Medieval Geopolitics: Why Kings (and not Popes) should rule

By Andrew Latham

In my last two columns I discussed the arguments put forth for papal supremacy in the clashes between King Phillip of France and Pope Boniface VIII, both those from the pope himself and those of James of Viterbo. In this column I will cover the counter-arguments of the French intellectuals – specifically, two anonymously authored tracts, known as Quaestio in utramque partem (“Both Sides of the Question”) and Rex Pacificus (“The Peacemaker King”) in which the dualist thesis, the traditional grounds for arguments surrounding regnal independence is more or less cast aside, and arguments for total regnal supremacy are for the first time put forth.

The anonymous dualist tract Quaestio in utramque partem was published sometime between December 1301 and September 1303.  The primary purpose of this tract was to offer a classic defense of the dualist thesis, adapted to the new circumstances of papal-regnal (as opposed to papal-imperial) conflict.  It considered the relationship between papal authority on the one hand and imperial and royal authority on the other, posing and then answering two basic questions:

1. Were the spiritual and temporal domains separate and distinct?

2. Did the pope possess supreme authority in both domains?

Although it adopted a balanced approach and a measured tone, the tract nevertheless came down decisively on the royalist side. Drawing on a range of philosophical, theological, canonical and civil law sources, the author unambiguously concluded the pope had temporal jurisdiction over neither secular princes in general nor the king of France in particular.

While the document rehearses many of the standard dualist arguments, and while some of its attempts at innovation fall short of the mark, Quaestio in utramque partem makes two significant contributions to the evolving discourse regarding the location, source and character of supreme authority.

Derived directly from Christ

To begin with, the author of the tract introduced the argument that spiritual and temporal matters differ in kind – i.e., they are of different genera, corresponding to the dual nature of human beings – and that, therefore, royal and papal jurisdictions also differ in kind.  The hierocratic perspective, of course, assumed a Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of difference in which the powers were similar in kind, united in the person of one supreme authority who then delegated power to his temporal and spiritual subordinates.

On this monist view, because the spiritual power has greater dignity than the temporal power, and because greater things contain within themselves lesser things, those who have power in spiritual things also have it in temporal things.  The author of Quaestio in utramque partem, in contrast, explicitly rejected the Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of difference, arguing that as the two powers had different objects they were simply different classes or types of power.  The relationship between them, therefore, was not one of hierarchical dependence, but of horizontal and reciprocal interdependence.  In the words of the tract’s author, “there is a mutual dependence, because the temporal needs the spiritual because of the soul, whereas the spiritual needs the temporal on account of its use of temporal things.”  The pope was thus supreme in the spiritual domain and the secular princes supreme in their respective temporal domains.

Significantly, the author of Quaestio in utramque partem also concluded that the pope’s plenitudo potestatis was operative only in the spiritual domain.  In the temporal domain, the power of the prince was derived directly from Christ, unmediated by the pope.

But if, on the whole, the Quaestio in utramque partem deepened and strengthened the dualist argument, it simultaneously undermined it in important ways.  Most obviously, it weakened the idea that Christian society comprised two discrete domains by recognizing that the pope had jurisdiction over temporal matters when those matters were, in the words of Pope Innocent III’s decretal Novit,  “mixed with sin”.  While the tract’s author was careful to limit this jurisdiction, drawing on canon law to conclude the king of France may be subject to the pope only “incidentally and in special circumstances,” the net effect was to leave intact the ratione peccati bridge linking the spiritual power of the pope to the temporal affairs of the king.

Drawing of the world, with God wearing a crown above, Lucifer, worshipped (centre), and fallen, with his wrists bound (below). British Library MS Egerton 845 f. 15

Independent from Empire

More significantly, however, and cutting in a different direction, the Quaestio in utramque partem both rehearsed established arguments for French independence from, and equality with, the Empire and introduced some novel ones.  As we have seen with other political thinkers of the time, the very effort to establish French independence from papal jurisdiction on the basis of the supreme authority of the French king within his realm necessarily resulted in, and required further elaboration of, French claims to independence from the Empire.  In Quaestio in utramque partem, two new types of argument were advanced in support of France’s de iure independence.

On the one hand, the author argued from history that, as France had emerged before the Empire, and since that time had enjoyed an “imperium” (i.e., supreme and unlimited authority) that had never been extinguished by the Empire or any other power, it was an independent kingdom.

On the other hand, the author argued from law that, even if that imperium had been extinguished by conquest, France had now enjoyed de facto independence from the Empire for at least a century.  Under the terms of canon law, the author continued, this meant that France enjoyed de iure independence by virtue of customary right.

