Lineages of European Political Thought: Explorations along the Medieval/Modern Divide from John of Salisbury to Hegel


This book examines some of the salient historiographical and conceptual issues that animate current scholarly debates about the nature of the medieval contribution to modern Western political ideas. On the one hand, scholars who subscribe to the "Baron thesis" concerning civic humanism have asserted that the break between medieval and modern modes of political thinking formed an unbridgeable chasm associated with the development of an entirely new framework at the dawn of the Florentine Renaissance. Others have ...
See more details below
Paperback (New Edition)
$39.95 price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (7) from $33.45   
  • New (5) from $34.15   
  • Used (2) from $33.45   
Sending request ...


This book examines some of the salient historiographical and conceptual issues that animate current scholarly debates about the nature of the medieval contribution to modern Western political ideas. On the one hand, scholars who subscribe to the "Baron thesis" concerning civic humanism have asserted that the break between medieval and modern modes of political thinking formed an unbridgeable chasm associated with the development of an entirely new framework at the dawn of the Florentine Renaissance. Others have challenged this hypothesis, replacing it with another extreme: an unbroken continuity in the intellectual terrain between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries (or later). The present book seeks to qualify both of these positions. Cary J. Nederman argues for a more nuanced historiography of intellectual continuity and change that depends upon analyzing a host of contextual as well as philosophical factors to account for the emergence of the European tradition of political theory in the medieval and early modern periods. He finds that categories such as "medieval" and "modern" can and should be usefully deployed, yet always with the understanding that they are provisional and potentially fluid.
The book opens with an introduction that lays out the main issues and sources of the debate, followed by five sets of interrelated chapters. The first section critically assesses some of the leading scholars who have contributed to the current understanding of the relationship between medieval and modern ideas. The central part of the book includes three sections that address salient themes that illuminate and illustrate continuity and change: Dissent and Power, Empire andRepublic, and Political Economy. The volume closes with a few examples of the ways in which medieval political doctrines were absorbed into and transformed during the modern period up to the nineteenth century.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813215815
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Cary J. Nederman is professor of political science at Texas A&M University and author of numerous published works including Machiavelli, John of Salisbury, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100-c.1550, and Medieval Aristotelianism and Its Limits.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Lineages of European Political Thought

Explorations along the Medieval/Modern Divide from John of Salisbury to Hegel
By Cary J. Nederman

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2009 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1581-5

Chapter One


For students of medieval political thought who worked during the second half of the twentieth century, it was impossible to escape the influence of the doyen of that field, the Cambridge University professor of medieval history Walter Ullmann. A generation ago, Ullmann was ubiquitous. Yet the reputation of Ullmann (who died in 1983) has undergone a precipitous decline, to the point that now he is all but invisible. As of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Ullmann's voluminous writings are almost entirely out of print. It is indeed remarkable that a defining figure of twentieth-century medieval studies should disappear from the scholarly scene at a rate of speed that is truly breathtaking. During the 1960s, it would have been nearly unthinkable to write about medieval legal, political, and social thought without substantial reliance upon and reference to Ullmann's erudition. By the early 1980s, when J. H. Burns prepared his introduction to the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought—which did not, however, see the light of print until 1988-Ullmann was already classed with Otto von Gierke and the Carlyle brothers as magisterial but passé figures.

I do not propose to offer any definitive explanation of this state of affairs, although I have heard several offered in recent times. Many scholars probably know some of the reasons why Ullmann came to be discarded. His difficult personality apparently alienated many of his own research students; his increasingly rigid style of interpretation made it difficult to extend research beyond the famous fixed paradigm he constructed; his tendency in his later years to find creative new ways to repeat himself was surely maddening. I also suspect that the larger political context of the waning of cold war rhetoric—and eventually, the end of the cold war itself—may have had some impact on Ullmann's declining status, especially among those who did not read him carefully to start with. Doubtless, other plausible explanations for Ullmann's vanishing act may be adduced.

