A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 1 of 2

I mentioned Ullmann in a post about the ends of political power in Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) just over a month ago; I then addressed him more directly in a post about an experience of reading one of his books last week. I said that I was going to cover mostly the secondary literature on Ullmann, and this mostly by Ullmann’s students, to get a profile of the man mostly from those who knew him; originally I had intended not to look at Ullmann’s own writings much for this exercise, despite knowing that this is bad academic practice — not far from journalism.

I broke my rule, however, and looked at some of the man’s own writings. I found this passage in one of his works, describing one class of people who research “the institutional machinery of the papacy” in a way that makes their research dismissable:

remaining as they do on the surface, untouched as they are by contact with the sources, and relying as they do on secondary literature, they have little else but their own purely subjective-moral evaluations with which their presentation is interleaved. When one knows no sources, except perhaps those conveniently selected in well-known compendia, one virtually must take refuge in moralising judgements; how else is one to paint a picture? [1]

Perhaps it was a reader-response reaction, but I felt like the man was talking about me, to me. Below, after an initial overview, we shall survey what I have been able to uncover about Ullmann’s life, then cover the contours of his personality as it is revealed in what people have written about him.

In the next (second and final) post, we shall review the general outline of the better-known elements in the schema of Ullmann’s thought, and then review the criticisms that have been leveled against him.


gotta show respect to that comb-over

The Trinity College, Cambridge scholar Walter Ullmann died on the 17th of January in 1983, “the author of a synthesis [regarding “the political traditions of the Middle Ages”] both authoritative and highly controversial.” [2] This seems to have been, and to be, the general agreement on Ullmann’s scholarship. Even one of Ullmann’s most severe critics, Francis Oakley, who would in 2010 reflect that Ullmann had “a distinguished, highly productive, and influential career” [3], wrote earlier in his 1973 broadside against Ullmann that he (i.e., Ullmann) “has achieved a novel and powerful synthesis, […] which anyone seriously interested in medieval political and constitutional thinking must […] come to terms”. [4] Steven Ozment repeated this judgment in his masterful 1980 work The Age of Reform 1250-1550: “[a]ny effort to interpret medieval political and ecclesiopolitical thought must come to grips at the outset with the work of Walter Ullmann.” [5] His students were numerous, and a short review of some of the standard contemporary names in medieval studies might nearly double as a list of Ullmann’s former students (including such luminaries as Brian Tierney — a partial list can be found in the contributors to this volume of papers written by Ullmann’s former students in honor of him on his 70th birthday, and Ullmann himself gives another –larger– partial list in the short autobiography he wrote [6]). Nonetheless, Cary Nederman has amusingly noted that two Cambridge medieval studies students who went on to form part of Monty Python are probably far better known, and have probably done a far better job of widely disseminating (in comic form) some of his central motifs, than any others of Ullmann’s [7] — although some of these other students are marvelous scholars in their own right, have written stunning and foundational works in many areas of Late Antique and Medieval law and politics, and not only have corrected many of his errors of judgment, but they have all seemingly superseded his scholarship. Granted, his appreciators could laud him and his accomplishments extensively:

He has devoted his life to the broad highway as well as the byways of legal history, and his work has been a vigorous stimulus for a proliferating number of scholars who use medieval law to illuminate and understand medieval society, thought, and, sometimes, even literature. [8]

Despite this legacy, Ullmann’s star has largely fallen, his “reputation […] ha[ving] undergone a precipitous decline, to the point that now he is all but invisible.” [9] I have not found his name in the two main surveys of Medieval social history by R. W. Southern, and he appears only in two end-of-chapter bibliographies in Lynch and Adamo’s volume on Medieval Church history. Even in “the early 1980s” there were signs of this decline in esteem. [10] Although the Introduction to The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought lists Ullmann as the final in a sequence of thinkers (von Gierke, the Carlyle brothers, and Ullmann) who effectively gave birth to the contemporary field of Medieval political studies, and one who offered “an illuminating and fruitful hypothesis”, it also describes this Ullmannian hypothesis as “nevertheless open to question and debate” and flatly states that Ullmann’s general approach “would certainly not be universally accepted [today] as a sufficient framework for a thorough exploration of [the theory of government in the middle ages]”; in the end it clearly suggests that Ullmann’s “single magisterial view” has broken down [11] — or, as Cary Nederman paraphrases that volume’s judgment, suggests that Ullmann is now considered “magisterial but passé” [12]. Still, “his impact lingers in” other “important” ways, so that acquaintance with it remains valuable. [13] (We shall touch upon those other important ways in part two.)


