The Emergence of “Regnal” Sovereignty at the Turn of the Fourteenth Century

By Andrew Latham


As the 13th century ended, two basic models of sovereignty – understood as the supreme authority to command, legislate and judge – were in circulation in Latin Christendom.  On the one hand, there was the dualist 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, princes wielded the material sword and governed the temporal domain, while popes wielded the spiritual sword and governed the spiritual domain.  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: no longer Church and Empire as had been the case in the first half of the century, but Church and regnum.  On the other hand, there was the hierocratic model.  This model accepted that societas christiana 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 later on God’s behalf and judging it if it failed to do His will.  Supreme authority was not shared by two coordinate powers, but held by 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.  By the middle of the 14th century, however, these two models had effectively given way to a radically new one, which I will call the “regnalist model”.  According to this model the supreme authority to legislate, command and judge was neither located in the Church nor divided between coordinate temporal and spiritual powers.  Rather, it was vested in the king, who held it directly from God (or sometimes the people) without any mediating role played by the pope.

Homage of Edward I to Philip IV from Jean Fouquet's Les Grandes Chroniques de France
Homage of Edward I to Philip IV from Jean Fouquet’s Les Grandes Chroniques de France

In this article, I examine the way in which conflicts between king Philip of France and pope Boniface VIII resulted in both the extinction of the hierocratic vision and the mutation of dualism into something qualitatively different from what it had been during the twelfth century.  My main argument is that in defending the right of the French king to tax the French church and to try French clerics in French courts, the pro-royal polemicists not only realized their goal of demolishing the hierocratic conceptual framework, but in the process quite inadvertently undermined the premises of the dualist one as well.  Indeed, they did more than that.  Drawing on a wide range of theological, juristic and philosophical resources available to them they developed a novel and distinctive political vision regarding the locus of supreme authority – “regnal sovereignty” or sovereignty vested in the king (as opposed to the pope or the emperor).  This is significant in that it established the conceptual precursors for modern ideas of “national” sovereignty.


Round 1: Conflict Over Taxation

In the late 13th century, the French king, Philip IV, began taxing members of the French clergy in order to help finance his war with England.  This was neither unprecedented nor even unusual.  While formally prohibited by a decree of the Fourth Lateran Council, the papacy had long acquiesced in the practice of French lay rulers taxing their clergy without explicit papal authorization, largely because thirteenth century popes depended on French support in their perennial conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor.  In 1296, however, Boniface decided to apply the prohibition to France as well as the Empire.  Historians disagree as to why he made this fateful decision.  On the one hand, there are those who assert that the new pope was simply acting on the basis of his firmly held hierocratic belief that ecclesiastical power was superior to temporal power.  On this view, Phillip’s decision to tax the French Church presented Boniface with his first real opportunity to assert ecclesiastical authority – and it was an opportunity he seized enthusiastically.  On the other hand, there are those who emphasize the role played by Boniface’s ardent desire to launch a crusade to recover the Holy Land.  From this perspective, the pope’s decision had less to do with his hierocratic vision and more with his belief that clerical tax revenues should not be used to sustain a war between Christian rulers, especially when that war was keeping those rulers from “taking the cross” and fighting to liberate the Holy Land.  Whatever his motivation, in February 1296 Boniface issued the bull Clericis laicos, expressly prohibiting all lay rulers – including “emperors, kings or princes, dukes, counts or barons, podestas, captains or officials or rectors – by whatever name they are called….” – from exacting or receiving ecclesiastical revenues or property without prior authorization from the Apostolic See.  The bull also specified the consequences of such unauthorized taxation of the clergy: guilty persons were subject to the punishment of excommunication; guilty corporations were subject to the punishment of interdict.

