by representative, elected governmental institutions. 12th century Novgorod has been described as a republic. Historians have considered that its constitution ‘may be characterized as a democracy limited to a certain extent by the interests of the upper classes – de facto, if not de jure.’ 4
In Novgorod, sovereignty rested in the city, described as ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’, rather than the prince. This sovereignty was exercised through the veche, the city assembly, which met either in the square before the Prince’s Palace or in front of the cathedral of St. Sophia. These meetings were called by the tolling of the cathedral bell. 5 The male head of every free family in Novgorod had the right to vote, with the exception of slaves and the smerdy, free peasants who were under the authority of the local prince, or in the case of Novgorod, the city itself. 6 Laws could only be passed with the unanimous consent of the assembled citizens. To prevent the appearance of violent conflict between competing factions in the absence of a clear majority, the veche possessed a ruling committee of 300 members, chaired by the archbishop, called ‘the Lords’, composed of the prince’s lieutenant, senior municipal officials and the local boyar aristocracy, with the duty of preparing bills for debate in the veche. 7
The two most important officials were the mayor, termed the posadnik, and the chiliarch or tysiatsky. The posadnik was responsible for the city’s government, though he was also chief justice for legal disputes over land. The tysiatsky, however, commanded the city militia and was the chief justice for commercial law. Both posadnik and tysiatsky were elected for brief, but unspecified periods of time, though they could be re-elected, and continued to hold considerable authority even after leaving office. 8 The city was further divided into five autonomous boroughs or communes, each of whom elected their own mayor, called a starosta or elder. 9
Constitutional Limits Power of the Prince in Novogord
Although the city was ruled by a Grand Duke, the prince’s right to rule was strictly limited by city’s constitution. From 1136 onwards princes and their non-Novgorodian retainers could not own estates within the state of Novgorod. In 1196 a congress of Russian princes recognised that the people of Novgorod had the right to elect their own prince, provided that the elected prince should always be a member of the House of Riurik. Each prince on his accession to power, was required to sign a contract with the people of Novgorod in which he formally recognised the prohibition against him and his retainers owning land in Novgorod. He also recognised that the people of Novgorod had the right to elect city officials without interference from the prince, that these official could not be dismissed by him without a trial by either a court or the veche, and that the veche, not the prince, was the supreme judicial authority. 10
Condemnation of Slavery, Existence of Serfdom by Church and Recognition of Women’s Rights in Novgorod
While the Church strengthened the authority of princes through the example of the strict subordination of its members in its organisational hierarchy, it also acted to preserve some freedom by condemning complete slavery and supporting the social class of izgoi. 11 These were mostly freedmen, though they also included priest’s sons who remained illiterate, bankrupt merchants and orphaned princes, who had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living. The Church protected them from re-enslavement and gave them a livelihood by granting them church land, for which they paid rent and services and to which they were tied. They were thus serfs under the jurisdiction of the church. 12
Kievan Russia also recognised women as possessing rights. The ‘Church Statute’ of Yaroslav the Wise, compiled in the 13th century, punished with a fine the man who stole his wife’s hemp, flax, linen or other fabrics. Husbands were fined if they committed adultery, and parents were held responsible for the death of a daughter if she committed suicide after being forced to marry against her consent. 13 Women also were able to hold property and inherit property in their own right. 14
Limits on the Power of the Monarchy in Kievan Russian Polictical Philosophy
There was no comprehensive treatise on government in Kievan Russia, though some of the political ideas of that period in Russian history can be found in the sermons and correspondence of Russian clergy. All of them accepted the institution of monarchy, but every discussion of the powers of the monarch stated that the ruler was bound by the law. The monk Iakov, in his epistle to Prince Dmitry of c. 1072, stated that the ruler should retain his guiding principles, even when threatened with force, and should not permit any arbitrariness in his government.
