Posts Tagged ‘Conciliarist Movement’

The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Part 2

July 19, 2008

In the first part of this essay discussing the medieval Christian contribution to the rise of democracy, I discussed how the medieval idea that political authority lay in the whole of the community, and that monarchs, as well as their subjects, were bound by the law, led to the establishment of constitutional checks on the power of the monarch. Some states went further, and established systems of government in which power was effectively exercised by an assembly, rather than the reigning monarch, such as medieval Novgorod, or attempted to abolish feudalism altogether and establish a republic ruled by the citizens in opposition to the aristocracy. European monarchs had ruled with the advice of assemblies of their lords since the early Middle Ages. In the thirteenth centuries these assemblies, particularly those in England and Spain, began to establish themselves as parliaments. Similar assemblies of the aristocracy, knights and representatives of the municipal elite from the towns were also held in France, Germany, Italy and the papal states as part of the system of government. Such assemblies received powerful philosophical and theological support from Thomas Aquinas and other political theorists, who considered that humans were equal in their essence, stated that laws should be directed towards the common good rather than the personal benefit of the individual ruler, and maintained that the people had the right to depose an unjust monarch.

In the second part of the essay, I will discuss how Aquinas considered that the people were also the source of law as they had produced the customs that governed European society. This view was part of Aquinas’ wider view that laws held their authority through the consent of the people. Although he considered monarchy to be the best form of government, Aquinas also considered that the best constitution was one that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and thus gave philosophical and theological support to the parliamentary assemblies that advised monarchs.

The political theories that resulted in the establishment of secular governmental assemblies also led to similar developments in ecclesiastical government with the emergence of the Conciliarist movement that attempted to establish a general, ecumenical council as the governing authority in the Church, with authority even over the pope. The authority of both political and ecclesiastical governmental assemblies were partly based on the notion of mandated authority, which had been developed by Canon lawyers to establish the legal and constitutional basis for the ability of one section of the church to make decisions on behalf of the wider community. This idea of delegated authority also supported the constitutional position of the feudal councils that advised monarchs, so that they gradually developed into parliamentary assemblies that had powers to check the king on behalf of the subjects.

Furthermore, Canon lawyers stressed that law was rational, and that Natural Law and Roman Law affected the whole of humanity and transcended national boundaries, thus producing a system of international law that allowed disputes between nations to be settled peacefully. The insistence that law must be fundamentally rational resulted in the British constitutional attitude that viewed any law that did not possess a basis in reason was invalid.

I will also discuss how, during the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the serfs argued against their social status partly on religious grounds. Finally, although the medieval states that were governed through parliamentary assemblies were certainly not democratic, as they reserved active political participation only to those members who were considered to be the best qualified, I will nevertheless discuss how they provided the basis for later constitutional developments that made these early governmental assemblies more democratic and allowed them to develop greater power to check the monarch and act as institutions of popular government.

Recognition in Medieval Law of People as Source of Popular, Customary Law

While Aquinas himself did not state whether either the people or their ruler was the source of law, he did recognise that people, rather than the authorities, were the source of the customary law operating during the Middle Ages. Customary law, however, was nevertheless rational in that human actions, like their speech, were the result of reason. Princes had the right to alter laws, but this had to correspond to the common good. Following the Roman legal theorist, Ulpian, Aquinas considered that new laws should possess evident utility. Aquinas argued that the law should correspond to custom as much as possible, as law lost its force when custom was removed. Medieval Canon law viewed customary law as ‘unconstituted postive law’, in contrast to the ‘constituted positive law’ promulgated by an authority such as a pope or monarcy. Unconstituted positive laws were the customs of a particular community, which were considered to derive their power from the implicit consent of the communities, which practised them. Other legal theorists, such as the Canon lawyer, Rufinus, considered that custom only had legal authority if it was recognised and permitted by the authorities, who had the power to alter it. 44 Thus law was considered to derive its power to a certain extent from the consent of the people who lived by it and who, in their day-to-day activities, produced new customs and legal procedures. In the 18th century conservative political theorists, such as Edmund Burke, emphasised the role of tradition in maintaining a nation’s culture and stability against the political turmoil and violence of radical constitutional change produced by the French revolution. In the 20th century libertarian economic theorists, such as Von Hayek, also stressed the immense importance of traditional political institutions in promoting social and economic stability.