Perhaps predictably, Philip responded swiftly to what he perceived to be Boniface’s threat to both his political authority and his ability to prosecute his war against England.  Within a few months of the promulgation of Clerics laicos, Philip had issued a royal ordinance forbidding the export of “horses, arms, money and similar things” from his kingdom.  Given the dependence of the papacy on revenues from France, this ordinance put Boniface in an increasingly difficult position.  When Philip increased the pressure by issuing a proclamation (never promulgated) obliging the French clergy to contribute its fair share to the public purse and asserting the revocable character of ecclesiastical immunities, Boniface found himself in an utterly untenable position.  In an effort to placate Philip, the pope then issued a second bull, Ineffabilis amor, in which he explained that Clericis laicos had never been intended to forbid “voluntary” donations to the royal coffers or prohibit exactions necessary for the defense of the realm.  This was not enough to mollify Philip, however.  In 1297, Boniface’s deteriorating position in Italy forced him to concede Philip’s terms and explicitly recognize the right of the French king to tax the French clergy.  In a humiliating reversal, the pope issued yet another papal bull, Esti de statu, which exempted the French king from the provisions of Clericis laicos and conferred upon him the right to tax the French church without prior papal permission.  Satisfied that he had secured his rights and revenues, Philip subsequently withdrew his ordinance forbidding the export of gold and silver, effectively bringing the conflict to an end.

This conflict between Boniface and Philip over taxation gave rise to lines of inquiry regarding the relationship between the spiritual and temporal powers that, if not quite new, certainly had novel dimensions.  Were the spiritual and temporal authorities separate and distinct domains or were they merely separate “departments” of a single domain (the respublica christiana)?  Could authorities in one domain legitimately intervene in the other?  If so, on what grounds and in what circumstances?  Were either the temporal and spiritual authorities supreme, in the sense that they had legitimate jurisdiction over the other? What was the source of authority?  In what ways was supreme authority limited, if at all?  What gave these questions a different cast from those posed in the “great debates” of the preceding decades was that they arose not out of disputes between Church and Empire over universal jurisdiction, but rather out of conflicts between temporal and spiritual authorities within territorially limited kingdoms like France and England.


On the pro-papal or hierocratic side, these questions were addressed in part by Boniface’s bulls themselves.  As mentioned above, these were not particularly innovative statements of the hierocratic viewpoint – indeed, the pope himself said he considered them to be little more than proclamations of long-settled Church doctrine.  What was novel was that these arguments were now being directed against kingdoms rather than the Empire.  As the church had seldom made strong pronouncements of a hierocratic nature in relation to kingdoms, this created the appearance of innovation – and certainly was interpreted as such by Philip and his supporters.  But the ideas and arguments were essentially the same as had been made since the since the time of Innocent III.

On the dualist side, we see both restatements of existing dualist doctrine and doctrinal innovations that would set the stage for more far-reaching innovations during the second round of conflict between Boniface and Philip.  Consider, for example, the short untitled tract known from its incipit (or opening words) as Antequam essent clerici (“Before There Were Priests”), which was written some months after Clericis laicos promulgated (1296), but before Esti de statu (1297).  Traditionally assumed to have been written by, or on orders from, Philip’s chancellor, Pierre Flotte, the purpose of this tract is narrow: to justify the king’s practice of taxing the French clergy in times of war.  It drew on a variety of political idioms and tropes (juristic and theological thought, the organological metaphor, natural law, etc.) to make the case that the French king had every right to tax the French church.

On one reading, Antequam essent clerici is nothing more than a fairly straightforward rejoinder to Clericis laicos.  Echoing arguments found in a number of authoritative sources (canon law, scripture, etc.), it asserted the French king’s right to tax the French clergy.  The author began by pronouncing that, “before there were clerics, the king of France had custody of his kingdom; and he could make statutes to protect himself and the kingdom against the plots of his enemies….” Reflecting arguments found in the works of Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and in scripture, he went on to assert that, as the Church comprised both the clergy and the laity, libertas ecclesiae was not merely the liberty of the clergy, but of all Christians.  The clergy, he then argued in familiar organological terms, were as much a part of the body politic as the laity and as such were obliged to pay taxes for the government and defense of the realm like all other members.  And while the author conceded that kings or other temporal powers had granted “liberties” (in the narrower sense of specific legal immunities from taxation) to the clergy, he declared that this hadn’t diminished the temporal power’s jurisdiction over the clergy or its right to rescind those immunities and tax the church in times of necessity.  Indeed, the author continued, since clerics could not take up arms in their own defense, the least they could do was furnish the temporal authority with the resources necessary to provide them protection.  In preventing French clerics from doing this, he concluded, the pope was in fact preventing them from exercising their natural right to self-defense.