respect also the dangerously charming smile of Ullmann

Ullmann was an Austrian by birth, and came from two Catholic families; Ullmann called himself a “conservative Catholic” in opinion (at least at the beginning of his time in England) [14],  and Black describes him as a “traditionalist Catholic” [15], all of which surprised me, for my initial impression of him was that he must be an atheist. His father “Dr. Rudolph Ullmann” was “a general practitioner” [16]; the family “was comfortably off without being wealthy” until the inflation of the 1920s. [17] After beginning his legal career in Austria as a practicing jurist, while also being an aspiring scholar, he fell foul of the Nazis during the 1930s, refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, and so came to England during “the unhappy state of international affairs” [18] that obtained during the Second World War, first teaching at Ratcliffe, then serving in Britain’s army for three years before being honorably discharged, taking up a post at Leeds and then a chair in Medieval Studies at Cambridge, where he met his wife. He spent the rest of his life at Cambridge. “Among academics,” Ullmann wrote, “it is said that one does not move on from Oxford or Cambridge.” [19] The Wikipedia article on him describes him as a “prolific”, but this descriptor seems to fall flat:  the collected Bibliography of his works written between the years 1940-1979 runs twenty pages [20]; the Bibliography of his works published between the years 1979-1988 (there were posthumously published articles of Ullmann’s) can be found in the fifth volume of Ullmann’s collected works, Law and Jurisdiction in the Middle Ages ed. George Garnett (London: Variorum, 1988), which work I have not been able to access so as to consult. [21]

Much of his scholarship, particularly his earlier scholarship, is said not to display the formulistic features of Ullmann’s later schema, which attracted the attention of critics. My brief foray into his 1948 Maitland Lectures [22] confirms this. There are three key controversial features to this Ullmannian schema, which we shall here briefly touch upon before we unpack them more in the second half of this two-part post. Ullmann’s take on these themes came under severe fire, and seems to be universally judged to have failed.

Ascending / Descending

Ullmann is probably best known for his “Ascending / Descending” thesis, his schema about the two different Medieval models for the origin of political authority (Ullmann includes the Late Antique period in the Medieval). As Joseph Canning puts it, it is

the antithesis between the derivation of power downwards, as it were, from God, or upwards from the people. [23]

I should stress here that this is about the origin of political power, not its purpose (more on this in the next post). There is a consensus of judgments that we’ll soon be covering regarding this schema. Anticipating that consensus, Ullmann’s own student Antony Black might stand in as a representative voice for it when he notes, “this view is simplistic.” Offler calls it “rigid”. [24] Black goes on: “[i]t is amazing that the Middle Ages is still subject to the kind of generalisations that would be laughed at by specialists in other fields.” [25]

Christianization vs. Secularization — Natural vs. Supernatural


photo found in _Authority and Power_

Ullmann’s schema is rather simple, and other themes cluster around it. One is his projection of the late Medieval Latin Christian natural vs. supernatural distinction into prior ages. On this model, the Germanic tribes held to a “natural” origin for kingship, because it was blood-based; the Romans and Greeks held to a “natural” basis for authority because of the allegedly bottom-up popular origin of power, even the power of the Roman Emperor. Christianization from Constantine the Great onwards began to legitimize the earlier principate‘s concentration of the people’s authority in itself by locating the derivation of all power in God, granted to the king; particularly in the Carolingians and onwards this supernatural origin was needed to interrupt the earlier blood-based “natural” foundation for legitimate Germanic kingship, as the Carolingian dynasty looked to a “supernatural” anointing to circumvent their lack of a blood-based legitimacy. Christian authority in the model of papal authority did this much earlier, on the basis of (so Ullmann alleges) the translation of the biblical text into political language (Ullmann singles out the two Pauline passages “I am what I am by the grace of God” and “all authority is from God”, as the key texts so translated), both in terms of papal authority and sacral kingship. First the late Medieval period, and then the Renaissance, saw the rise and then establishment of popular forms of government on the basis of a recovery of an idea of the popular and “natural” basis for government as something that is created by people, rather than descending “supernaturally” from God.

