Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages [Course Book ed.] 9781400862603

Ancient Greeks and Romans often wrote that the best form of government consists of a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, a

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Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages [Course Book ed.]

Table of contents :
PART 1: The Mixed Constitution
CHAPTER 1. Introduction
CHAPTER 2. The Mixed Constitution in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
PART 2: Thomas Aquinas and His Successors
CHAPTER 3. Thomas Aquinas
CHAPTER 4. Giles of Rome
CHAPTER 5. Peter of Auvergne
CHAPTER 6. Ptolemy of Lucca
CHAPTER 7. Engelbert of Admont
CHAPTER 8. John of Paris
PART 3: The Fourteenth Century
CHAPTER 9. Aristotelian Political Thought in the Fourteenth Century
CHAPTER 10. Relativism and the Best Polity
CHAPTER 11. Kingship, Popular Sovereignty, and the Mixed Constitution
CHAPTER 12. Nicole Oresme and the Synthesis of Aristotelian Political Thought
PART 4: The Fifteenth Century and the Early Modern Period
CHAPTER 13. Conciliarism
CHAPTER 14. Later Theories of Mixed Government in England and Northern Europe
CHAPTER 15. The Mixed Constitution and Italian Republicanism
CHAPTER 16. Conclusion

Citation preview

Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages

Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages

James M. Blythe


Copyright © 1992 by Princeton University Press Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540 In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, Oxford All Rights Reserved Library of Congress Catalojjinjj-in-Publication Data

Blythe, James M., 1948Ideal government and the mixed constitution in the Middle Ages / James M. Blythe. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Political science—History. 2. Constitutional history. 3. Middle Ages. I. Title. JA82.B59 1992 320'.09'02—dc20 91-21104 ISBN 0-691-03167-3 This book has been composed in Linotron Galliard Princeton University Press books are printed on acid-free paper and meet the giudelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 1 0 8 6 4 2

To those who helped and encouraged me during the long years of my graduate work and the four years since then that I spent working on this book:

Sheila Martin, my mother Ann Blythe, my aunts Charlotte Horton and Sara Nancarrow, and my brother Richard Blythe; and to those who died before I finished: my father Donald Blythe, my aunt Gwen Brace, and my uncle Richard Horton.

Thanne kam ther a kyng: Knyghthod him ladde; Might of the communes made hym to regne. And thanne cam Kynde Wit and clerkes he made, For to counseillen the Kynge and the Commune save The Kynge and the Commune and Kynde Wit the thridde Shopen Iawe and leute—ech Iif to knowe his owene. —William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman (c. 1380) It had been, it seems, a splendid constitution full of senates and committees and checks and balances and other things delightful to the political theorist. "If it was that fine," said Stanford, "why didn't it last?" "It lasted six hundred years, signor," said Graziella, "and when it was quite worn out and would not work at all any more, it was exported, of course, to the United States of America." —Sarah Caudwell,ThusWasAdonisMurdered (1982)





Acknowledgments PART 1:

The Mixed Constitution





The Mixed Constitution in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages CHAPTER 3