Aquinas’ View that Best Constitution Included Elements of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that this Existed in Ancient Israel

Like Aristotle, Aquinas also considered in his Treatise on the Law that the best regime was a ‘well-combined constitution’, which included features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. 45 Such a regime combined unity, rare virtue, and popular consent. 46 Aquinas considered that this mixed constitution was found in ancient, noting that Moses governed Israel, according to Deuteronomy 1:15 through the chiefs of Israel’s tribes and wise men, and, according to Exodus 18:21, able men who had been chosen from all the people. Thus Aquinas believed that there should be limits on royal power, and advocated a form of constitutional monarchy. 47 Aquinas was almost certainly influenced by the feudal councils of great lords in his view of the aristocratic element in such a mixed constitution. There were, however, no contemporary political institutions that may have influenced Aquinas’ view of the democratic element, and historians have therefore considered that he was either considering the representatives of the towns that were sent to the assemblies of southern Italy, Germany and the Papal States, or simply accepted Aristotle’s view on the subject without reference to any contemporary institution. 48

Thus, while Aquinas certainly was not a democrat, and favoured monarchy as the best form of government, he also recommended constitutional limits on the power of the monarch, viewed sovereignty as ultimately deriving from the people and recommended that the best constitution included a democratic element, as well as monarchy and aristocracy. This ideal constitution, for Aquinas, had existed in ancient Israel. His ideas were further developed to support the deposition of tyrannical kings, and the development of more democratic forms of government. In the 20th century the Roman Catholic political theorists Yves R. Simon and Jacques Maritain based their support of democracy on Aquinas’ political theories.

The Conciliarist Movement and its Attempt to Establishment an Ecumenical Council as Governing Authority in Western Church

The medieval view that sovereignty lay ultimately with the people found radical expression within ecclesiastical as well as secular politics in the Conciliarist movement of the early 15th century. This was an attempt to repair the Schism that had occurred in the late 14th century with the election in September 1378 of Clement VII as a rival pope in Avignon to Urban VI. This Schism, which divided the Church between rival popes in Avignon and Rome, continued for thirty years, so that by the fifteenth century there were three popes claiming leadership of the western Church, John XXIII, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. The Conciliarist movement was an attempt to end this Schism and restore the unity of Christendom under a single pope by developing the constitutional institutions through which unsuitable popes and rival claimants to the papacy could be deposed.

Initial suggestions for repairing the Schism included arbitration and negotiation between the rival popes and a mutual agreement to abdicate. The University of Paris, however, rejected these suggestions. Jean Gerson, the university’s chancellor, argued that the sovereignty and power to decide ecclesiastical issues, its plenitudo potestatis, lay in the body of the Church as a whole. This sovereignty was duly expressed and exercised through a general ecumenical council. The Conciliarists partly based their ideas on the way the Church held diocesan and provincial synods to solve disputes at the local level, and so recommended that this process should be extended to the Church as a whole to solve the debate that was scandalously dividing the western Church. Thus, Henry of Langenstein argued for such a council, stating that

‘New and dangerous emergencies, which arise in any diocese are dealt with in a council of that particular diocese or a provincial synod, and therefore it follows that new and arduous problems which concern the whole world ought to be discussed by a General Council. For what concerns all ought to be discussed by all, or by the representatives of all.’ 49

Origin of Idea of Delegated Authority of Governing Group from Broader Community in Canon Law to Provide Constitutional Basis for Decisions of Church Councils

In fact meetings of small numbers of clergy, such as cathedral canons and college of cardinals, to decide issues affecting the wider church, such as the whole of the clergy within a particular diocese, or the entire western Christian church, had long been the subject of discussion and debate amongst canon lawyers to investigate by what right the decisions of these individual clergymen could be considered to be binding on their  communities. The canon lawyers solved the problem through the adoption of the idea of mandated authority from Roman commercial law. Late antique Roman law recognised the existence of individuals, termed procurators, the origin of the English word ‘proctor’, who had been granted authority by another to act in their name to conduct business that would otherwise have been inconvenient or impossible for that person. Canon law extended this principle to argue that small groups of individuals, such as a cathedral chapter, also had power mandated to them as representatives of the wider community or group for whom they acted. Thus a cathedral chapter represented the wider Christian community in a diocese in the same way that a Roman procurator acted for his principal, the person who had granted him his power to act for him. 50 When a cathedral chapter thus gave its consent to a bishop’s decision, or the college of cardinals agreed to a particular papal policy, they acted on behalf of each and every member of the wider church, whether of the local diocese or in the whole of the western Church.