A slightly deeper reading of the tract, however, reveals an internal logic that departs considerably from the dualist orthodoxy that had underpinned “the custom of France” since the days of Louis IX.  Specifically, the tract assumes and asserts that the spiritual and temporal domains are not separate “societies” governed by coordinate powers, but rather separate “departments” within a single political society, both of which are subject to the jurisdiction of a single, temporal, power.  This new conception was most prominently on display in that section of the tract where the author rejected the traditional definition of both libertas and ecclesiae that underpinned the entire principle of the freedom of the Church.  In the original doctrine, of course, libertas was construed as “liberty” – an expansive freedom of the institutional Church from direct control by the temporal authorities.  The author of Antequam essent clerici, however, redefined the term as “liberties” – a narrower term which in medieval times connoted not the broad freedom of a community or institution, but much more narrowly tailored legal privileges and immunities attached to individuals.  He then proceeded to argue that while French kings had sometimes allowed popes to grant specific liberties to clergymen in France, they had nevertheless retained the right to nullify those liberties and tax the clergy if the “governance and defense” of the realm required it.  Similarly, the original doctrine assumed that the term ecclesiae referred narrowly to the clergy or the institutional Church.  The author of Antequam essent clerici rejected this view, arguing instead that the Church was properly understood to comprise not just the clergy, but all the Christian faithful, priests and lay members alike.  This second move in particular was to have far-reaching implications, for the temporal-spiritual divide constituted the ultimate foundation for the Church’s claim to freedom from the temporal authority.  By effacing this divide, the author effectively folded both clergy and laity into a single undifferentiated body of royal subjects – or as he put it in familiar organological language of the day, a single “body politic”.  Having thus established that the regnum comprised a single political body, he was then able to establish the king’s right to tax all members of that body in the interests of their common defense.  The author concluded his argument by asserting that the clergy not only shared in a common obligation on the part of the “body and members” to subsidize the “head” for defense, but had a special obligation under natural law to pay a fee for the defense of the realm since they were barred by canon law from raising “a shield in defense against a hostile sword.”[1]

In Antequam essent clerici, then, we have one of the first articulations of the view that laity and clergy form a single corporate entity subject to the authority of the king in temporal affairs.  This view was more fully elaborated in another pro-royal tract disseminated at the time, Disputatio inter clericum et militem (“Dispute Between a Priest and a Knight”), probably published sometime in 1296-97.  As with Antequam essent clerici, at one level the tract has a narrow and concrete goal: to legitimize Philip’s taxation of the French church in the eyes of the politically relevant members of the French laity.[2]  But in the course of making this case, the author of the tract echoes and reinforces the novel arguments made in Antequam essent clerici regarding the regnum as a unified body politic in which both clergy and laity are subject to royal taxation for the purposes of governance and defense.  Although there may have been some literary connection between the two tracts, it is more likely that both were simply more or less simultaneous expressions of novel ideas that were beginning to crystallize in France in the late 12th century against the backdrop of rising regnal power and the elimination of the universal Empire as a competing type of temporal authority.