Before meditating on the legacy of Walter Ullmann as a scholar, it may be necessary to offer some preliminary observations about the course of his career. His publications from the 1940s, such as his book on Lucas de Penna and his Maitland lectures (published as Medieval Papalism), live up to the highest standards of rigorous scholarly inquiry. In particular, Ullmann worked out the main elements of one of his pet themes, namely, how legal ideas shaped the central trends of medieval political thought. The scholarship in these early works is meticulous, and although some of it has clearly been superceded in the ordinary course of academic progress, what he wrote remains worthy of attention. I see little inkling in this first phase of his career of the later Ullmann. By contrast, it is clear that by the middle 1950s, Ullmann had turned to the textbookish simplifications for which he became well known and eventually notorious. The "hierocratic thesis" gets fleshed out in The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (1955) and the full contrast between "ascending" and "descending" models of authority debuts in Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages. By the time Ullmann produced his widely read and influential A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages, published by Penguin in 1965 and reprinted many times, the fundamentals of his interpretation were well established. The ensuing years until his death were to witness numerous additional books, but few novel ideas and instead increasingly shrill restatements of already familiar views.

The intellectual arc of Ullmann's scholarly career, then, might lead one to expect mainly a catalogue of discredited ideas. In fact, however, this conclusion is not fully justified. While some of his major teachings have indeed been demolished, his impact lingers in less obvious, but equally important, ways. Thus, any death notice for Ullmann's historiography of early European political thought, while it may yet prove to be necessary, is presently premature. In the current chapter, I shall defend this claim. But before I do so, it may be useful to identify the elements in Ullmann's scholarship that have been already laid to rest. I have in mind two of Ullmann's better known large "theses": first, the modeling of the entire sweep of medieval thought as a conflict between descending or hierocratic or theocratic and ascending or populist conceptions of power; and second, the treatment of the mid-thirteenth century introduction of Aristotle's Politics as a watershed in medieval political philosophy that directly produced the transformation to modernity.

For those who have not been exposed to the weight of Ullmann's scholarship, it will be helpful first to recount these two teachings prior to explaining the reasons for their ultimate rejection. According to Ullmann, rulers during the Middle Ages claimed for themselves, and generally conducted themselves on the basis of, theocratic and hierocratic authority. "The theocratic king," he said, "so far from belonging to the people, stood in principle and in his government outside and above the people.... All power came 'from above' to the king, who transmitted parts of it 'downwards.'" The authority of the ruler, in other words, descended from God through him. Ullmann did not view this thesis as merely ideological; on the contrary, hierocratic doctrine was implemented by medieval royal governments and accepted by their subjects as the basis of legitimacy. In turn, several implications followed from the fundamental thesis. First, no subject possessed "any right against the king," since the royal head alone was the ultimate bearer of authority. Second, the monarch was the sole and authoritative judge of the public good and utility: "The theocratic ruler alone was considered to be in a position to determine what was required to promote the public weal." Finally, participants in royal administration held no jurisdiction independent of the king because "the power of all hierarchically lower-placed officers could eventually be traced back to the royal origin." Ullmann admits that the diffusion of the descending model was not uniform throughout Europe—establishing itself more firmly in France, for instance, than in either England or Italy—yet he asserts that its marks are to be found in every region.

Standing alongside the descending doctrine is a conception of power that is diametrically opposed to it, namely, the ascending thesis. On this contrasting view, the authority of government arises from a grant of the people, in whom ultimate authority resides and whose will limits the independence of rulers. Ullmann claimed that the sources of this idea during the Middle Ages varied widely. One was feudalism, which conceived the king as legally bound to seek the "counsel and aid" of his nobles in all matters touching upon the common needs of the realm. In this regard, the relation between the ruler and his people—or at any rate, those of aristocratic birth—took on a noticeably contractual cast: the latter cooperate on condition of their consultation about and consent to the king's enterprises. Consequently, Ullmann noted, "The feudal function of the king provided the only platform on which a law-and hence government—could be conceived to which he himself was subjected." The second element of the ascending theme in the Middle Ages derived from the historical soil of local public associations, such as guilds, villages, urban communes, and religious orders. Developments on the lower rungs of society put into practice the populist themes of communal consent, limited government, and participatory citizenship. While these "populist manifestations on the lower and lowest levels of medieval society" were "harmless and not influential," they nonetheless enlivened the idea that government arises from a mandate from the masses. Finally, and most importantly for Ullmann, the ascending thesis was invigorated by the translation and circulation after about 1250 of Aristotle's Politics, the naturalistic and populist doctrines of which confirmed previous expressions of ascending thought and legitimated a nonhierocratic vision of political order. According to Ullmann, "The influence of Aristotle from the second half of the thirteenth century onwards wrought a transmutation in thought that amounts to a conceptual revolution." Specifically, the Politics revealed to the Middle Ages the fundamentally natural ends and purposes of human society, the citizen as an active participant in politics, and the urban community as the basic building block or unit of human association. Moreover, Aristotle upheld the principle that political philosophy itself constituted a distinct discipline, with its own unique vocabulary, independent of theological considerations and worthy in its own right for the sake of human happiness. All of these Aristotelian notions were intellectually hostile to long-maintained Christian attitudes toward the foundations of earthly political life.

