Good Government: An Important Legacy from the Middle Ages

By Ken Mondschein

Corruption, especially in government, is an age-old problem. How did people in the Middle Ages try to solve it?

In the United States, as in most of the West, we have the idea that the government should operate for the benefit of the nation, and that those who hold positions of public trust should work for the public good, and not for the enrichment of themselves and their families. Public resources should not be used for private gain.


Of late, there have been numerous exceptions that prove this rule. Donald Trump has worked to enrich his family his entire time in office and, most recently, has pardoned those of his allies who were convicted of breaking the law in his service. On the other end of the political spectrum, Hunter Biden took a questionable board position with a Ukrainian petroleum company. More broadly, oil-industry lobbyists have pressured the government for drilling access to protected wilderness areas and the “varsity blues” college admission scandal has laid bare the fact that our much-vaunted Enlightenment idea of “meritocracy” is a self-serving myth of the elite.

Conversely, in other places, the idea of an impartial rule of law is not taken for granted. I once had a student from Azerbaijan tell me that it cost $100,000 under the table to become a police officer — but it was worth it, since you could easily make the money up in bribes and then some. Nigeria’s oil wealth is disproportionately shared by certain ethnic groups and does not filter down to the nation’s poorest. The examples abound, which is why the nonprofit Transparency International maintains a corruption perceptions index and why lack of corruption is seen as a global marker of development.

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, by Jacques-Louis David

The idea of disinterested administration of the “res publica,” of public affairs, is an ancient idea. Roman writers such as Cicero and Tacitus clearly had the idea of impartial leadership, even if this was more often honored in the breach than the observance since Roman social relations were based on client-patron relationships. Pliny praised Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic who had his own sons executed for conspiracy against the state; centuries later, the episode was taken as the subject of a neoclassical painting by Jacques-Louis David. However, the revival of this ancient idea does not date to the Enlightenment philosophes — it is a living medievalism to which we can credit the Catholic Church. Interestingly, it is also the reason for clerical celibacy.


In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, western Christianity faced a crisis. Bishoprics and great monasteries often controlled vast lands and resources. The nobility around Rome did not see any reason why they should not control the election of the Pope, and monarchs such as Emperor Henry IV of Germany did not see why they should not install, or invest, their clergyman in their estates. (Thus, the name that historians give this conflict: the “investiture controversy.”) After about 50 years of politics and armed conflict, the Papacy proved stronger than the Emperor and it was agreed at the Concord of Worms in 1122 that the Church would invest its own leaders, but that the Emperor would oversee it. Similar drama occurred over the centuries in England, with the result ultimately being the strengthening of the monarchy—ultimately culminating with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534.

Clerical celibacy was another way in which the Western church retained control of its resources. Whereas prohibitions against marriage for ecclesiastical leaders date back to early Christianity, Pope Gregory VII reinforced this prohibition in 1074 and 1075. Married priests were not owed obedience, and could be stripped of their incomes. In a de-monetized economy, the revenue from land was the only way to support the church — and, just as a modern CEO is not allowed to use company resources as personal resources, it was imperative that these assets remain within the corporate body. Prohibition against ecclesiastical corruption was reinforced over the centuries, with Dante placing simoniacs (sellers of Church offices) in the lowest circle of hell in the fourteenth century.

Dante speaks to Pope Nicholas III, committed to the Inferno for his simony, in Gustave Doré’s 1861 wood engraving

Because they were educated, seen as impartial, and could have no legitimate heirs to benefit by corruption, churchmen often played prominent roles in the governments of European monarchs. This was quite a different solution from that found by empires from Byzantium to Imperial China, which castrated men to ensure that they would have no heirs to enrich. (It did not always work, incidentally, as the corruption of eunuchs was rife in Byzantium and an often-given reason for the fall of Chinese dynasties.) Increasingly, the classical idea of impartial administration came to be seen as the gold standard, and was encoded into the DNA of modern political thought by such Enlightenment philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu. However, ultimately the idea of the State, like the Church, being something other than the property of one individual or family is something for which we can thank medieval theologians — and all because of struggles over power, money, land, and influence.


Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.

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Top Image: A bishop in the 13th century. British Library Add MS 35166 fol. 36v


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