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The Medieval Foundations of the Theory of Sovereignty

20 3 22
06.04.2020

In the spirit of the recently published book Medieval Foundations of International Relations, the purpose of this article is to provide ‘insight into the medieval influence on some of the fundamental ideas and practices that are said to exemplify the spirit of modern international relations’ (Bain, Medieval Foundations, p. 5). It does this by demonstrating how, during the course of a seminal ‘great debate’ that took place at the turn of the fourteenth century, John of Paris assembled a number of concepts that were then circulating in Latin Christendom into an account of sovereignty that would have been recognizable as such to Hobbes, Bodin and other early moderns. To be certain, jurists, theologians, philosophers and polemicists had been debating the locus of supreme political authority throughout the course of thirteenth century, with some making the case for imperial supremacy and others arguing for papal supremacy. And certain memes regarding regnal supremacy – rex in regno suo est imperator sui (the king is emperor in his kingdom) and rex qui superiorem non recognoscit (king is he who recognizes no superior) being the two most common – had been circulating in juristic circles since c. 1200. But during the turn-of-the-fourteenth-century conflict between pope Boniface VIII and king Philip IV of France something new was decisively introduced into the discourse: a comprehensive treatment of the idea that supreme political authority was vested in neither emperor nor pope, but in the king of a territorially delimited, independent kingdom.

Specifically, the argument we will develop in this article unfolds as follows. Throughout the thirteenth century, two basic models of sovereignty were in circulation in Latin Christendom. On the one hand, there was the ‘hierocratic model’. This model accepted that societas christiana (the Christian world) was divided into two domains or orders each governed by its own distinctive powers, but argued that as the spiritual power exceeded the temporal in honor and dignity, it also exceeded it in power and jurisdiction. According to this view, the spiritual power in effect mediated between God and the temporal powers, instituting the latter on God’s behalf and judging it if it failed to do His will. Supreme authority was not shared by two coordinate powers, but vested in the spiritual power alone. This power could delegate the material sword to the temporal authority, but that authority was then expected to wield it in the service of God and His church. If it did not, the spiritual power could remove the material sword from the prince’s hand and transfer it to someone more worthy. On the other hand, there was the ‘dualist-imperialist model’. On this view, the societas christiana was divided into two domains or orders – lay and the clerical – each of which had its own distinctive way of life and each of which was governed by its own distinctive power. In an already well-established analogy drawn from scripture, emperors were said to wield the material sword and govern the temporal domain (the universal Empire), while popes wielded the spiritual sword and governed the spiritual domain (the universal Church). Neither power infringed on the jurisdiction of the other. Both derived their powers directly from God and while the spiritual power enjoyed greater dignity this did not translate into greater power, authority or jurisdiction. Supreme authority to legislate, command and judge was thus divided between two co-ordinate powers: the Church and the Empire. By the middle of the fourteenth century, however, these two models had effectively given way to a radically new one, which we will call the ‘dualist-regnalist’ model. This occurred in two stages. The first, involving a number of conflicts between popes and emperors during the thirteenth century, culminated in the evolution of two dominant ideas of sovereignty: the hierocratic and the dualist-imperialist. The second, involving a number of conflicts between popes and kings (rather than emperors), culminated in the decisive defeat of the hierocratic model and the simultaneous mutation of the dualist-imperialist one into a radically new political vision – one that vested supreme temporal authority to legislate, command and judge not in the universal Empire as had the dualists in the preceding century, but in territorially limited and autonomous kingdoms. According to this new model, supreme authority was vested neither in the pope nor the emperor; nor was it divided between coordinate temporal and spiritual powers (kings and popes). Rather, it was vested in the king, who held it directly from God (or, in the case of John of Paris, the people) without any papal or imperial mediation. Significantly, according to this new political vision the king’s supreme authority to legislate, command and judge applied to the clergy as well as the laity, at least with respect to temporal matters (about which more below).

In this article, we examine what is perhaps the key ‘inflection point’ in the second stage of this historical process, tracing the way in which a bitter conflict between king Philip IV of France and pope Boniface VIII at the turn of the fourteenth century resulted in both the effective extinction of the hierocratic vision and the mutation of dualism into something qualitatively different from what it had been during the thirteenth century. Our main argument is that in defending the right of the French king to try French clerics in French courts in the opening years of the fourteenth century, the pro-royal polemicists (represented by John of Paris) not only realized their goal of demolishing the hierocratic conceptual framework, but in the process quite inadvertently undermined the premises of the dualist-imperialist one as well. Drawing on the theological, juristic and philosophical resources available to them they simultaneously developed a new political vision, characterized by novel and distinctive arguments and assumptions regarding the locus, source and character of supreme authority. While this process was not completed until the middle of the fourteenth century, by the time of Boniface’s death in 1303 it was........

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