Contemporary discussions of the nature of government and royal power did not recommend any particular legislation limiting royal power. They did not mention the democratic institutions of the republic of Novgorod, and so political theory was in many ways behind the reality. 15 However, Russian chronicles such as the Book of Annals considered that in order to rule well, a wise prince should surround himself with good councillors and pay attention to the Duma, the council of the boyar aristocracy. Similarly, the institution of the veche as the popular legal assembly was recognised. The Laurentian edition of the Book of Annals, compiled in the 14th century, states that ‘From aboriginal times, the Novgorodians, as well as the Smolensk, and the Kiev, and the Polotsk men, and the people of other lands, used to assemble for the veche for the deliberation of their affairs.’ 16 It was considered that there was a moral pact between the prince and his people. If the people were corrupt, then the prince had a duty to correct and punish them. If the prince was evil, he should be overthrown and replaced with a better ruler. 17
Republican Institutions and Government through Councils of Citizens in Italian City States
Novgorod was remarkable in the extent to which it had limited the power of the monarch and developed democratic, republican institutions, but not unique. The mid- and late thirteenth century saw Italian mercantile cities such as Florence and Perugia similar throw off the power of local feudal lords to become republics. The Italian republics had originally been communes, towns, which had acquired a degree of autonomy, governing themselves through a municipal guild. Such towns had been established across Western Europe in countries such as France, Flanders, Germany, England and Scotland during the urban revival of towns in the 11th and 12th centuries. Originally the Italian communes had been governed by a parliament of all the citizens, the arenga, and a class of administrative officials, the consuls. By the early thirteenth century, however, the consuls had been replaced by a single official, the podesta, who functioned as a kind of ‘town manager’. 18 The supreme authority in the commune, however, was the guild or popolo. This was governed at first by a captain, and then, by the late 13th century, a number of guild officials called priors. 19 These city states then passed a series of legislation excluding the feudal aristocracy from power. In Florence in 1293 the citizens established the post of Standard-bearer of Justice, or Gonfaloniere de Giustizia with the responsibility of punishing crimes by the local aristocracy. A magnate who killed a member of the guild automatically received the death penalty. His house would be destroyed and his property confiscated. If he vanished and could not be found, his next of kin was liable to be punished in his place. As aristocrats could not be members of the guilds, they were unable to hold office as priors. 20
Independent Towns Ruled by Councils in Medieval France and Flanders
Similar communes with a high degree of independence existed in north-western France and Flanders, where the ruling officials were termed echevins. These had originally been appointed by the towns’ feudal lords to dispense justice. After these towns gained their independence from their feudal overlords, the echevins formed the cities’ governing councils. Originally appointed by the lords for life, their term in office was now limited to one year, though in practice towns such as Ghent rotated the office among a strictly limited number of individuals, so that while it was in theory governed by a council of thirteen, it was in fact ruled by an oligarchy of 39 leading citizens. 21
Development of Feudal Councils as Part of Royal Government into Parliamentary Assemblies in Middle Ages
Medieval political theorists, however, generally considered monarchy to be the best form of government. As God was monarch of the universe, so secular monarchs were considered to be limited representations of God’s lordship of the cosmos. Medieval political theory stressed the goal of social unity, and considered this could only be achieved through the government of a single individual. 22 In practice, however, the power of the king was limited through consultative assemblies of his lords and vassals, such as the witangemot, or council of wise men in Anglo-Saxon England, and the feudal grand council of nobles elsewhere in Europe. Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, in his treatise on royal government, The Government of the Palace, written in 818 for Charlemagne’s grandson, Carloman, gave a detailed description of the operation of the royal feudal assembly in France. 23 This met twice a year. In winter, a small number of experienced councillors met to consider the issues that would need to be discussed at the main meeting in the summer. It was during the plenary meeting of the main summer council, usually held in the afternoon and attended both by the great magnates and the lesser lords, that the issues and legislation proposed by the Frankish emperor were heard and occasionally discussed. It was after the assembled lords had confirmed them that the king’s proposals formally became law. 24 Individual lords attending the assembly were questioned by the king whether there were any complaints or dissatisfaction in his part of the kingdom, which the assembly needed to deal with. Thus, Frankish kings used the assembly to deal with popular unrest before it could escalate into rebellion. 25
The thirteenth century saw the appearance of such grand councils as an established governmental institution in England, Aragon and Castile. These assemblies – parliament in England, and the cortes in Spain – originally could only advise the king and had no power to block royal legislation. Nevertheless, they were de facto limitations of the royal power, and indicated the possibility of further constitutional developments. 26 In Aragon, each of the three constituent provinces had its own cortes, representing the clergy, nobility and the towns. These met every three years, regardless of the wishes of the monarch. During the 14th century, Catalonia, then Aragon and Valencia, established a standing committee, the generalitat. This was originally responsible for supervising that the grants of money made by the assembly were properly spent, but soon acquired judicial and military functions. Royal power was further limited in Aragon by the justicia, which was elected by the minor aristocracy to protect their interests from attack by royal officers. 27 The great law code compiled by Alfonso X of Castile, the Siete Partidas, stated that while only kings, emperor or the deputies could make laws, this could only be done in counsel with the good, most honoured and learned men in the kingdom. 28
Similar assemblies were called by the emperor Frederick II in Foggia for the southern kingdom of Italy in 1232, including representatives from the towns; by William of Holland in the Rhineland from 1247-56, and by Pope Innocent III in the Papal States in 1207. Indeed, similar meetings were held regular in some provinces of the papal states in the second half of the thirteenth century. 29 These early parliamentary assemblies chiefly represented only the aristocracy, knights and the new urban industrial and mercantile classes. The peasants, who constituted the vast majority of the medieval population, were generally excluded from them. Remarkably, some provincial assemblies, such as the provincial diets of Tyrol and Wurttemberg in Germany, did include the peasants. 30 This was extremely unusual, considering the strongly hierarchical nature of medieval European feudal society. Nevertheless, it illustrates how these early governmental assemblies had the potential to develop something like the character of a democratic parliament.