Disputatio inter clericum et militem took the form of a dispute between a clerical advocate for Boniface’s position and a knight arguing Philip’s position.  It opened with the priest asserting the hierocratic position and the knight roundly refuting it.  The polemicist-knight’s first rejoinder to the priest was traditional enough: in response to the cleric’s suggestion that the spiritual power was supreme in both the spiritual and temporal domains, the knight argued that “just as earthly princes cannot decree anything with regard to your spirituals, over which they have not received power, so neither can you do so with regard to their temporals, over which you have no authority.”[3]  The knight then proceeded, however, to make an argument that was truly innovative, even if its purpose remained traditional and dualist in form.  Simply put, the polemicist-knight responded to the priest’s assertion that the pope is the vicar of Christ and therefore omnipotent by arguing that “there were two times of Christ: one of humility and the other of power.  That of humility was before His Passion, and that of power after His resurrection.” [4]  He then went on to accept that Peter was indeed appointed as Christ’s vicar, but only with respect to the time of humility, not that of power and glory.  The power conferred on Peter and his successors, therefore, was not that of temporal kingship (which Christ had explicitly rejected during His time of humility), but of purely spiritual lordship.  In this way, the knight cleverly accepted the priest’s hierocratic premise, but rejected his hierocratic conclusion.  Popes were supreme only with respect to the spiritual domain, leaving kings supreme in respect of the temporal – the classical dualist argument.  Finally, the polemicist-knight attempted to counter the priest’s strong suit, the ratione peccati argument, by claiming (somewhat unconvincingly) that if priests had jurisdiction over every matter involving sin then they would have jurisdiction over everything and that the temporal courts might as well close down.  He ended by quoting Christ in the Gospel of Luke who, when asked to adjudicate in an inheritance dispute, declared “Man, who made me judge or divider over you?”  The author of the tract seemed to believe that Christ’s denial of any judicial role in temporal matters subsequently bound his successor Peter and thus all subsequent popes.


Having more or less convincingly disposed of the priest’s opening arguments in favor of papal supremacy, the polemicist-knight then turned to the task of establishing the French king’s right to tax the French clergy.  Kings and princes, he argued, have both a duty to defend the realm and a derivative right to raise taxes for that purpose.  With respect to the taxation power, he put his case thus: “For it is granted by plain reason that the commonwealth should be defended at the commonwealth’s expense and that it is entirely just that every part of it which enjoys such defense should shoulder the burden along with the others.”[5]  When pressed by his interlocutor, the polemicist-knight conceded that the temporal powers had sometimes granted privileges and immunities to certain members of the clergy (though, emphatically, not their property).  But these grants, he argued, were never meant to be irrevocable.  Rather, as they were granted for the public good of the commonwealth, so they could be rescinded for the public good of the commonwealth.  He concluded that not only should the clergy be grateful for the generosity of princes in making the original grant of privilege, and so happy to contribute to the princely purse when necessity appears; but they should also recognize that any such grants made by princes to the Church could be revoked if the interests of the kingdom demand it.

This is where the tract began to go far beyond the traditional dualist argument that there were two distinct domains, the spiritual and the temporal, and that popes were supreme in the former while princes were supreme in the latter.  Throughout this part of the document, the polemicist-knight was at pains to establish the supreme authority of the king.  While recognizing the heteronomous shackles that limited the king in practice, the knight claimed that the king of France was both the supreme judge and the supreme lawmaker in his kingdom. He argued that at the time of the “fraternal division” of the Empire on the death of Louis the Pious in 840, the kingdom of France withdrew from the Empire and that “whatever authority the Empire itself formerly held in the part that was withdrawing… [was] ceded by it to the prince or king of the Franks in the same fullness.”[6]  The king thus recognized no superior temporal authority within his kingdom – indeed, although he didn’t use the precise formulation, the author was clearly invoking the doctrine of rex in regno suo est imperator regni sui (the king in his kingdom is the emperor of his kingdom).  In short, the knight argued that there was no restriction on what the king of France could do if he thought it in the interests of the kingdom.  He grounded this supreme temporal authority in natural law, customary right and the historical division of Charlemagne’s empire into East and West.