In turn, this meant that the king of the French now enjoyed within his kingdom the imperium that the Emperor enjoyed within his (now territorially limited) empire.  In translating the dualist argument from the context of papal-imperial conflict to one of papal-regnal conflict, the author of Quaestio in utramque partem had thus revived and rejuvenated ideas regarding the locus of supreme authority that had first emerged almost a century earlier.  These ideas were to become one of the keystones of the emerging regnalist thesis – a thesis that would ultimately displace the dualism that Quaestio in utramque partem had set out to defend.

Head and heart

Another anonymous pro-royal tract, formally called Quaestio de Potestate Papae (“The Question of Papal Power”), but more commonly known by its incipit, Rex pacificus (“The Peacemaker King”), was published sometime early in 1302.  Like the Quaestio in utramque partem, this tract set out to translate classical dualist argument from the context of papal-imperial conflict to one of papal-regnal conflict. And, as with the Quaestio, in so doing it developed a line of argumentation that ultimately went far beyond the logic of dualism.  Indeed, through its reworking of well-worn concepts and the introduction of new ideas, the tract so thoroughly contradicted and negated the logic of dualism that it can be read as a precursor of the starkly regnalist views developed by Marsilius of Padua two decades or so later.

Rex pacificus was organized into four discrete parts.  The first and fourth parts enumerated and then refuted the pro-papalist arguments.  In the second part, the author presented the arguments in favor of the supremacy of the temporal power.  The third part drew on a range of scriptural, patristic, juristic, philosophical and theological sources to make the case that while the Church may have had moral authority, only the king exercised true jurisdiction or political power.  The first, second and fourth parts were not particularly original, though they were indeed notable for their methodical, concise and clear presentation.

The third part, though, truly was innovative, introducing arguments regarding the locus, source and character of supreme authority that have “more in common with French political thought of later centuries than with the views current at the beginning of the fourteenth century.”

The author of Rex pacificus began the third part of the tract with a fairly straightforward dualist argument, though he presented it through in a somewhat novel allegorical fashion.  Man, he asserted, is a microcosm of the universe composed of two elements or substances – the corporeal or earthly and the spiritual or angelic. The corporeal element refers to man’s physical substance, “the body and its members”; the spiritual to his mind or soul, comprising the powers of “memory, intellect and will.”  These two dimensions of man he allegorized as the “head” (the seat of the soul/mind) and the “heart” (the fountainhead of life-giving blood). The author then argued that, just as individual humans have this dual nature, so too does society as a whole.

At the social level, the function of the head is performed by the spiritual power; the function of the heart, by the temporal power.  And, significantly, he concluded that, “just as in the human body the workings of the heart and head are distinct, so also are the jurisdictions involved in worldly government distinct.” Circling back to this point much later in the text, the author made clear that this meant that “both the spiritual jurisdiction, which the pope has, and the temporal jurisdiction, which the king has in his kingdom, are entirely distinct and separate, so that just as it is not the king’s place to interfere in matters of spiritual jurisdiction… so the pope ought not to interfere in matters of temporal jurisdiction….”.  Part three of the tract thus opens with a powerful restatement of the classical dualist thesis that earthly government involves the governance of two distinct domains ruled by two coordinate powers that do not meddle in each other’s affairs.

As the author of Rex pacificus proceeded to enumerate the defining characteristics of the two powers, however, his argument began to take on a decidedly more regnalist hue.  The head, he proceeded to elucidate, as the seat of the mind, has available to it the faculties of discernment and wisdom. It uses these faculties to decide between morally good and bad actions.  The head then, via the “nerves” that connect it to the members, rules or directs the body to act accordingly. At the social level, the author continued, the pope performs the functions of the head; for it is he who possesses the faculties of moral discernment and wisdom necessary to direct men to the good and away from the bad (i.e. toward salvation and away from damnation).

As with the human body, the pope directs the mystical body (the Church in the broad sense) through a kind of “nervous system”: the inferior offices and ranks of the clergy (the Church in the narrow sense).  The function of these intermediary ecclesiastical powers is to convey the moral prescriptions, exhortations and example of the pope to the faithful. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, throughout this passage the author strongly intimates that the pope can be said to have only persuasive or hortatory powers over the Christian faithful. At no point does he assign the papal office any coercive powers to command, legislate or judge in the temporal domain.

In an analogous fashion, the author of Rex pacificus discussed the defining characteristics of the temporal power.  The heart, he asserted, is the foundation of the body; it is the wellspring of the life-giving blood that the arteries carry throughout the body.  Similarly, he analogized, the king is the source of life-giving laws and justice that his officials carry throughout the commonwealth.

