Medieval Geopolitics: Giles of Rome on why the Pope should rule the entire world

By Andrew Latham

The early fourteenth-century would see the King of France and the Papacy fighting over who was the superior power. One of the leading scholars of that time would weigh on the matter – and provide the key arguments for Papal Absolutism.

If the first round of conflict between pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France opened up novel lines of inquiry regarding supreme political authority, it had done so in a necessarily halting and partial way. On the one hand, papal pronouncements were more clumsy assertions than carefully considered legal, theological or philosophical arguments. On the other hand, Disputatio inter clericum et militem and Antequam essent clerici were little more than short tracts attempting to justify Philip’s policies by applying the dualist arguments developed in connection with earlier conflicts between the Church and Empire to the conflict between the Church and the territorial kingdom of France.


Although they introduced some novel arguments, these works were certainly not models of legal, theological or philosophical argumentation. This was partly a function of the relatively short duration of the conflict. The total time elapsed between the promulgation of Clericis laicos and that of Esti de statu was no more than about eighteen months. But it was also a function of the novelty of the conflict itself. Earlier in the century (indeed, going all the way back to the Investiture Controversy), the dualist-hierocratic dispute had involved two at least aspirationally “universal” political institutions, the Church and the Empire. This time, though, the underlying conflict was not between the Church and Empire, but between the universal Church and the territorially limited kingdom of France.

On the pro-royal side in particular, the translation of arguments initially developed in the context of the empire to the kingdom raised thorny questions not only about the relationship of royal power to imperial power, but also about the relation of the national churches to the universal church, and the relationship of royal to imperial jurisdiction. Addressing these questions was simply beyond the abilities of the first round of polemicists discussed in my last column.

While the complications associated with attempting to translate dualist arguments from the imperium (empire) to the regnum (kingdom) did not in any way disappear, during the second round of conflict both pro-royal and pro-papal thinkers were able to develop arguments that were more scholarly, more rigorous and ultimately more innovative than those of the first round. To be sure, these thinkers were also hurried – as evidenced by the poorly edited and somewhat inelegant character of the writings they produced. But the three most important tracts of this period were written by scholars of the highest caliber, intimately familiar with the theological, philosophical and even juristic debates over the relationship of the spiritual power to the temporal that were regularly rehearsed at schools like the University of Paris. Unlike the polemicists who preceded them, they were very much up to the intellectual challenge of addressing the issues raised in the new conflict between the kingdom of France and the Catholic Church.

Historiated initial of Giles of Rome blessing, holding a book. British Library MS Harley 3022 f. 1

On the pro-papal side, the first major tract in date of composition was Giles of Rome’s De ecclesiastica potestate (“On Ecclesiastical Power”). Giles, the former Prior-General of the Augustinian order and serving Archbishop of Bourges and Primate of Aquitaine, was a highly regarded scholar who enjoyed considerable influence in the papal curia. He wrote De ecclesiastica potestate between February and August 1302 with the express purpose of supporting Boniface in his struggle with Philip. The work itself was an elaborate and relentless defense of the hierocratic position, motivated in equal measure by personal loyalty to Boniface and intense commitment to the papal cause.

Though it was novel in that it directed its claims of papal superiority toward kings and kingdoms rather than the emperor and the empire, it does not appear that its author intended to break any new thematic or conceptual ground. Indeed, Giles used only those sources and authorities that had been routinely pressed into hierocratic service during the previous century’s conflict between the empire and the Church.

To be sure, De ecclesiastica potestate was unprecedented in the degree to which it pushed well-worn hierocratic arguments to their logical extremes. Ultimately, however, the tract is perhaps best understood as the apotheosis of what had, by the beginning of the 13th century, become an established tradition of hierocratic argumentation. Although it was not apparent to Giles and others in the pro-papal camp at the time, it was also to be the death rattle of that tradition.


Judged by no one … but God alone

Given the haste with which it was apparently written, it is perhaps not too surprising to find that De ecclesiastica potestate is poorly organized, repetitive, and at times even incoherent. A careful reading of the text, however, reveals three major lines of argumentation regarding the locus, source and character of supreme authority.