The Recovery of Aristotle

Ullmann saw the recovery of Aristotle as the catalyst for this recovery of the “naturalness” of the state. “[T]he Politics [of Aristotle] revealed to the Middle Ages the fundamentally natural ends and purposes of human society, the citizen as an active participant in politics, and the urban community as the basic building block or unit of human association.” [26] Bryce Lyon, in his review of Law and Politics, drives home the revolutionary role that Aristotle has for Ullmann: “[he] interprets the absorption of Aristotle as a cosmological revolution that produced a new science of politics.” [27]



Walter Ullmann was born in 1910 “at Pulkau in Lower Austria”, where his father was practicing medicine at the time. [28] His mother was a nurse at his father’s hospital during the Great War (World War I). At “three and a half” he saw (these are Ullmann’s words)

the sight of dying and wounded soldiers, of the unspeakable misery of soldiers arriving half-dead from the front, of the endless rows of primitive coffins in the large barns adjoining the hospital[.] [29]

After primary school, he graduated from “the Gymnasium in Horn” in 1929. Of this school he wrote

I commuted there daily by train for eight years. It was a hard training, but one that toughened me up. I started each day at 5.30 in the morning, walked about three kilometres to the station, and when I returned from Horn in the evening, I had to do my homework in preparation for the next day at school. […] The subjects that attracted me most at school were Greek constitutional history, law and philosophy. […] From that time on, an interest in political science, political thought and law never left me. [30]


yet another one of my bootleg Ullmann photos

He published at age 17 in a “local weekly paper for wireless enthusiasts, with an account of a new circuit he had constructed”. Matriculating first to the University of Vienna, where he lived with his relatives the Engelharts, he “felt alienated” in what he called “this sprawling and incoherent mass of superficiality” [31], and even his warm relationships with the Engelharts, in his own words, “could only temporarily alleviate my uneasiness.” [32] In 1931 he passed his first state exam, opting to transfer to the University of Innsbruck, which he described later, without qualification, as “the happiest years of my life.” [33] (His father died in 1932. [34]) At Innsbruck, also, he took to the landscape, teacher involvement, and the other students’ friendliness and mutual supportfulness. Here he met Theodor Rittler, Hans Werder, and Johannes Count Sarnthein. He would later recount, with “great pleasure”, the “student pranks” of those days, and would likewise enjoy “imitating his quirky professors.” [35] After receiving his PhD from Innsbruck on the 13th of December, 1933, he “began [his] legal career in the Landesgericht (district court) of Innsbruck in January 1934″. [36] This began “a career in the Austrian judicial service.” [37] Rittler connected him to Ferdinand Kadecka, “professor of [252] criminal law” [38] at the University of Vienna, landing Ullmann a role as an unpaid assistant to him. In 1935 he transferred to a court near Vienna, doing mostly “pre-trial criminal investigation”, and was “the youngest to hold rank in the state judiciary.” Simultaneously, he was “Assistant to the Professor of Criminal Law in Vienna.” During this time the German Nazis were engaged in terrorist activity in Austria, and those, like Ullmann, who were faithful to Austrian law “inevitably fell foul of the Nazis”. [39]

By virtue of my professional activities and my official work I soon recognised the true nature of the new regime. I had earned the merciless hatred of the Schuschnigg regime’s so-called victims of justice, and had thus attracted the attention of the Gestapo. [40]

Somehow, during this time, he was “confronted with what he had not known before, that though both sides of his family were Catholic, there was Jewish blood on his father’s side”. Austria was invaded in March of 1938. Ullmann refused to take an oath to the Führer [41], and, while the Gestapo were busy at higher tiers of power, Ullmann, at the counsel of Werder and Count Sarnthein (who “was mainly responsible for getting me out of the clutches of the Gestapo[42]), thought it wise to flee the country. Ullmann left at the beginning of June, 1938. [43] John Watt puts it:

He left quietly and legally, by permission of the Austrian military authorities, with a pass for four weeks study leave, to be spent in Cambridge. The month expired, he became technically a deserter and stateless. He was miserably unhappy, but well aware of his narrow escape from a concentration camp, and effectively, a death sentence. [44]

That does not mean that times were easy in England. There were obstacles.

The times that followed were hard, depressing, wearing and full of cares. I came to know bitter poverty, need, deprivation, social uncertainty and anxiety about the future. I was totally without means, and my possessions were limited to the contents of the suitcase with which I had arrived. [45]

He was also anxious about the mother he had left in Nazi-occupied Austria: she collected her son’s things from his apartment, feeling “as if she were collecting the possessions of someone who had died.” [46]

In an amusing note, a former student from Ratcliffe (who studied with Ullmann from 1944 onwards, and later visited him at Trinity Cambridge) reports on a story about how “Doc Olly” (as he called Ullmann) was discovered:

A story has it that he was discovered by a don [W. W. Buckland] working at a petrol station, and speaking such poor English that they took to Latin, and he had no difficulty in getting petrol thereafter. [47]