Canon Law Idea of Mandated Authority Basis of Constitutional Support for Secular Governing Councils

The theory of mandated authority clearly gave such advisory assemblies great powers and authority. Nevertheless the theory had been developed to solve the practical problem of how each person in the community could be represented in a matter when ‘what touches all should be approved by all’. In the cases of an ecclesiastical issue that affected every member of the church in the diocese, it was difficult or impossible to consult them individually. The idea of mandated authority allowed an advisory assembly, such as a cathedral chapter, to make decisions on their behalf as their representatives. The theory also gave considerable legal support to such councils, whether ecclesiastical or secular, such as the feudal grand councils, parliaments and estates-generals. It thus supported checks on the power of princes and bishops by granting legal rights and status on the councils that advised them. 51 Thus, for historians such as Brian Tierney, ecclesiastical Canon law formed the basis of ‘parliamentary constitutionalism’ – the constitutional rights of parliaments and representative assemblies, rather than monarchs, to make laws. 52

Attempt by Concialiarists to Make Authority of General Council Superior to the Pope

From the view that authority within the Church derived from its members as a whole, expressed and operating through a general council, the movement’s theorists developed more extreme views in which such general councils were therefore superior to the papacy in matters of faith. Furthermore, as the Church was the only infallible earthly institution, it possessed the power to decided church doctrine and correct and depose the pope if his doctrines were incorrect and he was incapable of properly governing the Church. Like Aquinas and the theorists of secular politics, the Conciliarists accepted the subject’s right to resist an unjust ruler, and that the best form of government was a mixed constitution that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. These ideas resulted in the declaration of Council of Constance in 1414 that all authority within the Church ultimately derived from such a council, which possessed power over everyone within it, including the pope. 53

This decree has been described as ‘the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world.’ 54 The Council succeeded in ending the Schism by deposing John XXIII, achieving the resignation of Gregory XII, while Benedict XIII was later condemned as a schismatic and heretic. In their place, the Council elected a new pope, Martin V. However, there then followed a period of conflict between the Councils and the papacy, which eventually resulted in the emergence of two Councils, one at Florence and another at Basel, which elected an anti-pope, Felix V. 55 This new period of conflict and schism was eventually resolved in 1460 with the formal condemnation of the movement by Pope Pius II. Pius II had already reconciled the German emperor, Frederick III, to the papacy, and so deprived the Conciliarists of his support. 56

Roman and Canon Law Used also by Secular Courts as International Law for Particular Cases

The constitutional theories and movements that attempted to limit the power of secular princes through the establishment of advisory councils or other checks on their authority, and the Conciliarist movement to subordinate papal authority to a general council of the Church both developed from the interdependence in Europe of secular and Canon law. Both civil and canon law used Roman law, and the revival of Roman law in the 12th century reinforced the canon lawyers’ interest in it. 57 Such was the interdependence between secular and Roman law that when judges and plaintiffs in secular courts were unable to find a way of satisfactory solving a dispute, they turned to Roman and canon law to find a solution. Roman and Canon Law, to medieval lawyers, represented ‘everyone’s general law’, as both were considered to be universally applicable. They thus constituted a ius commune, or international law that could be used to settle disputes when there was a conflict in points of law between two parties of differing legal systems. This system of Roman and Canon law therefore became a ‘peacemaker’s law’ that allowed international disputes to be settled peacefully without military conflict. 58

Medieval View that Law Rational and that Unreasonable Laws therefore had no Force

The medieval Canon lawyers also stressed the rational nature of law, and considered that any law that was unreasonable was therefore invalid. Stoic philosophy had considered that there was a universal Law of Nature affecting human conduct. The Romans identified this Law of Nature with the ius gentium, the universal law that was held to govern the actions of the peoples of all nations. Canon Lawyers identified this natural law with the divine law revealed by the Almighty, which they considered an extension of a natural law. The great canon lawyer Gratian, at the end of his Decretum, declared that the golden rule was the Law of Nature, and that this was superior to all other laws because of its antiquity and dignity, and whose power therefore superceded custom and the legislation of human authorities. The British legal historian Sir Frederick Pollock considered this attitude towards the innate and superior rationality of the Law of Nature to be the origin of the English lawyer’s view that a custom could not be good if it was contrary to reason. It was also for him the origin of the attitude from the 16th to the 18th centuries that a law was invalid if it was held to be against reason and ‘common right’. 59

