Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Response to ‘Loki’

July 10, 2013

‘Loki’ has posted this comment on my blog piece, The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Part Two:

The government of the USA is based partly on Rome’s model, which is centuries older than Jesus. Direct democracy existed in Athens, Greece centuries before Christ was even born.

Christianity was a speedbump for Western democracy, not it’s origin.

Let’s deal with the individual statements in the post.

Firstly, the point

‘The government of the USA is based partly on Rome’s model, which is centuries older than Jesus. Direct democracy existed in Athens, Greece centuries before Christ was even born.’

I don’t dispute that. Indeed, I say that the Patristic writers, such as St. Augustine, took their contract view of the origins of society from classical writers, like Plato. Furthermore, when constitutional writers and political theorists like Algernon Sidney went on to discuss these issues in the 17th and 18th centuries, they frequently made use of events in the classical past. Sidney uses Roman history to justify popular rebellion against a tyrant. The anonymous author of England’s Misery and Remedy cites classical authorities, such as Camillus and Pliny. So no, I don’t actually deny that modern democracy is based on ancient Roman and Greek precedents.

However, there are strong differences between ancient democracy and our own. Ancient Greek society was strongly oligarchical. Women, slaves and resident aliens – metics – did not possess the right to vote. Neither labourers, artisans or merchants. When Aristotle talks about democracy in The Politics, he actually refers to the condition where the vote is still restricted to individuals with incomes from their land, in other words, leisured gentlemen. He did not believe that the hoi polloi – ordinary people, who had to work for their living – should have the vote as they did not have the time or education to devote to politics.

Now we come to your second point:

Christianity was a speedbump for Western democracy, not it’s origin.

Firstly, this assumes that the autocratic character of medieval and early modern politics was solely due to Christianity. This is not the case. Christianity may have reinforced the power of the king through St. Paul’s dictum that rulers should be obeyed, but democracy or popular politics had declined in the ancient world before Christianity became the state religion. To most people in the early modern period, when modern theories of government were being formed and constructed, democracy was a failed experiment. It was associated with political instability and civil war. If you remember, the first Roman Emperor, Philip Augustus, took power after a series of popular rebellions, which he put down. He closed the political clubs, though to prevent anyone becoming suspicious of his own political ambitions, called himself ‘First Citizens’ – princeps, rather than a title like ‘king’. The period of democracy in Athens was actually quite short-lived, perhaps only twenty years or so. More recently a book has been published stating that the ancient Greek’s legacy to medieval Europe wasn’t democracy, but sacral kingship. As for medieval feudalism, Fernand Braudel and other historians of medieval European society have shown that it arose through the retreat of the ancient Roman senatorial aristocracy to their estates on the one hand, and the military aristocracies of the invading barbarians on the other. Economic and social forces from the Second Century onwards worked to force the free Roman classes into a position where they were no better than slaves. The result was the rise of feudalism, where political power and military service are collapsed together in the power of the local landlord. By the 16th century, the view had arisen that nations were free to choose whichever system of government most suited them. However, they felt that monarchy was the best, as it gave the king absolute power to check dangerous rebellions and threats to public order. In practice it was expected that the monarch would not do so, and would respect his subjects’ liberty and property.

The Reformation and Wars of Religion brought issues of government, its forms and the power of monarchs and their legitimacy to a head. As a result, theologians and political philosophers drew on ancient and Biblical history to explore these issues, and this included arguing for representative government and popular liberty.

So no, I don’t deny that modern American democracy is ultimately based on that of ancient Greece and Roman. However, these classical precedents were revived, modified and expanded in the largely Christian culture of late medieval and early modern Europe.

John Wise and the Christian Congregationalist Origins of the American Democracy

July 7, 2013

For most people, the origins of modern American democracy lie in the Revolution of 1775. In fact, American clergymen and political philosophers had been advocating democracy almost from the beginning of the 18th century. One of the first was the Congregationalist minister, John Wise (1652-1725). Wise was the pastor of the second church at Ipswich in Massachusetts. He was imprisoned during the Andros regime for urging his congregation to withhold their taxes. He wrote his two books, The Churches Quarrel Espoused of 1712 and A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches of 1717 in defence of the Congregationalist system of church government. In Congregationalism, every church is independent, and the congregations choose their own ministers. At the time Wise was writing, there was a movement within the Church to replace that system with a Presbyterian organisation. Wise rejected this and defended the Congregationalist system of church government as that had been the form of ecclesiastical government established by New England’s founding fathers. He went further than merely defending democracy in church, however. He advocated that it should also be established as the secular political system as it was based on ‘right reason’.

Sovereignty Lies in the People through the Social Contract

Like Locke, the basis of his argument for democracy is the idea of a social contract: that sovereignty lies with the people, who surrender their freedom to a king or other authority in order to preserve order. He states:

‘The first human subject and original of civil power is the people; for as they have a power every man over himself in a natural state, so upon a combination they can and do bequeath this power unto others, and settle it according as their united discretion shall determine. For that this is very plain, that when the subject of sovereign power is quite extinct, that power returns to the people again. And when they are free, they may set up what species of government they please; or if they rather incline to it, they may subside into a state of natural being, if it be plainly for the best. In the eastern country of the Mogul, we have some resemblance of the case, for upon the death of an absolute monarch they live so many days without a civil head; but in that interregnum those who survive the vacancy are glad to get into a civil state again, and usually they are in a very bloody condition when they return under the covert of a new monarch; this project is to endear the people to a tyranny from the experience the have so lately had of an anarchy’.

‘A civil state is a compound moral person whose will (united by those covenants before passed) is the will of all, to the end it may use and apply the strength and riches of private persons towards maintaining the common peace, security, and well-being of all, which may be conceived as though the whole state was no become but one man; in which the aforesaid covenants may be supposed, under God’s providence, to be the divine fiat pronounced by God, “Let us make man.” And by way of resemblance the aforesaid being may be thus anatomized.’

The Position of Magistrates and other State Servants and Officials Depends on the Sovereign Power

‘As it takes in ministers for the discharge of business, so it is called the right of appointing magistrates. So that all great officers and public servants must needs owe their original to the creating power of sovereignty; so that those whose right it is to create may dissolve the being of those who are created, unless they cast them into an immortal frame, and yet must needs be dissoluble if they justly forfeit their being to their creators.’

Human states are formed by People to Protect themselves from Harm from Other Humans

The chief end of civil communities is that men thus conjoined may be secured against the injuries they are liable to from their own kind; for if every man could secure himself singly, it would be great folly for him to renounce his natural liberty, in which every man is his own king and protector.’

Origins of Democracy in Ancient Communities Where All Men are Equal

A democracy, which is when the sovereign power is lodged in a council consisting of all the members, and where every member has the privilege of a vote. This form of government appears in the greatest part of the world to have been the most ancient. For that reason seems to show it to be most probable that when men (being originally in a condition of natural freedom and equality) had thoughts of joining in a civil body, would without question be inclined to administer their common affairs by their common judgment, and so must necessarily , to gratify that inclination, establish a democracy; neither can it be rationally imagined that fathers of families being yet free and independent, should in a moment, or little time, take off their long delight in governing their own affa9irs and devolve all upon some single sovereign commander; for that it seems to have been thought more equitable that what belonged to all should be managed by all, when all had entered by compact into one community. The original of our government, says Plato (speaking of the Athenian commonwealth) was taken from the equality of our race. Other state there are composed of different blood, and of unequal lines, the consequences of which are disproportionable sovereignty, tyrannical or oligarchical sway, under which men live in such a manner to esteem themselves partly lords and partly slaves to each other. But we and our countrymen, being all born brethren of the same mother, do not look upon ourselves to stand under so hard a relation as that of lords and slaves, but the parity of our descent inclines us to keep up the like parity by our laws, and to yield the precedency to nothing but to superior virtue and wisdom. And moreover, it seems very manifest that most civil communities arose at first from the union of families that were nearly allied in race and blood. And though ancient story makes frequent mention of kings, yet it appears that most of them were such that had an influence rather in persuading, than in any power of commanding. So Justin describes that kind of government as the most primitive which Aristotle styles an herioical kingdom, namely, such as is no ways inconsistent with a democratical state.’

A democracy is then erected when a number of free persons do assemble together in order to enter into a covenant for uniting themselves in a body. And such a preparative assembly hath some appearance already of a democracy; it is a democracy in embryo properly in this respect: that every man hath the privilege freely to deliver his opinion concerning the common affairs. Yet he who dissents from the vote of the majority is not in the least obliged by what they determine till by a second covenant a popular form be actually established, for not before then can we call it a democratical government, namely, till the right of determining all matters relating to the public safety is actually placed in a general assembly of the whole people; or by their own compact and mutual agreement, determine themselves the proper subject for the exercise of sovereign power. And to complete this state and render it capable to exert its power to answer the end of a civil state, these conditions are necessary.

(1) That a certain time and place be assigned for assembling.

(2) That when the assembly be orderly met as to time and place, that then the vote of the majority must pass for the vote of the whole body.

(3) That magistrates be appointed to exercise the authority of the whole for the better dispatch of business of every day’s occurrence; who also may with more mature diligence search into more important affairs, and if in case anything happens of greater consequence, may report it to the assembly; and be peculiarly serviceable in putting all public decrees into execution. Because a large body of people is almost useless in respect of the last service and of many others, as to the more particular application and exercise of power. Therefore it is most agreeable with the law of nature that they institute their officers to act in their name and stead’.

It’s clear from the above that Wise’s model of democracy was based on the direct democracies of the ancient world, such as Athens. While this is some way away from modern, representative democracy, where MPs, senators and congressmen actually pass the laws as the people’s elected representatives, it nevertheless shows the beginning of American democracy and particularly the Town Hall meetings that are a vital part of it.