Buckland was one of the Cambridge scholars whom Ullmann remembers as having showed him kindness during this time. During this time he relied on the charity of his friends’ friends (such as Werder’s), as well as seeking the assistance of benefactory societies, such as the Cambridge Refugee Committee (CRC) and the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL). The SPSL could not help, but the CRC did. “By the beginning of October [1938], he was in Cambridge.” [48] Robin Laffan was treasurer of the CRC, and seemed to have helped Ullmann from out of his own pocket, as well as the funds of the CRC; he later became “Godfather to Ullmann’s eldest son.” [49] Ullmann started in the house of an Anglican clergyman (H.C.L. Heywood, who thought him a spy), then he

spent some time at Ridley Hall, an Anglican Theological College in Cambridge, before moving from well-wisher to well-wisher, accepting hospitality for short periods from each in turn. [50]

In September of 1939, however he joined the staff of a Catholic boarding school, Ratcliffe College, in Leicestershire. Robin Laffan was, apparently, responsible for connecting Ullmann to the position. [51] Ullmann wrote that they offered him not a job, but “salvation”. [52] His wife Elizabeth, it seems, also eventually taught there after their marriage in 1940. [53] He began doing academic work in the Cambridge libraries while teaching. “I had a heavy teaching load, but could also continue my work. Life became bearable.” After a few months his salary was raised, “and [I] could even afford to buy books.” [54] After the Fall of France in June of 1940, the police took Walter, and other refugees, as enemy aliens. Ullmann “[n]arrowly miss[ed] being transported to Australia, [and] he was released from internment after a few months”. [55] Laffan again backed Ullmann by supporting his release from internment. [56] Walter was eventually “allowed to join the Pioneer Corps.” [57] He wasn’t distinguished militarily, but used the time “to write up his research notes.” The Times Higher Education Supplement piece by Ullmann’s student Patrick Nuttgens states that he was given sanitary duties because he was “[a]djudged unsafe to bear arms”. [58] Even the generous Watt states that “[Ullmann’s] reminiscences suggest it might have been because he was more dangerous to his own side than to the enemy”. [59] (Ibbetson makes no note of this, however, and merely notes “a problem with his heart” as the reason for his having been discharged. [60])

Earlier, in Cambridge, Ullmann had met his future wife Elizabeth; we’ve already mentioned that they married in 1940. (In 1990, seven years after his death, Elizabeth wrote/edited a memoir about/by him that I have not been able to lay hold of; anyone who’d like to buy a copy for me will earn my deep gratitude, and enable me to update this post.) Ullmann says that they “first met when she was a student”, and that they were “married during the invasion scare of 1940 when I was a soldier; if we were to perish, then it would be together.” Ullmann speaks glowingly of her, his

loyal wife, an Englishwoman and scholar of English literature in her own right. […] she has stood by me with untiring encouragement, and sensitive, intelligent and constructive criticism, always selfless and never despairing even during the most difficult days. […] However bitter and frequent the disappointments I suffered during [259] the early years, she always gave me new heart, looked with confidence to the future, and gave me endless strength through her faith. Without her I would have failed. [61]

The rest of us, it seems, can only dream of such companionship.

Ullmann was discharged from the military in either 1942 (says Watt) or 1943 (says Ibbetson), and returned to Ratcliffe. While there, he published The Medieval Idea of Law as Represented by Lucas da Penna: A Study in Fourteenth-Century Legal Scholarship [62], and did the work for The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth Century Ecclesiastical History (though published in 1948). [63] In a brief note that piqued my interest, Watt writes that

In the immediate post-war years, Ullmann was employed as a part-time lecturer by the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office for the re-education of German prisoners of war who included former SS members. He also instructed officers of the future Control Commission, Austria.

I have found no more details on this assignment, however.

Eventually, “[i]n 1947 he became a naturalized British subject,” and was appointed “to a lectureship in History at Leeds University”, teaching “chiefly Medieval European History, with Empire-Papacy as the principle organizing theme.” [64] He was at Leeds for two years. Already, “the focus of his work was shifting towards the interface between law and government in the Middle Ages, particularly their meeting-point in the medieval papacy.” [65] During “the Lent Term of 1948”, while seemingly still at Leeds, he delivered the Maitland Memorial Lectures at Cambridge that were later published in 1949 as Medieval Papalism: The Political Theories of the Medieval Canonists. The Maitland lectures provoked some professors at Cambridge to have him appointed “to a university lectureship” there. [66] Apparently Ullmann had trouble adjusting to Cambridge, and strongly considered returning to Leeds. From 1951 to 1964 he was “co-editor of [the journal] Ephemerides Iuris Canonici“. During this time he “became an important figure in the process of re-establishing British links with scholars abroad.” [67] In 1955, his The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages: A Study in the Ideological Relations of Clerical to Lay Power appeared. [68] “The book attracted much attention.” One BBC radio broadcaster said that it would influence historians for years “until, in fact, much of it has become common property”. In 1956 he was appointed “Reader in Medieval Ecclesiastical Institutions” at Cambridge; in 1959 he “obtained a college fellowship (at Trinity)” College. [69]

