A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(b) of 2 (Canning)

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; 2a is here) 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. 

Joseph Canning

Joseph Canning was the second writer in which I read a synopsis and evaluation of Ullmann’s thought, and it was at this point that I thought to take note. In his remarkable A History of Medieval Political Thought 300-1450, 2nd ed., Canning mentions that, in modern times, Ullmann has given the “classic treatment of the model of theocratic kingship”. In several long stretches that I will excerpt entirely, as an aid to those who’ve read (or who are reading, or planning to read) Ullmann, Canning treats Ullmann. Here, he notes the “ascending” vs. “descending” models of authority again:

[p.19] The core of [Ullmann’s] interpretation of medieval political ideas has been in terms of what he described as the ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ theses: the antithesis between the derivation of power downwards, as it were, from God, or upwards from the people. This analysis is based essentially on the question of the origin of governmental power and authority. Yet in interpreting medieval political thought quite as much weight, if not more, should be given to the purpose of such power. This is not, of course, to deny that Ullmann did consider teleological aspects; but if these are accorded a more central role somewhat different conclusions can be reached.

When theocratic kingship is seen in terms of its purpose the seemingly absolute nature of such monarchy appears modified. Precisely because rulership was understood to have been instituted by God it was considered to exist for a divinely willed end. Kingship was viewed as an office existing within a Christian normative structure: there was no place for the arbitrary exercise of the monarch’s will. The king’s role was that of Christian service for the common good of his people. As St. Paul said, ‘The state is there to serve God for your benefit … The authorities are there to serve God … All government officials are God’s officers.’ [Rom 13:4-6] Gregory the Great, whose works were fundamental to the development of medieval thought, writing in the late sixth century, classically described this royal role in terms of the established theme of Christian ministry [Moralia 26.26.45], a formulation which was to have a determining influence on medieval conceptions of kingship. The king in performing this function was to observe a characteristically Christian humilitas [Gregory, Pastoral Care 2.6], a notion alien to Greek or Roman political thought. Isidore of Seville, writing in the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in the first part of the seventh [p.20] century, also made this idea of ministry a fundamental part of his treatment of kingship. Not only were Isidore’s works the most important literary products of Visigothic Spain, the most culturally precocious of the barbarian kingdoms, but many of his statements exerted a disproportionate effect on the development of thought in the Middle Ages themselves. This is particularly true of his ideas concerning kingship and political life. This is not to claim any originality or great depth for his thought; it is just that his formulations proved peculiarly long lived. Indeed, many of the basic concepts of medieval theocratic kingship are to be found in his works. [1] The moral purpose of kingship is summed up in Isidore’s retailing of the ancient axiom, ‘You will be a king if you act rightly, if you do not, you will not be’, based on a play on the words rex and recte (rightly), a trite but effective observation which for him assumed a Christian value-system. [Etymologies 9.3.4 English transl. here] He stressed the king’s duty to aim at justice (iustitia), the virtue which in the Middle Ages was to come to encapsulate the duties of a Christian ruler. Similarly, the king should observe clemency, humility and patience, and in general serve the Christian religion which characterized the community which he governed. [2] In sum the king must rule for his subjects’ benefit and was answerable to God for the way in which he ruled them, an idea which echoed Hebrews 13:17, ‘Obey your leaders and do as they tell you, because they must give an account of the way they look after your souls.’ Isidore was attempting to integrate Roman, biblical and patristic moral criteria into his theory of kingship, thus illustrating that according to both Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian political ideas rulership should have the moral aim of achieving the common good. Indeed, this shared teleological orientation facilitated the fusion of ancient and Christian ideas throughout the Middle Ages.