Concern by Papacy for Royal Justice
While the struggles between popes and emperors for political ascendancy are one of the most important and recurring features of medieval history, the papacy was nevertheless genuinely concerned to ensure that secular monarchy was the source of justice. When Charles of Anjou ascended to the throne of Sicily and Naples, he received a letter from Pope Clement IV advising him on how to rule justly. The pope advised that royal judges should be incorruptible, with a salary and sitting daily. Complaints against royal officials should be investigated rapidly, by an official, either a monk or a good-natured knight, who was specifically responsible for handling them. The king should take innocent people hostage, or make them pay for those who were genuinely guilty. During inquiries about royal rights, the burden of proof should only be placed on the subjects in reasonable circumstances. Furthermore, the king should not abuse his feudal rights to interfere in the marriage of his tenants’ daughters. He was also advised to find a solution to the problem of that year’s taxes through agreement with his barons, clergy and townspeople. 31 Thus in practical politics the papacy here was concerned to ensure that Charles of Anjou governed well as a feudal monarch through just, efficient administration and a process of consultation and agreement with his vassals.
View of Aquinas that Best Constitution included Element of Democracy
Thomas Aquinas also made a contribution to political theory, particularly in his treatises On Kingship and the Treatise on Law. Although he strongly supported monarchy as the best form of government, nevertheless in the answer to the question ‘Whether the Old Law Enjoined Fitting Precepts Concerning Rulers?’ Aquinas considered that the Mosaic Law provided for the inclusion of a democratic element in government. 32 In his discussion of the nature of the state and the best type of government, Aquinas combined Aristotelian political theory with the contemporary, medieval view of government, supporting his conclusions with reference to scripture. Historians have therefore considered that ‘in his writings is to be found the same characteristically medieval blend of classical influences with those of contemporary society: his views on politics comprise in essence an attempt to apply a Christianized version of Aristotle’s thought to the feudal monarchies of his own day.’ 33
Monarchy the Best Form of Government in Aquinas
Aquinas considered that the best institution or process was always one that most closely corresponded to a natural process. Monarchy was the best form of government, because in nature government was always by a single entity. Thus, according to Aquinas, the human body was moved only by one organ, the heart, the human soul possessed a single, ruling faculty in reason, bees had one ruler, and there was only one God in the universe. 34 Monarchy was further better than democracy or oligarchy, because government by a single person could promote unity in peace, while government by many produced dissension and conflict. He considered that experience demonstrated that the cities and provinces, which were not ruled by a single person, were therefore subject to division and political turmoil. Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s view that the majority of people were unable of attaining moral standards. Moreover, humans possessed a great variety of talents. Some were more talented than others. Aquinas considered that government should always be by the best individuals, a principle that could clearly justify monarchy, aristocracy or rule by a military elite. 35 Thus, Aquinas himself was not a supporter of democracy, and indeed considered the best form of government to be a monarchy.