Thomas Aquinas and His Successors

Thomas Aquinas



Giles of Rome



Peter of Auvergne



Ptolemy of Lucca



Engelbert of Admont



John of Paris CHAPTER 9

139 PART 3:

The Fourteenth Century

Aristotelian Political Thought in the Fourteenth Century



Relativism and the Best Polity


CHAPTER Popular 11 Kingship, Sovereignty, and the Mixed Constitution




CHAPTER 12 Nicole Oresme and the Synthesis of Aristotelian Political Thought


PART 4: The Fifteenth Century and the Early Modem Period CHAPTER 13 Conciliarism


CHAPTER 14 Later Theories of Mixed Government in England and Northern Europe


CHAPTER 15 The Mixed Constitution and Italian Republicanism


CHAPTER 16 Conclusion







So MANY HISTORIANS have written on the mixed constitution that it is disconcerting to come across ignorance of its origins in Greek thought and its importance in early modern England. But such is displayed in a 1987 letter to the American Historical Association's Perspectives. The author writes: 'The basic idea of a mixed type of government with a divided power arrangement, of checks and balances between three branches, of fragmented sources of power, adopted by the [American Constitutional] Convention in 1787 was not originated by its delegates; it was the brain­ child of Niccolo Machiavelli in 1517."1 If it were not for the self-righteousness with which the author dismisses the poor clods (if any) who imagine that John Adams concocted the mixed constitution all by himself, I would not bother to dredge up his letter now, for I doubt that the misconception it betrays or the one that it castigates are common ones among historians. But this shows that even the more well-known aspects of this venerable theory deserve to be still more widely known. And even among those who know a lot about it there is another common misconception—that after the ancient Greeks and Romans had done with the theory it disappeared, except possibly for a few freakish ref­ erences here and there, until the glorious Florentines recovered Polybius in the early sixteenth century. After that the theory took off, but its roots in the modern world are always traced back to Polybius. Not everyone, of course, takes such an extreme view. Many medieval historians have discussed some aspects of the mixed constitution in Thomas Aquinas and John of Paris. Brian Tierney has taken this somewhat further and suggested that a detailed study of medieval mixed constitution­ alism would be rewarding. But no one has yet tried to show in detail that the theory flourished in the Middle Ages and that the modern development of it owes at least as much to Aristotle and the medieval tradition as it does to Polybius. That is what my book attempts to do. The letter previously quoted concludes, "None of this is new. It is time for the public to be informed and perceptions discontinued that do not conform to reality." Indeed. Two scholars have been especially influential in current discussions of Renaissance and Early Modern political theory, particularly as applied to Republicanism: Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. Since some readers have interpreted my book as directed against their (in many ways very dif1 A. J.

Pansini, in Perspectives, December 1987, p. 10.



ferent) conclusions, it may be prudent to clarify my position at the outset. I do not mean it as a backhand compliment to say that the research of both has been of great help to me and that their contribution has been immense. And while I disagree with each of them on various points, my disagree­ ments usually have more to do with what they leave out—usually medieval, or scholastic, or non-Italian influence—than what they include. In a few areas, however, I find that each to varying degrees misinterprets or misrep­ resents medieval Aristotelian thought. Although I accuse them of underestimating the contribution of medieval Aristotelians to republican thought, I should say at once that both these authors acknowledge medieval and Aristotelian sources far more than most other Renaissance and Early Modern historians. Skinner, for example, ably refutes the influential scholar of Florentine civic humanism, Hans Baron, on this very point. But each also distinguishes sharply between Italian re­ publicanism and Northern monarchism. No one can deny that in the High and late Middle Ages Northern Italy teemed with independent cities ex­ perimenting with all manner of governmental arrangements from fairly broadly-based—in their own view, democratic—republics to tyrannies, while monarchy dominated in Northern Europe, but what is more impor­ tant, I think, is that in both places theorists, drawing from a common Thomist-Aristotelian political ideology, argued for a diffusion of governmental powers. It is simply not enough, as Skinner tends to do, to treat Thomas Aquinas (sometimes classed with the Italians), EngeIbert of Admont, Ni­ cole Oresme, and John of Paris, to name only a few, as monarchists and contrast them with purported Italian republicans such as Ptolemy of Lucca and Marsilius of Padua. All of these writers in fact shared certain concepts of limited government, even though each phrases his ideas somewhat dif­ ferently because of specific political experiences and contingencies (which are, of course, important in themselves). It is this underlying consensus and its contribution to theories of mixed constitutions that is the subject of this book. My book falls within the category of "history of ideas," a field Skinner criticizes with some very cogent arguments—that it assumes a possibly nonexistent consistency of meaning of words, that it ignores an author's development over the years, that like "textualism" it leads to pulling ideas out of context and making what were unimportant remarks of the author central and leads to the fallacy of accusing an author of failing to solve or treat an issue, as if what interests us today is what should interest anyone in any period. These points are perhaps all too true for many scholars and worth stressing, but also not, I think, points with which most serious his­ torians of ideas would disagree. Nor do I think Skinner would deny the importance of the history of ideas. His procedure, as he outlines it, is to study the historyof ideologies, focusing on the normative vocabulary avail-