The fundamental duty of the Christian ruler to care for his subjects’ well-being was also understood in terms of his role as their protector or preserver. The Roman source for this idea can be found in the model of a tutor who must act in the interests of the minor committed to his guardianship. Indeed, Cicero, for instance, had described government as a tutela [de officiis 1.25,[3]], and this notion in the form of the monarch’s tuition of the Christians whom he ruled also appeared in Isidore. [4] Furthermore, there existed the similar Germanic conception of Munt (mundeburdium) which as early as the reign of the Merovingian king Childebert I (511-558) was [p.21] rendered into Latin as tuitio. [Ullmann, Individual and Society 21, n.41] The concept of Munt (in Anglo-Saxon mundbora) remained fundamental to kingship and received prominent treatment, for instance, in the important late seventh-century Merovingian royal formulary of Marculf. [Formulae 1.24 [5]] The king’s tutorial role is a large theme which runs throughout medieval political thought. The seeds of it are to be found in this early period, although its main development appears to be from the Carolingian period onwards. The thesis of the king as tutor and the people which he rules as being in the position of a minor under age in relation to him, has been integrated by Walter Ullmann into his model of theocratic monarchy: the king acts for the people which has been committed to his care by God and which cannot act for itself. [Ullmann, Carolingian Renaissance 177-187] As we shall see, care must be taken with this interpretation, not least because the royal tutorial role limits the king’s freedom of action in that it recognizes by implication the existence of the people or regnum as an entity independent of its ruler because he has to protect its inherent rights. The minority-thesis is the logical corollary of the tutorial theme but it is only clearly enunciated in the twelfth century with the renaissance of the scientific study of Roman law. In that law the minor does not receive his rights from his tutor. This problem illustrates the difficulties involved in elaborating such a thesis over a lengthy period of time. Certainly, in the sixth and seventh centuries the king’s duty to provide tutela or Munt should be seen as a defining limitation on his monarchical powers in terms of their purpose, and as modifying Ullmann’s dubious argument that the people derived all its public rights from its divinely appointed ruler. The king had the responsibility to provide protection for his people.

I would repeat that there is, in the ancient view (as Charles Taylor mentions it in his Modern Social Imaginaries), no people without a law, that the ancestral law makes the people, and that the law thus has a kind of transcendence that our modern radically temporal (and so secular) notion of peoplehood does not have; the king, likewise, has a kind of transcendence, as the king is both the transcendent office, and the particular person filling that office.

Canning has other things to say about Ullmann’s formulas; he goes on to address one of Ullmann’s theses regarding papal power and papal primacy. He has some seemingly minor points:

[p. 32] Walter Ullmann held that Leo’s vision of the pope’s role in the Christian corpus culminated in the possession of plenitude of power (plenitude potestatis) – that is, the fullness of Christ’s jurisdictional powers given to St. Peter. This view should, however, be assessed with caution. Although plenitude potestatis did come to have this sense in the thirteenth century, Leo I used it in a far more restricted manner: to indicate how the delegated and therefore partial authority of a papal vicar, that is legate, differed from the pope’s, which was full in relation to it. The fulfillment of the early development of papal monarchy should rather be seen as emerging after Leo’s pontificate. By the end of the fifth century the constitutional formula, ‘the pope is judged by no one’ (papa a nemine iudicatur) was established. This expressed what amounted to sovereignty in jurisdictional terms.

Canning also highlights some potentially serious areas of interpretive disagreement:

[p. 33] For [Gregory I] the powers of papal primacy existed to defend the faith and to secure ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical cases. The coexistence of the jurisdictional and pastoral roles of the pope was indeed highlighted in Gregory’s reign. As a result diametrically opposed interpretations have been reached by modern historians. For instance, whereas Walter Ullmann stressed Gregory’s place within the growth of papal monarchy in the west, Jeffrey Richards considers that the emphasis was on humility in the exercise of jurisdiction. [Ullmann, History of Political Thought , 49-52; J. Richards, Consul of God, 64-66]

Also, as Canning notes, Ullmann sometimes seemed to have found precise legal language in the terminology of popes when no such precision was to be found:

[p. 36] [In A.D. 494, Gelasius I addressed the emperor Anastasius I, saying that there were “two things […] by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of bishops and the royal power.”] Although the two powers are distinct, they are not equal. Because the clergy alone define the content of religious matters, they, not the emperor, in effect determine the relative boundaries of both powers in a Christian society. Indeed, ‘of the two [powers] that of the priesthood is a greater burden, in so far as they must also render account before God for the very kings of men’, a responsibility implying that of a superior answerable for the actions of an inferior. Walter Ullmann, however, offered the more thorough-going interpretation that Gelasius was deliberately employing terminology from Roman constitutional law to convey that Episcopal auctoritas was so much higher than mere royal potestas that it directed the imperial power, which had a purely auxiliary function. This reacting, however, places more weight on Gelasius’ words than they can bear. The pope showed no sign of intending a technically exact usage because he was not consistent: elsewhere he referred to each as a potestas (as in Tomus, c. 11) and in fact also reversed the application of the terms. [See R. L. Benson, “The Gelasian Doctrine: Uses and Transformations”, in G. Makdisi, D. Sourdel & J. Sourdel-Thomine (eds.), La notion d’autorité au Moyen Age. Islam, Byzance, Occident (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1982), 15]

Other giants like R. A. Markus could seriously disagree with Ullmann’s take on the meaning of certain papal postures regarding barbarian royal vs. Roman imperial power:

[p.38] Being, like all popes, legally a subject of the emperor, Gregory sought to respect his sovereign’s rights while at the same time fulfilling his own duties as pontiff: to preserve the faith, the pre-eminence of the Roman church, and the privileges of the clergy. Whenever he found himself in opposition to the emperor, he sought to avoid open conflict. As regards Gregory’s attitude to western kings, however, there has been serious disagreement among modern scholars. Walter Ullmann argued that Gregory’s pontificate marked a fundamental turning-point for the development of the early medieval papacy and, indeed, the history of Europe, in that the pope deliberately turned to the Germanic nations of western Europe as the proper theatre for his extension of papal monarchic primacy (principatus), since the way was blocked by the empire in the east. Ullmann found it highly significant that, whereas Gregory consistently called the emperor ‘lord’ (dominus), he addressed western kings as his ‘sons’ (filii). As Robert Markus and Jeffrey Richards have shown, however, this grand interpretation is not supported by the evidence: Gregory viewed the western barbarian nations from an essentially Byzantine perspective, whereby they were considered to be ultimately subject to the universal Roman emperor. As pope, his prime interest was pastoral — to encourage the spread of Catholic Christianity and deepen the faith of those nations already converted: he was not seeking to extend papal power as such over the west. [Markus, “Gregory the Great’s Europe”, and Herrin, The Formation of Christendom 182] He did however claim the right to impose the purely spiritual sanction of excommunication on secular rulers as well as clergy.

Canning gives a transcript of a bit by Gregory on this in Latin: [6]. We are veering into the weeds at this point, but these are good examples of some serious qualifications both of Ullmann’s interpretive framework and the historical narratives it is based upon.

To Ullmann, though: where did his students see this ascending-descending thesis as coming from? –how did they see it developing?



The footnote here says “See M. Reydellet, Laroyauté dans la littérature latine de Sidonie Apollinaire à Isidore de Seville (Ecole française de Rome, 1981), pp. 554–606.”


The footnote here says “See Sententiae, 3.48–51, cols 718–24; Differentiae, 2.156 and 158, col. 95.”


Cicero, DO 1.25. In fine, let those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato, — one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions. For, as the guardianship of a minor, so the administration of the state is to be conducted for the benefit, not of those to whom it is intrusted, but of those who are intrusted to their care. But those who take counsel for a part of the citizens, and neglect a part, bring into the state an element of the greatest mischief, and stir up sedition and discord, some siding with the people, some with the aristocracy, and few being equally the friends of all. From this cause arose great dissensions among the Athenians, and in our republic it has led not only to seditions, but also to destructive civil wars. Partiality of this kind, a citizen who is substantial and brave, and worthy of a chief place in the state, will shun and abhor, and will give himself wholly up to the state, pursuing neither wealth nor power; and he will so watch over the entire state as to consult the well-being of all its citizens. Nor will he expose any one to hatred or envy by false accusation, and he will in every respect so adhere to justice and right as in their behalf to submit to any loss however severe, and to face death itself rather than surrender the principles which I have indicated. Most pitiful in every aspect is the canvassing and scrambling for preferment, of which it is well said by the same Plato, that those who strive among themselves which shall be foremost in the administration of the state, act like sailors who should quarrel for a place at the helm. The same writer exhorts us to regard as enemies those who bear arms against us, not those who desire to care for the interests of the state in accordance with their own judgment, as in the case of the disagreement without bitterness between Publius Africanus and Quintus Metellus.