Most of this part of the tract, though, is devoted to making the case not simply that the king is supreme within his kingdom, but with effacing the line that had traditionally divided that kingdom into two discrete societies: the temporal and spiritual.  The traditional dualist view, as we have seen, was that the temporal and spiritual realms were distinct societies, each with their own powers and jurisdictions and each headed by distinct authorities deriving their power directly from God.  Like Antequam before it, Disputatio started out as a defense of this view.  In the course of countering the hierocratic line, however, it introduced a new element that took it well beyond the settled imperialist-dualism of the time.  The polemicist-knight ultimately rejected the idea that kingdoms comprise two discrete societies with two different heads.  Instead, he asserted, the temporal and the spiritual domains were merely departments of the same society; and that both were ultimately subject to the supreme authority of a single head, the king.

Round 2: Conflict Over Jurisdiction

In 1301, tensions between Philip and Boniface flared up once again with the arrest of the bishop of Pamiers, Bernard Saisset.  Boniface had sent Saisset to France to protest continuing abuses of the Church and to urge Philip to apply the revenues raised from taxing the Church to a crusade.  But the Bishop had done more than that – he had publically slandered the king and, indeed, France.  In response, Philip had him arrested and charged with treason.  The problem from Philip’s perspective was that, according to canon law, Saisset was under papal jurisdiction and thus not liable to prosecution in civil court.  If Philip were to have any chance of bringing Saisset successfully to trial, he would first have to obtain from the pope a “canonical degradation” that would remove the bishop from his see and strip him of his clerical immunities.  In pursuit of this dispensation, the king sent a delegation to Rome to meet with Boniface.  Concerned as always with the liberties of the Church, however, and no doubt still smarting from the humiliation suffered during his last dispute with Philip, Boniface not only refused the delegation’s request, but demanded that Philip release the bishop immediately.  Philip agreed to this and permitted Saisset to return to Rome unjudged, but did so too late to prevent the publication of two papal bulls directed against him.  In the first, Salvator mundi, Boniface revoked the concessions made in Esti de statu.  In the second, Asculta fili, he asserted the pope’s authority to judge kings, enumerated the church’s grievances against Philip, and summoned France’s principal ecclesiastics to Rome to judge the French king and discuss means of reforming him and his kingdom.


Once again, Philip and his supporters reacted vigorously to what they perceived to be Boniface’s wholly illegitimate attempt to assert papal superiority over the French king in temporal matters.  In reality, of course, those parts of Asculta fili that touched on the distribution of power between the spiritual and temporal realms were not particularly novel.  Simply put, while Boniface’s bull asserted absolute papal authority in the spiritual realm, it proclaimed only a qualified papal authority to exercise temporal jurisdiction in cases where sin was involved (ratione peccati) – a doctrine first made explicit in Innocent III’s decretal Per venerabilem (1202) and adhered to by all subsequent popes.  As Boniface was later to try to explain, it did not imply papal supremacy in temporal affairs except in certain limited cases where the temporal authorities had gravely erred.  But whereas in the thirteenth century these arguments had been primarily directed against the Emperor as part of the Church’s long-running struggle to maintain the liberty of the Church (libertas ecclesiae), now they were being applied to territorial kingdoms like France – kingdoms that had hitherto enjoyed almost complete operational control of their territories and considerable jurisdiction over their regnal churches.  The novelty of Boniface’s confrontational approach to France, coupled with the hierocratic tone of the bull, must have left the impression that Boniface was engaged in a radical new political project – one intended to subjugate the Kingdom of France to Rome.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the reaction of Philip and his supporters to Asculta fili was ferocious indeed.