able to those involved and coming thereby to a better grasp of the connec­ tions between theory and practice. He continues, "My main reason, how­ ever, for suggesting that we should focus on the study of ideologies is that this would enable us to return to the classic texts themselves with a clearer prospect of understanding them."2 What he in effect does propose, and what he executes ably in his work, is a history of ideas informed by an understanding of historical change and of all those external and internal factors that result in a given text while at the same time avoiding the "contextualist" fallacy of going from historical conditions and normative vocab­ ularies to determinism. Whether I live up to this standard is a question for the reader. I admit that at times I do elevate scattered comments to a greater prominence than the medieval or Early Modern author would approve. But I believe that this is justified in trying to show how an idea is transmitted and developed so long as one does not distort the author's meaning. As Pocock writes, "Any text may be an actor in an indefinite series of linguistic processes."3 And I must also admit to being occasionally disappointed that medieval writers were not always as interested in the mixed constitution as I am. But I hope that I am conscious of the issues raised by Skinner and especially that I am sensitive to the mentality of medieval writers. I try always to be aware of the relationship of theory and practice and to place the medieval theories within a political context, but I realize that there is much more to be done within this area. In the future I hope to write more on this subject. While Skinner and I (in my more limited area) have somewhat of the same goals, I am really trying to do something quite different from Pocock. Like Skinner, Pocock is interested in vocabularies, but in a different way. He wants to show how the development of republican ideals reflected and responded to a variety of concerns of humanist thought. Certainly this is true and Pocock is to be commended for showing this development in a way never before attempted. In doing this, however, he is not so much concerned with demonstrating the detailed historical development of ideas, by which humanists and others adopted concepts and structures from people with whom they had relatively few common concerns. But this is exacdy what I am trying to do, and in so doing I am not in general attacking Pocock's thesis, although inevitably there are some points on which I do disagree. One of these has to do with the relationship of me­ dieval and Renaissance thought. Comparing the late medieval English law­ yer John Fortescue with Florentine humanists such as Salutati and Bruni, Pocock refers to a radical break in outlook. While this is true in some ways, 2 Quentin

Skinner, The Foundations of Modem Political Theory, vol. 1, p. xiii. Pocock, "The Concept of a Language and the metier d'historien: Some Considera­ tions on Practice," p. 31. 3 J.G.A.



Pocock tends to overlook the continuing existence and influence of Scho­ lastic thought well into the Early Modern era. This is a phenomenon that Skinner does discuss. Pocock insists on the persistence and reappearance in various periods of the Aristotelian tradition, and in general on the predominance of this tra­ dition over the specific Polybian ideas (which of course in themselves rep­ resent one aspect of the Aristotelian tradition). But he is careful to point out that in any particular case it is questionable to ascribe direct influence to the Politics, and even more to ascribe it individually or collectively to the medieval Aristotelians.4 Further, Pocock's methodology, as John H. Geerken points out, is more synchronistic than causal and historical—Pocock generally rejects causal and historical arguments and is concerned more with structures of relationships across time than with development through time.5 Thus his pronouncements concerning an early modern syn­ thesis of Polybian and Aristotelian thought are interesting (and ultimately, I believe, true) yet hardly conclusive in themselves. Furthermore, he often seems to contradict his perception concerning the persistence of the Aristotelian tradition and the importance of the Middle Ages by insisting on a radical break in the Renaissance and thereby mini­ mizing the medieval contribution. For example, the transition from the Christian world view, which, in his opinion, excluded temporal history and centered criteria for good government in the universal order, to the Aris­ totelian domain of particularity and contingency began, he feels, only with the civic humanism of the fifteenth century.6 Despite other profound dis­ agreements this accords with Hans Baron's view that no significant criti­ cism of monarchy or appreciation of the Roman Republic appeared before this time.7 In short, in Pocock's view, the later theory of the mixed consti­ tution may be traced to the confluence of vague Aristotelian ideas which somehow found their way into the mentalities of fifteenth- and sixteenthcentury intellectuals and to the Polybian analysis of Roman society. I, how­ ever, try to show specific lines of influence of medieval thinkers. Finally, a note on my translations. In the text I have used English almost exclusively, except in a few cases where it was necessary or where common usage favors the Latin—for example, Aquinas's Summa Theologiae instead of Summary of Theology. I have tried to translate consistently certain key words used by the medieval writers, even if this leads to occasional awk­ wardness. Certain of these are obvious (although certain translators do not 4

J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Theory and the Atlantic Re­ publican Tradition, p. 67. 5 John H. Gccrken, "Pocock and Machiavelli: Structuralist Explanation in History," pp. 309-18. 6 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, p. 8. 7 Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance.



seem to think so); for example, revolts and momrchicus are distinct Latin words that to some medieval authors mean very different things and they should be translated as "regal" and "monarchical" respectively. For others the actual translation is more arbitrary; for example, there are many words that mean approximately "government" and verb forms meaning "to gov­ ern." For convenience, I give here a list of the equivalents I have chosen: regimen = government; regere = to govern principatus=rule; principari=to rule; princeps=ruler politia=polity; politicus=political dominium = dominion; dominatio = dominance; dominari=to exercise domin­ ion, dominate regula=regulation; regulate=to regulate jjubernatio=governance; gubernare = to exercise governance, guide; gubernator=governor imperium =command; imperare= to command moderamen = direction Aucatus=leadership; dux = leader mandatum= mandate; mandate=to mandate praeesse—to have precedence praesedere=to preside preuficere=to place in authority praecipere=to order regnum = kingdom; regnare = to reign; regalis=regal; rex=king