John Locke and the Foundations of British and American Democracy

July 4, 2013

Locke Portrait

Career and the Constitution of Carolina

One of the founders of the British and American democratic tradition was the English philosopher, John Locke. Born in 1632, it was Locke who established the modern liberal idea of government by defending the right of the nation to choose their government through elected representatives against the claims for the monarchy to have absolute power, advocated by royalists such as Sir Robert Filmer. From 1668 to 1675 he was Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, and from 1673 to 1675 he was Secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations. Locke helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions for the Government of Carolina in 1669. This contained Locke’s own ideas, that he had previously expressed in his Essay Concerning Toleration of two years previously. He believed that no-one should be a freeman in Carolina, or possess any land or dwelling there, who did not believe in a God. If they did believe in the Almighty, however, they not only had the right to live in the colony, but also to the authorities’ protection for their person, property and religious beliefs. Locke was certainly not in favour of complete religious toleration. He excluded Roman Catholics, who were associated with continental absolute monarchies, such as France and Spain, as well as atheists. In the event, his proposed constitution was never enacted, yet some of the ideas it contained were strong enough to be put into practice. Carolina thus offered a greater protection to emigrants fleeing religious persecution than either Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Locke stated that everyone possessed the fundamental rights of ‘life, liberty and property’, which inspired the American Revolutionaries to enshrine the basic rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the American Constitution.

Political Ideas in the Two Treatises of Government

Locke himself saw his arguments for representative democracy as part of the English tradition of political liberty that stood staunchly opposed to the absolute monarchy of Filmer’s Patriarcha. The first part of Locke’s classic political text, Two Treatises of Government, consists in demolishing Filmer’s arguments. It is arranged in several books, the first of which has the title ‘An Essay Concerning Certain False Principles’. The first chapter is ‘On Slavery and Natural Liberty’. It begins

‘Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an “English,” much less a “gentleman”, should plead for it.’

He later defined political power as

‘that power which every man having in the state of Nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good and the preservation of their property… it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved … And this power has its original only from compact and agreement and the mutual consent of those who make up the community’.

Locke’s Family’s Homes of Wrington and Pensford, Somerset

Locke was born in Wrington, in Somerset, and his family came from the village of Pensford. This is also in Somerset, not far from the city of Bristol. The great British travel writer, Arthur Mee, described Pensford as follows:

‘It has a character, and a good one; could any tiny place be more crowded with quaint loveliness? Perhaps we found it at its best, for it was a glorious spring day and the aubrietia was creeping down the stone walls through which the river runs, ten feet down from the cottage gardens to the water, and it is all bridges- three little stone ones and a colossal viaduct dwarfing the village, the tower, the roofs and everything with its 16 great arches carryinig the trains 100 feet up in the air. A perfect miniature is the little domed lock-up looking down the street. Wandsdyke which runs close by is hardly noticed.

The 14th century church is nearly moated with the little river; in its long history the nave has been flooded four feet deep. It has a 15th century font with quatrefoils and roses; a Jacobean pulpit of which every inch is carved with swaures and circles and leaves, and in the tower we found an odd little man most certainly winking, though winking at nothing we could see.

In this small place there live two people whose son was to join our immortals, father and mother of our philosopher John Locke’.

According to Mee, there is also a bust of Locke in Wrington parish church. It was taken there after his uncle’s house in the village was torn down.

Since Locke’s time, democracy and liberal, representative government has spread to many more countries than just Britain and America. The largest democracy on Earth is now India. Black Britons, American and West Indians may well consider Locke’s comments on slavery profoundly wrong, considering their own peoples history of enslavement by Europeans. Nevertheless, Locke’s ideas on government firmly laid the foundation for modern, constitutional democracy and the replacement of absolute monarchy by liberal regimes.


John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd 1924).

Arthur Mee, ed. Somerset: County of Romantic Splendour (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1940)

Calvin and Social Justice

May 4, 2009

One of the most interesting aspects of Calvin’s ideas is his view on the nature of politics and the best form of government. I’ve discussed in previous blog posts about Christianity and the origins of democracy the comparatively democratic nature of Calvin’s Geneva and the influence this had in the development of European and American democracy. I’ve done a little bit more reading since then, and feel that there is some more that could be said. In his consideration of the nature of politics and the forms of government and the state, Calvin believed that every nation should be free to create for itself the form of government that best suited it, and considered that it was a sign of God’s grace and benevolence that different nations had different forms of government. Nevertheless, he believed that good government should be based on Christian moral foundations, and caritas, love. He also felt that it should acknowledge human equality in the sense that it recognised that everyone had an innate value and that those in authority were tempted to abuse their positions. After his return to Geneva in 1541, the Small Council formed a committee to draw up a constitution for the church, which introduced greater lay participation in church government. When dealing with disputes within the church, he insisted on treating and punishing everyone similarly, regardless of their wealth or fame. He also felt that everyone, even the poorest, should be able to call on the law and the magistrates to act against injustice against them, as civil magistrates had been appointed by God for humanity’s benefit and the just defence of their interests.

He also did not believe in hereditary monarchy, as he felt that, because of their elevated personal status, kings felt themselves separate and above the rest of humanity. Furthermore, as only they possessed political power, they had extreme difficulty restraining themselves and acting only for justice. He considered the best form of government to be a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, as it was safer for a number of people to rule rather than a single individual. When government was held by a group, the various people composing it could act to help, instruct and admonish each other, and, if one person was tempted to abuse their power, they could be held back by the others. However, Calvin nevertheless recognised, following St. Paul, that the kingdom of God did not reside in human laws and institutions. 1

He also attempted through his preaching to promote a more ethical society where the poor would not be exploited and deprived of their property by the wealthier members of society. He was extremely critical of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and felt that many of them had gained their wealth at the expense of their poorer citizens. In these instances, believers should assist the poor while being wary of committing any wrong themselves. He felt that believers should not only not steal or exploit others themselves, but should act when they saw others being treated unjustly, as if they failed to act against injustice and oppression, they became implicated in them. Thus, Calvin stated that

‘(L)et none of us think that it is only lawful for us to guard what we have, rather, as the principle of charity exhorts us, let us see that we preserve and procure our neighbor’s property as much as our … (and) that we should always aspire towards that celestial heritage, knowing that therein we shall possess the fullness of all goods in perfection’. 2

Thus, while it took many centuries for modern democracy to emerge in Europe and America, Calvin’s Geneva was a strong influence in the development of democratic ideas through Calvin’s belief in the human equality before God, his belief that the best form of government was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, rather than monarchy, and his concern to protect the interests and property of the poor against exploitation by the wealthy, ideals that continue to be expressed and influence contemporary views and discussion of the nature of democracy, even if the influence of Calvin, along with other political theorists and philosophers, is not always recognised.

1. See William R. Stevenson, JR., ‘Calvin and Political Issues’ in Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 179-80.

2. Benjamin W. Farley, ed. and trans., John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, Baker 1980), pp. 200-1, cited in D. Devries, ‘Calvin’s Preaching’, in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, CUP 2004), p. 116.

Positivism, Abortion and the Destruction of the Midianites

January 24, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert presents further arguments from atheists such as Steve Kangas concerning scientific progress leading to modern, humane, democratic society, and the problem the destruction of corrupt societies by God, such as the Midianites and Sodom and Gomorrah, poses for opponents of abortion, who view the killing of those societies’ children as a way of preventing their abuse in those societies.


Thanks for bringing all this to the forefront.

I hope I have not only done Dr. Logic justice in my presentation of his main points (having had to scale down from many to just get to the core arguments), but the topic as well.

His basic premise seems to be that religion in general is unscientific, science is
the fount of all meaningful knowledge, and that what he considers the harmful
effects of faith are ameliorated by advanced secular democracy.

His take is simliar to that of the late Steve Kangas, who wrote a rather long list
of the alleged crimes of religion, including a handy list of the “war on science and religion” from Andrew Dickson white. Additionally, Kangas mentioned the notion of progress being scientific alone is, by the accounting of the enlightened secularists like himself has now merged with moral progress. Thus for example only in modern times have we defeated what Kangas claims are almost the sole provence of religion: war, famine, pestilence, appeal to authoritarian styled authority over democracy, deprivation, fascism, patriarchal rule, rape, incest, pograms and other
whole scourges of minorities, racism, genocide, feudalism, serfdom, class distinctions, etc. Then of course the charge that the Bible itself is filled with atrocity commanded by God, and that only science has found a way around this, and thus in the modern age we now know much better.

Well, you see the picture:

then we have something many mention, where Kangas manages, amazingly as his tactic is wont, to merge two issues into one.

Abortion and the Bible, and the difference between “viability” and “dependency”, and why the Bible and “prolifers”, unlike science, cannot offer clear dividing lines or reasoned arguments about when life begins for humans, along with an alleged contradiction in God’s character.

To wit, God had the Midianites destroyed utterly, except for girls and women to be placed into what some see as sexual slavery. Now if this is the case not only is this atrocious in and of itself, BUT ALSO, we have the problem of the pro-lifers claiming that all unborn life is precious. With the destruction of the Midianites, and no doubt with the leveling of Sodom and Gomorrah and reclacitrant cities like Jericho, the unborn were killed also. This leaves a problem for Christians. Or so I’d think. Kangas has a point here: If your argument was like Pat Robertson’s, where we see God might have SPARED the unborn a needless suffering the in captivity of sin and dysfunction, the PRO-CHOICERS would pipe up to say this is JUST how that make THEIR argument. By eliminating unwanted pregnancy, they are doing what God did with the Midianites and Sodom, etc.

Thanks for the appreciation, Wakefield. I’m glad you enjoyed my comments, and I’m sure you did Dr. Logic justice in your description of his views. Let’s critique the underlying assumptions of both him and Steve Kangas.

Firstly, they’re both Positivists, essentially following the 19th century views of the founder of sociology, Auguste Comte, who believed that human society evolved from religion, through philosophy, to science, which was the highest stage of human development and would eventually provide the solutions to humanity’s problems. Unlike modern atheists and humanists, he attempted to create a religion based around science and humanity, with an elaborate ritual and hierarchy. This didn’t work, but nevertheless it has influenced much of contemporary atheist and humanist ideas, such as the supposed connection between scientific progress and moral progress. You can find these same ideas expressed in some of the optimistic science fiction, like Star Trek.