The ferocity of this reaction was on display almost immediately.  When the Archdeacon of Narbonne attempted to present the bull to Phillip on 10 February 1302, a member of the king’s court seized it from his hands and threw it into a blazing fireplace.  The king’s supporters then set about suppressing Boniface’s actual bull, preventing it from being circulated to the French clergy.  Having accomplished this, Philip’s men – almost certainly with the king’s knowledge and approval – proceeded to circulate a forged bull, known as Deum time (Fear God).  This forgery effaced the nuanced theological arguments underpinning (and limiting) Boniface’s claim to ultimate (though not operational) supremacy under the doctrine of ratione peccati, falsely representing Boniface as asserting that the king of France was absolutely subject to him in both spiritual and temporal matters.  This forged bull was followed by a similarly counterfeit reply, known as Sciat maxima tua fatuitas (“May Your Very Great Fatuity Know”), which further inflamed passions among those favoring the king and his cause.

Ratcheting up the pressure even more, Philip forbade the French bishops to go to Rome to attend the ecclesiastical council called by Boniface.  He then summoned a counter-council of his own to meet in Paris in April 1302.  At this council, generally regarded as being the first ever meeting of the French Estates General, Philip’s chancellor delivered an impassioned speech in which he denounced Boniface for seeking to usurp not only the king’s authority in temporal matters but also the ancient liberties of the French church in matters spiritual.  As intended, the speech galvanized resistance to what was portrayed as Boniface’s goal of reducing the kingdom of France to a feudal fief of the Apostolic See.  In the debate that followed, the deputies from the nobility and the towns proclaimed themselves willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of the independence of France.  Both estates then put their seals to letters enumerating the various charges made against Boniface, whom they referred to contemptuously as “he who at the moment occupies the seat of government of the church.”  For their part, the clergy adopted a less hostile tone, but essentially sided with the king, warning Boniface that his call for a council to judge Philip had placed the French church in grave danger and imploring him to abandon the whole enterprise.  The council then appointed a delegation to deliver the letters to the College of Cardinals, which it dutifully did on 24 June 1302.

The delegation was received in a public consistory at Anagni.  Cardinal Matthew of Acquasparta responded to the letters first, forcefully denying the claim that the pope was attempting to usurp the temporal authority of the French king.  Asculti fili, the cardinal argued, merely reiterated established church doctrine that all men, even kings, are subject to the spiritual jurisdiction of the pope and that their acts could therefore be judged by him on spiritual grounds.  Boniface himself offered the second formal response.  He began by censuring Philip’s chancellor for disseminating the falsified bull Deus time.  He then proceeded to deny the claim that he was seeking to make France a papal fief, suggesting that as a doctor of both canon and civil law he simply could never have conceived such a ludicrous idea.  Finally, Boniface emphatically stated that the ecclesiastical council he had called to judge Philip would continue as planned and instructed French clergymen to attend or face the loss of their sees.

Determined to undermine Boniface’s planned council, Philip and his supporters took a number of extraordinary steps to prevent French ecclesiastics from travelling to Rome, including threatening to confiscate the property of any French churchman who attended the council.  The result was predictable.  When it convened on 30 October 1302, fully half of the French prelates were not in attendance, and of those who did, a substantial number were sympathetic to the king and his cause.  Participation was also skewed regionally; as a result of intense lobbying on the part of Phillip’s men, almost no prelates from the north of France were in attendance.  Divided internally and representative of only part of the French church, the council was thus effectively hobbled from the outset.  Doubtless to Philip’s relief, it pronounced no finding or judgment relating to the king’s alleged abuses of the French church.  Indeed, although the proceedings have not survived, it appears that the council achieved nothing of consequence at all other than issuing a condemnation of Philip’s chancellor, Pierre Flotte.