Especially problematical is translating princeps as "ruler," since this word commonly is taken to mean "prince," and frequently does mean just what we would expert, that is, a single ruler. On the other hand, in medieval Aristotelian thought it more frequently refers to the ruling element in a government, whether it be a monarch or a group of citizens. The tension is especially acute in Nicole Oresme. In this case I felt that general usage and consistency were most important so long as the reader is aware of the situation. In a few cases I have put the meaning "prince" in brackets where "ruler" really seemed inadequate. For the same reason I have sometimes put "duke" or "doge" in brackets after "leader" and "imperium" after "command." Another problem is that the word serous can mean either "slave," "serf," or "servant" and dominus "master," "lord," or simply "owner." Aristotle obviously wrote about slaves and masters, but the me­ dieval writer could easily have misunderstood his intent. In these cases, again to preserve consistency, I have translated these words as "lord" and "servant," but the reader should know that this is not exactly what Aristode had in mind and that for medieval people there were also other overtones. A slightly different problem arises from the word that Moerbeke trans-



lated correctly as "city." Aristotle wrote almost exclusively about cities, for him the most common political unit. Obviously this did not match much of medieval experience, but the medieval Aristotelians continued to write about cities and by this word meant not only or even usually a literal city, but a polity in general.


FIRST AND FOREMOST I would like to thank Brian Tierney of Cornell Uni­ versity, who first suggested that I study the mixed constitution, who guided me through my doctoral dissertation, and who since then has helped me with suggestions and by reading and criticizing my work. I am also grateful to two other Cornell Professors—James John and John Najemy—who with Tierney supervised my doctoral work and have always been available to help me. I would also like to thank Professor David Robey of the University of Manchester, who although he does not know me at all kindly prepared for me a transcription of parts of Henry of Ri­ mini's Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues and photocopied parts of Lo­ renzo de' Monad's Chronicle, neither of which I could obtain here.


The Mixed Constitution

Chapter 1


THERE HAS RARELY if ever been a government absolute in practice. A ruler or ruling group has always to consider the interests and actions of the ruled, if only to repress them, and generally it must limit its own desires in order to survive for long. Yet the history of civilization has been the history of the domination of one class or another over those with no direct power. From this reality, and from the observation that allowing one group to prevail most often leads to oppression, or that every group has something to offer society or has a right to participate, has come the idea of the mixed constitution, which in its most common form combines the rule of a king, the aristocrats, and the common people. It is an idea midway between Marxism, which finds no tolerable basis for class collaboration, and the dominant Western form of capitalism, which pretends that class distinc­ tions do not exist and has so managed to inculcate this view in its native subjects that it is able to rule for the moment under cover of "democracy." This idea of the mixed constitution has enjoyed a long and varied career. In its widest sense it can be found in the written records of political activity in practically every period of Western history. Its earliest intimations may be discerned in the works of Homer, the poet of a Greece barely emerging from the post-Mycenean "Dark Ages"; its lineaments were sketched by sev­ eral of the early Greek writers: Tyrtaeus, Solon, Thucydides, and Isocrates; its details were elaborated and the theory brought to its full fruition in Greece by Plato and Aristotle. Much later, the Greek hostage Polybius car­ ried the theory to Rome where he saw the confirmation of its virtues in the success and prosperity of that city. Cicero represents the culmination of this tradition, and its last significant theoretician in the classical period.1 Then the death of the Republic and the triumph of a new autocracy stifled for a time expressions of political participation. Likewise, neither the wellknown indifference of the early Christians to the form of any government not representing the direct and personal rule of the messiah, nor the trans1 For studies of the mixed constitution in antiquity see G.J.D. Aalders, "Die Mischverfassung und ihre historische Dokumentation in dem Politica des Aristoteles" and Die Theorie der Gemischten Verfassung im Altertum; E. Braun, "Die Theorie der Mischverfassung bei Aristo­ teles"; T. A. Sinclair, A History of Greek Political Thought·, Kurt Von Fritz, The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis ofPolybius' Political Ideas; and Paula Zillig, Die Theorie der gemischten Verfassung in ibrer literarischen Entwickelung in Altertum und ibr Verhaltnis zur Lehre Lockes und Montesquieus iiber Verfassung.