In fact, there are major problems with it from the outset. Firstly, many historians, philosophers and anthropologists are particularly critical of the notion of progress. The British Christian historian, Herbert Butterfield, called this kind of view ‘the Whig view of history’ – the idea that history is a story of continuous progress, culminating in freedom, democracy, and the British Empire. As you can see, he was criticising the British version of this view, which viewed the British Empire as bringing freedom, progress and prosperity to its colonies around the world, rather than conquering them and oppressing their peoples in the more contemporary view of the Empire. Part of the argument against progress is the view that the present view of history is very much determined by the development of history itself, but if that history had been different, then our view of history would have been very different. For example, if democracy had not emerged, and society remained strongly hierarchical, then presumably the notion of historical progress would have been one of the development of proper notions of hierarchy and authority, rather than egalitarianism and democracy.

There are other problems in that the view that science automatically leads to moral progress has been rejected by many of the horrors that took place and were committed by advanced, technological societies. For example, one of the major criticisms made of the development of nuclear weapons was that in creating them, humanity’s technological and scientific skill had gone far beyond humanity’s ability to act morally. One can also add the examples of scientific experimentation on unwitting or unwilling subjects, even in democratic western societies, such as nuclear experiments on civilians, and covert experimentation on civilians. Science, it has been claimed, is morally neutral, and that’s more or less the case. It’s application for good or evil depends on the individuals and governments involved, not on the scientific method itself, so science does not necessarily lead to greater morality or freedom.

There is also the problem in that he views scientific progress as leading to what is basically modern secular humanism, but this assumes that only secular humanism is scientific, and that science is necessarily the basis for equality and democracy. However, Communism also claimed to be scientific and to be the only true Humanism, so scientific development can be interpreted as leading away from bourgeois democracy to highly authoritarian systems of government.

There’s also the point made by Christian philosophers like Roger Trigg in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith be Privatized? that the notions of equality on which modern democracy is founded are derived from the Christian conception of equality before God as contained in and articulated by the philosophy of John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government, which provides the basis for modern democracy. Trigg makes the point in the book that contemporary atheist philosophy generally simply assumes that democracy and equality are the best forms of government and society, without being able to defend or support this view. Trigg therefore considers that only through religious faith can democracy be properly supported. Indeed, the whole conception of modern individualism may be considered to derive from the Puritan idea that each person is responsible for their own salvation and so should diligently investigate scripture for themselves. It was this individualist view of the responsibility of every person to seek salvation that led many Puritans to support the British Revolution against Charles I. In the case of the view that science necessarily leads to equality and democracy, this appears to have developed from people reading Locke’s metaphysic into modern science without recognising its basis in Christianity.

Many Roman Catholic philosophers reject Locke’s philosophy, but nevertheless also consider that it is only through Christianity that notions of human dignity and equality at the heart of modern democracy can be supported. Roman Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, in his detailed appreciation and analysis of democracy in America, have argued from St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotelean philosophy that it is only through Christian theology, rather than reason, that politics can be adequately supported and defended.

Regarding issues such as famine and deprivation, while Christianity accepted that poverty would always exist, it was also committed to its alleviation long before the emergence of contemporary science. Joseph, when he was vizier of Egypt, for example, opened the storehouses to alleviate the famine. Furthermore, the French historian, Jean Gimpel, in his book, The Medieval Machine, noted that people in the Middle Ages had a very modern attitude to estate management and farming, citing the English 13th century agricultural writer, Walter of Henley, the philosopher and theologian, Robert Grosseteste, and the two treatises Seneschaucy and Husbandry. One can similarly find agricultural handbooks advising landlords and farmers how they could improve yields in the 16th century. The early Church regularly preached the virtue of charity and of providing for the physical needs of the poor, and medieval ecclesiastic writers also insisted on the duty of the Church to provide for the poor. In fact the Church was often unable to do so through poor organisation, human corruption and poverty amongst some of its own members itself. For example, while some parts of the church were extremely wealthy and corrupt indeed, other parts of the church, such as many Benedictine monasteries in the 14th century, were so poor that they were themselves in need of poor relief. Furthermore, the acquisition of ecclesiastical funds by the state did not necessarily lead to better provision for the poor. Alfred Cobban in his book, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution has noted that the provision of funds to alleviate the famine that occurred at the time of the French Revolution actually became much less, and the famine much more severe, after the ecclesiastical money reserved by the French Roman Catholic church for famine relief was confiscated by the Revolutionaries.

Regarding Fascism, although this horrifically did have the support of sections of the Christian Church, it had its origins – at least in Italy and Germany – in militant nationalism that could include a rejection of Christian morality. The Italian Fascists in particular stated that Fascism was based on moral relativism, rather than the traditional Christian view that morality is objective and transcendental in origin.

Now let’s examine the critique of the Pro-Life attitude towards abortion, and whether this is indeed contradicted by the destruction of corrupt societies such as Sodom and Gomorrah and the Midianites. Firstly, it must be recognised that the capture of the Midianite women and girls by the Israelites as wives was not considered to be a form of slavery. The Mosaic Law stated that women captured in war and married by the captors were not to be treated as slaves. They were given an amount of time to mourn the death of their families, and were to be properly treated and provided for. If a man wanted to divorce one of them, he was to give his former wife her freedom and not sell her as a slave. As for the complete destruction of societies like the Midianites, ancient warfare generally could be extremely brutal. Under Roman law, a besieged town was granted humane treatment if it surrendered. However, this was granted only if it surrendered before the battering ram had struck the town gates for the third time. If it had not surrendered before then, then the entire population of the town was massacred if it was taken.

Now the corrupt societies of Sodom and Gomorrah and Midian were destroyed because it was felt that they were completely corrupt, and every member of that society shared in its corruption. Hence the complete destruction of those societies. Clearly there is a difference here between the destruction of these societies and abortion. The children of these cultures were not destroyed to prevent their abuse by their elders, but because it was considered that they shared in their societies’ corruption and that these societies should therefore be completely destroyed, which included the massacre of their children. The sacrifice of infants by these societies was one reason for their destruction. The killing of these societies’ children by the Israelites was not to prevent their being used in such sacrifices, to but to destroy completely the society that practised that and other corrupt acts. So, there is indeed a good point that the Pro-Life position is not supported, and is indeed contradicted by claims that the Israelites killed the children of these societies to prevent their being used in human sacrifice. However, the reason for these societies’ complete destruction was still because, amongst other horrific acts, they practised child sacrifice.

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – the Sixteenth Century: Part 4

August 13, 2008

View of John Knox that Princes and the People themselves have a Right and Duty to Depose an Unjust Monarch Preventing the Establishment of True Religion

In his view of the relationship between the king and his subjects, Calvin allowed that unjust rulers could be deposed by the inferior magistrates, but stressed the subject’s duty to obey established authority, even when it was corrupt. John Knox, however, believed that the aristocracy and the estates also had their authority granted by God, and so had the right and duty to defend the innocent, punish criminals and establish proper religion. If the monarch refused to allow religion to be reformed, and the true faith to be established, then it was the duty of the aristocracy and the estates to depose them. If the aristocracy and estates refused to do this, then it was the duty of the people themselves to reform the church, a view he addressed directly to the people themselves in his Letter to the Commonalty. This view, that the people themselves had the right and duty to rebel against their social superiors when they were unjust and prevented the proper establishment of true religion, was immensely radical in an age when government and politics was viewed as the exclusive activity of princes and aristocrats, to whom the masses of ordinary people should be loyal and obey, but who were otherwise excluded from government and their political participation was viewed with suspicion and distrust.

View of Goodman that Kings Owed their Power to the People, and so can Depose Unjust Monarchs

Knox was not alone in his views, however. The English Calvinist, Christopher Goodman, stated in his book, How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; wherein they may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted, published in Geneva in 1558 that kings owed their power and their authority to their acceptance as kings by their people, and that ordinarily they should be respected. Like Knox, he also believed that the aristocracy was ordained by God to defend their nation’s true religion, laws and prosperity and to act to limit and restrain the king’s power. Kings were also God’s subjects, and like everyone else they were obliged to work to the best of their ability in their vocation. If they abused their position, they could be deposed and punished. This was not just the duty of the aristocracy, but also of ordinary people, who are required to reform the church if the king and aristocracy refuse to do so.

View of Ponet that God Established Government for Human Welfare, but Form of the Government Left to Humanity to Decide

Another Protestant exile from the reign of Mary Tudor in England, John Ponet, also believed in and expounded the right of the subjects themselves to overthrow an oppressive monarch. Ponet had been bishop of Rochester and Winchester during the Reign of Edward VI before he sought refuge in Strasbourg after Mary’s accession, publishing his treatise on government, A Shorte Treatise of Politicke Power in 1556. Unlike Mariana and Buchanan, for example, who believed that government arose out of humanity’s natural inclination for company and co-operation, or the need for protection from aggression when in the primeval phase of human existence, Ponet believed that humanity was too corrupt to govern itself through reason. He attributed the belief that it was possible to the ancient pagans, and considered that history demonstrated that they had been wrong. Ponet believed that human actions should be guided by divine law, which is the law of nature. However, humans did not obey law unless coerced, and so God had created political power for humanity’s benefit, granting humanity the power to legislate for itself and enforce such legislation with appropriate punishment, including execution. God did not, however, specify which form of government humans were to adopt. That was left to humanity itself. God did not grant authority to only one individual, but to the community, as a co-operative association based on the reciprocal need of each individual for every other. It was the community that maintained justice and general welfare.

View that Best Form of Government Mixed Government of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that Power of Monarch Limited by Constitution and God’s Law

Ponet did not believe that any people could sensibly give unlimited power to a prince, and so considered the best form of government to be a mixed constitution where sovereignty was shared between the prince and a parliamentary assembly. England, France and Germany were all ruled by this form of government. Even those monarchs who ruled without a parliamentary assembly were subject to constitutional limits to their authority. They were bound by God’s law, and so could only legislate on relatively unimportant matters. Furthermore, Ponet urged that people should not automatically accept legislation that was merely human in origin. Laws must be considered and obeyed on their own merits, and not because of the authority of the people who had passed them. While people owed kings their love and loyalty, their first loyalty was to God, then their country and only afterwards to the monarch. He regarded princes as merely members of the commonwealth, which could exist without them. He stated that princes were liable unjustly to seize their subject’s property as their own, alter the coinage and raise taxes, political conduct that Ponet declared to be mere brigandage. They did not hold of themselves their kingdom, but simply had it in stewardship. Under the law of nature, people had the right to depose and execute oppressive rulers and tyrants, and so the community had the ability to withdraw the authority it had granted to the prince. While this should be done by the community as a whole, private assassination was justified in some circumstances.