The first of these establishes that there are, in fact, two forms of power – the temporal power of princes (in terms borrowed from Saint Bernard, the “material sword”) and the spiritual power of the Church (the “spiritual sword”) – and that the spiritual power precedes the temporal in time, dignity and authority. Giles grounds this argument in Neoplatonist-naturalistic logic, Christian revelation and history. With respect to the first of these, he began by asserting that everything in the world is naturally subject to something higher than itself. Echoing both Saint Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, Giles puts it thus:

Therefore, if we wish to see which power stands under which power, we must attend to the government of the whole mechanism of the world. And we see in the government of the universe that the whole of corporeal substance is governed through the spiritual. Inferior bodies are indeed ruled through the superior, and the more gross through the more subtle and the less potent through the more potent; but the whole of corporeal substance is nonetheless ruled through the spiritual, and the whole of spiritual substance by the Supreme Spirit: that is, by God.


The implications of this were clear to Giles. Having demonstrated that the spiritual is superior to the corporeal or material, he then proceeded to draw the following inference regarding the relationship of the spiritual powers to the temporal:

Just as in the universe itself, the whole of corporeal substance is ruled through the spiritual… so among the faithful themselves, all temporal lords and every earthly power must be ruled and governed through the spiritual and ecclesiastical power; and especially through the Supreme Pontiff, who holds the supreme and highest rank in the Church and in Spiritual power. But the Supreme Pontiff himself must be judged only by God. For… it is he who judges all things and is judged by no one; that is, no mere man, but God alone.

And then, having established the superiority of the spiritual power over the temporal, Giles proceeded to tease out the implications of this for the temporal power. If the spiritual power was supreme, he argued, then the use of both material goods and temporal powers must necessarily be ordered toward spiritual ends, otherwise it would “lead not to salvation, but to the damnation of the soul.” If this were true, he continued, then it necessarily followed that temporal authority must exercise its governmental powers and material possessions to advance the purposes specified or sanctioned by the spiritual power. And if this were true, he concluded, then the failure of the temporal authority to use its possessions and powers to advance those purposes was to invite legitimate censure from the spiritual power.

In a sense, Giles first established ecclesiastical supremacy by simply “reading it off” the natural hierarchic order of the universe.


Superior and primary power

Not content with this naturalistic argument, however, he also attempted to establish the superiority of the spiritual power by reference to Christian revelation and theology. He began by arguing that scripture clearly revealed that priests existed before kings. Adam, Abel and Noah were all priest-like figures (by virtue of their offering sacrifices to God) and made their appearance in salvation history long before the first king, Nimrod.

He then pressed his case further, arguing that among the Jewish forebears of the Christian people it was the priestly Moses who first delegated the adjudication of temporal disputes to a distinct temporal power. Giles concluded this line of argument by pointing out that Saul, the first actual king of the Jews, was invested by the priest Samuel. At this point, Giles appropriated and reworked an argument first made by Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1098-1142) in the decades following the Investiture Controversy. Hugh had argued that while the body of Christ was an organic whole comprising both the spiritual and temporal domains, the priesthood had greater dignity than kingship because it was instituted prior in time.

Miniature of the cross in the papal chair, with a lion and a dragon below it, inscribed with verses. British Library MS Royal 6 E IX f. 8v

But whereas Hugh was merely talking about the greater dignity needed by priests if they were to be able to consecrate kings, Giles argued that, because it was prior in time, the spiritual power was actually superior to the temporal in both dignity and authority. Indeed, he argued, because it was prior in time, and because it actually instituted (rather than merely consecrated) the temporal power, the spiritual power could judge the prince and, if necessary, withdraw his temporal authority. Going even further, Giles concluded that, since a “superior and primary power” can do anything that an included “inferior and secondary power” can, the spiritual power had a legitimate right to intervene in any and all temporal matters.

Ordinarily, he conceded, the Church leaves such matters to the prince; it’s power in temporal matters is “superior and primary”, but not normally “immediate and executory”. Nevertheless, Giles insisted, the Church retained the right to exercise “occasional” jurisdiction in the temporal realm – and to do so at its own discretion.