And, just as human life cannot be sustained without blood, so political life cannot be sustained without just and enforceable laws.  Citing Jerome’s commentary on Jeremiah, he concluded that this meant that the function of kings is “to give judgment, do justice and to deliver the oppressed from the hand of those who persecute them.” By its very nature, then, kingship entails the possession and use of coercive power to make and enforce just laws.  Compared to the merely persuasive power (which is not really power at all) wielded by the pope, this monopoly of coercive power clearly establishes that the king is the sole locus of supreme authority in the temporal realm. This is a far cry from the dualist thesis the author initially set out to defend.

In an effort to adapt the dualist argument to the context within which he is writing, the author of Rex pacificus employed an analogy that, when fully developed, ended up draining the spiritual authority of any real power, and vesting all true (i.e. coercive) power in the king.

Old Testament kings

But the mutation of dualism into regnalism did not stop there. The author next attempted to ground the separation of temporal and spiritual powers in scripture and authoritative scriptural commentary.  In the Old Testament, he began, God decreed that the Jewish people should be guided by both temporal and spiritual leaders – that is by chieftains, judges and kings on the one hand, and by priests and prophets on the other.  By divine ordinance, the two powers were kept apart; they are always referred to in scripture as being separate. Neither is recorded as having meddled in the affairs of the other, except on those few occasions when priests exercised temporal power with the authorization of the temporal power.  Thus, the author concludes, popes may exercise some limited degree of temporal power, but only with the permission of the prince. Otherwise, the two powers should refrain from interfering in each other’s domains.

Thus far, the author’s argument from scripture had an unambiguously dualist tone.  At this point, however, he sounded several decidedly more regnalist notes. First, he cited Saint Isidore as proof that temporal powers have ultimate authority over the Church.  Isidore’s dictum was that princes have a God-given duty to protect the Church and will be held accountable by God Himself for how well they discharge that duty. On the basis of this assertion, the author of Rex pacificus concluded that, “… with regard to temporal things, the Church is given over, and made subject, to the power of kings and princes.” He then proceeded to argue that while the Old Testament was devoid of even a single reference to a priest giving commands to a king, it is replete with references to situations in which “the kings, as true lords, directed the priests and prophets.”

Finally, the author of the tract argued that three of the most noteworthy kings in the Old Testament – David, Hezekiah and Josiah – routinely gave commands to priests and were obeyed by them.  From this he concluded that Old Testament kings were, “lords next after God in authority, over whom neither prophets nor priests claimed any kind of authority which might diminish their temporal lordship.” Applying this insight to his own time, he then drew the explicitly dualist conclusion that, “the pope, the spiritual father of all Christians, is not lord of all men in temporals.”

Miniature of King David playing a harp. British Library MS Add. 11639 f. 117b

My kingdom is not of this world

Not satisfied with simply invoking the kings of the Old Testament to make his case, the author of Rex pacificus next proceeded to justify the superior jurisdiction of the temporal power by appealing to the example and teachings of Christ. He pointed out, for example, that when asked to divide an inheritance, Christ declined in such a way as to convey that “judgment or jurisdiction with respect to inheritance and hereditary property did not belong to Him.”

The author then argued that, as the disciple cannot be above the master, if Christ (the master) denied Himself temporal jurisdiction over property, then surely it was denied to the pope (the disciple) as well.  No less authority than Saint Bernard was then invoked to drive home the point. Bernard was quoted as stating that the apostles never sat in judgment of boundary disputes and property claims. Their power, he said, lay in forgiving sins, not in dividing property.  For them to sit in judgment over such matters, he asserted, would be “to invade the territory of another” (the temporal power). The author of Rex pacificus then developed a parallel line of reasoning:  Christ Himself had abjured temporal jurisdiction when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  The author, drawing on the writings of Saint Chrysostom, interpreted this utterance as definitively establishing that Christ sought no temporal power or jurisdiction.  As Christ’s vicar cannot logically claim powers in excess of those claimed by Christ, the author logically concluded that Christ had “not willed to transfer temporal and human rule and lordship over kingdoms to the pope.”

In his Old and New Testament proofs, the author of Rex pacificus set out to defend the traditional dualist thesis that the pope exercised no jurisdiction over the temporal goods of kings.  But the substance and tone of the arguments he advanced ultimately went far beyond his self-professed goal of defending dualism.  Put simply, by the time he had finished defending the dualist thesis, the author had made the case that only kings had true, supreme power in the temporal realm; and that popes not only had no such power, but that they were actually subject the king’s authority and jurisdiction.  To be sure, nothing in the tract even hinted that kings had authority over the Church with respect to preaching, doctrine or the sacraments. That would have been impossible within the dualist thought-world of that era. The author of the tract did, however, make clear that kings had jurisdiction over the temporal goods of the Church and that clergy were subject to the jurisdiction of lay courts with respect to temporal matters.  Whatever his avowed objectives, this was a long way from the dualist thesis or the “custom of France”.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: British Library MS Royal 16 G VI  fol. 314r

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