Demands for Religious Toleration for Roman Catholics and Protestants by Edwin Sandys in England

Apart from the ability of the subject or citizen to take part in the process of making political decision, one of the great pillars of modern democracy is freedom of conscience. While both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Sixteenth century generally wished to suppress each others’ religions through force, there was also a profound desire amongst many Christians for unity and toleration in Christendom. Edwin Sandys, a son of the Archbishop of York and pupil of Richard Hooker, in his A Relation of the State of Religion, criticised the intolerance of both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants were Christians, and shared the same fundamental beliefs and doctrines that were the essence of Christianity. The doctrinal points that divided them could never be decided for certain. Thus, he felt, that Roman Catholics and Protestants should respect each other, and that the unity of Christendom could be restored through the establishment of a European church based on the Christian doctrines held by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. This was to be done either by a general council, which would impose its authority on the Pope and other participants in the controversy, or by the princes, though he did not feel that they could be trusted to put this into action. In order to put an end to religious disunity and conflict, Sandys wished to prohibit the claims to superiority by the various sects and faiths in Christendom. Instead of persecuting the various Christian sects, governments should instead force them to respect each other. He did not, however, believe that anti-Christian opinions should be tolerated, and so did not advocate modern concepts of secular democracy.

Demands for Toleration of Roman Catholics and Protestants in France by Politiques

The Politiques in France had expressed similar views rather earlier. They were mostly Roman Catholics, but also some Protestants, who regarded with horror the devastation, caused by the Wars of Religion, and felt that the only way to save France from further carnage and destruction was through negotiation and peace with the Huguenots. A 1574 pamphlet described the suffering inflicted on all classes in France by the War, and called for the Huguenots to join a states-general to bring about peace and save France from further destruction. Other pamphlets noted the moral damage the wars had caused, and the way they had discredited Christianity as a whole. The Huguenot writer La Noue declared that the wars had created a million libertines and Epicureans, while other writers stated that religious persecution had not suppressed heresy, but created only atheists. They argued strongly that the only way for states to survive and prosper was by tolerating two religions, and that the state should be above any specific religion. They also strongly argued that the existence of two religions in a country did not necessarily produce civil conflict or disunity, a point of view shared by Henry of Navarre himself. The Politiques were extremely sceptical about the claims of the Churches to possess the sole religious truth, but believed strongly that Roman Catholics and Protestants shared the same, basic, fundamental points of Christian doctrine. Thus the toleration of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism did not threaten the Christian nature of civil society, which was based on the fundamental Christian principles held in common by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In 1590 the pamphlet Le Pacifique attempted to demonstrate the agreement between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on fundamental doctrinal points in the form of a dialogue between a Roman Catholic and Protestant, who discover that the share the same basic Christian beliefs.

Demands for Religious Toleration by Sebastien Castillion

Similar views on toleration were held and strongly argued by the humanist Sebastien Castellion and Giacomo Contio, or Acontius. In his De Haereticis an sint persequandi of 1542-5, possibly written with a little assistance from Lelio Sozini, who held Unitarian views, and Martin Borrhee, and his Contra libellum Calvini, written in response to Calvin’s participation in the execution of Michael Servetus for heresy in Geneva, De Arte Dubitandi, the Four Dialogues of 1578, and the Conseil a la France desolee of 1562, Castellion argued for religious toleration. In the De Haereticis he attempted to support his arguments by quotations from some of the early Church Fathers and contemporary theologians and religious authorities such as Luther, Erasmus and Calvin himself. He considered that because there were points of doctrine that could not be decided for certain, all that could be required of people is that they attempt to understand the Word of God and follow it according to their conscience. Castellion felt that Christianity consisted in the knowledge that Christ was the Son of God and that his teachings were divine. He did not believe that religion lay in either ceremonies or beliefs that people could not understand, and firmly stated that Scripture did not support the persecution of those of different religious opinions. One defended religion not by killing for it, but by suffering death. He did, however, believe that the government had the right to punish those who denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul and the authority of the government, though they should not be executed.

Demands for Complete Freedom of Conscience by Acontius

Acontius was a military engineer who had been employed by Pescara in Milan and Queen Elizabeth in England. In his Strategematum Satanae of 1565 he argued that most people formed their beliefs without the guidance of either reason or God, simply accepting tradition or the opinions of the mass of people around them. They are intolerant of others, partly because they cannot bear to accept that their beliefs may be wrong. He argued that religious controversy and wars were Satan’s way of causing trouble and destruction on Earth. He believed that there were a few basic beliefs necessary for salvation, but that most of Christian doctrine was simply speculation without any real value. He argued that only those doctrines that affected human conduct on Earth had any value. Magistrates had no power to punish heresy, not just because they had no power themselves to do so, but also because there was so much difference in opinion between the Churches on what was heretical that they too had little authority to make such decisions. He believed that there should be absolute freedom of religion, and that people came to the truth through doubt and free inquiry and discussion. For Acontius, those who undoubtedly possessed extremely heretical doctrines should be punished merely with excommunication, which should be a source of regret rather than anger and hatred.

Contribution of Christian Humanists to Education and their Stress on Tolerance and Dialogue rather than Conflict

Another fundamental pillar of democracy is the belief in the value of education, and that a just society and good government must be based on informed, educated opinion. In this area too the Christian humanists of the 16th century made a profound contribution. Erasmus believed that humans could be assisted to become good as they possessed free will, though this free will itself had to be aided in its turn by God’s grace. The human will could be directed towards goodness through religious devotion and learning. For Erasmus, if princes were educated according to humanist principles, the result would be a good society where princes ruled justly and, following Christ, established peace instead of war. As a result, he and other humanists, such as John Colet in England, established schools and academies. Their influence on the aristocracy was profound. Although their political ideas of a just society was Utopian, their idea of an educated aristocracy informed by humanist culture nearly became reality, so that after the mid-sixteenth century even minor members of the nobility had libraries showing a wide variety of interests. 26 Moreover, Erasmus and his followers, although entirely orthodox Roman Catholics, stressed the importance of dialogue, toleration and the importance of settling matters peacefully, rather than resorting to force. Their stress on God’s love for humanity, rather than His judgement of their actions, influenced Reginald Pole, Contarini, Castellion and the Socinians, and his advocacy of a tolerant Christianity was immensely popular in Spain, especially amongst the Conversos, whose ancestors had converted to Christianity from Judaism to avoid expulsion and persecution. 27


Both View that Power of the Monarch Absolute and that Royal Power Limited by the Constitution and Sovereignty of the People existed in Sixteenth Century

Thus, although much of the political theory of the sixteenth century stressed the absolute power of the monarch and the duty of their subjects to obey them, there were also other political views, held and defended by both Roman Catholics and Protestants across Europe, that stressed instead the constitutional limits on monarchical power, the importance and role in government of representative assemblies and right and even duty of subjects to resist and depose unjust rulers. Political theorists, theologians and philosophers in England, Scotland, France, Geneva and Switzerland considered that governments had been established for the benefit of their peoples, not the rulers’, that societies and governments were based on contracts and covenants between their members, rulers and the Almighty, and that monarchs owed their power not to any personal virtue, but because the community delegated it to them. The power of the monarch was limited by the law of God and natural law. Princes and parliaments acted as constitutional checks to monarchs to prevent oppression, and who were also representatives of the community and so had a duty to protect their ancient rights. If kings exceeded the bounds of their authority or failed to establish true religion, they could be overthrown by the aristocracy and other leading governmental officials and institutions, or even by private citizens. These views were based on medieval political theory, contemporary interpretation of Scripture and the necessity amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants wishing to defend their religion and defeat and destroy their opponents of finding theoretical support for their resistance to persecution, oppression or the authorities’ failure to maintain the true faith.

Sixteenth Century also Period of Demonds for Religious Toleration, and Improvements in Education

Alongside these demands for political freedom were criticisms of both Roman Catholics and Protestants for their intolerance, and demands for an end to religious persecution and freedom of conscience amongst a very few individual political theorists. Furthermore, the Christian humanist belief that the human will could be formed and directed towards goodness through education led to the foundation of schools and libraries, and an attitude of tolerance and dialogue rather than violent coercion.

Influence of Demands for Constitutional Limits to Monarchy and Participation in Government of People and Representative Assemblies and Religious Toleration Limited in 16th Century, but had strong Influence in 17th Century England

The impact of these ideas was limited, however. Although princes in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere granted toleration to various Christian denominations and sects, this did not necessarily prevent them from acquiring increasing power over their tenants’ lives and properties, so that during the 16th century serfdom increased. In western Europe, in France, Germany and Spain political power became increasingly centralised in the monarch and representative institutions, such as the estates, declined in importance, eventually to produce the absolutist monarchies of the 18th century. Nevertheless, these doctrines continued to have an effect. The Vindiciae, although largely abandoned by the Huguenots shortly after its publication, influenced contemporary Dutch political ideas and considerably influenced English political theories in the 17th century. 28 Castellion’s demands for religious toleration influenced the radical theologian, Dirck Volckentzoon Coornhert. In turn, he influenced Arminius, who otherwise strongly opposed and argued against his theology. Arminius’ religious views strongly influenced British theology and political theories in the 17th century, during the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. In England although it was not noticed at the time, claims such as Thomas Smith’s that it was parliament that really represented every individual in the country pointed towards the Civil War in the next century. 29 Thus, while Europe generally became more authoritarian following the sixteenth century, nevertheless the political theories stressing the constitutional limits on monarchical governments and the role of representative assemblies influenced the Netherlands and Britain, creating the ideas for greater religious and political freedom that were to appear in the 17th century and which found practical expression in the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms and the development of modern, political theories like John Locke’s.


  1. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 104-5.
  2. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 105-6.
  3. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 331.
  4. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 268.