The thirteenth century Canon lawyer Hostiensis held the same view that laws should be reasonable. In his Golden Summa, extending and commenting on Gratian’s Liber Extra, Hostiensis indeed stated that the divine law revealed by God in Scripture was an extension of natural law, and that any law or judicial decision that was in conflict with rational natural law was invalid and untenable. 60

Conciliarists and Supporters of Secular Governmental Assemblies not Advocates of Democracy

While the Conciliarists considered that the Church’s authority lay in the community of the Church as a whole, and that this authority was expressed and exercised through general councils, they were not democrats in that they did not consider that this meant that everyone should have an equal vote. The extreme Conciliarists believed that everyone, including women, had a right to be heard in the Church’s debates, but considered that only the most important section of the ecclesiastical community was qualified to make decisions. 61

The Conciliarists were not alone in reserving practical political decisions to a better qualified minority, rather than the majority. Secular political theorists, like Marsilius of Padua, who strongly advocated populated sovereignty and rejected any involvement in politics or secular privileges by the Church, also considered that people did not possess an equal right to vote or involvement in politics. In his Defensor Pacis of 1324, Marsilius of Padua argued that the source of legislation was the people, expressing their will through a general assembly, stating that

‘The legislator, or the primary and efficient cause of the law, is the people or the whole body of the citizens, or the weightier part thereof, through its election or will expressed by words in the general assembly of citizens, commanding or determining that something be done or omitted with regard to human civil acts, under a temporal pain or punishment.’ 62 This ‘weightier part’ of the people, according to him, referred to ‘the quantity and quality of the persons in that community over whom the law was made.’ 63 Thus while he appears to have accepted that the whole community did indeed possess the power to make decisions, nevertheless his statement that this could rest in the best-qualified section of the community appears to indicate that he also accepted Aristotle’s view that citizens should participate in the community according to their position in society, with the result that those citizens lower down the social scale would have correspondingly little or no political involvement. 64

Nevertheless, although the Conciliarists were not democrats, their arguments for the sovereign authority of councils, rather than individuals, was a powerful contribution to the development of modern ideas of democracy. The historians Brian Tierney and Francis Oakley, have noted the similarities between the arguments used by the supporters of parliament against the king in 17th century England, such as Philip Hunton, Henry Parker and Charles Herle, and the Conciliarists two centuries previously. Indeed, the Royalist writer, John Maxwell, in his Sacro-Sancta Regum Majestas, had stated that the parliamentarians had been influenced in their idea that the people had the right to depose a monarch by the French Roman Catholics of the League during the Wars of the Religion in the 16th century, and the Conciliarists, including Gerson, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. 65

Common Origin of Conciliarist Movement and English 17th Century Parliamentary Political Theory in Medieval Constitutional Political Philosophy

Historians have also suggested that the Conciliarists spread the idea of constitutional limits on power across Europe through its application to the papacy, thus spreading the idea beyond its use in national politics to the whole of western European Christendom. As a result, they preserved the idea of constitutional checks and balances against the development of absolutism, and spread its popularity throughout Europe. 66 Even if there was no direct link between the parliamentary supporters of popular sovereignty and the authority of governmental assemblies and the Conciliarists, it is possible that both were influenced in their views by the common culture of political philosophy that had developed in Medieval Europe. This common culture of political philosophy continued the medieval view of popular sovereignty, derived ultimately from the adoption of Roman ideas of the people as the source of political authority by the early Church.

Theological Arguments by English Serfs During the Peasants’ Revolt for the Abolition of Serfdom

The later Middle Ages was torn by a number of popular revolts against monarchical, aristocratic and municipal oligarchic authority, such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England, the Jacquerie in Paris of 1358 and the revolt of the Maillotins, again in Paris in 1382, the revolts of the weavers of Ghent and Bruges of 1379-82, and the insurrection of the Ciompi in Florence in 1378. They were primarily the result of economic and political grievances against the abuse of power by the ruling elites, and demanded specific reforms to redress them. The English Peasants, however, justified their revolt against serfdom on religious grounds. According to the French chronicler, Froissart, they argued that there were no slaves and serfs at the beginning of the world, and that slavery should not exist except for those that had betrayed their lords. As, however, both serfs and lords were equally human, the peasants had a right to resist their subjection and demand wages for the services they performed for their lords. 67

