A Prelude to a Preface to Walter Ullmann

In the middle of the summer of 2016, I was plowing through books on Marsilius of Padua (ca. A.D. 1275–ca. 1342) and the figures and the history leading up to him. One professor I spoke with suggested that I look into the history of Roman law –rather than to principles found in Benedictine monasticism— to explain some of the cultural features that would make sense out of some of the positions characteristic of Marsilius.

So I started to tear through books on Roman law. I read through Stein, and acquired many of the primary sources found in the end-of-chapter bibliographies; I bought Harries, and picked up Jolowicz. I began carefully to read my way through several sections of Justinian’s InstitutesStein I was reading together with CanningKing, and Black, among others; in Canning’s and King’s works, in some of the choicest footnoted section, I kept running across references to a work titled Law and Politics in the Middle Ages by Walter Ullmann. Ullmann taught several of the members of Monty Python, Nederman wrote, and several ideas of his (again, so I was told) are expressed in their movies, and in their radio and TV shows — so he must be fascinating and entertaining! Ergo, I picked up a copy of Ullmann’s Law and Politics, and started reading through it. 

I already owned books by Ullmann on the Carolingian Renaissance, as well as on patterns in Medieval politics and society; years ago I’d bought a volume by him titled The Medieval Roots of Renaissance Humanism that promised to teach me much about the origins of secularity and secularization — shamefully, to this day I have not yet read that volume. I had, however, very profitably consulted sections of his work on the Carolingian Renaissance for what was effectively my Master’s thesis, without really appreciating how seemingly everything he wrote was recruited into his general approach to politics and political authority in the Middle Ages. I certainly would not have been able to tell any reader or interlocutor what that approach was. I also did not know how massively influential it had been during the middle of the 20th century, or the clearly articulated rejection of its key themes even by his own students.

Stein’s book was delicious, but very brief (if only it were another 50 pages!); I needed something both introductory, and more focused on Roman and “barbarian” law during the Late Antique period (i.e., very roughly, A.D. 250–800). Although originally I needed such a thing for what I intended to be my thesis, my need remained –and grew– once I began the still-unfinished series on “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future“. Needing to secure a basic introduction to the period and the differences between Germanic (“barbarian”) and Roman law, Ullmann’s work looked the best general introduction.

After reading the first 70 pages of Law and Politics, I decided that Ullmann’s work was not the best general introduction I had been looking for. I could not understand, further, how Ullmann had held so much sway over the field of Medieval studies if this book were representative of either his thought or his style.

I’ll confine myself here to the issue of style. In Law and Politics, Ullmann would make comprehensive assertions such as (I am paraphrasing from memory) “the politics of the Medieval period is nothing but the Bible translated into legislation”, without explaining what this means. Ullmann would make other assertions like this, in exactly the same manner, and without presenting any primary sources in the body of his “introductory” text. He reminded me of an older professor from another age of near credulity, pontificating comfortably (even lazily) with pipe in hand, in an environment where being a professor carried with it an air of authority that did not require one to demonstrate mastery of a subject anew in each transaction. His assertions would be made without a citation, and often without a footnote — at least, without a footnote in English. For a text that was supposed to be a more popular work, aimed at undergraduates, the footnotes referring to secondary studies on arcane topics originally written in Italian, German, and French seemed insane.

Naturally, I began to wonder: who exactly is Walter Ullmann, and was he just totally full of crap? In order to get to this question, I did not want to spend more time on him. That may sound strange, but I have never pulled out of a work by a major scholar on the feeling that I’d been wasting my time. I wanted to compile a portrait of the man and his thought from his students, friends, and critics — and then try to read one, if not three, of his books. I know that this method is frowned upon, and I’m aware of its shortcomings. Thus, I’ll restrict most of my sources to those of his students.

With this goal in mind I read the reviews of Law and Politics. I read about two dozen other pieces on him, most notably the article review of his life and work by one of his students, the criticisms leveled at him by Canning and other students of his in the course of writing their textbooks on Medieval history, reviews of his main books, the chapter on him in Nederman’s Lineages of European Political Thought, and the critique of him by Francis Oakley, which was largely responsible for the sharp decline in Ullmann’s reputation, to the point that today he is largely forgotten, revisited in newer textbooks only as a foil or a cautionary example, his work largely available only in reprints and used copies.

The exercise has been very profitable, and highly enjoyable. I am compiling my notes on these readings, and should be done in a week, give or take a few days.

11 thoughts on “A Prelude to a Preface to Walter Ullmann

    • Well, no — there are often precepts of one sort or another in a religion, but a law is usually a custom that has gone through an official channel to transform it into a rule that has the coercive power of either the state or else some other official body behind it.

      There have been several different basic positions proposed concerning what religion is. Most will say that it is essentially about practices regarding meaning rather than coercion — even if rules are involved, as they always are when people get together to share some part of their lives, great or small. Some will say it’s about aesthetics, some kind of artistic project. Some will say superstition and magic.

      Law, however, is not usually an answer. Super curious as to why you suggested it! :-D


  1. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 1 of 2 | Into the Clarities

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  3. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(a) of 2 (Ozment) | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(b) of 2 (Canning) | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(c) of 2 (Watt) | Into the Clarities

  6. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(d) of 2 (Tierney) | Into the Clarities

  7. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(e) of 2 (Oakley) | Into the Clarities

  8. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Follow-Up to Part 2(e) of 2 (Oakley, Again) | Into the Clarities

  9. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(f) of 2 (Nederman) | Into the Clarities

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