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – The Sixteenth Century: Part 3

August 13, 2008

Huguenot View that Power of KIngs Limited and established by God for Benefit of the People; Constitutions established through the Will of the People

Goulart’s Memoires de l’Estat de France sous Charles IX, and the treatises Du Droit des Magistrats, the Dialogue d’Archon et de Politie and the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, all considered that humanity had an obligation to God to obey properly constituted political authority, and that normally rebellion against authority was a rebellion against God. Nevertheless, kings were bound both by natural law and the law of Scripture. Their authority is limited, and they were established by God for humanity’s benefit. The Vindiciae quotes the medieval maxim, ‘magistrates were created for the people and not the people for magistrates.’ 23 All forms of government, monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and all princes and magistrates were established by the consent of the people and it is through the will of the people that constitutions continue to exist. ‘Politie’ in the Dialogue even states that hereditary monarchs are to be regarded as elected by the people.

View Memoires that Monarchy was always Checked by a Parliament, and Duties between King and Subject Reciprocal

The Memoires states that there have never been a monarchy that did not also have a representative assembly to check the monarch’s power. As monarchs derived their power from the people, they held it subject to certain conditions and were thus required to fulfil their duties to their subjects, just as their subjects were required to obey and fulfil their duties to them. This view, that secular power was constrained by the ends for which it existed, was related to Gerson and Pierre d’Ailly’s view that the pope’s power was limited by the ends to which the Church existed.

View of Vindiciae that Power of Ruler based on Contracts and Covenants between Himself, God and His People

The Vindiciae furthermore followed Calvinist Covenant theology in expressing the relationship between God, people and the prince as a series of contracts and covenants. The prince in his contract with God bound himself to serve God and to ensure that the people also did so. The people also bound themselves before everything else to worship God properly. The prince and the people were responsible to God for each other. The prince would be held responsible if the people abandoned the worship of God, while the people are also responsible if the prince becomes a traitor. There was also a second contract by which the prince bound himself to rule justly and respect and maintain the rights of each one of his subjects. The people were bound to obey him so long as he did so. The moment he violated the contract, they could disobey and resist him.

View of Vindiciae that Subordinate Authorities in Country – the Inferior Magistrates – have Power delegated to them by the Sovereign People to Check Power of Monarchy

In fact the Vindiciae declared that the true lord of sovereign of a country were the people, and that tyrannous kings were thus traitors and rebels to the sovereign people. Private individuals, ordinary citizens, did not, however, have the right to rebel against an unjust monarch. This could only be done by the permanent political representatives of the people. In the Du Droit and the Vindiciae, these were the feudal aristocracy, who originally had been normal magistrates, the parlements and the estates-generals. As the people’s delegates, they shared sovereignty with the monarch and had a right to depose him. These aristocrats and officials constituted the inferior magistrates Calvin considered safeguarded the people’s rights and the contracts that formed the basis of society.

Huguenot View that Power to Resist Monarch not Matter of Majority Vote, but Magistrates also represented their Particular, Individuals Communities

These treatises did not consider that resistance or rebellion against a monarch could be achieved through a majority vote, which is one of the central tenets of contemporary democracy. Indeed the dialogue states that even if the majority of people support a tyrant, the minority still have a right to rebel. Nevertheless, they did believe that a magistrate appointed or acting for a particular community, such as the local estates-general for a province or a magistrate or group of magistrates for a city, could rightfully raise a rebellion as the proper representative of that province or city.

Huguenots Not Democrats, but Placed Kings Partly at Level of Ordinary People through Sharing Common Obligation to Fulfill Duties of Vocation to the Best of One’s Ability

The Huguenots were not democrats and had no intention of abolishing the traditional social hierarchy, and viewed the aristocracy, not the ordinary people, as the true guardians of the constitution and liberty against the power of the monarchy. Nevertheless, despite the view that kings were, like other forms of government, ordained by God, from whom they received their authority, the view that they had been established and had the powers limited by covenants removed the personal charisma that surrounded the monarchy and gave it part of its immense prestige and authority. Kings had occupied a divinely appointed position above their subjects in the cosmic hierarchy. While they still did so, the most important aspect of monarchy was simply how well they performed their duties as rulers. This was indeed a religious duty, but everyone also had a religious duty to perform their occupation well, regardless of their particular social position. In this way the king was thus placed on the same level as the rest of humanity, as another member of society required to perform the responsibilities of his occupation properly and well, albeit at a particularly exalted level of society. 24

View of French Roman Catholics that Royal Power Limited and that Political Authority held by Estates-General

French Roman Catholics also argued that the power of Crown was limited and that the people had a right, through constitutional institutions, to resist unjust legislation or depose the king as they attempted to defend Roman Catholicism against the spread of Calvinism, and particularly the possibility of the coronation of a Huguenot, such as Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV, as king. The Catholic League formed in 1576 included members who believed that estates-general had a constitutional role in government and shared sovereignty with the king. The League expressed this view of the political role and authority of the estates in its first declaration of 1575. The assembly of the estates at Blois in the same year also expressed their support for it. Thirteen years later in 1588 it was declared that the king should officially recognise the right of the citizens to resist by force any attempt at taxation that did not have the estates’ authorisation. The Miroir des Francais, published in 1581, stated that the estates had the power to depose the king if he acted unlawfully. A pamphlet published by the League in 1589 similarly declared that the king had to obey the estates just as the pope had to obey a general council. If the king refused to act according to the advice and wishes of the estates, he could be deposed.

View that People Possessed Right to Depose Unjust Kings

Many of the pamphlets written by the League to support their opposition to Henry of Navarre, stated that kings were established by the people for their welfare, and that sovereignty thus resided with them, rather than with the king. Thus, kings who acted unjustly and who threatened to harm the kingdom could be lawfully deposed. Some of the writers considered that the parlements had the power to do this, while others limited to the aristocracy and other government and legal officials. One of the major League writers, Jean Boucher, a doctor of theology at the University of Paris and Prior of the Sorbonne, in his De justa abdicatione Henrici tertii of 1589 argued that the people had the right to depose the king. In a volume of sermons, published in 1594, he stated that sovereignty resided with the people in the states-general. The French people had chosen to establish a monarchy as their particular form of government. Nevertheless, they retained the right to depose the king, and even to abolish the monarchy altogether. These rights were inalienable, and it was the estates-general who expressed the will of the people.

Ability of Community to Establish Form of Government it Wishes, and Limit Authority of Monarch

Similar views were expressed by the author of the book De Just Reipublicae of 1590. This stated that society and government had both arisen to satisfy human needs. The state had developed naturally, and communities had the ability to establish for themselves the form of government they considered most suitable. This ability, and the ability to elect and depose monarchs, was established by the nature of things as created by God and the rational nature of humanity. Kings and other magistrates were established according to human reason to perform certain functions, such as the protection of their subjects’ lives, property and their freedom. Kings did not possess a hereditary right to rule, and the people had the power to establish limits to the authority of the monarch, or even reject monarchy as a form of government. The book did not, however, state that sovereignty lay with the estates or any other institution or group. He did, however, state that once a king was declared to be a tyrant, anyone had the right to assassinate him.

View of Some Jesuits that Secular Authority Independent of Church, Delegated to King by People, who can Depose Heretic Prince

Some Jesuit writers such as Robert Bellarmine and Luis Molina also argued that secular authority was independent in origin from the church, having been established by the community for its benefit in this world. The king thus received his power from the people, and his authority was therefore limited and subject to certain conditions. People normally had an obligation to God to obey the prince, but this obligation did not exist if the king was a heretic. Furthermore, everyone, including the king, is equal in divine law and before the pope. Molina furthermore considered that the people had a right to depose the king as its delegate. This was done not by the pope, but by the state, although the state may be required to do so in accordance to a decision by the pope.

View of Jesuit de Mariana that Government Established by People in Remote Antiquity to Provide Security and Protection

The Spanish Jesuit, Juan de Mariana, who during his career was a lecturer at the universities of Paris and Rome, also believed in the sovereignty of the people and their right to depose tyrants and heretical princes. In his De Rege et Regis institutione, based on his studies of Spain’s history and constitution, he considered that government had similarly arisen in response to humanity’s primeval need for security and protection. Originally, humanity had lived in a state of nature very much like the animals. However, they formed groups and societies in order to protect themselves. In doing so, they recognised certain basic rights, such as the right to property. This, unfortunately, resulted in humanity, which had been relatively free of these evils in the past, becoming increasingly greedy, deceitful and treacherous, and requiring increasing levels of law to restrain and punish them.

View that Princes Granted Power Conditionally by Sovereign People, who Exercised Power through Govermental Assembly

Princes had originally been granted their power by the community. This grant of power was conditional, however, and continued to be made from day to day. He also considered that the community reserved to itself the right to levy taxes and pass legislation, and also possessed the right to establish the particular form of religion and the right of succession of a monarch in the state as fundamental and unalterable institutions. The community was only able to put its ability to pass legislation and raise taxes into action through a representative assembly, such as the estates. Although the estates shared their power with the king, ultimately authority and sovereignty lay with them as they represented the community and its will that first established the monarch.

Ability of Governmntal Assemblies and Private Individuals to Discern and Depose Tyrants

The people had a right to restrain by force, rebel against or even depose and kill a prince who exceeded the limits of his authority. He did not consider that private individuals had the right to do this on their own initiative, but that they should only do so when authorised by the representative assembly. Any king that acted against the decision and advice of the estates, or refused to allow them to meet, was a tyrant. Princes, who were revealed as tyrants either by their own actions or those of the estates, could be deposed and killed by private citizens. People naturally possessed the ability to discern tyrants, just as they naturally possessed the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus, although Mariana was a Jesuit who believed that the Church definitely had a power to direct political decisions, he also viewed the state as a product of the nature of humanity and justified by humanity’s need for it. He thus appears to have developed, with some qualifications, a conception of the secular, national state, based on earthly needs, such as those of peace and security, as a complete entity in its own right, independent of the church.