Ullmann presented these theses as an historical narrative of alternation. In the era of the Roman Republic, and among the Germanic tribes of northern Europe, the ascending model predominated. But as these two sociopolitical cultures fused, and came under the sway of the Christian religion and church, the descending conception spread to the point of achieving hegemony in the European society of the early Middle Ages. To be sure, the ascending theme did not entirely disappear: feudal and popular manifestations maintained it in muted form throughout the medieval period. But the main stimulus for the replacement of the hierocratic with the populist perspective in the later Middle Ages was the reintroduction of Aristotelian political theory. Ullmann's account of the transformation of the political world of medieval Europe is in an important sense idealistic, that is, idea-driven: feudalism and local associations may have prepared the ground for Aristotle's reception, but it was the "new" Aristotelian teachings about the state that directly produced "the supercession of the descending by the ascending theme." The Philosopher "caused the conceptual revolution" through which hierocratic models of society and government were displaced. In turn, this overcoming of the theocratic doctrine after 1250 ushers in modernity for Ullmann: "In fact and in theory the Aristotelian avalanche in the thirteenth century marks the watershed between the Middle Ages and the modern period." Ullmann's historiography thus directly challenges the customary picture of the European Renaissance and Reformation as affording the decisive chronological break with "the Dark Ages." The salient themes of modern social thought and institutions, already implicit in the populism of feudalism and voluntary local groupings, were rendered explicit and compelling by the Aristotelian revolution. The bases of modern public life—constitutional, democratic, naturalistic—may be found lurking in the intellectual terrain of medieval Europe.

The broad contours of Ullmann's interpretive edifice have long since been definitively demolished. In 1973, Francis Oakley published "Celestial Hierarchies Revisited," a sweeping critique of Ullmann that appeared in Past and Present. Oakley effectively destroyed the ascending/descending framework that Ullmann had posited as the key means of organizing political thought and practice during the Middle Ages. Oakley also challenged many of the details of Ullmann's readings of figures and texts central to the validation of his larger interpretive project. Oakley, whose wit and intelligence are always most penetrating when he is engaged in critique of other scholars, produced a tour-de-force that defies summary. It is not too great an exaggeration to say that the rapid decline of Ullmann's fortunes during the last three decades can be traced quite directly to Oakley's article. While Ullmann's work continued to be cited for some years following Oakley's attack, reliance upon his ascending/descending scheme became increasingly reserved and qualified among scholars, who often made reference to the caveats noted in "Celestial Hierarchies Revisited." Following in Oakley's wake, other scholars commenced a more or less systematic reappraisal of Ullmann's leading hypotheses. Some research demonstrated how Aristotle was appropriated by medieval thinkers with equal or greater force as a proponent of absolutistic monarchy, papal as well as secular. Hence, there was nothing intrinsically "populist" about Aristotle or the medieval interpretation of him. Other scholars—myself included—showed how the circulation of the Politics did not induce the "conceptual revolution" posited by Ullmann, but instead reconfirmed and reinforced doctrines that were widely known and employed before the middle of the thirteenth century. Finally, additional research revealed that the alleged philosophical incommensurability between the ascending and the descending schemes did not correspond to the actual writings and statements of many medieval authors. Thus, the elements of Ullmann's framework that were most provocative and attracted the greatest attention may safely be declared dead and buried among serious scholars. By 1992, Antony Black was able to declare the ascending/descending model "simplistic," calling it the kind of generalization "that would be laughed at by specialists in other fields."