Attempts to Establish Government by Parliamentary Assemblies on Partially Successful

The medieval attempts to establish systems of government based on advisory councils or representative assemblies, founded on popular sovereignty, was only partially successful. Republican administration of Novgorod was destroyed in the 15th century when it was annexed by the Grand Duke of Moscow, who carried off its bell. Political turmoil and dissension in the Italian republics resulted in the replacement of democracy by muncipal tyrants such as the Sforza, Visconti and Medici families. The English and Scots parliaments became established parts of these nations’ government, as did the cortes in Spain.

Although the estates-general was regularly held in France during the 14th and 15th century, it failed to become an established, constitutional part of the French governmental system in the way parliament had in England. Louis XI finally established the right of the French crown to levy taxes and wage war without calling the estates, which made its last efforts to assert its authority in 1484. 68 The imperial diets in Germany similarly failed to achieve any effective power, and only met occasionally when the emperor required them to consider the levying of extraordinary taxes. 69

The states-general in Germany was nevertheless successful in establishing itself as a representative body for the whole of Germany, where laws were passed through the consent and decision of the majority. Moreover the German princes managed to establish the local estates-general within their territories as constitutional governmental institutions. 70 As part of the landtag – the estates-general of that particular German state, they acted as a constitutional check to the power of the prince, thus creating a form of balanced constitution. 71 In France the provincial estates-general continued to meet and vote on taxes in the fifteenth century until they, like the national estates-general, were ended by the expansion of royal power by Charles VIII. 72

Conclusion:Medieval Governmental Assemblies not Democratic, but Origins of Later Parliamentary Government and Constitutional Limits to Power of Monarchy, partly Produced and Accepted by Theologians, Philosophers and Canon Lawyers

Even when such assemblies did become an established part of a state’s system of government, they were not democracies. Membership of these governmental councils, and the ability to vote in their election, was confined to members of the aristocracy, knights, and municipal commercial elites. Nevertheless, the Middle Ages had succeeded in establishing constitutional limits to the powers of monarchs and the authority of councils to represent the wider people, based on ideas of popular sovereignty, partly based on the arguments of theologians such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and developed by canon lawyers from the conduct of ecclesiastical councils. These theories and their legal support were based on ancient Greek and Roman political theory, and Roman commercial law.

Although such institutions could become secular, such as Marsilius of Padua’s idea of a secular city state ruled by such an assembly of citizens in his Defensor Pacis, the papacy was also willing to call such governmental assemblies of its citizens in the administration of its states, while the Russian Orthodox Church had fully participated in the republican governmental institutions of medieval Novgorod. Even when these parliamentary assemblies failed to become part of system of government, monarchs were still subject to constitutional checks. From the Middle Ages to the French Revolution, the parlement of Paris – not an assembly of subjects, but a committee of lawyers – had the responsibility of examining royal legislation to check whether it was constitutional. These ideas of popular sovereignty, constitutional limits on the power of the monarch and the ability of governmental assemblies to pass legislation and advise the monarch, were further developed in the 16th and 17th centuries to provide the foundations for modern theories of representative government and democracy.


  1. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, (Harlow, Longman 1995), pp. 157-8.
  2. Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther ( Harlow, Longman 1985), p. 8; Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books 2002), p. 50.
  3. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 50.
  4. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 8-9.
  5. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 51.
  6. Henry of Langenstein, ‘Consilium Pacis’, cited in Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 105.
  7. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law , p. 107.
  8. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 108.
  9. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 110.
  10. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 105-6.
  11. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106.
  12. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106; Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP 1963), p. 136.
  13. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 136.
  14. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p.111.
  15. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 112.
  16. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1923), p. 527.
  17. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 157.
  18. David Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in David Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1986), pp. 48-9.
  19. George Holmes, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320-1450, second edition, (Oxford, Blackwell 2000), p. 111.
  20. Holmes, Hierarch and Revolt, p. 111.
  21. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 49.
  22. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 48.
  23. E.F. Jacob, Political Thought, in Crump and Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 521
  24. Holmes, Hierarchy and Revolt, pp. 74-5.
  25. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 482.
  26. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.
  27. Geoffrey Barrowclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1947), p. 349.
  28. Barrowclough, Modern Germany, p. 351.
  29. Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.