View of Scots Philosophers that KIngs’ Authority Delegated to them by Sovereign People, Who could Depose Them

The influential Scottish philosophers John Major and George Buchanan also believed that sovereignty lay with the people and that a king who overstepped the limits of his authority could be deposed by the estates. John Major was a historian as well as a philosopher, whose History of Great Britain was one of the great works of sixteenth century British history. His political philosophy was strongly based in medieval scholasticism. He considered that the sovereignty of the people was absolute, and that it was merely delegated to the king. Kings should not be given the power to raise taxes arbitrarily, except in times of special emergency. Those monarchs who ruled unjustly could, if they refused to be corrected, be deposed and executed. He believed that this could only be done by duly constituted authority, and not solely by acts of private violence. The estates, however, possessed at all times the authority to so act against a tyrant. Major stated in his History of Britain that these principles had always been a fundamental part of the Scottish constitution.

View of Buchanan that Primitive Humans formed Societies through Natural Law and Love of Company and Sense of Reciprocal Obligation Implanted by God

While Major’s views were derived from medieval philosophy, Buchanan was a Renaissance humanist. He lectured at Sainte Barbe and Le Moine in Paris and taught Latin at the universities of Bordeaux and Coimbra. His book, De Jure Regni apud Scotos, although published in 1578, appears to have been written much earlier, possibly before 1570, in order to justify the deposition of Mary, Queen of Scots. Like Mariana, Buchanan believed that originally human existence had been extremely primitive without law, with people living either in huts or in caves, wandering about the earth. Humans started to form societies, not because of any feelings that such societies were useful, but because they were guided by natural law and the innate human inclination to form societies. God implanted in everyone a natural love of company and a sense of reciprocal obligation. In that sense, states and communities, for Buchanan, were founded by the Almighty. Of the various communities and associations humans form, he considered states to be the most pleasing to God.

Kings Established by Will of the People, who Impose Conditions on, and Can Depose Him

Kings were established solely for public purposes by the will of the people. The law nature prohibits any one individual from possessing power over another, so the people established kings by delegating their authority to them. Nevertheless, there were limits set to royal authority, Law was made by either a representative assembly or by the people themselves, possibly through a plebiscite, and the king was bound by it. As the king’s power is merely delegated to him by the people, he is responsible to them, and they can remove these powers from him when there is a good reason for doing so. Although monarchies are hereditary, this does not guarantee their power or right to rule, as they were granted this power through legislation passed by the people, which the people can also repeal. Kings were granted their authority through a contract between themselves and their subjects. If they broke this contract by not governing for the benefit of their people, or by claiming greater powers than those originally granted to them, then they were tyrants who could be justly deposed.

View that War against Tyranny the Most Just War, and that Political Decisions May Be Properly Settled through Majority Vote

Indeed, Buchanan regarded war against a tyrant to be the most just of wars, and considered that not only a tyrant’s oppressed subjects, but that every human had the right to kill them. Tyrants were criminals who should be punished like anyone else who broke the law. Unlike other contemporary political theorists, who believed that sovereignty lay with the people, but did not consider that political decisions could be decided simply by the majority, Buchanan did believe that the decision of the majority was sufficient to pass legislation as humans were never unanimous in their views. This view, that the majority can make decisions on behalf of the wider community, was one of the great practical political discoveries of the Middle Ages and has naturally been accepted by politicians. 25


  1. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 316.
  2. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, p. 279.
  3. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 341.

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – The Sixteenth Century: Part 2

August 13, 2008

View of French Political Theorists that French Monarchy Limited by Constitution

Other writers apart from De Seyssel, who supported the institution of a strong, centralised monarchy, based on Roman law, the Corpus Juris, also considered that the power of the crown was limited. Although sovereignty and the power to make laws resided with the prince, this had been delegated to him by the people. Andrea Alciati, in his De Verborum Significationibus of 1529, stated that originally ‘Kings were not established by divine decree but by popular consent’. One of Alciati’s pupils, Francois Connan, stated that if a king violated human and divine law, he should be deposed. Even though these writers were concerned to support the power of the monarchy, nevertheless their theories also provided support for the view that the power of the Crown was limited and kings could be justly deposed. Their arguments supporting this view were adopted and used by opponents of abolute monarchy like Salamonius.

Role of French Parlements – Official Committees of Lawyers – in Checking Royal Power

In fact royal power in France was in practice limited by the parlements and estates-generals – the assemblies of clergy, aristocracy and burgesses to vote on and decide issues of state. The parlements were not representative institutions – they were assemblies of lawyers. They were not elected, and membership tended to become very strongly hereditary. Each French province possessed its own parlement. The parlement of Normandy resided at Rouen, while those of Britanny and Languedoc were situated in Rennes and Toulouse respectively, for example. The monarchy admitted that publication of a royal edict did not automatically make it law. For an edict to be officially passed as legislation it had to be registered by the parlements. As there were separate parlements in each province, so royal edicts had to be registered in each particular province in order to become law there.

It was unclear whether the parlements had the right to refuse legislation proposed by the king. Nevertheless, from 1562 the parlement of Paris claimed the right to refuse to pass royal edicts. The parlements claimed to be the successors of the Champs de Mai, one of two great annual assemblies of the French aristocracy under Charlemagne. Although their right to refuse royal legislation was debatable, nevertheless they acted in practice to limit royal power and preserve the individual rights and historic legal systems of the provinces and France as a whole.

Role of Estates-General – Governmental Assembly Representing the People – in Limiting Power of French Crown

The French estates-general also claimed a right to limit the power of the monarchy. In 1356 the estates-general had declared that the king could not raise taxes, even under extreme national emergencies, without their consent. In fact the constitutional position of the estates-general was weak. The estates-general had met so infrequently that there were no fixed forms of procedure and the relation of the three estates to each other were similarly not fixed, and it was a matter of debate what the consent of the estates-general actually meant. Nevertheless from 1550 onwards the estates-general was increasingly regarded as a formal, ancient part of the French constitution. At the estates-general in Pontoise in 1561 the aristocracy and commoners – the Third Estate – declared that no taxes could be raised or war declared without the agreement of the estates. The estates-general at Blois in 1576 further declared that the king should be bound to act in accordance with an decision made by three estates together, and that any edict that had been issued with the estates-generals’ approval could not be repealed. From 1560 onwards it was frequently stated that sovereignty lay jointly with both the king and parliament, along with the view that sovereignty indeed lay with the estates-generals rather than the monarchy, who should be subordinate to it.

Thus, in France in the 1560s there was very strong opposition to the idea of absolute monarchy in France, based on the view that the monarchy was limited by natural law and the customary laws of France, and by the institutions such as the parlements and estates-generals to advise and possibly refuse royal legislation. Moreover, the increasing claims by the monarchy for greater power led to considerable opposition as it was viewed that the Crown was attempting to destroy the ancient constitution of France.

Religious Toleration Advocated by Supporters of Absolute Monarchy such as L’Hopital

Regardless of the question of limits on the power of the French king, there were French political theorists in the 1560s who believed firmly in an absolute monarchy, in which the king was appointed by God, who also argued for religious toleration. L’Hopital, a lawyer, Humanist scholar and Chancellor of France during the reign of Catherine de Medici, attempted to defend her policy of securing peace by tolerating Protestantism in certain areas. L’Hopital considered that the king owed his authority to God, not to the people. He was the only source of law, and his subjects had an absolute duty to obey him. The parlements could advise the king and delay legislation, but they had no right to refuse it. The estates-general similarly could only present petitions to the king, not refuse royal legislation or enact legislation of their own. Nevertheless, the estates-general should be held frequently, as the king should be in close touch with his people. He considered that people had absolutely no right to rebel against their king, and tyrannicide was a crime absolutely prohibited to Christians.

Absolute Monarchy and Religious Toleration Viewed as only Method of Securing Peace and National Welfare in France

Central to his view that the best form of government was an absolute monarchy was his concern to avoid civil war, which he regarded as the worst of all evils. Princes existed to guide and promote their people’s welfare. Nations require peace, order and unity, and this could only be achieved through an absolute monarchy. He therefore attacked factions and seditions as the source of disorder and a potential source of civil war. It was in order to avoid such conflict that he defended the Queen’s grant of toleration to French Protestants. He was not alone. The Roman Catholic bishop of Valence, Jean de Montluc, stated that heresy had become universal throughout Christendom, and that persecution had only exacerbated the situation. The Archbishop of Vienne, Charles de Marillac, had made the same comment, and concluded that the only way to bring heretics back to the Roman Catholic church was through reform of the Church, rather than persecution.

View of L’Hopital that to Preserve Peace, King Must Be above Religious Differences, Roman Catholics and Protestants Should Recognise that They Are both Christians to Avoid War

In his Exhortation aux Princes et Seigneurs du Conseil prive du Roi of 1561, L’Hopital argued that the essential duty of the king was to ensure peace, order and justice. In order to fulfil that duty, the king must be above all parties, sects and factions, in order to resolve disputes and dispense justice impartially. Furthermore, justice did not require the persecution of those who acted according to their own consciences without harming others, and he felt it was impossible to decide whose religious opinions were correct. This did not mean that he felt that religion was unimportant. Indeed, he was firmly in favour of there being only one religion in a nation, as he regarded the existence of two religions in the same country as dangerous and divisive. In his view there was nothing more divisive than religion. He stated that a Frenchman and Englishman who shared the same religion had more in common than two members of the same city of different faiths. Nevertheless, in order to secure peace it was necessary to recognise two religions – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – in France. Roman Catholics and Protestants should forget their differences and remember that they are Christians in order to avoid civil war.

Persecution Useless in Preventing Spread of Protestantism; Attempts to Suppress Heresy through Force Unjustified as Cause of Bloodshed, Devastation and Denial of Personal Liberty

The spread of heresy could not be prevented by the use of force, and the persecution of Protestantism had been a failure. It was useless to try to suppress great rebellions by force, and even if this could be achieved, it would not be justified by the massive devastation it would cause. Such persecution and bloodshed would only result in further contempt for royal authority, which maintained and supported society as a whole. People should be free to seek God in their own way. If they are prevented from doing so, then liberty has perished. This would occur if Protestantism was destroyed in France through force. Thus L’Hopital was firmly in favour of an absolute monarch, and a single, national religion. Nevertheless, the primary duty of the king was to ensure peace and order, regardless of the particular religion to which his subjects personally adhered. Any attempt to impose religious conformity through force meant that the king had failed in this duty, and had in fact promoted the conflict and civil war that it was his duty to prevent.