In 1960 Ullmann delivered a paper to the Stockholm Congress of the Historical Sciences that was expanded and published in 1961 as a book. This was his “most ambitious book”, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages. [70] It “went through four editions” and was “translated into Spanish and Italian.” [71]

“[I]n the early 1960s” Ullmann was broadcasting on the BBC Third Programme “a selection of topics which went to the heart of his technical researches”. These broadcasts “receive[d] magisterial expression in two works of synthesis, written for the general reader.” The first was A History of Political Thought: the Middle Ages, published in 1965. The second was A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages, published later in 1972. [72]

“In 1964-1965, he enjoyed a very successful spell as Visiting Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, conducting a seminar in ‘Problems of Social and Political Theory’ and teaching related graduate courses.” These lectures were expanded upon and published as The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages in 1966. [73] Individual and Society was translated into Italian, German — and Japanese.  In 1965 he was “promoted to a personal chair in Medieval Ecclesiastical History” at Cambridge. [74] “In 1968 Ullmann was elected Fellow of the British Academy. He was also Birkbeck Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at Trinity College, Cambridge.” He was editor of 21 volumes of “the third series of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought“, which began “[a]t this time”. [75] In the years that followed he had apparently swatted away “very tempting offers from other universities, especially in America.” [76]

In 1970 “Innsbruck conferred on him an honorary doctorate […] and its Jubilee Medal for distinguished services. In 1972, he [acceded to] the Cambridge Chair of Medieval History”. [77] Law and Politics in the Middle Ages: An Introduction to the Sources of Medieval Political Ideas appeared in 1975 (this is the book that provoked all of my attention to Ullmann). The Medieval Foundations of Renaissance Humanism (“essentially complementary to Carolingian Renaissance[78]) continued themes taken up in the last chapter of The Individual and SocietyMedieval Foundations was published in 1977. [79] Medieval Foundations was “a complete and final restatement of [Ullmann’s] interpretation of the transition from the medieval to the modern world (so far as that transition was expressed in political thought)”. [80] Medieval Foundations would be translated into Italian in 1980. “In 1978, Walter Ullmann retired from his Cambridge Chair”, although he kept working with “little difference”. His health “was worsening.” He “continued to edit the Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought.” A volume dedicated to him by some of his former students appeared in November of 1980, “[t]o mark his retirement and seventieth birthday”. His final book was published in 1981, “Gelasius I. (492-496): das Papsttum an der Wende der Spätantiker zum Mittelalter“.  [81] At the age of 72, on the 18th of January in 1983, he died in his home. Henry Chadwick delivered the final speech at Ullmann’s funeral.


It is difficult to be born shortly before World War I, and to live most of one’s young adult life during the Second World War –especially when one is displaced– and to have a boring life. The biography of such a one tends to be high register by default. In his autobiography, curiously, although he often notes how anxious and difficult his condition regularly was in these years, and how warmly he recalls his relationships with his peers, nonetheless these academic relations and so many of the inconveniences of the Second War are represented as rude interruptions to his study. Even his judicial service is treated as mercifully kind to his academic activities: “I unfortunately had to deal with a number of political cases. However, these practical activities were extraordinarily fruitful for my academic work.” [82] He would later write that his “researches […] were rudely interrupted by the collapse of France in June 1940.” [83]

I am tempted to write this off as academic humor, but no matter how much of it I can write off in such a way, his academic seriousness appears again and again, even in the memoirs of those who have loved him, who wrote about

his insistence on the importance of research –“resoortsch”– and his total devotion to it. [84]

Watt notes how each of his books were preceded by such a great number of articles that were presented at conferences. [85]

There are other reasons that it is difficult to write off such passages as merely humorous, and that is the meanness that he could direct towards others’ academic performance. He could be rough, even cruel. After praising Rittler and several other teachers at Innsbruck, he contrasts them with “Karl Wolff […] the second lecturer on civil law […]” whom he describes as “entirely uninteresting and uninterested.” [86] Ibbetson notes that Ullmann’s “research students […] rapidly came to learn that shoddy scholarship was unacceptable.” [87] Nuttgens remembers writing “essays” for weekly meetings with Ullmann at Ratcliffe together with a small group of other students — and remembers how the students “had [these essays] taken to pieces by the doctor.” [88]