Support for Democratic Ideas of Human Equality and the Direction of the law to the Common Good in Aquinas
Nevertheless, Aquinas also provided support for democracy through his philosophical views on human equality, the necessity of working towards the common good, and particularly his idea of the constitution of a well-mixed regime. Christianity, like Judaism, maintained the Biblical view of the fundamental equality of the human race before the Lord. Aquinas supported this view with the argument in his work, Being and Essence, based on Aristotelian philosophy, that there was one, universal human essence, which was abstracted from all the differences of individual humans. 36 Aquinas was also influenced by Aristotle’s Politics that the essential goal of political organisation, institutions and policies should be the common good. The common good was the standard governing everything from the imposition of taxation to the constitution of states. 37 Thus, in his Treatise on Law, in his answer to the question, ‘Whether the reason of any man is competent to make laws’, Aquinas stated
‘A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the vice-gerent of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.’ 38
View of Aquinas that Rulers Govern on Behalf of their People Source of View that People Have Right to Depose Unjust Monarchs
Thomas Gilbey, in his 1966 translation of Aquinas’ writings on law and political theory, noted that the term ‘vice gerent’ was derived from the Latin phrase ‘gerere vicem’, to act on behalf of someone. The vice-gerent was thus, for Aquinas, ‘the public personage, the figure who personifies the community, and is its guardian and, in the fullest sense, its caretaker.’ 39 If the government was not directed towards the common good of the majority of citizens, but only towards the private good of the ruler, it was unjust and the ruler was clearly a tyrant. 40 Aquinas further supported his argument on this point by quoting Ezekiel 34:2 ‘Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks’ 41 It has been noted that Aquinas in this passage does not recommend that the ruler should consult with the people before passing a law, only that he does so as the representative of the whole community. 42 Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theologians and political theorists such as Cardinal Cajetan, Cardinal Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez based their views on the limitation of the power of the monarchy on this passage. Cajetan considered that while the Pope could not be deposed, he therefore had the power to depose secular rulers. Bellarmine considered that no single individual possessed power, but it belonged to the people as a whole. Suarez went further and argued that the most natural form of government was democracy, because it required no institution, while all other forms of government were the result of a conventional institution. 43
Thus the medieval view that kings were bound by the law and that sovereignty ultimately lay in the people, rather than the monarch, resulted in the idea that unjust kings could be legitimately deposed. As a result, republics emerged during the Middle Ages, like the Italy city states and the republic of Novgorod, which were ruled by governmental assemblies. Monarchies, such as those of England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy also included parliamentary assemblies in their governmental systems. Although monarchy was considered the best system of government, nevertheless Thomas Aquinas strongly argued for human equality and provided the philosophical and theological arguments that formed the basis for the views of later philosophers and theologians that the monarch could be legitimately deposed by the sovereign people or the papacy as a check on immoral or corrupt government.
In the second part of the essay I will examine the way Aquinas, although he considered monarchy to be the best form of government, nevertheless also argued that the best form of constitution included features of aristocracy and democracy, as well as monarchy. I will also discuss the way the view of Aquinas and the Canon lawyers that the people were also the source of law in the case of the customary law which operated in medieval Europe, and that as law was innately rational, unreasonable laws had no force. I will also discuss the emergence of the Conciliarist movement, which attempted to govern the church through a system of ecumenical councils that were superior to the papacy, and the philosophical and theological link this had with the development of secular political assemblies. Medieval Canon law provided the basis for the authority of such advisory councils and governmental assemblies on behalf of the wider community through its notion of mandated authority, developed to allow ecclesiastical authorities to make decisions on behalf of the wider church. I will also discuss the theological views articulated by the English peasants in the Peasant’s Revolt that serfdom should be abolished as all humans had been created equal. Although the medieval governmental assemblies were strongly oligarchic, with membership reserved for nobles, knights and members of the urban elite, nevertheless these provided the foundation for later parliamentary democracy while the Conciliarist movement may have inspired and provided the basis for the arguments of the parliamentarians during the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. Thus the constitutional theories developed by philosophers, theologians and lawyers during the Middle Ages formed the basis for modern, parliamentary democracy.
- E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’ in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 526.
- Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 529.
- Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 531.
- George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (New Haven, Yale University Press 1948), p. 199.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 198.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 144, 198, 199.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 198-9.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 199.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 199-200.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 197-8.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 205.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 153-4.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 156.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 155-6.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 288.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 289.
- Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 289-90.
- Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther, Second Edition (London, Longman 1985), p. 21
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 22.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 21.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 23.
- Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 518.
- Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London, Longman 1992), p. 43.
- Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 46.
- Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 48.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 10.
- ‘The Rise of Spain and Portugal’ in Esmond Wright, History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, Newnes Books 1985), p. 498.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 7.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 10.
- Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 6.
- John P. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books 2002), p. 50.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 9.
- Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 50.
- Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 44.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, cited in Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 42.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Law and Political Theory, Thomas Gilbey, ed. and trans., in Blackfriars vol. 28 (New York, McGraw-Hill 1966), cited in Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 47.
- Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
- Ezekiel 34:2, in the Bible, KJV (London, Collins), p. 799.
- Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 47.
- Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, pp. 40-1.