View of French Huguenots that French Monarchy Limited by Constitution

The persecution of the Huguenots in the late sixteenth century forced them to examine the nature of royal and political and authority. They defended themselves by arguing against absolute royal authority, and instead argued that the French monarchy was constitutionally limited by the existence of natural law, officers, magistrates, and the feudal aristocracy within the state, as well as institutions such as parlements and estates-generals, which represented the whole French community and which had a duty to guard against the development of tyranny and to overthrow unjust rulers when they appeared and violated the constitution.

Claim by Huguenots that They Were Rebelling to Defend Constitutional Freedom of all French Citizens from Oppression by the Crown, Not Just to Defend Own Religion

When the Huguenots rebelled against an increasingly intolerant Crown, they claimed they did so not for purely religious reasons, but because they were defending the ancient laws and liberty of the people of France. When the Huguenot prince Conde rebelled against the Crown, he claimed that he did so to defend the French people as a whole, regardless of their religion, from tyranny. From 1567 to 1570 the Huguenots argued, in a series of pamphlets, that France had a mixed monarchy, and that there were reciprocal obligations between the monarch and their subjects. Subjects were bound to obey the king, but only if he looked after their interests and welfare. A king who did not honour his obligations to his people was a tyrant who should be overthrown. The authors of the pamphlets considered that the king, Charles IX, was attempting to overthrow the ancient constitution of France and the rights of the people, which, like the authority of the king, were divine in origin. These attempts to justify the Huguenots’ resistance to the Crown as defence of the constitutional rights of the French people were elaborated in works such as the Franco-Gallia of Francois Hotman, the Reveille Matin des Francais, The Memoires de l’Estate de France sous Charles IX of Simon Goulart, Du Droit des Magistrats sur les sujets, probably written by Theodore Beza, the Dialogue d’Archon et de Politie, and the Vincidiae contra Tyrannos of ‘Junius Brutus’.

View of Hotman that True Source of Political Power in France Governmental Assembly, Not Monarchy

Hotman was jurist, who had succeeded the great French lawyer, Cujas, as professor of law at the university of Bourgues in 1567. He was employed by the Bourbons in 1560 and became one of Conde’s legal advisors in the 1567. His great work, Franco-Gallia, was published in exile in Geneva in 1573. In it he argued that France had been governed by a representative council since ancient Gaul. This ancient representative government had been abolished by the Romans, but had returned with the invasion of the Franks. This representative council had been the major governmental institution in France until the 15th century. It had possessed the power to legislate, appoint magistrates, and elect and depose kings and appoint regents. He seems to have identified this governing representative council with the aristocracy, rather than the estates-general, and certainly rejected the claim of the parlements to political sovereignty. Although it Hotman never stated it, his book implied that sovereignty lay with the people rather than the king, and that true legal and political authority lay in representative governmental assemblies.

View of Reveille Matin that God had established Inferior Magistrates to Check Power of the Monarchy and People Could Overthrow the King if he became a Tyrant

The Reveille Matin, published in two parts in 1573 and 1574, declared that no people had or would ever establish a sovereign ruler with absolute authority to do whatever he pleased. God had not conferred sovereignty solely on the king. He had also granted it to subordinate magistrates, officials who had the right and duty to resist tyranny. The rights and duties of monarchs and their people were reciprocal, and subjects were required to obey the king so long as he honoured his duties to them. This had been part of the ancient constitution of France, which the monarchy had recently overthrown. However, the Reveille Matin considered that it was possible for the ancient constitution to be restored, and argued that this should be put into practice. Moreover, when a king became a tyrant and massacres his subjects, as Charles IX had done with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he could be justly deposed or assassinated.

Calvin’s View of the Role of Inferior Magistrates in Limiting Power of Monarchy and Duty of Subjects to Obey their Kings

Hotman’s view and that of the Reveille Matin that there were subordinate officials in the kingdom who could justly resist and depose a corrupt and tyrannical king was based on Calvin’s own view of the role of the ‘inferior magistrates’ in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. 18 Although he felt that most princes were unjust and behaved like tyrants, nevertheless he considered that they and other authorities owed their position not to humanity but to God, and that therefore they should not be resisted but obeyed, even when they were tyrants. 19 Calvin did, however, recognise that some states, such as Athens, Rome and Sparta, had officials whose duty was to restrain the actions of the chief magistrate. He suggested that these official possibly had their contemporary equivalents in the assemblies of three estates in modern European nations. In theory, these magistrates may also have the power, and thus the duty, to resist tyrants. If they refused to do this when the situation demanded, they thus betrayed their people’s liberty. 20 Thus both Hotman in his Franco-Gallia and Beza in his Du Droit du Magistrat considered that the king shared power with the estates-general, and that, for Beza, the estates-general had the right to depose corrupt and unjust kings. 21

Huguenot Views on Constitutional Limits of Monarchy Based on Medieval View of Contract between Monarch and People and Calvinist Covenant Theology

The Huguenot political theories of the constitutional limits on the monarchy and the right of the people to overthrow tyrants were based were based on the medieval theories that political authority was the result of contracts. One of these was the contract between people through which they established political authority at the foundation of the state. Another was the covenant God had made with humanity through the events of the Bible and Christ’s ministry. Calvin considered that God had fulfilled His part of the covenant with humanity through the redeeming work of Christ. Humanity in its turn now had to keep its part of the covenant through obedience.

In the 1580s theologians, particularly those of Heidelberg, had extended this conception of the Covenant to create a doctrine of the ‘Covenant of works’ that covered all aspects of human life and applied to everyone, not just to the elect of Calvinist theology. God had made this covenant with Adam, who represented the whole of humanity, who were thus required to fulfil their religious and secular duties. Instead of producing fatalism and a resignation to the preordained order and events, Covenant theology and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination instead produced an active willingness to participate in them. Within Covenant theology was the expectation that people eagerly consented to the Covenant with the Lord, and wished to take every opportunity that God presented them to fulfil their part of it. While this originally may have meant the people were expected to obey princes through an active effort of will, it also encouraged the attitude that humans had a right and duty to fulfil their duties to the Lord by actively resisting a tyrant. Historians such as Michael Walzer, in his 1965 book, The Revolution of the Saints, considered that the Covenant was a way of activating humans without stipulating the Lord’s actions. 22


  1. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 55.
  2. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 58.
  3. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, p. 278.
  4. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, 1965, p. 167, cited in Koenigsbergers and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, p. 278.

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – The Sixteenth Century: Part 1

August 13, 2008

In the last blog posts on the contribution to the rise of democracy by Christianity and the Bible, I’ve discussed the origins of the democratic values of equality and the denunciation of tyrants in ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity, and their development in the early Church along with constitutional theories of the origin of government and authority in society. These constitutional theories were further developed by medieval theologians, philosophers and canon lawyers to create political theories and governmental institutions in which the power of the king was checked by governmental assemblies, which in theory represented the wider state or community, and justified the deposition of monarchs for injustice and tyranny. In this article I will discuss the Christianity’s contribution to the development of democracy in the 16th century.

The first part of this essay will examine the views in England, of theologians and political philosophers such as Richard Hooker, and Claude De Seyssel in France that there were constitutional limits to the power of the monarch, and that power was shared or limited by institutions such as representative assemblies and the parlements of lawyers in France, which examined royal legislation. Part two will discuss the view of other French political theorists that royal power was limited by the constitution, as well as the view of supporters of absolute monarchy that both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism should be tolerated, and the king should be above individual religious faiths. It will also discuss the development of Huguenot theories on the constitutional limits to royal power and the rights of subjects to resist unjust rulers. Part three will continue the discussion of Huguenot political theories as well as the views of French Roman Catholics, the Spanish Jesuits Molina and Mariana, and the Scots political theorists and historians John Major and George Buchanan that royal power was limited, and kings should govern in accordance with the will of the people through their representative institutions. Part 4 will discuss the views of Calvin, Knox and other Protestants that subjects have the right to resist and overthrow tyrants, and the arguments and demands for religious toleration and freedom of conscience by the Politiques in France, and Castellion and Acontius in Geneva, and consider the effect of these doctrines in Europe and their influence in the 17th century.

Development of Constitutional Limits to Powers of the Monarchy and Political Theories Amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants in the 16th Century

By the 16th century most European states possessed political institutions that limited the power of the Crown. Parliamentary assemblies formed part of the governmental systems in Castile, Aragon and Valencia in Spain, France, including the powerful and independent Duchy of Burgundy, Germany, England, Scotland, and Bohemia, Hungary, Transylvania, Lithuania and Poland in eastern Europe. The contests between princes and their frequently rebellious subjects, and the intense theological and political conflicts produced by the Reformation, further stimulated the development of theories of government and practical attempts at governmental reform. The rise and growth of Protestantism and the attempts by the authorities at various times and places to support or counter it led philosophers and theologians to examine the nature of political sovereignty, whether, and how far, subjects had a right to resist unjust or heretical monarchs, the role of parliaments in guiding and checking royal power, and indeed the very relationship between Church and State. Faced with the turmoil and bloodshed of civil war, both Roman Catholics and Protestants argued for toleration and freedom of conscience, with some arguing for a complete separation of the two. The hierarchical structure of society was attacked and criticised, as peasants and theologians demanded the abolition of serfdom, and urged the creation of a truly just society without oppression and exploitation. In the cultural sphere, Christian Humanists such as Erasmus stressed the importance of education and learning, leading princes and municipal authorities to found libraries, schools and universities across Europe. Thus the sixteenth saw the development of many of the characteristic institutions and cultural features of modern democratic states, as political theorists, theologians and the members of popular movements attempted to create a just, educated and tolerant society, whose rulers governed with parliamentary assemblies and were guided by Christian morals and principles.