Ullmann himself reveled in this intimacy between student and teacher over the course of the project of learning; it was why he was happy to leave the University of Vienna and to arrive at Innsbruck. At Vienna

One had no contact with the professors, only at best with young assistants, and they were extremely sparing with advice and help concerning literature and sources. How was a student who had just left school meant to find his way through the literature? I had many questions, but the only people I could discuss them with were the other students in the student home […] and that did not bring me much profit.

At Innsbruck, however,

I immediately felt at home and among like-minded people; there it was possible to get advice from a professor, and to discuss problems that were addressed in the lectures. In a word, students were guided in their study of law. Written work was marked and commented on by the professor himself. [89]

It was not a superficial gesture that lead him to dedicate his Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages to his students, to “repay a debt” that he has to them.

virtually [18] all the topics dealt with here I have treated in the course of my academic duties with my pupils. What I owe to them, how much they have –unknowingly– helped me, how great a stimulus they have provided in my seminars, classes, supervision, etc., through their discussions, papers, essays, and in the case of my research students through their own publications, only I at the receiving end can fully know. [90]

The attention he brought to teaching, his energy as “a stirring and vigorous lecturer” (an energy that he brought to his BBC broadcasts, as well [91]), was what drew students to him, says his student John Watt:

The enthusiasm, the drive, the total dedication was infec[490]tious. While his disapproval of idleness and slipshod work was awe-inspiring, his encouragement of effort and good work was quick, strong and of heart-warming sincerity. [92]

This delight in teaching and learning could become an intensity in mentoring that might turn oppressively severe. Ibbetson mentions that Ullmann

would not always be sympathetic to [his students] holding to their own opinions where these were in conflict with his, however much their opinions might have stemmed from a careful and honest analysis of the texts. With most of them, at one time or another, he had more or less acrimonious disagreements. [93]

Watt notes that Ullmann “threw down gauntlets to many types of historian”, and that when others took up the challenge to respond, Ullmann “could respond over-emotionally on occasion.”

He reacted sharply to criticism, sometimes too sharply. Walter had a forceful personality. There were no half-measures about him in anything; he felt, spoke and wrote with passion, whether it was in the world of international scholarship, in public debate on academic issues in Cambridge, where, sadly, friendship could be cooled by emotive language or even, occasionally, with his own research students.

Watt notes that Ullmann was “generous to a fault with the time and effort he put into [his students’] work”, and that “sometimes” this came with “a price” — “[t]here were times when he was reluctant to give them independence and took it personally when they did not fall into line.” He would later express remorse about what he called his “excess of paternalism”, but supervised the work of his last research student on his deathbed. [94]

As for the precise shape of Ullmann’s sometimes severity to his students, Ibbetson speculates that a window into it might be seen in some of his harsher reviews, such as when Ullmann wrote

In superficiality, common-place statements, clichés and meaningless generalizations, this book reaches a high-water mark.

or when he wrote

If the test of scholarship were the diligent and assiduous assembling of texts and secondary literature, this book would perhaps merit some commendation, but a little more is required if an author wishes to be taken seriously as a scholar. Historical scholarship would certainly not have suffered any loss, if the product under review had never seen the light of day. [95]

It reminds me of this scene from an Adam Sandler movie — only Ullmann wasn’t joking. Oakley simply states that Ullmann’s “contempt for his critics” is “both admirable and deplorable”. [96]

Although he could dish it out, he could also take it (at least, to some degree). This might have been, as van Caenegem suggests, because “[l]ike many learned men Walter was unworldly and naive, which made him very teasible”, but van Caenegem also states that Ullmann “was an exuberant born teacher and quick to see the funny side of things”. [97] At any rate, his former student from Ratcliffe, Nuttgens, notes that Ullmann

was a very nice man. When, at the end of one of my essays he wrote a scathing quotation that I knew he could only have got from his wife, I waited for over a year and manipulated a conversation until I could score off him with the same quote; there was a momentary silence and he nearly collapsed laughing. [98]

His care for his wife was seemingly like his care for his students. R. C. van Caenegem notes that “he was constantly troubled by the thought that his widow might not be financially safe” [99]; van Caenegem seems to think the unreasonableness of this fear, in the face of the royalties that Ullmann was seeing, were the existential scars of the Second World War.