In addition to the naturalistic and theological arguments he put forth, Giles also sought to establish the supremacy of the spiritual power by investing the Church with supreme dominium – that is, power over temporal things and persons. His argument in this connection was simple yet inspired. He began from the premise that true or full dominium must be based on justice, which he defined in Augustinian terms as “the virtue which distributes to each what is due to him.” True dominium thus required that vassals render due fealty to their lords in return for the goods and powers they held from them. Failure to render a superior due fealty necessarily resulted in the forfeiture of those goods and powers that that superior had conferred on the subordinate.

Here Giles cited the example of the knight who fails to render due fealty to his lord and is therefore deprived of dominium over his castle. Giles then extended the argument about justice from the temporal realm to the spiritual. All owe fealty to God, he argued, but by virtue of both original and actual sin deprive Him of that fealty. As a result, God dispossesses humans of the dominium over property and persons that he had conditionally granted them.

The Church, however, has the sacramental power to erase the stain of original sin through baptism and that of actual sin through penance. Those princes who avail themselves of the sacramental ministrations of the Church are thus able to render due fealty to God and are in turn, therefore, able to exercise legitimate dominium over their properties and subjects. Those who cannot or will not avail themselves of the sacraments of baptism or penance – whether unbelievers or excommunicates – are neither true kings nor true owners of their property. In Giles’ own words: “there are no true kingships among the unbelievers; rather, according to what Augustine says, there are only certain great bands of robbers.”

The fullness of power

This line of reasoning led Giles to two conclusions regarding the location, source and character of supreme authority. First, it led him to conclude that supreme temporal jurisdiction over persons was vested in the Church (or, more specifically, in the papal office). The only true dominium was that which was subject to the Church, which itself instituted and supervised the restricted dominium exercised by temporal powers, and which alone could annul or extinguish it. The dominium of the Church was thus “superior and primary”, while that of kingdoms was “inferior and secondary.”

Second, it led him to conclude the Church’s dominium with respect to material goods was such that the possessions of the faithful are actually the property of the Church. Giles argued that dominium over property, like dominium over persons, is derived “from the Church and through the Church.” While conceding that the laity may exercise a particular and inferior “lordship of use” (dominium utile), he insisted that the Church retained the universal and superior right of direct ownership (dominium directum). Significantly, Giles also claimed that a corollary of this superior form of dominium was that the Church had the right to recover her property from those (ab)using it – a claim that directly contradicted then-widely circulating arguments that kingdoms were the inalienable property of kings.

Christ asks St Peter to build his Church – Holkham Bible picture book – British Library MS Additional 47682 f. 37v

Beyond establishing the supremacy of the spiritual realm, Giles also established the supremacy of the pope within both the spiritual and temporal realms. He began by defining the source and scope of the pope’s power. Christ, he argued, created the office of the papacy and, by entrusting to it the keys to the kingdom of heaven, invested it with plenitude potestatis or the fullness of power. Drawing on both the decretals of Innocent III and the canonist Hostiensis’ classical treatment of the concept, Giles defined plenitudo potestatis as the power to do without a secondary cause (i.e. as the power to do directly) whatever he can do with a secondary cause (i.e. through an intermediary) – that is, to command, legislate and judge in any matter whatsoever, spiritual or temporal.

Because the pope enjoyed this power, he was in effect unrestrained by any earthly constraint or limitation – neither civil nor canon law, nor precedent nor custom bound him in any way. He could suspend any law, reverse any judgment or command on any issue. He was subject to no legal process – Church councils and temporal courts alike had no jurisdiction over him. And because the pope enjoyed the fullness of power within the church, he could not be bound by the pronouncements of earlier popes (which, inconveniently for Giles, sometimes recognized limits on papal power). Any pope could simply set aside the judgments of his predecessors and govern as he saw fit. The pope, Giles concluded succinctly, was truly “a creature without a halter or bridle”.