View of Bishop Hooker in England that Political Authority Established by Primeval Human Community for their Protection

The political philosophers and theologians of the sixteenth century continued and developed the medieval view that political authority derived from human society. It had first been established when people began to live in communities and instituted rulers in order to protect themselves and their property from conflict. Before they established these early forms of government, people realised that they had a right to defend themselves against attack or injury, no-one had a right to pursue their own interests to the extent that they harmed someone else, that they had a right to join together to protect themselves against attack or injury, and that justice prohibited people from acting as judges when their own interests were involved. Thus, for Hooker, ‘to take away all such material grievances, injuries and wrongs, there was no way but only by growing upon composition and agreement amongst themselves, by ordaining some kind of government politic and by yielding themselves subject thereto.’ 1 The founders of this early political community realised that ‘strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they could agree upon; without which consent there were no reason that one man should take upon him to be lord or judge over another.’2 Thus princes and judges owed their power to the community that had first established them to protect them and their interests. Government by a single person, however, frequently led to tyranny, as rulers abused their power to benefit themselves solely, without taking account of the requirements of their subjects, and indeed often acting against them. Thus these early states established laws independent of the monarch, which were binding on both them and their subjects, in order to safeguard them from such arbitrary government. ‘They saw that to live by one man’s will became the cause of all men’s misery. This constrained them to come unto laws, wherein all men might see their duties beforehand and know the penalties of transgressing them.’ 3

Hooker’s View that Form of Government Established by the Whole Community According to own Desires

While Hooker was a monarchist, he nevertheless recognised that it was not the only possible or just form of government, as ‘the inconveniences of one kind have caused sundry others to be devised.’ 4 Indeed, God had granted human societies the right to establish whatever form of government they considered just. ‘Unto me it seemeth almost out of doubt and controversy, that every independent multitude, before any certain form of regiment established, hath, under God’s supreme authority, full dominion over itself … God, creating mankind, did endue it naturally with full power to guide itself in what kind of societies soever it should choose to live.’ 5 Sovereignty and the power to make laws belonged to the whole community, which conferred this power on a particular person or assembly. For these rulers to govern justly, they had to recognise that their authority was derived either from God or from the community. When governments and rulers, which failed to do this, and ruled solely in their own interest, were tyrannies. ‘By the natural law … the lawful power of making laws to command whole politic societies of men, belongeth so properly to the same entire societies, that for any prince or potentate, of what kind soever upon earth, to exercise the same ofhimself and not either by express commission immediately and personally received from God or else from authority derived at the first from their consent upon whose persons they impose laws, it is no better than mere tyranny.’ 6

View of Some English Monarchists that Royal Power Limited

Even some monarchist writers, who were concerned to demonstrate that the best form of government was that of a single ruler, considered that the monarch was nevertheless bound by their nation’s laws. Charles Merbury in his 1581 A Brief Discourse of Royall Monarchie as of the best Common Weale stated that the king of England ‘is subject unto laws both civil and common, to customs, privileges, covenants and all kinds of promises, so far forth as they are agreeable unto the law of God.’ 7 While Merbury believed that monarchs were responsible only to God and their own conscience, and that parliaments could only advise the monarch, but not make laws or obstruct or alter the king’s own legislation, nevertheless he seems to have considered that the monarch nevertheless did not have the sole authority to make laws. Similarly Sir John Hayward considered that although the prince possessed absolute power, nevertheless they had established parliaments everywhere, and that in practice legislation was conducted according to the laws and customs of those particular nations. 8 Sir Thomas Craig held similar views, considering that it was only with parliament or the great court of the kingdom that the king of England possessed sovereign power. He stated that ‘the monarchy is tempered with something of aristocracy and democracy’, and that king could only raise taxes through public agreement. 9

View of Thomas Smith that King bound by Parliament, which Represented the Whole Nation from Poorest to Most Powerful

Robert Parsons, under the pseudonym ‘Doleman’, considered that government naturally arose with the establishment of the first communities. As a natural phenomenon, it was established by God. God had not, however, established any particular form of government as the best, and so permitted the various nations to establish whichever form of government suited them. ‘These particular forms of are left unto every nation and country to choose that form of government which they shall like best and think most meet for the natures and conditions of their people.’ 10 Monarchs ruled solely for their subjects’ welfare. As the people have delegated their authority to the king, they also had the right to remove this authority and depose him if he ruled badly and did not respect either the laws of his kingdom or the conditions by which he held his authority. If a prince did not govern religiously, equitably and lawfully, Doleman considered that he should be deposed to rescue the kingdom from his tyranny. 11

The most important supporter of the view that the English governmental system was a mixed monarchy consisting of the king in parliament was Sir Thomas Smith. During his career he was a university professor, teaching natural philosophy, Greek and civil law; a dean, Provost of Eton under Protector Somerset. He entered the clergy in 1546, but seems to have abandoned this as a career after 1559. He was Elizabeth’s ambassador to Paris from 1562 to 1566. He became a member of the Privy Council in 1571 and was appointed Secretary of State in 1572. He died five years later in 1577. Smith considered that there were three types of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. In practice, however, he considered that all governments were mixtures of these forms of government. Smith considered the state to be ‘a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenants among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well in peace as in war’. 12 Legislation was passed by both the king and parliament, which represented everyone in the nation. Smith stated that Parliament ‘abrogateth old laws, maketh new, giveth orders for things past and for things hereafter to be followed … All that ever the people of Rome might do … the same may be done by the parliament of England, which representeth and hath the power of the whole realm both the head and the body. For every Englishman is entended to be there present … from the Prince to the lowest person. And the consent of the Parliament is taken to be every man’s consent.’ 13 Smith probably considered that sovereignty resided with the king, rather than parliament. He did not discuss whether the king had the right to raise taxes and pass laws without the consent of parliament, and certainly stated that the king alone handled foreign relations and made official appointments. Nevertheless, he felt that absolute monarchy was both dangerous to the monarch and their subjects. Indeed, most absolute monarchies were simply tyrannies. When the nation was governed by a tyrant, Smith considered that in certain circumstances rebellion was justified.

Smith’s views were unusual in that he did not argue that authority was conferred by God, and did not support them through Scripture or arguments on natural law. Nevertheless, his view that the power to make laws resided in parliament, and that the monarch was bound by law was very similar to Richard Hooker’s later views in defence of the Anglican Church.

View of Wentworth that Parliament, like King, established by God; Function of Parliament to Redress Grievances in Country

The MP Peter Wentworth also considered that parliament possessed the power to pass laws. Both parliament and the king received their authority from God. Parliament’s power, for Wentworth, ‘is appointed by God, as the power next to Himself to reform and redress wrongs and outrages which cannot be holpen by other means and by good and wholesome laws to procure the peace and wealth of the Republic.’ 14 Although kings also received their power from God rather than from humans, they were bound by the laws of the nation over which they governed. Princes had been established by God ‘for the maintenance of His truth and to minister justice according to the good and wholesome laws of that land of which He doth place him.’ 15 Wentworth’s view that parliament was there to redress wrongs and grievances led him to believe strongly in free speech. He considered that parliament should have the freedom to discuss and offer advice to the king on all subjects, and held that the king had no right to limit or prohibit free debate as this was directly opposed to parliament’s position as the only the source of legislation. 16

View of De Seyssel in France that French Monarchy Limited

These ideas were not confined to England. French political theorists also held similar ideas, despite the increasing developments towards absolutism there during the sixteenth century. Claude De Seyssel, who in his long career had been a bishop, a minister under Louis XII, and the Chancellor of France, as well as ambassador to England, similarly considered that the power of the French crown was limited in his Le Grant Monarchie de France of 1518, apparently written in response to a request for advice from the new king after Louis XII’s death. Seyssel considered that monarchy was the best form of government, as it was the most effective and least vulnerable to degeneration. Nevertheless, he was realistic about the personal capacities and virtues of princes. He recognised the possibility of an incompetent monarch, and considered that there was a greater probability of the king being incompetent than an efficient ruler, as good princes were rare. Despite these problems, Seyssel viewed monarchy as the best form of government, and the French monarchy in particular as the best government in the world. This was because the power of the crown was checked and limited by a system of customary rights and privileges held by different groups, classes, cities and provinces, that the king was bound to respect.

These constitutional limits to the king’s power did not necessarily include parliaments or the estates-general. He did not consider them part of the French constitution, though he did consider that the king should hold councils to decide issues, and that when it was expedient he should summon people from the cities and chief towns as well as his other ministers. He also considered that there were no legal limits to the power of the Crown. Nevertheless, despite the theoretical unlimited power of the monarchy, the king’s authority was limited in practices in three ways. Firstly, France was a religious, Christian country. If the king acted without regards to Christian, religious morality, he would be hated. The king was thus required to adhere to Christian morality and rule justly and not be a tyrant. If he ruled unjustly, and oppressed his people, then any ordinary parish priest had the right to rebuke him personally. Secondly, the parlements, the assemblies of lawyers who inspected legislation to see if it was constitutional, also limited the power of the Crown, though Seyssel did not state that they had the power to reject royal legislation. Lastly, the king was required to observe and maintain the ancient customs and laws of the kingdom, and only legislate to reform abuses. Thus, while in the theory the king possessed absolute power, in practice it was constrained by traditional French customary law, and the rights and privileges of provinces, cities and institutions. The importance of such customs in limiting the practical power of the monarchy was considerable. Even after theories of the constitution that restricted the power of the crown had been rejected in the 17th century, the practical power of the monarchy was still limited by the traditional laws and rights governing France, laws and rights that preserved the freedom of French citizens despite the theoretically unlimited power of the king.


  1. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, cited in J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, Methuen 1957), p. 190.
  2. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 190.
  3. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 191.
  4. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 191.
  5. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 192.
  6. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 192.
  7. Charles Merbury, A Brief Discourse of Royall Monarchie as of the best Common Weale, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 251.
  8. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 259.
  9. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 259.
  10. Richard Parsons/ Doleman, A Conference about the next Succession to the Crowne of England, 1594, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 261.
  11. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 261.
  12. Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 264.
  13. Smith, De Republica Anglorum, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 264.
  14. Peter Wentworth, A Discourse Containing the Author’s Opinion of the True and Lawful Successor to Her Majestie, 1594, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  15. Wentworth, A Discourse, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  16. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  17. Andrea Alciati, De Verborum Significationibus, 1529, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 281.
  18. H.G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Harlow, Longman 1971), p. 277.

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.