But if the council was a setback for the pope, he recovered quickly, launching yet another attack against Philip before the end of November.  This time, though, the assault took the form of neither a direct attack on Philip’s policies nor a specific judgment of his conduct.  Rather, Boniface’s offensive came in the form of a bull, Unam sanctam, that mentioned neither Philip nor France, but that instead articulated in general terms the theological case for papal supremacy.  Promulgated on 18 November 1302, the bull began by asserting the premise that the “holy, catholic and apostolic church” was the mystical body (corpus mysticum) of Christ and that, as such, had only one head, Christ’s vicar, the Roman pontiff.  The bull then went on to state that the Roman pontiff, as head of Christ’s mystical body, wielded two swords (i.e., powers): the spiritual one, which he wielded directly; and the temporal one, which is wielded by the earthly power, but under the supervision of the pontiff.  Explicitly citing the hierocratic writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, the bull then made the case that the spiritual power is above the temporal “in dignity and nobility” and that by virtue of this the “spiritual power has to institute the earthly power and to judge it if it has not been good.”  Echoing Aquinas, the bull concluded with an emphatic statement of papal supremacy: “therefore we declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.”  Notably absent were any complicated proofs, temporizing language or principled qualifications.  Although it drew on established theological arguments regarding hierarchy (Pseudo-Dionysius), the theory of the Two Swords (Bernard of Clairveaux), and the superiority of papal jurisdiction (Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas), and leavened these with juristic concepts regarding the mystical body of Christ, the document was less an argument for the hierocratic thesis than a bold assertion, grounded in precedent and tradition, of the doctrine of unqualified papal supremacy over all temporal rulers.

The French response to Unam Sanctam took some time to materialize, but when it finally did become manifest it was both violent and decisive.  In March 1303, the Estates General met once again, this time roundly denouncing Boniface as a false pope, simoniac, thief and heretic.  In June, another meeting of the prelates and peers of the realm took place in Paris.  At this meeting, supporters of Philip arranged to have twenty-nine formal charges of heresy brought against the pope.  Boniface denied the charges, of course, and formally cleared himself of them at a consistory at Anagni in August 1303.  He then went on the counterattack, excommunicating a number of prelates, suspending the right of the University of Paris to confer degrees in law and theology, and reserving all vacant French benefices to the Apostolic See.  Fatefully, he also prepared the bull Super Petri solio, which would have formally excommunicated Philip and released his subjects from their obligations to him.  Before he could promulgate it as planned, however, Boniface was seized by Philip’s men who planned to force him to abdicate or, failing that, bring him to trial before a general council in France.  The plan quickly fell apart, however, and the pope was released from captivity three days later.  Boniface returned safely to Rome on 25 September, only to die of a violent fever on 12 October 1303.

In response to the claims advanced by Boniface, an anonymous dualist tract entitled  Quaestio in utramque partem (“Both Sides of the Question”) 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: were the spiritual and temporal domains separate and distinct?  And, 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 locus, source and character of supreme authority.  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 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.”[7]  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,”[8] 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.  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 as well.  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 prescription or 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 foundational to the emerging regnalist thesis – a thesis that would ultimately displace the dualism that Quaestio in utramque partem had set out to defend.

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 the 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 imperialist-dualism.  Indeed, through its reworking of well-worn concepts and the introduction of some new ideas, the tract ended up so thoroughly contradicting and negating the logic of the received form of dualism that it is often read as a precursor of the much more 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 are 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.”[9]

The author of Rex pacificus began the third part of the tract with a fairly straightforward dualist argument, though he presented it in somewhat novel allegorical fashion.  Man, he asserted, is a microcosm of the universe and, as such, is 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.”[10]  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.”[11]  Circling back to this point much later in the text, the author makes clear that this means 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….”[12].  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 toward the good and away from the evil (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 teachings 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 also 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, 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.”[13]  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 was 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 was 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.  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 and distinct.  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 one another’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 to establish 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 ultimately be held accountable by God Himself for how well they discharge that duty.  On the basis of this assertion, the author of Rex pacificus then concluded that, “… with regard to temporal things, the Church is given over, and made subject, to the power of kings and princes.”[14]  Following this, he 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.”[15]  Finally, the author of the tract argued that three of the most praiseworthy kings in the Old Testament – David, Hezekiah and Josiah – routinely commanded priests and to do their bidding.  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.”[16]  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.”[17]

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 the impression that “judgment or jurisdiction with respect to inheritance and hereditary property did not belong to Him.”[18]  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” (i.e. the temporal power).  The author of Rex pacificus next 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 could not logically claim powers in excess of those claimed by Christ, the author concluded that Christ had “not willed to transfer temporal and human rule and lordship over kingdoms to the pope.”[19]

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.