Nor are they to be listened to who think that anger is to be cherished toward those who are unfriendly to us on political grounds, and imagine that this betokens a large-minded and brave man; for nothing is more praiseworthy, nothing more befitting a great and eminent man, than placability and clemency. Moreover, in free states and where all have equal rights, there is a demand for courtesy, and for a soul superior to petty causes of vexation, lest if we suffer ourselves to be angry with those who intrude upon us inopportunely, we fall into irritable habits equally harmful and hateful. Yet an easy and accommodating temper is to be approved only so far as may be consistent with the strictness demanded in public business, without which the state cannot be administered. But all punishment and correction ought to be free from personal insult, and should have reference, not to the pleasure of him who administers punishment or reproof, but to the public good. Care also must be taken lest the punishment be greater than the fault, and lest for the same cause some be made penally responsible, and others not even called to account. Most of all is anger to be eliminated in punishment; for he who enters on the office of punishment in anger will never preserve that mean between too much and too little, of which the Peripatetics make so great account, and rightly too, if they only would not commend anger, and say that it is implanted by nature for useful ends. On the other hand, it is under all circumstances to be shunned, and it is desirable that those who preside over the state should be like the laws, which are led to inflict punishment, not by anger, but by justice.


The footnote here refers to “Sententiae, 3.49.3, col. 721″


The Formulary of Marculf 1.24 (“charter regarding the protection given by a king and a prince”) in The Formularies of Angers and Marculf: Two Merovingian Legal Handbooks transl. with introduction & notes by Alice Rio (Liverpool UK: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 157ff.

It is right that royal power should offer protection to those who are known to be in need of it. Therefore let your greatness –or your usefulness– know [158] that w were seen to grant, under our protection, to the apostolic — or: the venerable — man A of the monastery of B, built in honour of Saint C, along with all his property and men and retainers and friends or anyone for whom he is legitimately answerable, his just request regarding the unlawful attacks of evil men, so that the said church — or: monastery — shall remain in peace along with all its property, under the protection and defence of the illustrious man D, mayor of our palace, and the illustrious man E, under [the orders of] this man D, will take up the legal cases of this pontiff — or: abbot — and [his] church — or: monastery — and of those who are known to expect [protection] from him, and of anyone for whom he is legitimately answerable, in the pagus as well as in our palace. Therefore by the present document we decide and order that the said pontiff — or: abbot — should remain in peace under our protection and the protection of the said man; and neither you nor your subordinates and successors nor anyone else should presume to wrong and trouble him with legal claims. And if legal cases are brought forward against him and his dependants that cannot be settled in local courts without causing him a great loss, let them be brought to our presence. And so that this document may stand more firmly, we decided to sign it below by our own hand.


‘Christus memor fragilitatis humanae, quod  suorum saluti congrueret, dispensatione magnifica temperavit, sic actionibus propriis dignitatibusque distinctis officia potestatis utriusque discrevit … ut et Christiani imperatores pro aeterna vita pontificibus indigerent, et pontifices pro temporalium cursu rerum imperialibus disposition- ibus uterentur’ (ibid., Tractatus IV, c. 11, p. 568); see ibid., Epistola 12, c. 2, p. 351.


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!

7 thoughts on “A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(b) of 2 (Canning)

  1. See also much later in America: “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.… Our Constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    John Adams, 11 Oct 1798, Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, 1854, 9:229
    US diplomat & politician (1735 – 1826)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The full text of the book can be found here: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/adams-the-works-of-john-adams-vol-9-letters-and-state-papers-1799-1811

    This is the full text of the letter:

    11 October, 1798.

    I have received from Major-General Hull and Brigadier-General Walker your unanimous address from Lexington, animated with a martial spirit, and expressed with a military dignity becoming your character and the memorable plains on which it was adopted.

    While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays [229] in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

    An address from the officers commanding two thousand eight hundred men, consisting of such substantial citizens as are able and willing at their own expense completely to arm and clothe themselves in handsome uniforms, does honor to that division of the militia which has done so much honor to its country.

    Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken and so solemnly repeated on that venerable spot, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
    John Adams.


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

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

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

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