Some seem to think that he was rather full of himself. As H. S. Offler notes in his review of Law and Politics, “[Ullmann’s] footnotes often remind us […that] he himself has made so many contributions” to “these topics”. [100] This impression can be reinforced by a number of other citations from Ullmann’s own hand.

“The choice of what to study at university was not easy for me […]. Finally I opted for law because it seemed to have a connection with the ancient world while also being orientated towards the [250] present.” [101]  Ibbetson notes that he was “a long way from being the caricature medieval historian concerned with learning for its own sake.” [102] Learning should illumine the past in its difference from the present, but also open up the principles and ideas inherent in it, and illumine our own world. Ullmann had no patience for antiquarians. Too many scholars of the medieval period were “too narrow in their specialist interests”. [103] He wanted to see the big picture. As Watt put it,

It was very characteristic of the Ullmann style, particularly when lecturing, to life his eyes from the chronology of the immediate topic to those distant horizons toward which he saw his subject leading. [104]

Ullmann cannot be faulted for being small-souled. He wanted to know nothing less than “the genesis of the present age”. [105] The quest he found stirring; stirred, he was able to move others to this quest.



Walter Ullmann, “The Papacy as an Institution of Government in the Middle Ages” in Studies in Church History, Volume II ed. G. J. Cuming (Camden, NJ: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1965), 79


Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven CT: Yale, 1980), 135


Francis Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism: Kingship and the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (to 1050) (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2010) 257 (fn.10)


Francis Oakley, “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited: Walter Ullmann’s Vision of Medieval Politics,” Past and Present 60 (1973): 4


Ozment, The Age of Reform, 135


So Ullmann, in his autobiographical sketch, writes: “The students were bright and interested. Many of those who wrote PhDs with me after doing their undergraduate studies in my seminar today hold important academic positions. Brian Tierney, for example, went to Cornell University in the USA and is the leading medievalist there today; M.J. Wilks is Professor of Medieval History at the University of London. Charles Duggan, a specialist on canon law, and Janet Nelson, who works on ecclesiastical history, are also at the University of London. Jack Watt is Professor of Medieval History in Newcastle, A.B. Cobban, whose specialism is the history of universities, teaches at the University of Liverpool, while P.D. King teaches early medieval history at the University of Lancaster. [Antony] Black is at the University of Dundee and is a specialist on conciliar theory and the [257] late medieval papacy. John Gilchrist, who works on canon law, is Professor at Trent University in Canada, while P.A. Linehan, a Spanish specialist, has developed a rich programme of teaching and research at Cambridge and Arthur S. McGrade is a professor teaching late medieval political philosophy at the University of Connecticut in the USA. In addition, a number became librarians or archivists, such as Christopher Ligota, who is a librarian at the Warburg Institute of the University of London. My students themselves in turn produced students, so that I am told I now preside over a large family of children and grandchildren.” Walter Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, in Out of the Third Reich: Refugee Historians in Post-War Britain ed. Peter Alter (New York: I.B. Taurus, 1998), 256-257. Ibbetson simply calls Ullmann’s students “his scholarly family.” David Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, in Jurists Uprooted: German-speaking Émigré Lawyers in Twentieth-century Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 297


There is no direct evidence of their having studied with Ullmann, or having read his books, but, as Nederman asks, “From what origin other than the magisterial Walter Ullmann might have arisen the following dialogue?” (This Holy Grail dialogue follows: https://youtu.be/a3LpQfMXmeg .) Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann”, 11-12


Kenneth Pennington, Review of Law and Politics in the Middle Ages: An Introduction to the Sources of Medieval Political Ideas in Speculum 52, No. 3 (July 1977), 752


Cary J. Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann” in Lineages of European Political Thought: Explorations along the Medieval/Modern Divide from John of Salisbury to Hegel (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 3


Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann”, 3


J. H. Burns, “Introduction” in The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c. 350–c.1450 ed. J. H. Burns (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6-7.


Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann”, in Lineages, 4


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 253


Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann”, in Lineages, 5


Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450 (New York: Cambridge, 1992),12 


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 249


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 289


Authority and Power: Studies on Medieval Law and Government Presented to Walter Ullmann on His Seventieth Birthday ed. Brian Tierney and Peter Linehan (New York: Cambridge, 1980), vii


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 256


Authority and Power, 255-274


I read that the bibliography for these years would be found there in the biographical article by John A Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, Proceedings of the British Academy, LXXIV, 1988, 483-509; 509


Published in book form as Medieval Papalism: The Political Theories of the Medieval Canonists (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1949)


Joseph Canning, A History of Medieval Political Thought 300-1450 (New York: Routledge, 1996), 19


H. S. Offler, Review of Law and Politics in the Middle Ages in The English Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 361 (Oct. 1976), 886


Black, Political Thought in Europe,12 


Nederman, “The Legacy of Walter Ullmann” in Lineages, 7


Bryce Lyon, Review of Law and Politics in the Middle Ages: An Introduction to the Sources of Medieval Political Ideas in The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Oct. 1977), 48


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 483


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 483


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 249


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 484


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 250


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 251


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 251


Raoul C. van Caenegem, “Legal historians I have known: A personal memoir”, Rechtsgeschichte, Zeitschrift des Max-Planck Instituts für europäische Rechtsgeschichte, 2010, 288.


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 251


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 484


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 251-252


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 484


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 252


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 484


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 252


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 291


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 484


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 253


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 253


Patrick Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 4 February 1983, 15


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 291


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 292


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 292


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 293, fn.127, where Ibbetson notes that “Laffan’s part in getting the position is clear from his letter in support of Ullmann’s release from internment: SPSL 275/11/391.”


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 254


Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, 15


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 254


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 293


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 293, fn.127


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 485


Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, 16


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 486


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 293


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 258-259


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 486


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 487


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 489


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 294


Ibid., 490


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 491


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 492


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 494


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 495


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 497


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 498


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 499


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 500


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 501


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 256


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 502


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 503


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 500


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 503


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 505


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 252


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 254


Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, 16


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 497


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 251


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 297


Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, 15


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 250-251


Walter Ullmann, Principles of Government and Politics in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1966), 17-18


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 498


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 489-490


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 297


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 508


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 298. These citations  are from Ullmann’s reviews for Barraclough’s The Medieval Papacy in Catholic Herald 21st of February 1969, and of G. Pilati’s Chiesa e Stato nei Primi Quindici Secoli.


Oakley, “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited”, 3


van Caenegem, “Legal historians I have known”, 289


Nuttgens, “The Death of a Great Teacher”, 16


van Caenegem, “Legal historians I have known”, 291


Offler, Review of Law and Politics, 886


Ullmann, “A Tale of Two Cultures”, 249-250


Ibbetson, “Hermann Kantorowicz (1877-1940) and Walter Ullmann (1910-1983)”, 296


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 502


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 500


Watt, “Walter Ullmann 1910-1983”, 501

19 thoughts on “A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 1 of 2

    • So grateful that you left this note. Please feel free to add any other memories that come to mind! I have a stack of books next to my computer that I need to work through to finish writing the second post in this series, which lies half-finished in my drafts folder…


  1. As I said in the THES article, I was taught medieval political theory in 1975/6 by the great man as a 1st year History student at Cambridge. It was wonderful how he made what could have been an esoteric subject both interesting and relevant. I remember he started the lecture on the Papacy by saying “The Roman Catholic Church was the world’s first totalitarian organisation!” – and we all knew that he was talking from personal experience of fighting against fascism in 1930s Austria!

    I was amused that the medieval historical orthodoxy now rejects his contrast between the ascending and descending concepts of power. By tracking back from the references to Leo Strauss, it is obvious that Ullmann was applying the Marxist reading of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic championed in Alexandre Kojève, ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit’. After having to flee one country because of his leftie political activism, I assume that he was cautious to admit in print what he emphasised in the classroom. As you say in your article, the Monty Python crew learnt well from him …

    When I read Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of Spectacle’ soon afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Hegelian-Marxism could be used to analyse the modern world of consumer capitalism with the same acuity as Ullmann did with the medieval period and its religious obsessions.

    One other thing: his heavy Austrian accent, bald head and black gown also added to the drama of the lectures. There were other dons whose tedious classes could be skipped if you read their turgid books, but not with Ullmann who was a performer as exciting as the punk and reggae bands that we admired so much at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fantastic. Thank you for this! Feel free to add anything else, should a memory that summarizes some part of his personality come to you.

      I won’t get to tidying up Part Two until the summer. In the current draft it, however, the very theme you mention — ascending and descending power — is one of the items canvassed. Ullmann’s students seriously qualify it. I’ll be interested in hearing your reaction.


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  10. Sadly I never met my grandfather but grew a healthy interest in a study of history whilst at school ( though have eventually completed degrees in other subjects). We have a collection of his private letters in a family Koffer (suitcase) which reflect much of his character, his wit, warmth, and frustrations.

    Funnily enough I now reside in Germany and have even considered the possibility of moving to Austria given a thriving research institute in my field is situated close to Vienna.


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