So why did I claim earlier that much remains alive that derives from Ullmann's thought? Permit me to enumerate a few contributions of Ullmann that persist today (for good or for ill). One of the main features of Ullmann's general historiographical outlook was his insistence upon an essential continuity of Western political thought commencing in circa 1250: pace a once-dominant trend of scholarship, modernity was not a radical break with the past, via the humanism of the Renaissance or the religious pluralism of the Reformation. Rather, the primary lessons of modern political writing resonated with the doctrines of the later Middle Ages. At present, Ullmann's general conclusion represents a view to which historians of Western political thought widely subscribe. In the introduction to the Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700, J. H. Burns eloquently summarizes this trend: "Neither humanism nor Protestantism—to say nothing of the continuing vitality of other intellectual and spiritual traditions—retains in recent historiography quite the appearance it formerly had. This is in part a result of lengthening the chronological perspectives, of recognizing the significance of what might be called protohumanism and of earlier instances of the genus 'renaissance'; or of acknowledging that the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation are themselves part of a much longer 'age of reform' in western Christendom." Walter Ullmann could hardly have made the point more succinctly. The emphasis on continuity that he pioneered is now everywhere on display. The words of Brian Tierney, widely regarded to be the most influential historian of medieval political ideas of the last generation in the English-speaking world, may suffice: "It is impossible really to understand the growth of Western constitutional thought ... unless we consider the whole period from 1150 to 1650 as a single era of essentially continuous development." Or more briefly still: "Seventeenth-century writers were often thinking medieval thoughts," a claim that Tierney supports with reference to consent, legitimation, rights, representation, sovereignty, and a host of other political concepts.

Tierney, who wrote his first major book, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (published in 1955), as a thesis under Ullmann's supervision, must be credited with keeping alive two other aspects of his supervisor's scholarship: one substantive, the other methodological. One of Tierney's best known views is the claim that the roots of modern constitutionalism may be traced, via the conciliarism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to lessons derived from canon law. (This is a position, of course, to which many others, such as Oakley, James Muldoon, and Kenneth Pennington, also subscribe.) It perhaps needs to be remembered, however, that this idea was pioneered by Ullmann himself in the appendix to his 1948 book The Origins of the Great Schism. Focusing on Cardinal Zabarella, who would also be a pivotal figure in Tierney's book, Ullmann demonstrated how Zabarella's training as a canon lawyer shaped his conciliar commitments, so that the cardinal derived "his theory of the superiority of the Council ... through interpretations of canon law by thirteenth-century canonists." Ullmann's remarkable observation puts his vision of conciliarism at a distance from the Carlyles, John Neville Figgis, Charles McIlwain, and others who had written on the topic: for him, as for later scholars, conciliar theory arose not as an external and heretical challenge to papal authority but as an entirely orthodox expression of long-standing teachings about ecclesiology. Hence, a major component of the current historiography of European political ideas has definite roots in Ullmann's scholarship.


Excerpted from Lineages of European Political Thought by Cary J. Nederman Copyright © 2009 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Introduction. Why Study Medieval Political Thought?....................xiii
1. The Legacy of Walter Ullmann....................3
2. Quentin Skinner's State: Historical Methodology and the Formation of a European Tradition....................13
3. Pathologies of Continuity: The Neo-Figgisites....................29
4. A Middle Path: Alexander Passerin d'Entrèves....................49
5. Toleration and Community: Functionalist Foundations of Liberty....................63
6. The Royal Will and the Baronial Bridle: The Bractonian Contribution....................81
7. Political Representation: Modern Theory and Medieval Practices....................99
8. For Love and Money: Theorizing Revolt in Fourteenth-Century Europe....................122
9. Brunetto Latini's Commerical Republicanism....................141
10. Marsiglio of Padua: Between Empire and Republic....................160
11. Translatio Imperii: Medieval and Modern....................177
12. Christianity and Republicanism: Another Look....................190
13. The Origins of "Policy" in Twelfth-Century England....................201
14. Economic Liberty and the Politics of Wealth....................222
15. Money and Community: Nicole Oresme....................235
16. Christine de Pizan's Expanding Body Politic....................248
17. The Persistence of Economic Nationalism: John Fortescue....................261
18. Virtù, Foresight, and Grace: Machiavelli's Medieval Moments....................277
19. Arguing Sovereignty in the Seventeenth Century: Bracton's Readers....................304
20. Hegel on the Medieval Foundations of the Modern State....................323
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)