A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(a) of 2 (Ozment)

The first half of our treatment on Ullmann can be found here, and the prelude to this two-part series can be found here (and the forerunner to the prelude [!] is here); in the six (a through e) parts of this second post, we’ll cover the way that his students, admirers and critics have presented the outline of his thought, and the faults they have found with it. 

I began to draft this over two years ago, but let it go, pursuing other projects; I release it here roughly as it has been sitting for the past two years, with the full admission that, as it stands, it is little more than an obscenely bloated compilation of the opinions of others — Ullmann’s direct or indirect students, for the most part, but all the leading English-language scholars in the field of medieval thought and politics. I have an entire box of notes and books and articles that make what is represented here look like a mere sampling of post-it notes on a manuscript compared to what I have (post-it notes which themselves need trimming!), but, knowing that I won’t get to it soon, it needs to be released as-is. I hope that it will be helpful, as a long list of extracts, for individuals who are preparing to read Ullmann, so that they will have a sense of how his students and professional historians who were indebted to him (and who hold sway within the field) read him; this should give readers of Ullmann a sense of what to gather, and what to leave behind as they read him. Looking back, it seems that a collection-of-the-opinions-of-others approach was my intention two years ago, so I hope this cut-up post, while it certainly falls egregiously far short of the high watermark I had intended for it, nonetheless has, basically, enough of the material any interested party could wish for to gain a foothold. 

Finally, I also hope that the impression it leaves is not uncharitable, and that people will not deny Ullmann a generous and open-minded reading on account of it.

Steven Ozment’s Synopsis

In part one, we covered three of the main themes of Ullmann’s thought that were so distinctive; here, and in the following posts, we shall look at some of the responses to these themes.

The first time I came across Ullmann’s name was probably in that magisterial work by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980). Ozment comments at length on the ascending-descending theme in the work of Ullmann (Google has this section of Ozment’s book here):

It is Ullmann’s view that diametrically opposed concepts of government and law competed in the Middle Ages and that their conflict gave the political history of the period its dynamic. One he describes as an “ascending” view of power, according to which power originates in the community at large and ascends from below, that is, from the many to the one, from “the people” to the sovereign. The other concept of government and law Ullmann describes as a “descending” view of power, according to which power rests in a supreme sovereign and descends to subordinate members within a great hierarchy of being.

Ullmann has characterized the ascending theme as populist and representative of the secular mind and finds its main sources in the pagan classics, especially Aristotle, and in medieval Germanic laws and customs. By contrast, the descending theme is seen to be theocratic and representative of the clerical mind, having its roots in Christian sources, especially the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite and such biblical sanctions of government as Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Within the medieval church, Ullmann identifies the descending view of government with the canon lawyers, while he [136] associates the ascending view with the conciliarists, proponents of the authority of church councils over popes.

Ullmann’s critics have accused him of making the political events and thought of the Middle Ages far simpler than they actually were. In a recent critique, Francis Oakley carefully documented the case built up against Ullmann over the years [we’ll cover Oakley’s critique in this series] and leveled his own charge of oversimplification. It is argued against Ullmann that Christian tradition not only sponsored a theocratic view of political authority, but also became a source of political egalitarianism and ascending themes of government. Nor can the pagan classics be taken as exclusively populist in political theory; they also depicted the emperor as divine and sanctioned a descending view of power. Further, medieval kings were not exclusively proponents of an ascending view of power any more than medieval popes were exclusively supporters of a descending view; actual historical practice reveals greater variation and complexity in governmental form and theory than Ullmann seems to allow. Again, canon lawyers, strong proponents of the descending view, were also a major source of the conciliar theory of church government, while major conciliar theorists (the fathers of the Council of Constance, for example), who strongly defended the ascending view, also supported a strong papal role in church government. Royal apologists like John of Paris actually drew on the writings of canon lawyers to support ascending views of political power and the king’s case against the pope. Even the authority of Aristotle was not exclusively on the side of the proponents of the ascending concept; Aristotelian entelechy, his teaching on the evolutionary development of potentiality to perfect actuality, served both descending and ascending views of power. Finally, there is the case of Thomas Aquinas, whom Ullmann found particularly important for the success of the ascending view of government, yet who was among the sources paraphrased by Boniface VIII in that most theocratic of papal bulls, Unam sanctam [see some context here].

Ullmann may well have seen the forest more clearly than the trees; certainly his critics have successfully demonstrated that he is more suggestive at the point of synthesis than he is convincing in the task of analysis. However, the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Although Ullmann’s synthesis does tend to lack subtlety and nuance (perhaps not as much, however, as his critics allege), he nonetheless has magnified what are uncon[137]testably competing tendencies in late medieval life and society. John Morrall [on p. 11 of this book] alludes to a similar contrast when he defines the theme of medieval political history and theory as “the rise, development, and collapse of the ideal of a Christian commonwealth and its replacement by a return to a more purely political conception of the state.” [Ozment, Age of Reform, 135-137]

In sum, then, it seems that Ullmann took his “ascending” view as simply ‘natural’ in some sense, and so took the “descending” view as an interruption; the resulting rolling-back of this “descending” view would then look like one of the “subtraction stories” that Charles Taylor mentions that modernity tells about itself, as though we could simply “throw off the cloak” of the descending view that came and interrupted the “natural” view (even though the classical world was quite alien to us), which “natural view” is, in truth, a historically-indebted creature even as it is historically unaware of its own inheritance. Taylor, in his Modern Social Imaginaries [pp. 95-96], also mentions just how different our secular notions of the public square and of public accountability are from the older notions of the law of this-or-that people, fur the public square is simply the “precipitate” of the pre-political sociality of people who come together at this-or-that point in time for shared deliberations about common concerns and for the sake of arriving at common action, but there is no people without a law in the older Germanic (or Roman) sense, and so there can be no corporate action without the law that makes and defines the people so acting and the channels through which they act; the law is “transcendent” to the people, whereas the public secular square is radically temporal in its origin and aims, and its channels and fora are merely the “precipitate” of the pre-political “peopleness” they are thought to have; though these channels can change as is fitting to carry out the pre-political action of communicating and deliberating just as laws can, there is a people in the modern sense before the channels, whereas there is no people in the older sense without the law that opens up the channels — the people has roots in something transcendent. The idea of a people is different in the classical and early medieval periods. Even the idea of consent functions differently in the modern period than it did in the classical and early medieval periods.

Ullmann does not, so far as I know, admit this. This modern understanding of a people and of public space seems to have its beginnings in the 14th century, in the rise of civic humanism against the older warrior aristocracy (the same century that saw the translation of Aristotle’s full works into Latin, and read him in that context — Ullmann seems to be reading Aristotle in that reading, so far as I can tell), with roots earlier than that in the trans-local institution of the Church.

When we cover John Watt’s narrative, I’ll give his narrative of Ullmann’s works, with links to those works. First, however, another appraisal, that of Joseph Canning.

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Header image taken from a photo of Ullmann found in one of the collections of his works; not locatable online, and no attributions possible. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

4 thoughts on “A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(a) of 2 (Ozment)

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

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

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

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

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