At the time of Boniface’s death in 1303, then, two basic constellations of ideas regarding the locus, nature and character of supreme authority were in circulation in Latin Christendom.  On the one hand, polemicists and scholars had revived the traditional hierocratic perspective, adapting arguments first made in connection with the papal-imperial conflicts of the early thirteenth century to the quite different conditions of royal-papal conflict at the turn of the fourteenth century.  For them, supreme authority was unambiguously vested in the pope or the papal office – the supreme pontiff possessed a plenitudo potestatis over all members of the church militant, secular princes no less than clerical ones.  Temporal rulers derived their royal power from the pope and possessed this power only in diminished and derivative form from him.  The pope had the right to intervene in any temporal matter, ratione peccati.  Popes ultimately possessed two forms of power: “regulated” or rule-governed power, and “absolute” power, defined as the pope’s extraordinary power to transcend human law and jurisdiction.  In increasingly strident terms, hierocratic polemicists and scholars made the case that the pope was truly “a creature without a halter or bridle”.

On the other hand, pro-royal thinkers had adapted the older imperial-dualist arguments of the early thirteenth century to the ongoing dispute between Phillip and Boniface.  In this case, though, it was not merely a matter of dusting off old arguments and expressing them more forcefully and uncompromisingly than in the past.  Rather, in translating the dualist argument from the context of imperial-papal conflict to one of regnal-papal conflict, pro-royal polemicists and scholars actually developed a radically new paradigm of supreme temporal power.  In this new “regnalist” paradigm, kings (rather than emperors) ruled territorially limited kingdoms (rather than a universal empire); the authority to rule in the temporal sphere came directly from God, without papal mediation or sanctification; and the Church was understood to be less a distinct society subject to its own laws and exercising unqualified dominion over its own property, than a subordinate spiritual “department” contained within – and subject the jurisdiction of – the regnum (kingdom).  Moreover, in this new regnalist paradigm the respublica Christiana was not seen as a single political space governed cooperatively by the temporal power (the Empire) and the spiritual power (the Church); rather, it was understood to be a single spiritual space (the Church, in the sense of all the catholic faithful) naturally organized into territorially discrete kingdoms, each of which possessed supreme authority internally and none of which recognized any superior authority externally.

About the Author

Andrew Latham was born in England, raised in Canada and currently lives in the United States.  He holds a PhD from York University in Toronto.  Since 1997 Andrew has been a member of the Political Science Department at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he regularly teaches courses in Medieval Political Thought, International Security and Regional Conflict.  His most recent publications include a non-fiction book entitled Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson in 2015.  His second novel, The Templar’s Revenge, is due out in November 2016.  You can visit his website at

[1] Dyson (trans. and ed.), Antequam essent clerici, pp. 5-7.

[2] Dyson, Antequam essent clerici, p. xxvii.

[3] Dyson (trans. and ed.), Disputatio inter clericum et militem, p. 15.

[4] Ibid., p. 17.

[5] Ibid., p. 39.

[6] Ibid., p. 43.

[7] Joseph Canning, Ideas of Power in the Late Middle Ages, p. 26.

[8] R.W. Dyson (trans. and ed.), Quaestio in utramque partem, p. 81.

[9] Ullmann, “A Medieval Document on Papal Theories of Government”, 192

[10] Dyson, Rex pacificus, p. 75.

[11] Ibid., p. 75.

[12] Ibid., p. 99.

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] Ibid., p. 82.

[15] Ibid., p. 82.

[16] Ibid., p. 83.

[17] Ibid., p. 83.

[18] Ibid., p. 84.

[19] Ibid., p. 86.


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!