This fullness of power, Giles argued, operated with equal effect in both the spiritual and temporal realms. He grounded this claim in scripture, arguing that as Christ charged Peter with the duty to feed every one of His sheep (i.e. to care for all the Christian faithful, clergy and laity alike), and, as He imposed no limits on the binding and releasing power He granted to Peter at Matthew 16: 18-19, papal jurisdiction must necessarily be universal – no one could be considered exempt from the pope’s authority. With respect to the spiritual domain, this meant that all the power that Christ granted the Church was in fact vested in the pope as the embodiment of the Church.

The pope was thus the font of all power within the Church; all power flowed from him like multiple streams from a single source. The authority of all priests and prelates, therefore, derived from the pope. In the temporal realm, the papal fullness of power meant that the pope was responsible for supervising, and if necessary correcting, the conduct of the inferior and secondary temporal power. No prince was exempt from papal authority and the pope had an absolute right to intervene in any temporal matter whatsoever.

Giles conceded that “normally and ordinarily” popes refrained from directly administering the affairs of lesser powers in both the temporal and spiritual realms. In the same way that God ordinarily leaves the natural world to function according to its own laws, so too the pope ordinarily respects the jurisdiction of the temporal and spiritual princes. Giles argued that there are good reasons for this routine division of labor: to preserve as far as possible the ordinary relationship between the powers; to spare clergy from the distraction of mundane affairs; and because it would simply be impractical for the pope to administer all aspects of the day-to-day affairs of either the Church or the temporal kingdoms under his jurisdiction.

But, he cautioned, this did not in any way derogate from the absolute power of the papacy. Drawing on the work of Hostiensis, he argued that there were in fact two forms of power through which popes govern the world: “regulated” and “absolute”. Regulated power is rule-governed power. Popes normally subject themselves to the established human laws of the Church and the kingdom, permitting their temporal and spiritual subordinates to exercise their ordinary jurisdictional power. They voluntarily refrain from randomly, capriciously or arbitrarily disturbing the jurisdiction of temporal or security authorities.

Absolute power, on the other hand, is not rule-governed. It is the pope’s extraordinary power to transcend human law and jurisdiction. God and the pope alike, Giles argued, enjoy a plenitude of power. And just as this plenitude of power enables God, at His discretion, to suspend the laws of nature to perform miracles so to it enables the pope, at his discretion, to suspend the laws of man to do what is right and just.

To this point, Giles’ arguments regarding absolute and regulated power were not particularly innovative. There was precedent in both the decretals of Innocent III and the writings of Hostiensis for the argument that a pope can operate outside the ordinary framework of canon and civil law “with cause” (ex causa). Where Giles does innovate, however, is with respect to the range of causes that would enable the exercise of this absolute power.

As he put it, the pope may intervene in cases that have a spiritual dimension; that involve crime or mortal sin; where temporal conflicts threaten the peace; that involve perjury, heresy, usury or sacrilege; when the material sword is absent and injured parties have no recourse other than to the spiritual power; where the temporal lord has permitted appeal to the spiritual power to become customary; and in any and all cases that cannot be resolved by the temporal power. To Giles, then, the list of ex causa exceptions that enable the exercise of absolute power is all-inclusive. There was simply no limiting principle curbing the pope’s power – he could, at his discretion, command, legislate and judge in respect of any matter whatsoever, temporal or spiritual.

According to Giles, then, the power of the pope is not just supreme, but absolute. In one of the earliest and most forcefully argued cases for unfettered power concentrated in a single office, he argued that the pope is the de iure ruler of the entire world with ultimate jurisdiction over all people and ultimate ownership of all things. To an extent unparalleled among contemporary advocates of royal power, Giles also emphasized the role of the will of the pope and correspondingly de-emphasized the role of normative constraints like positive law, custom, and the law of nations (ius gentium).

He also effectively erased the line separating spiritual and temporal domains. According to him, all jurisdictional power in Christendom lay ultimately with the pope – both the temporal and spiritual swords were in his hand.

Even when papal claims to universal and supreme authority in matters temporal and spiritual were ultimately extinguished, these ideas continued to circulate throughout Latin Christendom in secularized form. Indeed, it is possible to draw a direct link between Giles’ political thought and the political absolutism first expressed in the early modern era in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

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: Pope as emperor in a 15th century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 17 F III   f. 58v   


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