formation of this attitude for a slightly later generation into gleeful support of the Empire's power to purify the earthly kingdom by the elimination of heretics was conducive to interest in theories of mixed government. During the early Middle Ages none of the important classical texts was available in Latin, and although the comments of several writers and a number of Germanic and feudal customs and institutions seem compatible with mixed government, no theoretical development or independent state­ ment of the theory took place. Later, the theory of the mixed constitution became a central fixture of early modern political thought. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florentines, for example, wrote about Venice as a mixed constitution, and reformed their government to imitate it. By the sixteenth century many educated Englishmen, parliamentarians in particular, came to think of their government in the same way—with a monarchic king, an aristocratic House of Lords, and a democratic House of Commons. This process culminated in the formal acceptance of the mixed constitutional model by Charles I in 1642—even though his move was only a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to avert a civil war. The United States Constitu­ tion was consciously modeled after the mixed constitution described by Polybius and was to include a monarchical president, an aristocratic Sen­ ate, and a democratic House of Representatives, each of which was to act as a check for the other two.2 J.G.A. Pocock writes of the tradition of thought on the citizen and the republic growing ultimately from the thought of Aristode and says that it "can almost be called the tradition of mixed government."3 "Almost," Pocock writes, because he intends not only the development of the idea of the mixed constitution, but also the unfolding of the whole complex of concepts clustered about the natural involvement of the citizen as a political and social animal in the affairs of the community and the perception of this community and an active civil life as having value beyond their Augustinian role in the repression of vice and the promotion of order. Although the mixed constitution per se and the active participation of the citizen are at most complementary concep­ tions, they are inexorably bound in Pocock's mind because he perceives the 2 For treatments of the early modern development of the mixed constitution see Corinne Comstock Weston, English Constitutional Theory and the House of Lords, 1556-1832, "Begin­ nings of the Classical Theory of the English Constitution," "The Theory of Mixed Monarchy under Charles I and After," and, with Janelle Renfrow Greenberg, Subjects and Sovereigns: The Grand Controversy over Lyal Sovereignty in Stuart England·, Michael Mendle, Dangerous Posi­ tions: Mixed Government, the Estatestf the Realm, and the Ansrver to the XIX Propositions·, Zillig, Theorie der gemischten Verfassung·, Robert Eccleshall, Order and Reason in Politics: Theories of Ahsolute and Limited Monarchy in Early Modern England·, M.J.C. Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers ; John William Allen, A History if Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century·, S. P. Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century·, and Gilbert Chinard, "Polybios and the American Constitution." 3 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, p. 67.



necessity of implementing participation with due regard for all the various legitimate claims of groups to rule, such as number, wealth, virtue, and power—that is, something quite like Aristotle's conception of distributive justice. As it will be the subject of the bulk of this book and the remainder of the introduction, I have purposely left out of account in this brief summary the development of the theory in the High and late Middle Ages. As with so many other classical ideas, the common conception used to be that ex­ cept for a brief and unimportant reference here and there, the mixed con­ stitution was neglected until Renaissance luminaries rescued it from the oblivion imposed by rigid medieval people uninterested in "new" ideas. In this case, they say, the impetus was the translation of the sixth book of Polybius's Histories into Latin in the early sixteenth century. But as all serious historians now realize, most Early Modern ideas have their roots in the Middle Ages—though in the case of each idea the old concept usually prevails until someone comes along and actually digs up these roots; and even then nonmedieval historians frequently lapse into their old world view. The translations of Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric in the early thirteenth century and most forcefully and directly William of Moerbeke's Latin Pol­ itics, which appeared around 1260, introduced the ideas of the mixed con­ stitution, of the citizen, and of participation in government, among many others, into the medieval world. This development stimulated a huge out­ pouring of commentaries and other treatises attempting to understand and assimilate Greek political thought.4 But most of the political ideas of Plato, Polybius, Cicero, and the minor classical writers remained unknown for several more centuries. Aristotle's works were thrust upon a world that on the surface could scarcely differ more from ancient Greece. The one, everywhere but in Northern Italy, comprised several feudal and incipient national monarchies as well as two other monarchical institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Empire, each of which claimed universal scope and au­ thority. The other comprised a plethora of independent city-states gov­ erned only infrequently by a monarch. The one traditionally based itself on 4 Aristotle, Ethicomm Nichomacheorum libri decern; Ars Rhetorica·, Politicorum libri octo cum vetusta translatione Guilelmi Moerbeke (henceforth, Politics)· For a listing of the huge number of medieval commentaries on Aristode, see Charles H. Lohr, "Medieval Latin Aristotle Com­ mentaries." For discussions of commentaries on the Politics and other medieval works closely related to it, see Ferdinand Edward Cranz, Aristotelianism in Medieval Political Theory: A Study (f the Reception